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. What we understand as 2 B.C. is the correct year for Christ’s birth. He uncovered the fuzzy Church logic that created this problem. He cited a miscalculation that happened between 550 and 650 A.D. This error has caused calendar headaches ever since.
The Venerable Bede was an eighth-century monk who made a strong effort to collect all the calendar systems he knew about, whether historical or contemporary to his time, and reconcile them into one dating system. This endeavor sounds easy by today’s standards, but it was a massive undertaking.
If any discussion revolves around developing 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 by comparing different calendar systems and then developing two new time systems – one of them closely parallels the A.D. system in use today.
Table of Contents
- Bede’s Major Book Projects on Time
- The Birth of the ‘Chr.’ and ‘the incarnation of our Lord’ Time Systems
- Historical Dates from De Temporibus Liber and De Temporum Ratione
- Bede on Dionysius Exiguus
- The Problem of Christ’s Age and the Setting of 1 A.D.
- Short Conclusion
- For more Information and Resources
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 totalled the ages of all the patriarchs listed genealogically in the Greek Bible. They believed the aggregation of these numbers produced the age of the world. He attempted to correct this system’s imperfections, 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 within the church world. To not be in dispute with Church authority, he entered a Hebrew date with the Greek as an alternative. For example:
Consequently, in the 42nd year, Christ was born, having completed from Adam 3,952 years. Now there is another date of 5199.1
He was accused of heresy by the Monks at Hexham for providing an alternative system2 but never put on formal trial.
He then used this book as the basis for a much larger and widely accepted volume, De Temporum Ratione in 725 A.D. In De Temporum Ratione he supplied a more succinct chronological reference system. For example:
[A. M. Hebr. 3966. Sept. 5314.] Octavius Augustus Caesar, the second of the Romanorum, reigns 56 years and 6 months.3
He used the abbreviation Hebr. as the chronological references found in the Hebrew Bible. The Sept. is short for the times found in the Greek Septuagint. The two different versions have discrepancy between each other.
In both works, he divided the book into six ages — a system originally set-up by Isidore of Seville.4 The sixth age being the last of world history because of the advent of Christ. Therefore, it was considered common sense to reset the numbers to 1 at the incarnation of Christ. It was the beginning count to the end of the world.
He integrated this into De Temporum Ratione,5 by stopping the Anno Mundi Greek system value of Sept. at the birth of the Lord, and introducing a new symbol to go alongside the Hebrew Anno Mundi system: Chr. which corresponds to the birth year of Christ:
[A.M. 3952, Chr. 1.] In the 42nd year of Caesar Augustus, indeed in the 27th year from the death of Cleopatra…6
Bede began the new system with Chr, but this gave way to something else closer, but not exactly similar to our present acronym of A.D. His later work, the 731 A.D. masterpiece, “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation” shows similarity:
Britain had never been visited by the Romans, and was, indeed, entirely unknown to them before the time of Caius Julius Caesar, who, in the year 693 after the building of Rome, but the sixtieth year before the incarnation of our Lord…7
“Before the incarnation of our Lord” reads here in the Latin as, “ante uero incarnationis dominicae”8 and when Bede wanted to express time after the incarnation of Christ he wrote, “annus ab incarnatione Domini…”9 The expression used to measure time before Christ is his invention that did not survive to later usage. This idiom was not the same as what Dionysius set, “Anni Domini nostri Jesu Christi” or shortened today to A.D., which is unusual for Bede, who often builds on what others have already established.
One must be cognizant of the fact incarnation does not necessarily mean birth but can alternatively mean conception. The birth/conception date brings another set of arguments that will not be discussed in this article. This mixture creates more confusion to an already complex topic. The birth date is the underlying assumption throughout this article.
Bede’s texts related to the exact date of Christ’s birth, and the problems related to this is the central focus here. In order to arrive at such an understanding, some translation snippets were done personally by me from the Latin works De Temporibus Liber and De Temporum Ratione. An in-depth look at these texts follows.
His work also provides timelines for other important Christian events which interweave with the incarnation of Christ.
The following are translations from the Latin on the important dates that Bede calculated. Afterwards, a conversion of these dates is given in our present A.D. form.
Bede wrote the chronologies in a shorthand type fashion, very brief, only a few words, assuming the reader can infer from the text the meaning. The translation reflects this brevity.
The Venerable Bede: De Temporibus Liber
MPL vol. 90. Col. 290-292
The Sixth Epoch.10
The sixth epoch compromises 708 years having passed by. Octavius 56 years. Consequently, in the 42nd year, Christ was born, having completed from A.D.am 3,952 years. Now there is another date of 5199. Tiberius 23 years. In this reign, Christ is crucified in the 18th year. Caius 4 years. Matthew writes the Gospel. Claudius 13 years. Peter goes to Rome, Mark travels to Alexandria. Nero 14 years. Peter and Paul are being handed over to death by crucifix and sword.
Vespasian 10 years. In the second year of his reign, Jerusalem is being destroyed. Titus two years. At this time, eloquence and goodness is established. Domitian reigned 16 years. John is sent away to Patmos. Nerva one year. The Apostle John returns to Ephesus, writes the Gospel. Trajan 19 years. Simon, the Bishop of Jerusalem, is crucified, and John dies in Ephesus. Hadrian 21 years. A translation is being produced by Aquila.
Bede goes on to write many more important dates in world and Christian history. The conversion of these dates to our present-day calendar reads:
- Christ’s birth at 2 B.C. (42nd year of Octavius)
- Tiberius’ reign 13 A.D. – 36 A.D. (23 years)
- Christ’s crucifixion 31 A.D. (18th year of Tiberius)
- Caius’ reign 36 – 40 A.D. (4 years)
- The Gospel of Matthew is written between 35 – 39 A.D.
- Claudius reign 40 – 53 A.D. (13 years)
- Peter goes to Rome, Mark goes to Alexandria between 40 and 53 A.D.
- Nero’s reign 53-67 A.D. (14 years)
- Peter and Paul die anywhere in the 53 – 67 A.D. period
- Vespasian’s reign from 67-77 A.D. (10 years)
- The destruction of Jerusalem 69 A.D. (2nd year of Vespasian)
- Titus’ reign 77 – 79 A.D. (2 years)
- Domitian’s reign 79 – 95 A.D. (16 years)
- The Apostle John is exiled to Patmos somewhere between 76 – 92 A.D.
- The reign of Nerva from 95 – 96 A.D. (1 year)
- The Gospel according to John is written between 95 or 96 A.D.
- Trajan’s reign 96 – 117 A.D. (21 years)
- Simon the Bishop is crucified and the Apostle John dies somewhere between 96 – 117 A.D.
- The reign of Hadrian from 117 -136 A.D. (21 years)
- A special translation of the Old Testament into Greek by Aquila,11 somewhere between 117-136 A.D.
- Bede wrote this entry 708 years after the birth of Christ.
This is not a critical analysis of whether Bede’s numbers are historically accurate. It is simply listing what he believed they were.
The Venerable Bede: De Temporum Ratione
MPL vol. 90. Col. 544-546
[A.M. Hebr. 3966. Sept. 5314.] Octavianus Caesar Augustus the second of the Romanorum, reigns 56 years and 6 months, from which time the kings of the Romans had been named Augustus, of which 15 years during the life of Cleopatra and he lives 41 years after. In the 11th year of Augustus, a High Priest is lacking in Judaea. Herod, who has no lineage with them, seeing that he is the son of Antipatris of Ashkelon and the mother is Cypridis of Arabia, receives the Jewish leadership by the Romans, which he keeps for 36 years. Lest by chance the low birth and for the possibility that the outside of the seed of the Jews argument was to arise, he burns all the books to which the recorded lineage of the people of the Jews were being kept in the temple, in order that he settle with this thing by the lacking of a valid proof that it pertains to…
[A.M. 3952, Chr. 1.] In the 42nd year of Caesar Augustus, indeed in the 27th year from the death of Cleopatra and Anthony and also when Egypt was changed into a province. The 194th Olympiad in the third year, the 752nd year from the founding of Rome, that is, in the year related to him, in which disturbances had been silenced throughout the nations of the earth, Caesar of God,12]13 composed in a government a most stable and genuine peace, Jesus Christ the Son of God14 dedicated the sixth age of the world with His arrival. In the 47th year of the Emperor15 Augustus, Herod in the sickness of latercutis aquae,16 and with maggots having sprung forth on the whole body, wretchedly and suitably dies. For the one who became the heir by Augustus, another one [of Herod’s] sons, Archaelus, reigned 9 years, that is, until the end of Augustus himself. No such references beyond that, which accusers at the time are laying charges before the Emperor of his excessive force to the Jews, he is banished to Gaul in the city of Vienna, and for the purpose of reducing the power of the Judaic leadership position, the haughtiness and the urge to conquer, tetrarchies were created for four of his brothers instead of him; Herodes, Antipater, Lysias and Philip, of whom Philip and Herodes, who Antipas was prior named, had been commissioned of the tetrarchy of Archaelus while he is still alive.
[A.M. 3989. Chr. 38] Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus, this is, the son of his wife Livia, begotten from a former husband, he reigned 23 years. In the 12th year of this Pilate is being set to be procurator of Judea for the same [area of Archaelus]. Herod the Tetrarch, keeps the leadership of the Jews for 24 years, builds in honor of Tiberius and his mother, Livia, Tiberias and Libias.
[A.M. 3981. Chr. 30.] In the 15th year of Tiberius, the Lord, after the baptism which John preached, announces the kingdom of heaven to the world, that has been completed from the beginning of the world according to the Hebrew years, which Eusebius in his Chronicles designates four thousand [years], it is be noted that in 16th year of Tiberius was the beginning of the 71st Jubilee according to the Hebrews. Why then is our reckoning to be assessed 19 years less applied years? Simply one was to have read the preceding [parts] of this book, they would arrive upon the conclusion. Truly on par with the same Chronicon which Eusebius himself of either edition, he composed as it appeared to him, there are 522817 years.
[A.M. 3984. Chr. 33] In the 18th year of Emperor Tiberius, the Lord redeemed the world by His suffering, and the Apostles, whose message was bound to be proclaimed throughout the regions of Judea, chose James, the brother of the Lord, as bishop of Jerusalem. They also ordain seven deacons, and, Stephen who had been stoned, the Church is being scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Agrippa, who is surnamed Herodes, son of Aristobulis, son of Herod the King, [makes a] legal argument against Herod the Tetrarch, a Roman prefect, was thrown into chains by Tiberius, where in that place many opened to him fellowship, and especially the son Gaius of Germanicus.
Gaius by the surname Caligula, reigned three years, 10 months and eight days. Here he makes Herod Agrippa his friend by whom had been released from prison, King of Judaea, and remains as king for 7 years, that is, until the fourth year of Claudius. For having been struck by an angel, his son Agrippa [Agrippa II]18 succeeds as the ruler and he continues for 26 years until the destruction of the Jews. Herod the Tetrarch comes to Rome at the urging by Herodias for the purpose of courting the friendship of Gaius, but for the accusation by Agrippa, lost the Tetrarchy, goes into exile and dies with sorrow in Spain with Herodias. Pilate who pronounced the judgement of damnation on Christ, for so much excess, by which Gaius calls for penalties, having been closed up in anguish, that he killed himself by his own hand. Gaius, the one who brings in his own gods, profanes the holy place of the Jews with unclean images of pagan gods. Matthew wrote the Gospel, publishing it in Judaea.
What does this sequence in De Temporum Ratione mean? If Bede’s calculations are based on Julius Caesar’s death in 44 B.C., which appears to be the case, then these dates follow:
- 1 Chr. Christ was born in the 42nd year of the reign of Augustus, which would make it 2 B.C.
- The 27th year after the death of Cleopatra is another clue. Bede stated that Cleopatra lived 15 years after Augustus began his rule in 44 B.C. That would make her death in 29 B.C. This calculation would once again make the birth date at 2 B.C.
- He stated that it was the 194th Olympiad in the third year. This calculation takes it to 2/1 B.C.
- He counted 752 years AUC (from the founding of Rome), which makes it 2 B.C.
Some further notes on other important dates, but focus on the date of His passion:
- Chr. 15. Tiberius began his reign. This date is 13 A.D. according to our calendar
- Chr. 30. Christ baptized. This date is 28 A.D. according to our calendar
- Chr. 33. Christ is crucified. This date is 31 A.D. according to our calendar
- Chr. 38. Tiberius dies after 23 years of rule. This date is 36 A.D. according to our calendar
- Caligula reigned for almost four years after Tiberius. 36 – 40 A.D.
- Herod Agrippa reigned in Judaea for seven years. 37 – 44 A.D.
- Herod Agrippa II reigned in Judaea for 26 years. 44 – 70 A.D.
- The destruction of Jerusalem. 70 A.D.
It could be argued that Bede’s calculations amount to 1 B.C. rather than 2 B.C. The calculations that Bede used have a two-year variance and can be set either way. However, the information tends to lead towards 2 more than 1 B.C.
The alternative for 1 B.C. is found in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation”, where he wrote that Caesar arrived in Britain in 693 AUC, sixty years before Christ’s incarnation. This makes the birth of Christ to be 753 AUC (1 B.C.).
However, this goes against the majority of his other works. It changes Julius Caesar’s end reign to 45 B.C., which normally is 44 B.C., and Christ’s crucifixion to 32 A.D., which would conflict with Dionysius’ date of 31 A.D. This passage does set-up a contradiction on Bede’s part, but there is only one evidence for 753 AUC while there are multiple pieces of evidence for 752 AUC.
On the life of the Herods, which has always been integral for dating the birth of Christ, Bede takes a late approach. He calculated Herod the Great’s reign to have begun in the 11th year of Augustus’ reign, and it lasted for 36 years. This finding would make Herod the Great’s reign from 33 B.C. to our present 3 A.D.
The credit of our A.D. system belongs to an earlier monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus whose work Bede was familiar with. Dionysius was eager to establish a uniform calendar for Christians throughout the world to celebrate Easter. Exiguus’ work included many calculations and disparate calendar data to build his system. One of which included references to Christ’s birth. The Easter chart grew into a defacto calendar system that required Bede’s attention. Bede needed to reconcile his findings or explain any difference from Dionysius’ Easter tables.
Bede argued that there was no problem. His calculations agreed with those of Dionysius Exiguus’. Dionysius calculated 33 years from the passion, which Bede strongly agreed with; our present 2 B.C., was to be the right place to start 1 A.D.
Bede believed the birth year was a later miscalculation by the Church. The official Church calendar reckoned that Christ lived only 30 years on earth and deducted this from A.D. 29. This calculation became the official 1 A.D. which we still use today. It is A.D. 1 because the ancient timetables were based on a math system that did not contain the number zero.
Therefore the belief of the Church holds, unless I am mistaken, that the Lord had lived in the flesh according to Paul for more than 33 years19 to the time of His sufferings, which without a doubt was baptized at 30 years (of age), even as Luke’s Gospel is called to witness, and He preached for three and a half years after His baptism, just as John thoroughly teaches not only having remembered the time of the Passover which repeats in his Gospel, but also the same in his Apocalypse. 20 And also Daniel prophetically points out in his vision. Since that the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church testifies to keep this same faith by its own mandate, is accustomed to annually write in their wax, in which place the time is recalled of the passion of the Lord as a memorial for the people, always designates a number 30 years, three years less than what Dionysius sets down from His incarnation.21 In fact, the year from His incarnation related to Dionysius is 701, the fourteenth indiction, our brothers that lived then in Rome, from these lately that have written in the wax of the Holy Mary concerning the birth of the Lord, and they were announcing thenceforward, “From the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are 669 years.” Considering how we recounted from before, the cycle of the Passover runs for 532 years, with this you must add 33 or perhaps 34, since you should be able to arrive at the same year which the Lord died, these produce 566. This then is the year of the passion of the Lord and resurrection from the dead.22
When the Church recalculated this reckoning from 30 years is not known. It was officially sanctioned between 550 and 650 A.D.; dates after Dionysius’ reckoning and before Bede’s time.
Bede’s conclusions are not normally used in the framework for discussing Dionysius Exiguus’s reckonings. Alden A. Mosshammer’s thorough work, The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era does analyze Bede’s conclusion on the subject and concluded differently that Bede purposely tried to change the passion date in order to work with Dionysius incarnation date. Mosshammer then explains how the 29-year timeline of Christ was the established standard:
The traditional date for the Passion in the Roman church was 25 March in the consulship of the two Gemini in A.D. 29. I know of no evidence that between the time of Prosper and that of Bede the Roman church had changed the traditional date of the Passion. In 1689, Antoine Pagi defended the traditional date in A.D. 29 against the efforts of Denis Petau and others to move the date into the 30s. In a book published as recently as 1952, Damiano Lazzarotto defended the traditional date in A.D. 29.
Maintaining the traditional date in A.D. 29 and a 33-year life span for Jesus requires Lazzarotto to abandon the Dionysian year 1 as the date for the Incarnation. Bede apparently took the opposite course and changed the date of the Passion. It is possible that the officials at the church of St. Mary had at some point recalculated the date of the Passion with the Dionysian Christian era. Or perhaps Bede’s brethren miscopied the inscription they saw, writing dclxviii instead of dclxxiii. Bede himself may have deliberately falsified the number in his efforts to defend the Dionysian date for the Incarnation.23
Gustav Teres’ very well researched work, Time Computations and Dionysius Exiguus, discusses many approaches along with the problems and produces different results, though he does not refer to Bede at all.
Perhaps Bede diverged from Dionysius from this point, but this is not very certain.
Migne Patrologia Latina provided a long commentary at the text’s bottom to ensure this was accurate. The editor cited several sources which tried to reconcile it. In the end, the editorial believed the numbers might be a corruption of the Bede codex itself:
Bede computes these years from the murder of Caesar, from which place the nativity of Christ happened in the year period Julian 4712, two years before the popular Dionysius time, alongside they are in harmony with this year in the calculation that is made, which is related by Bede. A single question remains, can it be that this year must be included in the computation? The Scaligari Edition of the Chronicles of Eusebius, excludes this year, begins the life of Christ at the 43rd of Augustus. But Hen. Steph. 42 years itself, which they are made of those general chronological ambiguous lifespans. To such a degree it is uncertain to the newly educated, for this is the beginning of the Christian era and that given the choice is free to either one of these years, whether current or untouched. I approach it with the calculation of the current years, not only that it better agrees with Bede’s numbers in these Chronicles but likewise should coincide that when from the Julian year period, which is being set as the true and epoch pertaining to the Gospel… 752. With respect to which it was recorded about the kings of Rome to beyond A.M. 3468, this discloses his usage. For if the years of the kings of Rome would be 243, the birth year of Christ would not be AUC 752 but 751. By which means it is probable the number 243 to be an error in Bede’s Codex.24
As a summary of all the evidence supplied, Bede moved 1 A.D. two years earlier than our modern records. He believed Christ lived 33 years on this earth. Consequently, our 1 A.D. is supposed to start at 2 B.C. 29 A.D., the date of the passion, is correctly to be named 31 A.D.
- For the entire work of Bede in English:
- For Bede in the original Latin, go to the Monumenta website.
- The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era by Alden A. Mosshammer.
- Time Computations and Dionysius Exiguus by Gustav Teres.
- Michael Deckers English translation and mathematical analysis of Dionysius Exiguus’ Nineteen Year Cycle of Dionysius.
- A timeline on the lives of the Herods, see A Chronology of the Herods: More Details and A Chronology of the Herods.
- For more articles relating to the birth of Christ, see the series webpage: Christian Calendar System for more information.
- De Temporum Ratione. MPL vol. 90. Col. 545
- MPL vol. 90. Col. 545-546
- Men and centuries of European civilization. By Louise Fargo Brown, George Barr Carson. USA. N.P. Pg. 108
- http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.html Book I:2; From Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translator not clearly indicated (But it seems to be L.C. Jane’s 1903 Temple Classics translation), introduction by Vida D. Scudder, (London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910)
- Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum: Liber Primus:2. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/bede/bede1.shtml
- IBID, Liber Primus:3
- Bede broke up history into eight different ages. The sixth being the last age of mankind before the seventh stage of the eternal sabbath and then the eighth for the happy resurrection. For information on how he divided, see The historical works of Venerable Bede, Volume 2 Or the Latin text, Beda, De Temporum Ratione, CAPUT LXV
- Previously this passage was credited to the creation of the Septuagint. That was incorrect. The Septuagint was created centuries earlier. Bede was referring to a special Greek translation made by Aquila.
- “Dei Caesar”, typically this is translated as Emperor but Bede is developing a wordplay that will be missed if it is not translated literally. So it will be left literal
- He was following the commentary by Paulus Orosius who argued that the birth of the Messiah was during the time of no wars in the Roman world
- Filius Dei, as opposed to “Dei Caesar”
- “imperii” – emporer
- A formal definition of this has yet to be found though I suspect, but cannot confirm, it is lesions, diabetes-related infection, boils or some other serious skin condition. Another theory could be skin cancer. However, none of these are reliable enough. Therefore, it stays in the Latin.
- “VMCCXXVIII” This is not a standard numbering Latin system and there is no definitive place found to confirm exactly what this means. I am guessing that the “V” means ‘5’ and “M” means ‘thousandth’ in this context. J.A. Giles 1845 English translation agrees with “5228” but he was wrong with another number usage, so I hesitate to use this number, though don’t know of any alternative.
- To avoid confusion modern scholars call him Agrippa II
- I don’t recall Paul ever writing distinctly that the Lord lived 33 years in any contemporary copies of his writings.
- I don’t recall there any mention of the Jesus celebrating anything related to the Passover in the Apocalypse-nothing anything remote. What is Bede referring to here?
- Many ancient authors, such as Bede, refer to the incarnation as the resurrected Jesus
- Didascalia Genuina: De Temporum Ratione MPL vol 190. Col. 491-496
- Alden A. Mosshammer. “The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era.” Oxford University Press. 2008. Pg. 30
- De Temporum Ratione. MPL vol. 90. Col. 545