Happy 5767- but how did we reach that number?

Science and ancient texts tend to differ on the age of the universe.

September 20, 2006 21:13
Happy 5767- but how did we reach that number?

rosh hashana 88. (photo credit: )


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The count of the "Jewish" year is used throughout Israel and the Orthodox world abroad, and the coming year will be 5767. Why? It is assumed that this is Anno Mundi, the years of the world from Creation, or at least from the birth of Adam. The count is based mainly on Seder Olam Rabba, a treatise ascribed to Rabbi Jose ben Halafta of the 2nd century CE. It is mentioned in the Talmud, but was not used as a calendar until the 9th century, when the Jewish center of gravity moved away from Babylon. Since the time of Alexander the Great, Jewish documents had been dated by the reigns of the Seleucid kings, the successors to Alexander, who ruled over Babylon, and later by the dates of local rulers. But with the decline of Babylonian Jewry, a new reckoning was required, and the calculations of Seder Olam Rabba were exploited. Details first appeared in the late 8th-century Baraita de-Shmuel, which used the chronology of the years from Creation and which, within 200 years, became the accepted count throughout the Jewish world. THERE HAD been individual uses of Anno Mundi, and perhaps the earliest occurs on an inscription in the Byzantine synagogue of Horvat Susiya, south of Hebron, which is dated to the year "Four thousand and--- (the remainder is missing) from when the World was created." This date is coupled with one related to the seven-year Shmitta (agricultural) cycle, as on its own it was not considered to be definitive enough. Other synagogue inscriptions also use the Shmitta cycle but combine it with years counted from the destruction of the Second Temple. The end of the Second Temple is dated to the year 3828 by Seder Olam Rabba. It counts 1,656 years from Creation to the Flood, 392 years from the Flood to the birth of Isaac, then 400 years to the Exodus, 480 years to the building of the Temple and another 900 years to its second destruction. That works out at 68 CE, which is very close to the date of 70 based on Roman sources, and the date of Creation is then 3760 BCE, which is the date we use, being 5766-7 minus 2006. An exact date is given in some Jewish sources, which say that Creation started on October 7, 3760; while a Christian cleric of the 17th century, John Lightfoot, claimed it to be on October 26 at 9 a.m.! The Christians recognized Anno Mundi in the calculations of Archbishop Ussher, which are included in many Bibles. James Ussher, primate of all Ireland, lived from 1581 to 1656 and worked on the "begat" method, based on the lives of all the ancients of the Bible. His date for the Exodus is 1491 BCE, and for Solomon building the Temple 1014, both dates too early for present-day Christian scholars. When it comes to the Creation, he works it out to 4004 BCE, not far off our date of 3760. BE THAT AS it may, science says otherwise. The only way the formation of planet Earth can be envisaged as developing in less than 6,000 years would be by a process of "catastrophism" - the rapid succession of major catastrophes one after another - but this is rejected as being completely improbable. The accepted science is that the age of the earth spans from 4 billion to 6 billion years, and the oldest known rocks are estimated at 3.9 billion years "by measurement of lead isotypes that condensed from the primeval cloud of interstellar gas and dust from which the entire solar system is thought to have been formed." Man came on the scene much later, after the formation of land masses and seas, when life appeared in the form of plants and primitive organisms. Some kind of development then ensued, which gave rise to more and more complex organisms that resulted in the appearance of Homo Habilis, man walking on two legs, or rather, primeval woman, walking in Africa. AGAINST THAT, why is it that our dating goes back to just 3760 BCE? True, it is based on the ages of all those biblical characters, but why do they go back for less than 6,000 years? Why do our records go back to only that date? Chapter 10 of Genesis sets out a picture of the world and its inhabitants after the Flood, and it includes other cultures, particularly the Egyptians (Mitzrayim) and the Mesopotamians (Babel and Ashur), which have their own records, which are partly available to us today. How far back do their records go? The Egyptians, who were concerned to push back their monarchic history of "the two lands" as far as possible, counted their first royal dynasty as starting with the Pharaohs Scorpion, Narmer and Menes, at about 3150 BCE. They will have had tribal leaders before that date and the country changed from neolithic tribes to two monarchies, those of upper and lower Egypt ("the two lands") in about 3400. That date is significant as the earliest written records of any kind from Egypt date to this period, to about 3300 BCE. As for Mesopotamia, it was two rivers rather than two lands that shaped its history. Its civilization may go back to the earliest Stone Age of about 8000 BCE, but its named history is no earlier than the Egyptian record. The early temples appear in about 3500 to 3250 BCE and pictographic writing dates from around 3300. The earliest dates of writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia (Sumeria) coincide and it is still a matter of argument as to which came first, Egyptian hieroglyphics or Sumerian cuneiform. Of course the date of 3300 relates only to primitive texts, like the tally of jars of beer one trader has delivered to another further upstream, but it does indicate that the written word hardly goes back further, and that only oral traditions, later recorded, preceded that date. The Egyptians had their myths of rulers before 3000 BCE and the Babylonians had a king-list giving the names of eight rulers "before the Flood," many of them reigning, we are told, for hundreds of years. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a far from primitive tale, is traced back to 2800 BCE and must have been preceded by others, perhaps less sophisticated. All this suggests that named history as we know it today cannot go back further than about 3000 BCE at the earliest, while before that folk memory takes over. That memory, in oral form, could perhaps have gone back another 500 years, or 1,000 at the most. Our tradition tells us that it goes back to some date between 3000 and 4000 BCE, and the given one of 3760 then becomes quite believable. SO WHERE does that leave us - in a world 5767 years old or one that is billions of years old? The answer must be that both are right and we live in at least two worlds. The world of science has revealed many truths; but we, as creatures on this Earth, have every right to see its Creation in our own terms and within our own tradition. That tradition is not too interested in seismic eruptions or monstrous dinosaurs. We are concerned to make sense of our precarious position on the face of this sphere of molten material, to understand how we derived from our immediate ancestors, and how they derived from theirs. Our tradition gives us a place in the nations based on the earliest records available to us and them, and it is clear that such records would place our beginnings in a world of nearly 6,000 years ago, and at a date, that we still record, of 5,767 years before the present. The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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