Happy New Year! As I post this on the last day of 2022, we are about to turn into the year 2023.
But here are a few questions: Why is the year 2023? Why does 2023 start on January 1? Why did the year 1 start on that year? What is this whole A.D. thing about? Why is A.D. short for a Latin phrase while B.C. is short for an English phrase? These are good questions, which I will answer below.
And the answers are far more complicated (and interesting!) than you would think. And I promise I saved the most interesting part for last.
Why the New Year Happens in the Dead of Winter
While we currently start our year in January 1. It is not correlated to any astronomical event. Instead, it is a completely arbitrary place to start the new year. As such, January 1 is not the only place to start the new year.
For example, the Greeks organized their calendars around the summer games, and as such the start of the “Olympiad” and the start of the year began near the summer solstice. The ancient Egyptians began their new year with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, which also corresponded with the annual Nile floods. And their year was divided into only three seasons based on the activity of the Nile.
As such, even though the length of the year is mostly the same there are very different ways to describe it, and different ways to track the beginning of the year.
Most ancient societies – including the Hebrews and the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians – started the new year in the spring. The first crescent moon before the spring equinox was the first day of the year. For the majority of Rome’s history, this was also true. The first month of the year was March. This is why the Latin prefix for seven, eight, nine, and ten (Sept- Oct- Nov- and Dec-) appear in the calendar. When the months were originally named, SEPT-ember was the seventh month, OCT-ober was the eighth month, NOV-ember was the ninth month, and DEC-ember was the tenth month. Now, those prefixes are out of place, coming on the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months.
The reason the date switched is the way that history was documented. History was broken up into years (obviously) but the years in Roman histories were named after the Roman officials serving as “consul” during that one-year term. For example, here is a passage is from Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
The following year, when Titus Romilius and Gaius Veturius had succeeded to the consulship and Lucius Icilius and his colleagues were tribunes, chosen to hold the office for the second time in succession, was not all of one tenor, but varied and fraught with great events.Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s Roman Antiquities, Book 10, chapter 33
As such, even though “the year” still began in March, the marker of historical records reflected a political office that began on the first of January. The beginning of the year in March was standard until quite recently in history. In the British Empire, the beginning of the calendar year in the spring lasted until the Calendar Act of 1750, which did three things:
- It changed the calendar of the British Empire from the Julian calendar (one leap-day every four years) to the Gregorian calendar (one leap-day every four years, unless the year is divisible by 100 and no leap-day is added, unless the year is also divisible by 1000 when the leap day is added).
- It changed the beginning of the year to January from March.
- It added (or subtracted, depending on how you look at it) 11 days to September 1752, causing September 2, 1752 to be followed by September 14, 1752.
And that is why the New Year happens on January 1.
How the Ancient World Calculated Dates
Now, let’s get to the number. The number that is about to change is 2022 to 2023. But why these numbers? There are far more than 2023 years in the history of civilization. This is not how ancient people numbered their years. This requires explanation.
If you read your bible, you will note that they did not have “years” in the way we have years. We count our ancient dates by saying “B.C.” which stands for “Before Christ.” The ancient world did not do this for obvious reasons. Instead, the ancient world counted dates like the following dates you can see reflected in the Bible:
In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord. (1 Kings 6:1, NIV)
Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. (Esther 1:1-4, ESV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2, NIV)
In this scheme, you can see that sometimes important events are named, but there is a different way to number years. The way is simple:
You just count the number of years of the presently-reigning king or emperor or lord.
That is how it was done. As I explain in my resource where I provide the complete chronology of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (which is for sale on this blog for an AMAZING deal of just $10!!!), there was a pattern to this accounting that fixed the arbitrary times that old rulers die and new rulers take power.
When the last monarch dies, the remaining days of that year are the “accession year.” These days are lumped together with the last king’s reign. For example, if we were counting our years according to “the reign of Queen Elizabeth II,” December 31, 2022 would be the 71st year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, even though Queen Elizabeth died on September 8, 2022. Even though King Charles III is set to be coronated on May 6, 2023, January 1, 2023 would still be the start of “the first year of King Charles III.” In other words, you always keep the start and end of the year in the same place. The “first year” always starts at the place where the calendar starts the new year.
If you want to see where this information comes from you can check out Jack Finegan’s Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Revised Edition) Hendrickson Publishers. 1998. 160-164. That’s how the pattern of counting years works with old-style dates.
How Our “A.D.” or “Anno Domini” Dating System Came About
As most know, the year is 2023 A.D. That “A.D.” stands for Anno Domini (Year [of the] Lord), which is short for a longer phrase, Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (Year [of the] Lord Our Jesus Christ). The name and system came from a man named Dionysus Exiguus, who was a monk who lived from 470 AD to 544 AD. This A.D. system came from a job that he had to determine the date of Easter.
You see, Easter is always on a Sunday, and it is always after Passover. But Passover is the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew Calendar. But the western world in Exiguus’s day was following the Roman Julian calendar, which did not follow the pattern of the Sun and Moon like the Hebrew calendar did. The first day of Nisan is the first crescent moon before the spring equinox, so long as the first full moon is after the spring equinox. The Julian calendar was completely different, and things were complicated.
The rule that the Christian church developed to find out the date of Easter in the Julian calendar when comparing it to the Jewish Calendar is as follows:
The simple standard definition of Easter is that it is the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If the full Moon falls on a Sunday then Easter is the next Sunday.From: Royal Museums Greenwich
For several centuries, the Christian Church had used a nice handy table to do this work. But in Dionysus Exiguus’s time, that table was running towards the end. His job was to extend the table. These were the “Easter Tables.”
By the time he did this, the Roman Empire was not what it used to be. Rome was not counting their years by the reign of the present emperor, because there wasn’t an emperor to speak of. Instead, dates were counted from the reign of Diocletian (who reigned from 284 AD to 305 AD), who made important reforms to the Roman Empire, breaking it up into smaller sectiosn while still keeping a general “Roman” label. Unfortunately, Diocletian also persecuted Christians.
For these reasons, Dionysus Exiguus decided to start counting the years in a different way. After explaining some technical matters about his date calculation, he gives a new idea for counting years to the Apostolic Chancelor (who was the future Pope Boniface), saying as follows:
Since Saint Cyril began his first cycle from the 153rd year of Diocletian and ended his last at the 247th, we have begun from the 248th year of that same ruler — more a tyrant than a prince. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of that impious persecutor in our cycles, so we have chosen rather to number the years from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the beginning of our hope might stand out more clearly for us, and so the cause of human salvation — that is, the Passion of our redeemer — might shine more conspicuously.Exiguus’s Letter to Boniface, from Alden A Mosshammer’s The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era. Oxford Early Christian Studies. 2008. p67.
After this explanation of the “Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (incarnatione domini), there are tables numbering the “years of our Lord” (anni domini). And that is where we get the abbriviation for the longer Latin phrase of Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, or just “A.D.”
This manner of counting years was not immediately accepted as universal, and many other ways of counting years continued on, but eventually “A.D.” caught on and became standard. One particular book which made this manner of counting years standard was St. Bede in England, whose book Ecclesiastical History of England used this dating method of “A.D.” in this influential historical book.
And because the Venerable Bede was English and wrote in English, sometimes he needed to refer to things that happened before 1 A.D. When this was needed, he continued using the A.D. system, but simply noted in English that these years were “before Christ.” This is where why the acronym “B.C.” is short for an English phrase, “Before Christ,” while the acronym A.D. is short for the Latin term Anno Domini.
Anyway, yes. The reason we have A.D. and B.C. It simply just happened. It was that random and unplanned.
Why There Is No Year Zero
We should also note that there is no “0 A.D.” or “0 B.C.” because at the time this system was developed an popularized, the concept of “zero” did not exist in mathematics. As this article explains, the number zero would not be normalized in the west until around 1200 A.D. That is why 1 B.C. is followed immediately by 1 A.D.
Even though we had a WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITY to change this mathematical problem with dates, we overlooked it. Historians today tend to use the terms “C.E.” and “B.C.E.” to get away from the religious connotations of “A.D.” and “B.C.” The problem is, nobody knows if the “C.E.” stands for “Common Era” or “Christian Era,” and so there isn’t much of a difference.
But in secular historians’ zeal to distance our numerical system of years from its religious origins, they missed a monumentally important opportunity. This would have been the time to add the “year zero” to the C.E. system, which would allow one to use simple mathematics to measure time-periods that span A.D. and B.C. But they did not do so. Instead, they kept the same pre-mathematical system and gave it a different name. Fools.
I may be the only person made about that, but yes, I’m very mad about that.
The Problem With the Explanation of the A.D. System by Exiguus
But there is a problem with the A.D. system. Other than having knowledge of Dionysus Exiguus who is the SOURCE of the 1 A.D. year and the Venerable St. Bede who popularized the 1 A.D. year, no one really knows where it came from. It’s kind of a big worldwide mystery (that will not be solved until the end of this blog post).
For example, writing in The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era (a truly exhaustive scholarly book on the subject), the following explanation of the problem is given:
In his letters to Petronius and to Boniface, Dionysius Exiguus takes greate care to defend the Nicene orthodoxy and astronomical accuracy of his Paschal calculations. About how he came to know that the consulship of Probus is the 525th year of Christ and that the 247th year of Diocletian should be followed in the Paschal tables by the 532nd year of the Lord, Dionysius offers not a clue. Both his silence and his date have troubled scholars since the time of St Bede.
. . .
Not only does Dionysius’ date for the first year of Christ contradict what little evidence there is in the New Testament, he also apparently disagreed with the consensus of ancient scholarship based on that evidence.Alden A Mosshammer’s The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era. Oxford Early Christian Studies. 2008. p319.
The book goes on to explain that there is very little evidence that 1 A.D. corresponds to “the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” as described by Exiguus in his letter. The word “incarnation” comes from the Latin incarnatio which means “to make flesh.” It is a reference to Jesus becoming human, and is a general reference to his conception and birth.
However, ancient church fathers give a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT YEAR for the birth of Jesus Christ than the year Exiguus gives.
As described by Finegan in The Handbook of Biblical Chronology (see paragraphs 487-500), church fathers, important bishops, and even heretical Christian groups – including Origen, Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, Epiphanius, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Cassiodorus Senator, and Orosius, and heretical sects including “the followers of Basilides” and “the Alogi” – all believe that Jesus Christ was born in a Roman year that spans over 3 BC and 2 BC (starting in August of 3 BC and ending August of 2 BC).
As such, it seems Dionysus Exiguus got it wrong. However, this should have been clear just by looking at the phrases Dionysus Exiguus uses in his letter. The “incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” equates with the beginning of the life of Jesus Christ. But “the Life of Jesus Christ” in Latin would be Anno Vitae Jesu Christi. But that’s not how he counted his dates. Instead, he counts his years with Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. That word “Domini” refers to the rulership of Christ, not his life. That’s quite different.
Also, the scholarship seems to indicate that Dionysus Exiguus did not do any personal investigation of the matter. Instead, he was merely following some well-trod traditions in order to decide that what we currently call 1 A.D. is the same thing as the Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, or “the year of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Where he got that year is the mystery that this post will unravel. So get ready, things are about to get crazy.
The “Consensus” Year of the Death of Herod the Great
This section may seem like a tangent, but I promise it is relevant, and it will be totally worth reading in the end.
Things all relate to Herod the Great, who was a man appointed to be King of the Jews by the Roman Senate and confirmed to be emperor by the Roman Emperor Augustus. If you ask the internet when Herod the Great died, it will tell you 4 B.C. The reason for this is quite complicated, but I will summarize. It all comes from Josephus.
In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus notes that Herod the Great’s death was a long and protracted affair. But the year of his death, the following event happened:
The occasion was this: This Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office. But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 6, Part 4
That is from Josephus, translated by William Whiston, a famous (and somewhat infamously bad) astronomer. And after that note about an “eclipse of the moon,” Whiston provides the following footnote:
This eclipse of the moon [which is the only eclipse of either of the luminaries mentioned by our Josephus in any of his writings] is of the greatest consequence for the determination of the time for the death of Herod and Antipater, and for the birth and entire chronology of Jesus Christ. It happened March 13th, in the year of the Julian period 4710, and the 4th year before the Christian era. See its calculation by the rules of astronomy, at the end of the Astronomical Lectures, edit. Lat. p. 451, 452.
But there is something funny about this note by William Whiston, pictured below.
When you look up the source that Whiston cites, which I have done and which is below, you notice that he cites TO HIMSELF to prove that this eclipse happened on March 13th, 4 BC. And there is no argument or extended explanation of his hand-calculated conclusion. Instead, he just states it.
However, the date of 4 BC became standardized in 1886 when it was adopted by the German theologian and historian Emil Schürer, pictured below.
Though Schürer had no astronomical investigation of his own, his monumental work Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi or “History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ” placed this date firmly in a schema of “historical consensus” (albeit, one that simply assumed that the gospel of Luke was wrong in the date that he gives for the Census of Quirinius. See this post of mine that details how the Census of Quirinius is far easier to understand than most think).
Further, the 4 BC date of Herod’s death was also “confirmed” by archeology when certain coins issued under Herod the Great’s successors show that they count their reigns from the year 4 BC.
As such, it is still the “consensus” is that Herod the Great died in 4 BC.
The problem with this idea is that it is definitely false and based on an incomplete understanding of history.
Why the “Consensus” on the Date of the Death of Herod the Great is Definitely Wrong
A simple examination of ancient sources and modern astronomy shows that this idea is completely wrong.
As for the coins, we should note that Josephus, in Jewish Wars, book 1, Chapter 23, HEROD EXPLICITLY GIVES ROYAL AUTHORITY TO HIS SONS WHILE HE IS STILL ALIVE. Additionally, in Antiquities, Book 17, Chapter 11, Part 4, we read that in executing Herod’s will, Caesar gives the kingdom TO NO ONE, dividing the kingdom and appointing Archelaeus “ethnarch of the one half of that which had been subject to Herod,” and “as for the other half, he divided it into two parts, and gave it to two other of Herod’s sons, to Philip and to Antipas.” As such, there is no reason to put any wight into those coins.
As for Schürer’s chronology, W.E. Filmer described in this 1966 article that the historical chronology of Schürer, which claims that Herod the Great died in 4 BC (after the 34 year reign as described by Josephus) simply doesn’t add up. As such, there are simple historical reasons to doubt the death-date of 4 BC.
As for Whiston’s astronomical claim, that is shaky, too. We know from Josephus that at the time of Herod’s death, there is a lunar eclipse, then a series of events, then Herod’s death, then some more events, and then the Passover. The lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus is the only event described in his work, but the March 14, 4 BC lunar eclipse was barely visible at all and unlikely to be noticed.
And when it comes to chronologies, the Passover and the lunar eclipse are calculable events. They give certain windows of time in which the events described by Josephus could happen. Those windows of time are shown in the following table, along with a description of the eclipses:
As Andrew E. Steinmann explained in his excellent 2009 article in the theological journal Novum Testamentum (which you can access using this link), there is simply not enough time for the events described in Josephus to happen in the 29 days between the March 14 4 BC eclipse and Passover.
Instead, Herod died in 1 B.C. and the “Eclipse of Herod” was on January 10, 1 BC.
Now, that is the end of this little tangent, because it is all about to come together to explain why the date is what it is.
The Explanation of Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi and 2023 A.D.
Now, think about what we have discussed so far. We have already explained:
- There was an ancient way of counting years according to the presently reigning king
- The current year system was based on Dionysus Exiguus who was simply following old tradition about the “Year of our Lord Jesus Christ”
- The year 1 A.D. was immediately preceded by the year 1 B.C.
- Early church sources are almost universal in declaring that Jesus was born 3 – 2 BC.
- Herod the Great died in 1 BC, and he had no successor.
- The Romans were in charge of who was the appropriate king of the Jews.
Now, I have already explained that Herod the Great died in 1 BC, and that Caesar Augustus refused to name any of his sons as his successor. Instead, Judea just continued on as a Roman province, led by a “governor” or “procurator” who acted as a representative of Rome.
But something I have not said is that Herod the Great was the LAST king of the Jews, because he was NOT the last king of the Jews. Instead, the same authority (Rome) that gave the royal authority over the Jews to Herod ALSO gave the royal authority over the Jews to someone else. It was described in detail in the scriptures, even though nobody seems to notice it.
Jesus Christ is the last king of the Jews.
From the gospel of John:
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”John 19:12-22, ESV
While it may seem strange that Rome can simply decide who is the king of the Jews, a simple reading of history will show that this is precisely how Herod the Great became king of the Jews. He was a private citizen with no royal blood until the Roman Senate decided to give him the title, a title which was later confirmed by Caesar Augustus.
As such, Jesus Christ is the LAST KING OF THE JEWS. The Jewish leaders declare that they have “no king but Caesar,” but immediately afterwards, the representative of Caesar names Jesus Christ as their king.
They didn’t want it to happen, but it happened. So, legally speaking, Jesus Christ is the king of the Jews.
But that is not all of what he is king of. After rising from the dead, Jesus claims the following:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20, ESV
In other words, not only is he the king of the Jews. He is the king of everywhere and everything. And he is sending out his followers from Judea into the entire world as he commands and leads and guides from the heavenly places. And this will continue until ALL follow him, and he will continue with his followers until the end of all things.
But back to the history of our calendar system.
Yes, Jesus Christ was born in a Roman year that corresponds to 3 BC – 2 BC. But Herod the Great (the previous king of the Jews) died at the beginning 1 BC. As such, the remainder of 1 BC is the “accession year” which would be included in the reign of Herod the Great. But since Herod had no royal successor, no one was recognized to pick up the “year of the king” dating.
Until… …Jesus Christ. He was “born king of the Jews,” and declared “king of the Jews” by Pontius Pilate. HE is the one whose reign begins in the year following 1 B.C., which is 1 A.D.
And that is the reason we date our years according to Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi:
We are using an old-style “year of the king” date for Jesus Christ, who is the king of the Jews and the entire world.
And even though no one planned it and no one particular person caused it to happen, that is how everyone everywhere is counting their dates. The year 2023 is the two-thousand and twenty third year (anno) of the reign of our (nostri) “lord” (domini) Jesus Christ (Jesu Christi).
Isn’t that strange?
In conclusion, I note that this fact would be strange enough on its own, but there is something even stranger. Rumor has it, this state of affairs seems to have been predicted by an angel before this king’s birth:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.“Luke 1:26-33, ESV
Strangely enough, Jesus Christ WAS given the throne of his father David (“King of the Jews”) by pontius pilate. He IS reigning over the house of Jacob. After rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, he CONTINUES to reign forever. The geographic boundary by which this reign is recognized DOES NOT EXIST. And the way that we mark the continuation of his reign – Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi – there will BE NO END.
Happy New Year!