Tag Archives: birth year of Christ

Bede on the Problem of 1 AD

“The Venerable Bede Translates John” by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932)

The Venerable Bede on reconciling ancient calendars and how he thought our 2 B.C. should really be 1 A.D.

Bede convincingly argued that our present 1 A.D. was incorrect by three years. He uncovers the fuzzy Church logic between 550 and 650 A.D. that made this error and subsequently has caused calendar headaches ever since.

The Venerable Bede was an eighth century monk who made a decisive effort to collect all the calendar systems he knew about, whether historic or contemporary to his time, and reconcile them into one dating system. This endeavour sounds easy by today’s standards, but was a massive undertaking during his time.

If any discussion revolves around the development of the yearly calendar system, his writings should be consulted. This study focuses on his works as it relates to Christ’s birth but other pertinent dates fall in as well.

How did he arrive at this conclusion? He did it through comparing different calendar systems and then developing two new time systems – one of them closely parallels the A.D. system in use today.

De Temporibus Liber and De Temporum Ratione.

Bede greatly pondered about time systems and wrote two books on the subject: De Temporibus Liber which is known in English as the The Book of Times and De Temporum Ratione, On the Reckoning of Time.

De Temporibus Liber, the first publication completed in 703, acknowledged the traditional Anno Mundi medieval dating system. The Anno Mundi system was based on totalling the ages of all the patriarchs listed genealogically in the Greek Bible and that was how the age of the world was arrived at. He did attempt to correct the imperfections of this system, finding that the Septuagint (Greek Bible) dated the ages of the patriarchs considerably longer than the Hebrew version. Bede preferred the Hebrew dates over the Septuagint, though the Greek was the standard for measuring time. To argue or change such an equation would be controversial. In order not to be in dispute with Church authority, he entered a Hebrew date with the Greek as an alternative. For example: Continue reading Bede on the Problem of 1 AD

The Olympiad Calendar and the Birth Year of Christ

An explanation of the ancient Greek Olympiad system especially as it relates to the birth year of Christ.

This is part of an unfinished series on the problems and evolution of the calendar system and how it effects dating the year of Christ’s birth.

The ancient Greeks used Olympiads as their yearly dating system. The first Olympiad was conducted in 776 BC. It was calculated in four-year intervals.

For example the first Olympiad happened in 776 and the second occurred in 772 BC.

776 BC = Olympiad 1, not 0. Zero as a mathematical number in the Greco-Roman world was a later invention. Using a calculator without this knowledge to validate later dates can throw off any Olympiad by four years.

The four year interval is not specific enough for most historic purposes. Most modern readers want to know the exact year, not that it happened somewhere unspecified in the four year interval. Later writers tended to use an alpha system to demonstrate which of the four years the Olympiad meant, such as the 184a Olympiad, which would be the first year of the 184th Olympiad.

The first century Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used the regnal dating system. This system was popular in ancient times throughout the Mediterranean basin which defined time according to the birth and death dates of a great leader. However, Josephus was conscious of the fact that this was not accurate and combined it with Olympiads and then went a step further and aligned it with historic battles.

The following is an important example of his use of the Olympiad dating system. He wrote that Herod was first given his title as king by Rome on the 184th Olympiad,(1)Antiquities of the Jews: XIV:XVI:4 which translates anywhere between 44/43 and 41/40 BC.

Josephus is the closest historian to the time of Christ and his dates are rarely challenged. There are few other texts outside the Bible and Christian history available with the level of detail that he provides with regards to the Middle East during this time. One must keep in mind though that there are potential manuscript errors. There are many copies of Josephus’ writings with variants in dates and times, though these transcription errors do not directly affect the Herodian calendars, it does raise some suspicions.(2) William Whiston trans, The Works of Josephus. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1982. “Dissertation V” p. 696

An alternative to Josephus is Julius Africanus. He was a second-century chronicler who gave a detailed account of histories related to the Olympiads. He may be the earliest Christian historian who tried to parallel Greek and Jewish histories according to some sort of timeframe. He critically attempted to establish the first Olympiad and use that as his basis. He believed that before the Olympiad system came into being, a timeline of any history from a Greek perspective could not accurately be deduced.(3) IBID, III.-The Extant Fragments of the Five Books of the Chronography of Julius Africanus. XIII:1

In the Africanus account available today, one can find a problem with the Olympiad calculation which was likely related to a transcription error. He wrote, “the 16th year of Tiberius Caesar, which was the second year of the 102d Olympiad”(4) Extant works of Julius Africanus found at tthp://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0614.htm Fragment 18:2 This may be an error in the English translation or a typographic error. The Greek has not been checked. – this would make Tiberius’ reign, based on the 776 BC date, to be approximately 368 BC. Fortunately, the text mentions earlier in the same document regarding Tiberius 16th year as, “the 202d Olympiad”, which made it to be properly around 30 AD.(5) Extant works of Julius Africanus as found at tthp://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0614.htm Fragment 16:3 .

The eighth-century British-Christian writer and scholastic monk, the Venerable Bede, used Olympiads among many others to define historic time periods, though our present manuscripts attributed to him may contain errors. He recorded the first Olympiad to Julius Caesar to be the 183rd Olympiad–20 years off.(6) See Bede, De Temporum Rationem, MPL, Vol. 90, pg. 538, especially the footnote b which discusses how Bede missed those 20 years.

Olympiads were not the dating system of preference by most of the ancient Christian writers and it was not accepted as a universal calendar. Its was a legacy system after the fourth-century AD. However, because of Josephus’ usage, it is an important clue, though not the ultimate one, for the birth year of Christ.

Josephus’ account does not directly address Christ’s birth in his copy, but one can correlate from Josephus’ dated chronology of the Herod family and the Biblical description roughly what year the birth was. For more details on exactly how Josephus and other historians dated these leaders, see:
A Chronology of the Herods

To read more, see the introductory article, What Year was Christ Born? or go to the series Christian Calendar System homepage for a listing of all the articles on the subject.

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The Birth-Year of Christ and the History of Calendars: the Regnal System

One of the first systems used for measuring time in year epochs was the regnal system.

This system counted from the start reign of a leader and reset at the introduction of a new leader. It was widely used throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean area and popularized by the Romans.

The Biblical author Luke used this system on at least two occasions: to describe the birth of Christ under the Governorship of Quirinius,(1) Luke 2:2 and Jesus’ baptism being in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius.(2) Luke 3:1ff

This 15th year of Tiberius is critical in many computations, as this is the only solid evidence about the life of Christ that can be accurately measured.

This regnal system was used by the early Church historians, such as the third century Bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that Christ was born in the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Augustus and the 28th year after the Battle of Actium.(3) Eusebius, Church History, Book III:V “It was in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus and the twenty-eighth after the subjugation of Egypt and the death of Antony and Cleopatra, with whom the dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt came to an end, that our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, according to the prophecies which had been uttered concerning him. His birth took place during the first census, while Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250101.htm If one assumes that Eusebius’ dates are consistent with standard history, this would make Christ’s birth at 3 BC, or if we use a later Christian document called the Chronological Tables that used Eusebius’ account as the basis, it oddly changes the date to 1 BC/AD.

Clement of Alexandria also used the regnal system, “From Julius Caesar, therefore, to the death of Commodus, are two hundred and thirty-six years”.(4)< a href="http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html"> http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html Commodus, the Roman emporer in the late 2nd century was his reference point for determining the birth of Christ. Based on his calculations, the death of Commodus was 192 AD, which is consistent with history.(5)< a href=" http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04166a.htm"> http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04166a.htm He then goes on to write, “From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years.”(6) IBID < a href=" http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html"> http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html This would make Christ’s birth at 2 BC.

A later editor or Clement himself contradicted this date elsewhere. In another section he employed the reign of Augustus to date the birth of Christ stating “our Lord was born in the twenty-eighth year, when first the census was ordered to be taken in the reign of Augustus.”(7) IBID < a href=" http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html"> http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book1.html Clement does not indicate what he believed was the start date of Augustus’ reign. It was quite common for some at this time to date Augustus start by the historic war battle of Actium. This is commonly held to be at 31 BC. If Clement agreed with this date, then Christ’s birth would have been 3 BC. Perhaps the first date of 2 BC was common opinion during his era and 3 BC was the historic Church position.

Continue reading The Birth-Year of Christ and the History of Calendars: the Regnal System

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