Sunday, January 23, 2005

The age of the universe-how did we get that number?

This information is straight from the Encyclopedia Judaica(see articles entitled Chronology, and Seder Olam). Even the idea for looking for this info wasn't mine, but a suggestion from a friend.

In the Biblical period, years were counted according to the regnal years of the Israelite and Judahite kings. There was never a fixed era.... In the Hellenistic period, the Seleucid reckoning came into use. The victory of Seleucus.. in 312 BCE was the mark of a new era. The Seleucid era was in vogue among the Jews until the Middle Ages.

The era at present in use.. is the minyan la-yetzira(Anno Mundi). This era came into popular use about the ninth century c.e. In various rabbinical computations the "Era of the Creation" began in the autumn of one of the years between 3762 and 3758 B.C.E. From the 12th century C.E. in became accepted that the Era began in 3761 B.C.E.(Oct. 7th). This computation is founded on synchronisms of chornological elements expressed in the Bible and calculations found in early post-biblical literature.

The earliest Jewish chronological works have not survived. Demetrius deduced historical dates (third century C.E.). In the Book of Jubilees, events are dated by cycles of jubilee and sabbatical years. The earliest and most important work extant is the Seder Olam, which, according to tradition, was complied by Yose b. Halafta in the second century C.E. THe author was possibly the first to use the rabbinic "Era of the Creation. "

Seder Olam is mentioned in the Talmud. The most significant confusion in the author's calculation is the compression of the Persian period, to no more than 34 years. According to the calculations in the book, the destruction of the Temple took place in the year 68, which is in contradiction to the accepted chronology that it took place in the year 70 C.E.

It was a long time until the reckoning according to the anno mundi era took root in Jewish chronology. For many centuries, Seder Olam Rabbah was of interest only to talmucdic students who tried to satisfy their curiosity for historical reconstruction. The usual calculation accepted by Jews in Talmudic and even post talmudic times wa that of the Seleucid era, referred to as minyan shetarot.

The first mention of the anno mundi date is in the chronological book Baraita di-Shemuel(8-9 century), on tombstones in southern Italy(9th century), and in the commentary of Shabbetai Donnolo(10th century) on Sefer Yezirah. From the 11th century on, it became dominant in most of the communities. In the 16th Century, Azariah de Rossi, was the first to doubt the antiquity of the usage of this era (Me'or Einayim, ch. 25).

So, what exactly are we arguing about? Seems like the exact number may not be as fixed as we believe. It would be nice to chase down those 8-9th century references and see exactly what they say.

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