When And Why
Did We Start Over?
I've been doing some research through your site recently on the historicity of Jesus. My only question so far has to do with the calendar we use (presumably based on the life of Jesus). When exactly and why did we start over in counting the years (A.D. and B.C.). And since there is so little evidence of Jesus' existence how did they decide how far to back date the years? I hope that makes sense.
From: "Positive Atheism"
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism Letters Section
Date: August 24, 2001
This question speaks only to some of Western culture, which is but a fraction of the world. Most humans use some chronology other than that known as the Christian or Common Era. As for B.C. and A.D., they are passé, and we now use B.C.E. for "Before Common Era" and C.E. for "Common Era." B.P., meaning "Before Present," is becoming popular in scientific writings; thus, one might read of a campsite which came into use approximately 13,500 B.P. (which would translate to 11,500 B.C.E.).
The Julian Calendar came with Julius Caesar in 45 B.C.E. Upon the advice of the Greek astronomer Sosigenes, Julius adopted a purely solar calendar. The Julian calendar fixed the normal year at 365 days and, with the naming of July after Julius and August after his successor Augustus, established the order of the months and the days of the week as we know them today.
Unfortunately, the Julian year was eleven minutes and fourteen seconds longer than a solar year. By 1582 the vernal equinox occurred ten days early, so Pope Gregory XIII dropped ten days from the calendar. He instituted the Gregorian calendar, which provided that any century year divisible by 400 should be a leap year, but all other century years should be regular or non-leap years.
The Gregorian Calendar was anything but widely accepted, and many European cultures still the old Greek calendar. The Protestants shunned the Gregorian calendar for a long time. Greece, for example, adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1923 for civil purposes, but it still has not gained widespread acceptance in countries dominated by members of the Greek Orthodox Church. This is particularly visible when it comes to festival days such as Christmas and Easter. Britain adopted it in 1752 (shortly before the American Revolution) and the Soviet Union adopted it in 1918. Of course, Hebrews, Muslims and Chinese all use their own calendars, so this is the year 2001 for only a relatively small fraction of the world.
The Christian era, now almost exclusive throughout the Western world for civil chronology, was established in 525 by the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus. He fixed the birth of Christ in the 753th year of Rome, and started counting over again, retroactively from that year. Those who suggest that his chronology is off by a few years are using the Christian Gospel accounts to get their information. Since the various Gospels contradict one another (as well as secular history), it's not surprising that by 1910, almost a dozen different years had been proposed for the year of Christ's birth! Certainly that number has grown since then.
At least ten different opinions regarding the year of Christ's birth have been advanced by Christian scholars. Dodwell places it in 6 B.C., Chrysostom 5 B.C., Usher, whose opinion is most commonly received, 4 B.C., Irenaeus 3 B.C., Jerome 2 B.C., Tertullian 1 B.C. Some modern authorities place it in 1 A.D., others in 2 A.D., and still others in 3 A.D.; while those who accept Luke as infallible authority must place it as late as 7 A.D.
It doesn't seem to dawn on most people that just because the Gospel accounts are the only sources for the Christ story doesn't make them trustworthy: people will derive their understanding of truth from them nonetheless. Besides, many of our philosophical predecessors were marched off to a blazing death for even questioning the validity of the Christian claims. So, you won't find many people before the Enlightenment who were willing to dispute what the Christian Churches have asserted over the centuries. And even though today disputing the Christian Church seems to be a relatively safe activity, most people are still a bit jittery about doing so -- and for good reason.
The Christian Era chronology was fixed in Roman Catholic Europe and the English-speaking world long before any scholarship began to questions the historicity of Jesus. (As I mentioned above, the life-expectancy of any such scholars stopped being an issue only with the advent of the modern world's first openly secular nation, The United States of America.) Even atheism was not intellectually tenable until Charles Darwin answered the Argument from Design in 1859, so most people simple went along with what had been established because it was convenient and because the Gregorian Calendar works down to a few seconds every decade (which are adjusted out in nuclear clocks every so often by a world council appointed by the nations who use this system to keep track of such matters). But the historicity of Jesus stopped being an issue when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. The question of Christ's historicity did not resurface until after the Age of Enlightenment, when Strauss and Renan started to question the validity of the Gospel Accounts.
Even a hundred years ago, only very obscure scholars openly denied the historicity of Christ. One's tenure at a Church-owned university (or the state university of a Christian nation such as Germany or England) was always a concern, so even if a scholar personally doubted the historicity of Jesus, his writings did not reflect this in a way that encouraged open discussion; rather, facts were detailed without the accompanying conclusions spelled out. Arthur Drews, one of the earlier proponents of the Jesus Myth model, used arguments that are not popular amongst the Jesus Myth proponents of today.
Besides this, the Jesus Myth model itself is, by nature, not a "strong" argument but a "weak" argument. By this I mean that it does not assert that no historical Jesus existed, but rather shows that there is not enough evidence to show that a historical figure named Jesus did exist, whose life story eventually became embellished to become the Gospel story we all know. That is, the Gospel stories can be explained without there having been a historical figure behind them. The rules of logic show that it is impossible to disprove an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists). So, most Jesus Myth proponents of today will admit that they cannot prove that Jesus did not exist (and, indeed, do not make this claim, at least using that language).
In light of this, I don't foresee any drastic changes even being proposed on the basis of there never having been a Jesus, simply because nobody is claiming that no Jesus ever existed. We do recognize that Jesus is widely seen as the founder-figure of the religion which dominated Europe for sixteen centuries (up until after the First World War), and which has come to dominate the United States since the onset of the Cold War (though it was not the major player before then that Christians make it out to have been). So, even if Jesus is not who they say he is, he is still widely seen as an influential figure in Western culture, and this alone would probably prevail in any discussion regarding any changes that may be proposed.
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