Thursday, November 23, 2006

Christmas and the year One

With Thanksgiving behind us we can finally focus on our Christmas shopping. Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of Christ, an event so important from our culture's perspective that it's become the basis of how we measure time. That is, 2007 is how many years have past since the year of Christ's birth (approximately, more on this soon). One thing that is unusual about the year 1 is that, unlike most important years in history, no one alive at the time realized there was anything "special" about it. They certainly never suspected that twenty centuries later people would be asking "how long has it been since this year?".
How did people date the years in those days? Most people didn't. They had no concept of what year it was. This was mainly the concern of scholars, many of whom used local events and reigns of various rulers as dates. One might say one was born during the 32nd year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, or the first year when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Romans sometimes dated things Ano Urba Condita (year since the founding of the city, 753 BC). Greeks tended to use the Olympic Games, making the year 1 the first year of the 195th Olympics. As Christians gradually began to dominate the area, it was only natural for them to introduce a system of their own.
Who established this system? An obscure Greek-speaking monk in the sixth century named Dionysius Exiguus, who calculated that Jesus was born in 754 AUC, calling this the first "year of the Lord" or anno Domini. Everything before was dated ante Christum, or "before Christ". How accurate was his calculation? Pretty good, considering his only two sources on the event were the gospels of Matthew and Luke, neither of whom had actually witnessed the event (or probably even met Christ personally), combined with the fact that the two contradict each other on nearly every detail. For example, Luke describes Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth and travelling to Bethlehem because of the census established by Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to this version, Jesus would have been born in AD 6-7. Contrary-wise, Matthew says that they lived in Bethlehem, moving to Nazareth only after the death of Herod, which occurred in 4 BC. In neither version is the year 1 precisely possible.
If Matthew's version is correct, Jesus was born in the independent nation of Israel under the reign of Herod the Great, who was a client king, ruling his nation as an "ally" of Rome; as long as he kept his people in line and did what the Romans told him, his people would be secure and he could rule as he wished. When he died, rule of the area passed to his incompetent son Archelaus, the Romans would take control of the area, and the Jewish Nation lost its independence to be ruled as a province (a sort of glorified colony).
So what was the scene in the year 1? The Romans were being ruled by their first emperor, Augustus, who won the civil war following the assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar. Augustus had recently banished his daughter Julia for sexual misconduct, wars between the Romans and Germany were about to take a disturbing turn, establishing the Rhine as the permanent eastern boundary of the empire. An outbreak of plague in Europe had claimed thousands of lives, a precursor of the more disastrous waves of plague to come in the Middle Ages. Most estimates suggest that more than one third of the human population were slaves.
Well, I'm off to the mall. Have a happy and safe holiday season

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