The Western calendar that is supposed to commence with the birth of Jesus and is called Anno Domini is fatally flawed. Although the correct date of birth cannot be determined, an alternative nomenclature has solved the problem and secularized the calendar completely.
Religiously inspired calendars are found all over the world, but their secular equivalents are rare, of relatively recent origin and frequently of short duration. In the only instance where a Western country tried to overthrow and radically reform the calendar, the system did not last very long.
After the French revolution it was decided that the new era would commence, not with the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 as one would expect, but on the date on which the French republic was proclaimed namely 22 September 1792. Everything was decimalized; there were 10 days in a week, the months consisted of 3 x 10 days and the days were divided into 10 hours. The names of the months and the days were completely changed and the months, in particular, were given colorful names such as Brumaire (month of mist), Nivose (month of snow) and Thermidor (month of heat). But while the zealous revolutionaries were busy changing the names of the days, they were warned by Bishop Henri Gregoire that they are engaged in a futile exercise. “Sunday existed before you”, he said, “and it will survive you.” He was dead right. After Napoleon took power, he systematically abolished the new calendar until it was fully repealed on 1 January 1806 and the old calendar reintroduced.
In more recent times North Korea decided that it’s era starts with the birth of the first dictator of the country Kim Il-Sung (the so-called “Great Leader”) on 15 April 1912. Perhaps it is portentous, for it also happens to be the date on which the Titanic sank. In the case of “Democratic Kampuchea” (Cambodia) the calendar commenced with the date on which the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. The start of many of these calendars correspond to well documented historical events. That is even true in the field of literature. In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, the year zero is the year in which the first Model T Ford motorcar was manufactured, namely 1908, so that the era is named AF (Anno Ford) after the industrialist Henry Ford who was responsible for the Model T. In the book the story takes place in the year AF 632 or AD 2540 in the traditional calendar. AD, of course, stands for Anno Domini, translated by Christians as “the year of our Lord”, and the era is supposed to commence with the birth of Jesus.(The era that precedes it is called BC, before Christ or literally “before the messiah”.) However,even if one assumes that Jesus did exist (which is debatable), the question still remains whether he was really born, according to the available documentation, in the year when the calendar starts. In order to answer that question, some background information is necessary.
It is significant to note that no attempt was made after the death of Jesus by either his followers or the authorities after Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire to make his birth the starting date of the calendar. One would have thought that the birth of a god here on earth would have been considered important enough to do so. Instead a number of alternative methods were used to denote the years. The most common one was to refer to the year in which the consuls of the Roman Empire were appointed by the emperor to rule. Their terms commenced on the 1st of January of each year. Another way the years were counted was to refer to the mythical founding of Rome in 753 BCE.(More about this abbreviation later.) It was referred to as “from the founding of the city” or in Latin as ab urbe condita, abbreviated to AUC. Otherwise the putative creation of the world was used as the year zero. The proponents of the system, which became known as Anno Mundi, the year of the world, could, however, not agree on the date on which the earth was supposed to have been created. Others again, used the year in which Abraham was allegedly called by Yahweh (see Genesis 12:1) as the date for the commencement of their calendar. It was known as Anno Abrahami.
This was the state of affairs when Pope John 1 requested the monk Dionysus Exiguus (Dennis the little, in the sense of humble) an abbot from Scythia (now Moldavia), in the year 525 to investigate the calendar with the aim of fixing a more precise date for Easter. It must be stressed that the Pope did not instruct Dennis to determine a new date on which the calendar must commence. Dennis was, however, passionately opposed to the the practice of the Christians in Alexandria, Egypt to use the date on which the Emperor Diocletian (who persecuted the Christians mercilessly) assumed office as the basis of their calendar. It was known as Anno Diocletiani. The idea was, however, not to extol Diocletian and was accordingly also known as the Era of the Martyrs. Nevertheless, Dennis decided to determine the date on which Jesus had been born and so create a new date for the commencement of the calendar.
There is some difference of opinion as to how Dennis did this. Most writers are of the view that he relied solely on the gospel of Luke to do so. According to Luke 2:1 Augustus was emperor at the time Jesus was born but it gives no precise information as to when this was. However, according to E G Richards (Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History), Dennis read in documents prepared by the church father Clement of Alexandria that Jesus was born 28 years after the commencement of the rule of the Emperor Augustus. He thereupon calculated the 28 years from the date of the swearing in ceremony and assumed that it was an accurate basis for his new calendar. What he did not know, however, is that Augustus assumed power (and according to tradition became emperor) directly after the battle of Actium, when he defeated Antony and Cleopatra. Be it as it may, the consensus is that the year that Dennis calculated to be the one in which Jesus was born (and subsequently became known as Anno Domini ) is completely wrong.
One often reads that Jesus was actually born 4 years before the date calculated by Dennis. That is, however, not correct, The truth is that it is impossible to determine his year of birth. It must be remembered that the only documents that can be used for that purpose are the four gospels that are accepted as canonical (in other words as genuine and true) by the Christian Church. The information contained therein is simply too meager and contradictory to be of any help. A discussion of the difficulties that one encounters can be found in the book of GA Wells The Jesus of the Early Christians. According to both Matthew (verse 2:1) and Luke (1:5) Herod was king of Galilee when Jesus was born. Luke adds (in 2:2) that Quirinius was at the time governor of Syria. The problem is that Herod ruled from 37 to the year 4 BCE while Quirinius was only governor of Syria in the year 6 CE. There is accordingly a period of 10 years that separates them. Moreover, the claim in Luke 2:3-4 that the parents of Jesus were required by an order of Augustus to return to the town of Joseph’s birth, Nazareth, so that a census could be held in the whole empire is contradicted by the historical evidence. A census was indeed held, but it only took place in Syria under Quirinius in the year 6 CE and no one was required to return to their place of birth; the aim was simply to establish who is taxable. (One can imagine what chaos would have ensued if the approximately 120 million inhabitants of the empire were to travel to their places of birth simply to be “enrolled”.)
Because of these problems, many theologians and Christian apologists who maintain that Jesus was born 4 years earlier, rely exclusively on the gospel of Matthew to come to that conclusion and simply ignore what is said in Luke. They argue that because the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus states in his Jewish Antiquities, written during the first century, that Herod died in 750 AUC, that must be the date on which Jesus was born. While according to Matthew 2: 19-21 an angel told Joseph in a dream that Herod is dead and that they must return to Israel, it is nowhere mentioned what the age of Jesus was at the time. To assume that he was not yet one year old is pure guesswork. We are further not told by proponents why we must ignore the census that was held during the governorship of Quirinius (a fact also mentioned by Josephus).
Generally, Matthew has an even more improbable story regarding the birth of Jesus than Luke. According to the account in chapter 2 of the Gospel, Joseph and Mary fled from Bethlehem to Egypt after being warned by an angel. When the Magi subsequently informed Herod of the birth of a king in Bethlehem, he had all male children in the town under the age of 2 years murdered. Nothing of this is mentioned in any of the other 3 Gospels (Mark and John do not furnish any information regarding the birth of Jesus) and, contrary to expectation, no extra-Biblical source makes any reference to the so-called Massacre of the Innocents (Mat 2:16). One would, in particular, have expected Josephus to have mentioned the incident. Josephus was very critical of Herod and it is hardly likely that he would have passed up an opportunity to describe this shocking incident in his book and so blacken Herod’s name even further.
It is at any rate unwise to rely on the version of Matthew. He was not an eyewitness to the events he describes and the consensus among theologians is that his gospel was written after the year 70 CE. Given the far-fetched stories it contains and the absence of any reliable corroborating evidence for its version regarding the birth of Jesus, it would be foolhardy to accept any of its claims. What should also cause red lights to flash, is the author’s persistent attempts to persuade readers that the birth of Jesus and the subsequent events are the result of the fulfillment of prophesies in the Old Testament. Did he not perhaps fabricate events so that they would seem to agree with what was foretold by the prophets? (See Matthew 1:22-23, 2:5-6, 2:14-15, 2:17-18 and 2:23 in this regard).
But to return to the Anno Domini system of Dennis; it also has another problem. It does not have a year zero. According to Dennis, Jesus was born in the year 1 so that AD 1 was immediately preceded by the year 1 BC. That this caused all sorts of problems during subsequent centuries, is apparent from Charles Seife’s book Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.
Nothing initially came of Dennis’ efforts and hope that the birth date of Jesus would form the basis of the Western calendar and it was only long after his death, in the year 731, that the English monk known as The Venerable Bede started using and propagating the idea in his book The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.The authorities eventually started to listen and between the 11thand the 14thcenturies one country after the other adopted and implemented the system. The last country to do so was Portugal in 1422. Before that it had used the so-called Era of the Emperors which starts in 37 BCE.
The great advantage of the Anno Domini system is that it eliminated the confusion that resulted from the large number of starting dates of the calendar that were in existence in the past. But it also had the unfortunate effect that the calendar as such was afterwards regarded as Christian while it is only the AD system that makes it so. It is in actual fact out-and-out pagan. The week is astrological in nature; the 7 days refer to the 7 ancient planets and the days are named after them, Son, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In the Romance languages the names of the week are variations on the original names while in Germanic languages, such as Afrikaans and English, Mercury, Venus Mars and Jupiter have been substituted by the names of Teutonic gods. Tuesday is named after Tiw, Wednesday after Wotan, Thursday after Thor and Friday after Freya. The names of the months are more obscure but what is known is that January is a variation on the name of the Roman god Ianus, the god of doors, March is named after Mars, the god of war, May after Maia, the god of spring while July and August carry the names of pagan rulers, Julius Caesar and the Emperor Augustus. Lastly, September, October, November and December are variations on the Latin words for the numbers 7,8,9 and 10.
Although the Anno Domini system does not commence with the birth of Jesus and is religious in nature, we have to live with it. Richards points out that it is extremely difficult to change the calendar because it has religious implications. For that reason, the consent of a highly placed religious figure, like the Pope, is usually required. Another problem is that of tradition. And that cuts both ways. Christians will of course object if the AD system is abolished, but on the other hand, their own aspirations to change the calendar were in the past also frustrated by tradition. When they took power, they tried their level best to change the names of the days of the weeks and the months that refer to pagan deities while they also wanted to move the beginning of the year away from the 1st of January to one of their religious holidays. They got nowhere. Tradition was simply too strong for them.
Despite these problems, the AD system has already quietly been amended without causing confusion and without offending religious traditionalists. Because of greater secularization, it increasingly happens nowadays, that the phrases “common era” (CE) and “before the common era” (BCE) are used instead of Anno Domini (AD) and “before Christ” (BC). The new terms are more acceptable and descriptive than the old ones because they do not honour any gods and make (false) historical claims. They merely point out that we all use the same insignificant year as a point of reference. The idea is, I think, splendid and I accordingly urge secularists to use them instead of the Anno Domini terminology.