How Accurate Is the Jewish Calendar?
ACCORDING to the Jewish calendar, Thursday, September 16, 1993, was the festival day of Rosh Hashanah. By tradition the shofar, or ram’s-horn trumpet, was then sounded to proclaim the incoming of the new year. That year is 5754 (Jewish calendar), and it runs from September 16, 1993, to September 5, 1994.
Right away, we note that there is a difference of 3,760 years between the Jewish count of time and the Western, or Gregorian, calendar that is now in common use. Why does this difference exist? And how accurate is the Jewish calendar?
Fixing the Starting Point
Any system of counting time must have a specific starting or reference point. For example, Christendom counts time from the year in which Jesus Christ was supposed to have been born. Dates since then are said to be in the Christian era. They are often designated by the notation A.D., from the Latin anno Domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord.” Dates before that period are marked B.C., “Before Christ.”* The traditional Chinese similarly count time from 2698 B.C.E., the beginning of the reign of legendary Huang-Ti, the Yellow Emperor. Thus, February 10, 1994, marked the beginning of the Chinese lunar year 4692. What, though, about the Jewish calendar?
The Jewish Encyclopedia states: “The present usual method among Jews of recording the date of an event is to state the number of years that have elapsed since the creation of the world.” This system, known among Jews as the Era of the Creation, came into common use in about the ninth century C.E. Thus, dates in the Jewish calendar are usually preceded by the designation A.M. It stands for anno mundi, which is an abbreviated form of ab creatione mundi, meaning “from the creation of the world.” Since the current year is A.M. 5754, according to this system of counting time, “the creation of the world” is regarded as having taken place 5,753 years ago. Let us see how that is determined.
“Era of the Creation”
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971) provides this explanation: “In various rabbinical computations the ‘Era of the Creation’ began in the autumn of one of the years between 3762 and 3758 B.C.E. From the 12th century C.E., however, it became accepted that the ‘Era of the Creation’ began in 3761 B.C.E. (to be exact, on Oct. 7 of that year). This computation is founded on synchronisms of chronological elements expressed in the Bible and calculations found in early post-biblical Jewish literature.”
The system of dating from “the creation of the world” is essentially based on rabbinical interpretations of the Bible record. Because of their belief that the world and everything in it was created in six literal 24-hour days, rabbinical scholars, as well as those of Christendom, assume that the creation of the first man, Adam, took place in the same year as the creation of the world. However, this is far from being accurate.
The first chapter of Genesis opens by stating: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then it goes on to describe what God did in six successive “days” to transform the earth from a “formless and waste” condition to a suitable habitat for humans. (Genesis 1:1, 2) Millions of years could have transpired between these two stages. Furthermore, the creative days were not 24-hour periods, as if the Creator’s activities were bound by such a limitation. That a “day” in this context can be longer than 24 hours is indicated by Genesis 2:4, which speaks of all the creative periods as one “day.” Many thousands of years went by between the first creative day and the sixth, when Adam was created. Dating the creation of Adam at the same time as that of the physical heavens and earth is neither Scriptural nor scientific. Still, how was it determined that the “Era of the Creation” began in 3761 B.C.E.?
Basis for the Chronology
Unfortunately, most of the Jewish literature on which the computations under consideration were based is no longer in existence. What remains is a chronological work originally called Seder ʽOlam (Order of the World). It is attributed to second-century C.E. Talmudic scholar Yose ben Halafta. This work (later called Seder ʽOlam Rabbah to distinguish it from a Medieval chronicle entitled Seder ʽOlam Zuṭa) gives a chronological history from Adam to the second-century C.E. Jewish revolt against Rome under the false Messiah Bar Kokhba. How did the writer acquire such information?
While Yose ben Halafta endeavored to follow the Bible’s account, he added his own interpretations where the text was not explicit as to the dates involved. “In many cases, . . . he gave the dates according to tradition, and inserted, besides, the sayings and halakot [traditions] of preceding rabbis and of his contemporaries,” says The Jewish Encyclopedia. Others are less kind in their assessment. The Book of Jewish Knowledge asserts: “He counted from the Era of Creation and, accordingly, ascribed fancied dates to various Jewish events that were presumed to have taken place from Adam, the first man, to Alexander the Great.” But just how did such interpretations and insertions affect the accuracy and authenticity of Jewish chronology? Let us see.
Traditions and Interpretations
In accord with rabbinic tradition, Yose ben Halafta calculated that the second temple in Jerusalem lasted a total of 420 years. This was based on the rabbinic interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy of “seventy weeks,” or 490 years. (Daniel 9:24) This time period was applied to the interval between the destruction of the first temple and the devastation of the second. Allowing 70 years for the Babylonian exile, Yose ben Halafta came to the conclusion that the second temple lasted 420 years.
This interpretation, however, runs into a serious problem. Both the year of Babylon’s overthrow (539 B.C.E.) and that of the second temple’s destruction (70 C.E.) are known historical dates. Hence, the period of the second temple would have to be 605 years rather than 420 years. By assigning only 420 years to this period, Jewish chronology falls short by 185 years.
Daniel’s prophecy is not about how long the temple in Jerusalem would remain standing. Rather, it foretold the time when the Messiah would appear. The prophecy clearly indicates that “from the going forth of the word to restore and to rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Leader, there [would] be seven weeks, also sixty-two weeks.” (Daniel 9:25, 26) While the temple foundation was laid in the second year of the Jews’ return from exile (536 B.C.E.), “the word” to rebuild the city of Jerusalem did not go forth until “the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king.” (Nehemiah 2:1-8) Accurate secular history establishes 455 B.C.E. as that year. Counting forward 69 “weeks,” or 483 years, brings us to 29 C.E. That was the time of the Messiah’s appearance, at Jesus’ baptism.*
Another point of rabbinic interpretation that resulted in a large discrepancy in Jewish chronology pertains to the time of Abraham’s birth. The rabbis added the years of the successive generations recorded at Genesis 11:10-26 and assigned 292 years to the period from the Flood to the birth of Abraham (Abram). However, the problem lies in the rabbinic interpretation of Ge 11 verse 26, which says: “Terah lived on for seventy years, after which he became father to Abram, Nahor and Haran.” From this, Jewish tradition assumes that Terah was 70 years old when Abram was born. Yet, the verse does not specifically say that Terah became father to Abraham at age 70. Instead, it merely says that he became father to three sons after he was 70 years old.
To find the correct age of Terah at the birth of Abraham, we need only to read on in the Bible narrative. From Genesis 11:32–12:4, we learn that after Terah’s death at the age of 205, Abraham and his family left Haran at Jehovah’s bidding. At that time Abraham was 75 years old. Hence, Abraham must have been born when Terah was 130 years old, rather than 70. Thus, the period from the Flood to the birth of Abraham was 352 years, rather than 292 years. Here Jewish chronology errs by 60 years.
A Religious Relic
Such errors and discrepancies in Seder ‘Olam Rabbah and other Talmudic chronological works have caused much embarrassment and considerable discussion among Jewish scholars. Although numerous attempts have been made to reconcile this chronology with known historical facts, they have not been entirely successful. Why not? “Their interest was not so much academic as religious,” observes Encyclopaedia Judaica. “Tradition had to be upheld at all costs, especially in the face of dissident sectarians.” Instead of eliminating the confusion caused by their traditions, some Jewish scholars attempted to discredit the Bible accounts. Others tried to find support in Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hindu legends and traditions.
Consequently, historians no longer view the “Era of the Creation” as a serious piece of chronological work. Few Jewish scholars would endeavor to defend it, and even such authoritative reference works as The Jewish Encyclopedia and Encyclopaedia Judaica take a generally negative view of it. Hence, the traditional Jewish method of counting time from the creation of the world cannot be viewed as accurate from the standpoint of Bible chronology, the unfolding prophetic timetable of Jehovah God.
Both Biblical and historical evidence points to Jesus Christ’s birth in the year 2 B.C. For the sake of accuracy, therefore, many prefer to use the designations C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and this is the way dates are indicated in publications of the Watch Tower Society.
For details, see Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, pages 614-16, 900-902, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.