When Does the Third Millennium Begin?
HAVE you heard the claim that the third millennium will not begin in the year 2000 but in 2001? That claim is correct—up to a point. If we assume that Jesus Christ was born in what is now known as 1 B.C.E., as some once supposed, then December 31, 2000 (not 1999), will indeed mark the end of the second millennium, and January 1, 2001, the beginning of the third.* However, today almost all scholars agree that Jesus Christ was not born in 1 B.C.E. Well, then, when was he born?
When Was Jesus Born?
The Bible does not reveal the exact date of Jesus’ birth. It does say, however, that he was born “in the days of Herod the king.” (Matthew 2:1) Many Bible scholars believe that Herod died in the year 4 B.C.E. and that Jesus was born before then—perhaps as early as 5 or 6 B.C.E. They base their conclusions about Herod’s death on statements by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.*
According to Josephus, shortly before King Herod died, there was an eclipse of the moon. Bible scholars point to a partial lunar eclipse on March 11, 4 B.C.E., as proof that Herod must have died in that year. However, in the year 1 B.C.E., there was a total lunar eclipse on January 8 and a partial eclipse on December 27. No one can say whether Josephus was referring to one of the eclipses in 1 B.C.E. or to the one in 4 B.C.E. Consequently, we cannot use Josephus’ words to pinpoint the precise year of Herod’s death. Even if we could, without more information we still could not determine when Jesus was born.
The strongest evidence we have of the date of Jesus’ birth comes from the Bible. The inspired record states that Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer began his career as a prophet in the 15th year of Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. (Luke 3:1, 2) Secular history confirms that Tiberius was named emperor on September 15, 14 C.E., so his 15th year would run from the latter part of 28 C.E. to the latter part of 29 C.E. John began his ministry during that time, and Jesus evidently started his ministry six months later. (Luke 1:24-31) This, combined with other evidence, would place the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the fall of 29 C.E.* The Bible states that Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his ministry. (Luke 3:23) If he was 30 years old in the fall of 29 C.E., he must have been born in the fall of 2 B.C.E. Now, if we count forward two thousand years from the fall of 2 B.C.E. (remembering that there was no zero year; hence, from 2 B.C.E. to 1 C.E. is two years), we realize that the second millennium ended and the third millennium began in the fall of 1999!
Does that matter? For example, would the start of the third millennium mark the beginning of the Thousand Year Reign of Jesus Christ, referred to in the book of Revelation? No. The Bible nowhere indicates any link between the third millennium and the Thousand Year Reign of Christ.
Jesus warned his followers against speculating about dates. He told his disciples: “It does not belong to you to get knowledge of the times or seasons which the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.” (Acts 1:7) Earlier, Jesus revealed that even he did not then know when God would execute judgment on this wicked system, paving the way for Christ’s Millennial Rule. He said: “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.”—Matthew 24:36.
Is it reasonable to expect that Christ will return exactly 2,000 years from the date of his birth as a human? No, it is not. Jesus must have known the date of his own birth. And he certainly knew how to count 2,000 years from that date. Yet, he did not know the day and hour of his coming. Obviously, it would not be that simple to pinpoint the date of his return! The ‘times and seasons’ were in the Father’s jurisdiction—the timetable his alone to know.
Furthermore, Jesus did not command his followers to wait for him at a specific geographic location. He told them, not to gather together and wait, but to scatter to “the most distant part of the earth” and make disciples of people of all the nations. He has never rescinded that command.—Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19, 20.
Will Their Millennial Hopes Be Dashed?
Nevertheless, some religious fundamentalists have great expectations for the year 2000. They believe that during the next few months, portions of the book of Revelation will have a literal fulfillment. Indeed, they see themselves as sharing personally in that fulfillment. For example, they point to the prophecy recorded at Revelation 11:3, 7, 8, which tells of two witnesses who prophesy in a “great city which is in a spiritual sense called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was also impaled.” When they finish their witnessing, the two witnesses are killed by a ferocious wild beast that comes out of an abyss.
According to a report in The New York Times Magazine of December 27, 1998, the leader of one religious group “has told followers he is one of the two witnesses who is fated to announce the destruction of the earth and coming of the Lord—and then be slain by Satan in the streets of Jerusalem.” Israeli authorities are understandably worried. They fear that certain extremists may try to “fulfill” the prophecy on their own—even if that means provoking an armed conflict! However, God does not need man’s “help” to bring his purpose to fruition. All of the Bible’s prophecies will be fulfilled in God’s own time and in God’s own way.
The book of Revelation was written “in signs.” According to Revelation 1:1, Jesus wanted to reveal to “his slaves” (not the world in general) what would shortly take place. To understand the book of Revelation, Christ’s slaves, or followers, would need God’s holy spirit, which Jehovah gives to those who please him. If the book of Revelation is to be understood literally, even faithless people could read it and understand it. Then there would be no need for Christians to pray for holy spirit in order to understand it.—Matthew 13:10-15.
We have seen that according to Biblical evidence, the third millennium from Jesus’ birth begins in the fall of 1999 and that neither that date nor January 1, 2000, nor January 1, 2001, has any special significance. Still, there is a millennium that deeply interests Christians. If not the third millennium, which one? The final article in this series will answer this question.
See the box entitled “2000 or 2001?” on page 5.
According to the chronology of these scholars, the third millennium would have dawned in 1995 or 1996.
For further details, please see Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Volume 1, pages 1094-5.
[Box on page 5]
2000 or 2001?
To understand why some claim that the third millennium from Jesus’ birth will dawn on January 1, 2001, consider this illustration. Suppose you are reading a book that is 200 pages long. When you reach the top of page 200, you have finished reading 199 pages, with one more page to read. You will not complete the book until you come to the end of page 200. Similarly, 999 years of the present millennium, as commonly viewed, will have elapsed on December 31, 1999, with one year to go until the end of the millennium. By that reckoning, the third millennium begins on January 1, 2001. That does not mean, however, that on that date exactly 2,000 years will have elapsed from the date of Jesus’ birth, as this article shows.
[Box on page 6]
How the B.C.-A.D. System of Dating Was Developed
Early in the sixth century C.E., Pope John I commissioned a monk named Dionysius Exiguus to develop a system of computation that would allow the churches to set an official date for Easter.
Dionysius set to work. He calculated back in time, past Jesus’ death, to what he thought was the year of Jesus’ birth; then he numbered each year forward from that point. Dionysius designated the period from Jesus’ birth “A.D.” (for Anno Domini—“in the year of our Lord.”) While intending only to devise a reliable way of calculating Easter each year, Dionysius inadvertently introduced the concept of numbering the years from the birth of Christ forward.
Although most scholars agree that Jesus was not born in the year Dionysius used as a basis for his calculations, his system of chronology does allow us to locate events in the stream of time and see their relationship to one another.