Vicki Hyde suggests (Skeptic 30) that we are in for a lot more doomsday predictions as we approach the year 2000. I am afraid she is right, but why should fundamentalists get so excited about a round number of years?

They believe that the world was created in six days, and a very ancient prophesy is that it would last six thousand years because “…one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). That seems logical enough.

This prophecy originates from the first century when it was believed that the world was already around four thousand years old. It is contained in the Epistle of Barnabas1 chapter 13, and The Secrets of Enoch2 chapter 33. The former letter had as good a claim to be in the New Testament as several books that were included. Some early Christian writers believed it had the same author as the Epistle to the Hebrews.

This is thus a very ancient prophesy, but it is difficult to decide just when the 6,000 years are up. Our system of dating which identifies this year as AD 1994 was invented in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus. He tried to start his system from the birth of Jesus but miscalculated.

The Roman republic had counted years “AUC” (Ab Urba Condita, the year of the city). Afterwards they counted “in the year of the Emperor”. Dionysius added all this up, but missed the four years from when Octavian won the battle of Actium (31 BC) until he accepted the title of Emperor Augustus (27 BC).

That is the real reason why Authorised Versions of the New Testament claim that Jesus was born in 4 BC. If Dionysius had counted correctly he would have started his system four years earlier. Of course, that means that the world should end in 1996 rather than 2000. It is later than you think.

Relax again, that is not the only alternative. Dionysius’s near contemporary, Victorius, produced a system of dating years from the Passion of Jesus. This was taken to occur in the year we call 28AD, and the system should have great appeal to fundamentalists (although I doubt that any have heard of it), the Passion being much more important than the birth of Jesus.

Consequently, many old dates may have an error of 28 years, because it is not known which system was being used. And the end of the world may not be due until 2028 — what a relief!

The popular idea that there was an end-of-world panic around AD 1000 is almost certainly a myth. There are (so far as I am aware) no contemporary references to such agitation. But at that time probably nobody knew the date. Although the system of Dionysius was nearly 500 years old it was rarely used. The world of Islam counted the years since the Hegira. Much of Europe counted “in the year of the Emperor”, and the Catholic church counted “in the year of Pope”. In Western Europe few outside the church were literate or numerate. According to Barbara Tuchman3, even as late as the fourteenth century in Western Europe no two writers ever agree about the date.

To go back to the beginning — literally — all these predictions are based on the world’s being created in six days. We know this is not true. It is not just geology and biology that refute the biblical creation story, geography does too. Try reading Genesis 1. The creation account assumes a flat Earth, for only a flat Earth can experience the “mornings and evenings” described. A spherical world has neither a date nor a time. There is always a morning somewhere, and always an evening somewhere else.

1. English translation in The Lost Books of the Bible, New American Library [text]

2. English translation in The Forgotten Books of Eden, New American Library [text]

3. A Distant Mirror

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