The University Record, December 20, 1999

The new millennium: Error in scholarship or unfortunate assumption

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

“The turn of the millennium is really no more than a scholarly convention established by an Italian abbot,” says Prof. David S. Potter. “The abbot’s idea gained popularity because it was convenient for another scholar in the eighth century whose tremendous authority led to the acceptance of this date at the most powerful court in western Europe.”

And so we have yet another Y2K problem.

The notion that long eras of human history must end in some spectacular way can be traced through many cultures. “The determination of what constituted a significant span of time has been the subject of as much speculation as has the measurement of time within these spans,” says Potter, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin.

Potter says the heart of these early calculations was derived from a statement in Psalm 90, which, in essence, says God created the world in six days, and that a thousand years were the same as a day in the eyes of God. This idea was furthered in II Peter in the Epistle of Barnabas, which said, “God finished his work in six days.” That means that God will bring all things to completion in 6,000 years, because “for Him a day of the Lord is as 1,000 years. Therefore my children, in six days, that is in 6,000 years, the universe will be brought to its end.”

Starting in the third century, Potter says, this tradition was joined with the Book of Daniel to calculate the age of the world by Hippolytus of Rome. “It was Hippolytus who popularized our current year A.D. 1 and Dec. 25 as the date of Christmas.”

Enter charlatans, emperors, battles, consulships, civil wars, historians, politics and scholars, doing what Potter says scholars do best— “reorganizing the past to suit current beliefs.” Varying attempts to establish the exact birth date of Christ have shown inconsistencies at best, and by some calculations the world got a few hundred years younger, postponing the crisis of the millennium for only a couple of centuries.

“In A.D. 703,” Potter says, “an English monk named Bede published a book, Concerning Times, in which he asserted that the incarnation had only occurred in the year of the world 3952 (still reconcilable with Dionysius’ year 1, as he makes clear). The world was all of a sudden 1,200 years younger, and Bede, who was the first person to date events in history (his history of the English people) by Dionysian dates, was a powerful intellect to be reckoned with. In 742 his count was adopted by a Frankish council, and that is where the tradition with which we now live comes from.”

Scholars did the best they could with the conventions of their day, Potter says.