The Jewish Calendar
What year is it, and does it really matter?
The masthead of the Jerusalem Post always carries three dates. On October 15, 1999, it also gave the dates of Heshvan 5, 5760, and 5 Rajab 1420. The first is the Western date; the second is the Jewish date; the third is the Islamic date. Which, if any, is correct, and does it really matter?
The Hebrew calendar, represented above by the date Heshvan 5, 5760, is the oldest, so we will begin with it. It’s the appropriate place to begin for another reason. According to historian Thomas Cahill, the concept of time and history began with God’s call of Abraham.1 Before Abraham, the world had no concept of history as we think of it today. Everything was just part of the great circle of seasons, never changing or progressing. The idea of progress from past to future did not exist. People were not time conscious except with regard to the seasons of the year and how they related to the agricultural cycle. And people had no concept of history. They knew only about their own lives, their family, and their village.
All that changed with the Jews. When Moses wrote Genesis, it was the first time anyone had written a history that included a true sense of time, as well as accurate dates.
In like manner, the story of Abraham’s call from Sumeria to the Promised Land represented a pronounced break with the familiar cyclical mindset. Abraham was called by God to go to a strange place for a specific purpose — to raise up a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). Cahill says the concept of a distant, unseen future, and a personal or national destiny, was unheard of prior to this time.
The Bible interjects the novel concept that history has a beginning, an end, and a purpose, and that Jesus is the meaning of it all (Revelation 1:17-18).
Even after the Jews introduced both time consciousness and historical perspective, the vast majority of Mankind remained oblivious to both. Few people could read or write, and there was no such thing as books. Time pieces were primitive and rare. The idea that people panicked as the year 1000 approached, thinking the world would come to an end, is a legend. Most people had no concept of what year it was.2 The first instance of a new century being celebrated on the Christian calendar was 1300. The celebration was facilitated by the invention of the mechanical, weight-driven clock that was used in monasteries to determine times for worship and prayer.3
The Jewish Calendar
Most people think the Hebrew calendar is a lunar one. That is only partially true. Technically, it is a lunisolar calendar, which means the years are reckoned according to the sun, but the months according to the moon. In contrast, the Muslim calendar is strictly lunar.4
A pure lunar calendar presents a major difficulty because the solar year exceeds 12 lunar months by about 11 days. Thus, if the lunar calendar is not adjusted periodically, the calendar dates will rotate through the year, ending up with winter months falling in the summer and summer months in the winter.
This is exactly what happens with the Muslim calendar. The Islamic year has 12 months alternating between 29 and 30 days, making a year of 354 or 355 days. Because there is no attempt to align this lunar year with the solar year, Muslim months have no relation to the seasons. The months move around the year, and major festivals, like Ramadan, can occur in any season.
The Jews were prohibited from using a pure lunar calendar by the fact that they were required by their Scriptures to celebrate seven feasts each year, and three of those feasts — First Fruits, Pentecost and Tabernacles — were related to the agricultural cycle. So, to prevent the feasts from migrating around the calendar, the Jews inserted an extra month of 30 days seven times during a 19 year cycle. This extra month, called Adar 2, is referred to technically as an intercalary month since it is intercalated, or inserted, into the calendar.5
The insertion of this extra month in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle is the reason that Jewish feasts and historical dates jump around on the calendar. For example, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashana), which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, fell on September 11 in 1999. In 2000 it will fall on September 30. The later date in 2000 is due to the fact that 2000 is a leap year, so an extra month (Adar 2) was inserted during the time of March on the Western calendar. In like manner, Israel’s Independence Day (May 14, 1948 on the Western calendar) moves back and forth on the Hebrew calendar (within a 30 day parameter). In 1994 it fell on April 16. This year it was celebrated on May 10. The date on the Hebrew calendar is 5 Iyar.
The Gregorian Calendar
The calendar used in the Western world today dates back to Roman times. The early Romans used a lunar calendar. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar decided to adopt a solar calendar that would cause the months to correspond with specific seasons. He adopted a plan devised by the Egyptian astronomer, Sosigines. It provided for a 365 day year, with one day added every fourth or “leap” year. He distributed the extra ten days among the 29 day months, making them identical with the months we know today.6 This new calendar became known as the Julian calendar.
But the calendar had a flaw. The Julian year of 365.25 days was too long. The correct value is 365.242199 days. This error of 11 minutes and 14 seconds per year amounted to almost one and a half days in two centuries, and seven days in 1,000 years.
To remedy this problem, Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal decree in 1582 directing that ten days be dropped from the calendar. The decree went into effect in October, when October 5 was declared to be October 15. Then, to prevent the problem from occurring again, the Pope directed that three times in every 400 years the leap-year arrangement should be omitted. This practice led to the rule that no centennial years should be leap years unless they were exactly divisible by 400. Thus, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, as they should have been on the Julian calendar, but the year 2000 is a leap year.7
The new calendar was called the Gregorian, or New Style. It was adopted immediately by Catholic countries, but Protestant and Orthodox countries continued to use the Julian calendar for a long time. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in England until 1572. It became the calendar of Russia in 1918. The Eastern Orthodox Church did not adopt it until 1923 (by that time, 13 days had to be dropped).
The Islamic Calendar
The Muslim or Hijri Calendar was developed in 638 A.D. by a close companion of Mohammed (who died in 632 A.D.). He decided that the most important event in Mohammed’s life was his “hijrah” or migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. He selected this event because it led to the foundation of the first Muslim city-state which proved to be a turning point in Islamic history. Dates that fall within the Muslim Era are usually abbreviated A.H. in Western languages, representing the Latin phrase, Anno Hegirse, meaning “in the year of the Hijra.” The beginning date of this calendar, MuHaram 1, 1 A.H., corresponds to July 16, 622 A.D.8
As pointed out earlier, the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar in nature. This means its years are about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian year. The months migrate around the calendar, unrelated to the seasons. It takes 33 years for a lunar month to make a complete cycle and occur again during the same season.
Identifying the Year
Now, with this background about the three calendar systems, let’s move to a consideration of the really important question: What year is it?
With reference to the year we are in, all three calendars are incorrect. The Muslim calendar states the year to be 1420. It really should be 1378 (the number of years from 622 A.D.). The 42 year difference is due to the fact that the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, and therefore, over a period of time, an excess number of years accumulate in relation to the actual solar years.
The Gregorian calendar year is also incorrect. This should really be the year 2004 or 2005. Yes, that means the new millennium really began in 1995 or 1996. Where did the Gregorian calendar get off track?
Monks and Scholars
The error dates back to the Julian calendar and a Roman monk named Dionysius Exiguus, or Dennis the Short. Around 525 A.D. this fellow decided it was improper for the Church to use the year dates of the Roman calendar since they dated back to the great persecutor of Christians, the Emperor Diocletian. He suggested instead that it would be preferable to date the years from the birth of Jesus, referring to them as A.D. for the Latin, Anno Domini, meaning “the year of our Lord.”
Dionysius made two errors in his calculations. First he designated the year of Jesus’ birth as 1 instead of 0. This error was due to the fact that the concept of zero had not yet entered Western mathematical thinking. The West was still using Roman numerals.9 So, Dionysius’ Christian era dropped the twelve months of year 0 needed to get to year 1.
A more serious error was contained in his calculations of the year when Jesus was born. The year he selected fell four years after the death of King Herod. The Gospels state that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod (Matthew 2:1). So, Jesus had to be born in 4 B.C. or earlier. Since Herod later ordered the killing of all children in Bethlehem below the age of 2 (Matthew 2:16), Jesus may have been born as early as 6 B.C.
The English monk and scholar Bede (c. 673-735) detected the errors in Dionysius’ calculations, but he evidently felt “that the few years of inaccuracy mattered less than the dazzling concept of dating history according to… the era of Christ.”10 When Bede composed his great Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731, he used the Anno Domini dating system, thus institutionalizing the practice.
Another key figure in Christian dating schemes was Protestant prelate and scholar, James Ussher (1581-1656), who became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Bishop Ussher attempted to calculate the date of Creation, basing his calculations on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories, together with biblical chronologies. He concluded that the Creation occurred on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. He also calculated other important biblical dates, concluding that Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden on Monday, November 10, 4004 B.C., and that Noah’s flood began in the year 2348 B.C.11
The Bishop’s calculations were incorporated into the authorized King James Version of the Bible in 1701 and came to be regarded by many Christians as part of the Bible itself, and therefore inerrant. Ussher’s calculations were further enhanced when they were endorsed by one of his contemporaries, Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Lightfoot was one of the most eminent Hebrew scholars of his time. Lightfoot stated that his own “profound and exhaustive study of Scriptures” had confirmed Ussher’s date of Creation. But he added that it occurred at nine o’clock in the morning!12
If the Creation occurred around 4,000 B.C., as the biblical records indicate, then we have recently completed 6,000 years of human history. Why then, does the Jewish calendar place us in the year 5760? Why the difference of 240 years?
The Eccentricities of the Jewish Calendar
The calculation of the years of the Jewish calendar, according to the Talmud, was done in the 2nd Century A.D. by Rabbi R. Yose. His rabbinic chronology is called the Seder Olam Rabbah.13
Since the rabbinical chronology from the time of Creation to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures is relatively clear, the discrepancy between the rabbinical calendar and the Christian reckoning of time relates mainly to the inter-testamental period for which there are no biblical records. This period is referred to by secular historians as “the Persian period.” The Babylonian Empire was overthrown by the Medo-Persian Empire (539 B.C.), and it is the length of the Persian period that is in dispute. The rabbinical chronology says it lasted 52 years (with 34 years of domination over Israel). The accepted chronology of historical experts says it lasted 207 years.
A remarkable new book has recently been published which examines this problem in detail. It is called Jewish History in Conflict.14 The author is a New York attorney and Orthodox Jew by the name of Mitchell First. He studied Jewish history at Yeshiva University’s Revel Graduate School, receiving his M.A. in Jewish history in 1995. He had previously earned a law degree from Columbia Law School in 1982.
The book provides an intriguing survey of what Jewish rabbis have had to say about the calendar discrepancy. He quotes the writings of 105 rabbis and scholars from 882 A.D. to the present, and it is fascinating reading.
In the process, the author proves that the Jewish chronology is flawed and the conventional chronology is the correct one. In fact, the evidence he presents is overwhelming.
Evidence Supporting the Conventional Chronology
He points first to the narrative works of the Greek historians of the Persian period — men like Herodotus and Thucydides. They all agree that the Persian rule spanned the years 539 to 332 B.C. and included the reign of ten kings.15 Mitchell First states that it is unlikely that the Jewish sages in the 2nd Century had access to these histories, but even if they did, they probably held them in contempt.
Next, the author points to the unified testimony of later historians like Diodorus and Plutarch in the 1st Century A.D.16 All of these historians record a much longer Persian period than what is contained in the rabbinical chronology.
The author then points to the biblical record as contained in Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra describes four separate Persian kings reigning in the order contained in the conventional chronology of the Greek historians (Ezra 4:5-7). First also points out that Nehemiah lists a succession of high priests of the Persian period, and that the list is too long for the rabbinical chronology (Nehemiah 12:10-11).17
The most convincing evidence that Mitchell First presents in behalf of the conventional chronology consists of Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions from ancient Persian palaces. These inscriptions were not deciphered until the 19th Century. “The chronology of the Persian kings expressed in these inscriptions agrees exactly with the chronology of the Persian kings constructed from the narrative works of the Greek historians.”18
Mitchell First postulates that the rabbinical error occurred because of the misinterpretation of Daniel 11:2 which mentions only four Persian kings. But First says this passage was not meant to be an enumeration of all the Persian kings. Rather, it is most likely a reference to the mightiest ones, or the ones whose reigns were of the greatest consequence to the Jews.19
A Second Error
First argues that another source of rabbinical error relates to Daniel’s famous prophecy of the 70 weeks of years (Daniel 9:24-27). This passage teaches that God is going to accomplish a number of things in Jewish history during a period of 490 years, commencing with the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple.
First says he believes the rabbis misinterpreted this passage.20 He says their starting point was the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and their ending point was the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. They assumed that was a time period of 490 years from which they subtracted 70 years for the Babylonian captivity, leaving 420 years for the life span of the Second Temple. But the actual time period from the start of its construction to its destruction was 527 years — a difference of 107 years. When you add the 70 years of captivity, you come to a difference of 177 years. And to that must be added the 79 years between the first return in 536 B.C. and the edict to rebuild in 457 B.C. That brings the total difference to 256 years!
Another person who has studied this issue in detail is Benny Isaacson. In his article in the Encycledia Judaica he states that Rabbi Yosef seemed to be bound by a prior rabbinic tradition to assign 420 years to the Second Temple period. Thus, after Yosef distributed a total of 386 years to the periods of Greek, Hasmonean and Roman dominion, he was left with only 34 years to give to the period of Persian dominance.21
Barriers to Correcting the Jewish Calendar
With such overwhelming evidence of a major error in the Jewish calendar, why don’t the Jews correct their calendar? The force of tradition is undoubtedly one of the main reasons. Another is what is called in Jewish circles “the doctrine of faith in the pronouncements of the Sages.” This doctrine requires that the Jewish Sages be given the benefit of the doubt.22
There is a third reason for Jewish reluctance, one that most rabbis and scholars are reluctant to admit. Mitchell First denies that it is of any significance, but he quotes three Jewish scholars who bluntly state that they are convinced this reason is the most important.23 It is the idea that the Jewish Sages purposely stated an incorrect chronology of Daniel 9 in order to prevent people from using the passage to accurately predict the time when the Messiah would come.
I personally believe there is real substance in this argument. Daniel 9 states very clearly that the Messiah will be “cut off” (killed) at the end of 483 years from the time that construction starts on the Second Temple. Depending on what starting point you select (there are three possible ones),24 and depending on how you count the years (whether solar years or lunar years), the range of time is from 27 A.D. to 33 A.D. All those years fall into the possible life span of Jesus of Nazareth.
But if you accept the weird and historically inaccurate interpretation of the passage by the Jewish Sages — namely, that Daniel’s period of time ends in 70 A.D. — then the 483 years falls in 63 A.D., at least 30 years after the death of Jesus, ruling Him out as a candidate for the Messiah. In other words, by maintaining their traditional interpretation of chronology, the Jews are able to argue that Jesus can not qualify as the Messiah since He died too early. Of course, this leaves them with the problem of why the Messiah did not come and die around 63 A.D.
The bottom line is that the corrected Jewish calendar agrees with the Christian calendar that we are at the end of 6,000 years of human history. And that number is significant.
The Week of Millenniums
In the Talmud the Jewish Sages long ago concluded that the history of Man would span six millenniums of turmoil, to be followed by a millennium of peace. This was a deduction from Scripture that they based on the pattern set by the week of Creation when God labored six days and rested the seventh.
This concept was picked up in the Christian tradition when it was incorporated into the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas, a theological tract written in the early 2nd Century.25 More significantly, the Millennial Sabbath Theory, as the idea came to be called, was very prominent in the writings of the early Church Fathers — specifically, Hippolytus (c. 260-c. 311), Victorinus (died c. 304), Commodianus (mid 3rd Century), and Lactantius (c. 250-325).26
The concept of a week of millenniums faded away after the Roman Catholic Church adopted an Amillennial view of prophecy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. The idea was hinted at in the writings of Martin Luther in the 1500’s. He developed a chronological table of world history in which he theorized that the world would come to an end in 2040, near the end of the sixth millennium.27
But the concept did not experience a real revival in theological thinking until the 19th Century when Dispensational Premillennialism began to have an impact. The turning point came with World War I. It destroyed the concept of Postmillennialism which most Protestants had adopted. That concept was based upon an assumption of the inevitability of progress. World War I ended that delusion. The conservative Protestant world turned to Premillennialism because it is based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. And with that new commitment came a renewed interest and belief in the Millennial Sabbath Theory.
The Validity of the Concept
Does the theory have any basis in Scripture? Yes it does. In the first place, it corresponds to a rhythm that seems to characterize the way God does things. He created for six days and then rested the seventh. He commanded Man to observe this week of days, toiling six and resting the seventh. He also commanded the observance of a week of years whereby Man was to till the land for six years and then let it rest the seventh. The Jews were also ordered to observe a week of feasts — six feasts related to the agricultural harvests, followed by a feast of celebration and rest.
Based on these examples, the Jewish Sages, long before Christ, concluded that the history of Man would consist of six millennia of toil and conflict followed by a millennium of rest.
Some have detected a biblical hint of the concept in Matthew 16:28-17:1. In this passage Jesus tells his disciples that some of them will not die before they see Him in His glory, coming in His kingdom. Then the passage says that six days later, Jesus was transfigured before them, giving them the promised glimpse of His glory and His future kingdom. To some, the six days are a symbol of the six thousand years of human history that must pass before Jesus returns in glory.
A more concrete passage is found in Hosea 5:15-6:2. In this passage the Lord tells us a time will come when He will return to “My place,” meaning Heaven. He says He will remain there until the Jewish people “acknowledge their guilt and seek My face.” We know that will not occur until the end of the Tribulation (Zechariah 12:10). The passage says that when the Jews are in “affliction” (a reference to the Tribulation), they will turn their hearts to God and seek Him (Hosea 5:15). At that point the Lord will return. And when will that be? The passage says “after two days.” This could be a reference to two thousand years between the Lord’s ascension and His return (31AD to 2031). The passage proceeds to say that when the Lord returns at the end of two days, He will “raise us up” (a possible reference to the resurrection of the Jewish saints and the Tribulation martyrs) and they will “live before Him” for the “third day” (a possible reference to the thousand year reign of Jesus).
I believe the Millennial Sabbath concept is worthy of serious consideration as one of many factors that point to this day and age as the general time period of the Lord’s return.
No one knows with absolute certainty what year it is, but the biblical record clearly points to the conclusion of six thousand years of human history. If this is true, the time for a millennium of rest from the tribulations of life seems appropriate, and is certainly implied by God’s rhythm for accomplishing His purposes. Again, I see it as one more of many signs that point to the fact that we are living on borrowed time.
1) Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).
2) Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1999) This book presents a fascinating discussion of the lack of time consciousness during the Middle Ages.
3) Asa Biggs and Daniel Snowman, Fins de Siecle: How Centuries End, 1400-2000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p.3.
4) For an excellent discussion of various types of calendars, see the “Calendar” article in Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia 1995 (Electronic edition on CD: Compton’s New Media, Inc., 1995).
5) For an outstanding discussion of all the intricacies of the Hebrew calendar, see Understanding the Jewish Calendar by Rabbi Nathan Bushwick (Moznami Publishing Co., 1989). Excerpts from this book are available on the Web at www.rflsoft.com/hebrew/calendar/about.htm.
6) “Calendar” article in Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia 1995.
7) “The Gregorian Calendar,” article in The Encyclopedia Britannica 1996 (Electronic edition on CD).
8) Waleed A. Muhanna, “A Brief Introduction to the Islamic (Hijri) Calendar,” www.cob.ohio-state.edu/~wmuhanna/hijri-intro.htm. For a more detailed discussion, see A Modern Guide to Astronomical Calculations of the Islamic Calendar, Times & Oibla, by Mohammed Ilya (Berita Publishing Co., 1984).
9) Lacey, p. 14.
10) Ibid., p. 15.
11) Donald Simanek, “Bishop Ussher Dates the World: 4004 B.C.” on the Web at
12) Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (D. Appleton & Co., 1897), p.9.
13) The Talmud, Yevamot 82b and Niddah 46b.
14) Mitchell First, Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1997) 233 pages.
15) First, p. 162.
16) Ibid., p. 163.
17) Ibid., pp. 169-170.
18) Ibid., p.165.
19) Ibid., p. 154.
20) Ibid., pp. 135-137.
21) Benny Isaacson, “Chronology,” Encyclopedia Judaica, volume 16, p. 1265 (Jerusalem, 1972).
22) Brad Aaronson, “Fixing the History Books: Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz’s Revision of Persian History,” Jewish Action, Summer 1991, pp. 66-70 and Fall 1991, pp. 9-13.
23) The three Jewish scholars who have argued that the misinterpretation of Daniel 9 was done purposely to obscure the chronology of the Messiah’s coming are Simon Schwab (1962), Samuel Kedar (1984), and Samuel Hakohen (1988). See First, pp. 66, 75, and 78.
24) See “Daniel’s 70 Weeks of Years,” by Dr. David Reagan, Lamplighter, January 1998, pp. 1-5.
25) Robert G. Clouse, Robert N. Hosack, and Richard V. Pierard, The New Millennium Manual: A Once and Future Guide (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999, p. 73.
26) Clouse, pp. 73-77.
27) Ibid., p. 86.