Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries

 

Christian Chronology

 
by Protopresbyter Fr. George D. Metallinos
 
Source: www.aktines.blogspot.gr

 

 

"Time" is Christianically seen as the framework in which God's revelation is manifested, for the fulfilment of man's salvation as well as for the sanctification of Creation in History.  In other words, it has a soteriological significance - one that is always linked to the development of the plan of "divine providence".  That is why Time is not perceived as something cyclical - as an interminable recycling - but rather as something linear.  Its flow is not a repetitious one; it is filled with unique and salvific events that are "once only" and "everlasting".  The center and the "fulfilment" of linear - straight - Time is Christ, the Alpha and the Omega of History, the Commencement and the End.  The Christian perspective is permanently eschatological and it is from there that the Church draws the contents of Her perceptions regarding Time.

In Christianity, world and time are seen as creations "ex nihilo" by the Triadic God - outside every notion of being God's "archetypes" or "ideas".  Besides, any notion whatsoever of an "analogy" between "created" (the creations) and "Uncreated" (the Triadic God) is Christianically (orthodoxically) nonexistent.  Both the world and Time have a beginning and an end - that is, a destination and a "fullness" (Gal.4:4).  God, therefore, creates Time, as He is the "creator of all - of the ages and of all the beings" (John Damascene). God is "He Who created the nature of Time" (Basil the Great). Saint Gregory the Theologian in fact also defines the relativity of Time, inasmuch as he defines it as "that which by a certain motion is split up and measured".

It is the movement of Earth and of the other celestial bodies that give rise to our awareness of "chronicity" and its "measurability".  In actual fact, the measurement of Time is just a conventional thing for the Church, Herself being the "body of Christ" and an "in-Christ communion".  However, given that the Church lives and moves within the world (even though She is not "of this world" -John 18:36), She conceded along the way to calendars being used by the societies in which Her flocks lived and struggled for their salvation.  It should also be pointed out that (Christianically-Orthodoxically speaking), salvation is not some sort of escape from Time and the world; it is the conquering of the evil of the world - of sin.  Calendars, therefore, are nothing more than an "auxiliary addition" in Christianity, for the management of worldly conventionalities, with no subjugation to it.

By "Christian world" we mean the new political morph, which had begun as an informal Christian commonwealth during the first three centuries A.D., then later appeared as an organized city-state magnitude with the inauguration of New Rome-Constantinople in 330 A.D..  By the 6th - 7th century the Christian world was using local or national calendars, which dated according to the system of the Gentiles. In other words, the Christian world did not have a uniform and common calendar, nor did it begin its chronology from Christ.  Furthermore, because of its links to the Old Testament (that is, the prophetic tradition), Christianity had originally accepted the Hebrew designation of the age of the world - which of course is far different to the calculations of science.  It was just in 691 A.D. in the 3rd Canon of the Quinisext Council "in Trullo", that the Christian calculation of the date of "Creation" was proposed as being 5508 years before the Incarnation of Christ.  This was accepted by the entire Christian world, which had already begun to differentiate (politically to begin with, and later on spiritually-culturally), into "eastern" and "western".  Therefore, "from the creation of the world" was the first Christianic chronological designation.

The freedom that exists in the universal Christian community is apparent, in the instituting of feast-days as early as the first Christian centuries. It was on the basis of the solar calendar - the Julian one, which began to be applied in the year 45 b.C. - that the Christian feast-days were allocated. Thus, the Conception of John the Baptist was set as the 23rd of September, and the conception of Jesus Christ (the Annunciation of the Theotokos) which -in accordance with the Gospel narration- was six months later, on the 25th of March.  Respectively, the birth of the Baptist was specified as the 24th of June and of Jesus Christ (finally) as the 25th of December, the prerequisite being the equinoxes and the solstices and the symbolic interpretation of the Baptist's words regarding Christ: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). In other words, the criteria were spiritual, not mundane or scientific. Nevertheless, it must not be overlooked that the political year begins in the East on the 23rd of September, which was also the the beginning of the "Indiction" up until 460, when it was transferred to the 1st of September.  This last date acquired an ecclesiastic significance as the commencement of the liturgical year - a fact that continues to be valid to this day.  It is uncertain when this practice began, however, it has been recorded in the 8th century.

The same freedom is also apparent in the "mobility" of Christian feast-days.  The case of the dates on which Pascha is celebrated is the most characteristic example, but we will come back to that later on.  Something similar also occurred with the date for the Nativity; up until 336 A.D. Christmas was celebrated together with the Epiphany, on the 6th of January (always according to the Julian calendar). However, this date was transferred in the West to the 25th of December, in order to confront the celebrations held in honour of the sun god Mithra, which took place during the winter solstice. In the East, the new date for Christmas was introduced around the year 380. Pursuant to this change was the reallocation of the other feast-days which are linked to Christmas (Circumcision, Presentation, Annunciation etc.).

We need to mention here the systems of the "Indictions" that were also observed by the Christian world. "Indiction" means "indicator", and was a term initially linked to the tax system of the Roman Empire. The usage of this system began during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (297/8), but with a duration of 5 years for each Indiction. The first Indictions with a duration of 15 years began in 312 A.D. (the first mention is in imperial documents, in 356/7).  Ecclesiastically, this was accepted in 327, with commencement date the 24th of September. The Indiction  period therefore was of a 15-year duration, and was used for dating documents or events.  Upon the completion of that period of time, a new Indiction  began, with its own reference year (first, second, etc. - something like the system of the Olympiads).  The usual Indiction  is called "byzantine" or "hellenic", and it commenced -as we mentioned- on the 1st of September. This system prevailed throughout the Christian world during the byzantine period, but continued to be in use, in meta-byzantine greek texts (the patriarchal-ethnarchic ones).

Dating based on the Birth of Jesus Christ (AD - Anno Domini) begins in the 6th century. This new system was inspired by Dionysius Exiguus* of Scythian origin, monk, canonologist and chronologist.   He settled in Rome around 500 A.D. and worked on chronological issues (for example, charts with Paschal dates).  During the composition of his opus "Cyclus Decem Novennalis" (in 532) for the calculation of Pascha, he became renowned for identifying the years on the chart based on the Birth of Christ and not "the founding of Rome" («Ab urbe condita») as was done in the West, or beginning from Abraham, or from the first Olympiad.  This new dating system spread very slowly to the West (France and England), while the first historian who used it steadfastly was the Venerable Bede, in the 8th century. From then on it prevailed throughout the entire Christian world - but also throughout the non-Christian world, as it continues to do, to this day.

Dionysius however made a fatal mistake.  He had accepted the year 754  «Ab urbe condita» as the year of Christ's Birth, when it was a known fact that Herod died in 750/751 - a short while after the Massacre of the Infants (Matth.2:16), given that Christ was about two years old during the time of that Massacre.  Which means He must have been born in the year 748/749 «Ab urbe condita».  Hence our current date is deficient by 5 or 6 years, in which case, we are presently (2011) in the year 2016 or 2017 A.D.

 

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*Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Small, Dennis the Dwarf, Dennis the Little or Dennis the Short, meaning humble) (c. 470 – c. 544) was a 6th-century monk born in Scythia Minor, modern Dobruja shared by Romania and Bulgaria. He was a member of the Scythian monks community concentrated in Tomis, the major city of Scythia Minor. Dionysius is best known as the "inventor" of the Anno Domini (AD) era, which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian calendar and the (Christianized) Julian calendar. From about 500 he lived in Rome, where, as a learned member of the Roman Curia, he translated from Greek into Latin 401 ecclesiastical canons, including the apostolical canons and the decrees of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon and Sardis, and also a collection of the decretals of the popes from Siricius to Anastasius II. These collections had great authority in the West and still guide church administrations. Dionysius also wrote a treatise on elementary mathematics. The author of a continuation of Dionysius's Computus, writing in 616, described Dionysius as a "most learned abbot of the city of Rome", and the Venerable Bede accorded him the honorific abbas, which could be applied to any monk, especially a senior and respected monk, and does not necessarily imply that Dionysius ever headed a monastery; indeed, Dionysius's friend Cassiodorus stated in Institutiones that he was still only a monk late in life.

 

Article published in English on: 1-1-2013.

Last update: 1-1-2013.

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