Most people can tell you that a millennium is a thousand years, but — a thousand years since what? If you answered, "Since the last one!", then your answer (rather like Microsoft Help) would be technically correct but of no practical use.
Some people will tell you that the Year 2000 marks two thousand years since the birth of Jesus. Indeed, as I write, the State of Israel has (for the third time this year) deported people who, it is claimed, pose a "threat to public order" in the millennium year. The most recent group of deportees had taken up residence on the Mount of Olives in the hope that they could "facilitate the Second Coming" of Jesus. Had these pious folk but known the facts I am about to impart to you, dear Reader, they would never have set off down the yellow brick road for Jerusalem.
For starters, isn't Christmas (Christ's mass) celebrated on the 25th of December, not 1st January? And does this feast not mark the miraculous birthday? Well, yes and no.
Christmas falls on the 25th of December as a direct consequence of astronomy and the sanctioning of a particular religion by government. No, I'm not referring to our own Holidays Act, but rather to a decree by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the year 274.
First, the astronomy: As we all recall from 3rd Form Science, the Earth's axis is tipped at an angle of 23 degrees to the plane of its revolution about the Sun. This means that in the Northern Hemisphere the midday Sun appears to climb steadily higher in the sky from December to June, and then falls steadily lower from June until December.
In pre-scientific times the reason for this cycle was not understood in terms of astronomy. Would the declining Sun turn and start to rise again in the sky? Why should it — except by the favour of the gods? It was therefore an occasion of gladness and great joy each year to observe that the decline of the noonday Sun gradually slowed and then came to a halt. This is the winter "solstice", from the Latin words for "sun halt".
In Roman times, a week came to be set aside for the celebration of the winter solstice. This was the "Saturnalia" which honoured Saturn, the ancient Roman god of seed and agriculture. (Saturn was the Roman counterpart to the Greek god Cronus who, because of the similarity of his name to "chronos", the Greek word for "time", has come down to us as Father Time, often depicted with a baby representing the New Year).
During the Saturnalia, all public business was suspended, no war could be declared and there were festivals and feasts, pageants and parties. Even slaves were (temporarily) treated as equals and often allowed to exchange places and clothing with their masters. By all reports, the Saturnalia also involved some of the wildest debauchery and licentiousness ever recorded in ancient times, which goes a long way towards explaining why it remained so immensely popular well into the Middle Ages, where it continued in the form of the Midwinter Feast, or the Feast of Fools.
Although the Saturnalia was first celebrated over three days, on the 17th, 18th and 19th of December, once Julius Caesar brought in a calendar worth consulting, the solstice in the reformed calendar fell on 25th December. (It now falls on December 21st because of modifications made to our calendar since Roman times.)
There was little coercion in the religious life of the early Republic; one simply chose to worship the god or gods whose veneration provided the most contentment. Few liturgies prescribed any code of moral conduct — Stoicism being a notable exception. The theological shift to the worship of the sun god, and eventually, the worship of "God's Son" may be viewed as a (doubtless unintended) consequence of the campaign by Augustus to bring new vigour to the traditional worship of the Roman "gods of earth and altar." Augustus imported to Rome the most ancient religious symbols in the known world — far older than anything the Greeks could produce — namely, two obelisks from Egypt, one of which was then over a thousand years old. These were the first of the thirteen obelisks which would eventually adorn the Eternal City.
In the first centuries of the Roman Empire, Christianity had to compete with Mithraism, a form of sun-worship with its roots in Persia. Although Augustus had imported the obelisks for his own political reasons, his actions prepared the way for the worship of the Mithraic "Sol Invictus", the "Unconquered Sun", since the Egyptians regarded obelisks as symbolising the sun's rays. Some years later, after the marriage of the Emperor Septimus Severus to Julia Domna, daughter of the priest of the sun god at Emesa, Mithraism became increasingly fashionable in Rome until finally, in the year 274, the Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date of the winter solstice, 25th December, as a holiday marking the Birth of the Sun God. To all intents and purposes, Mithraism became the official state religion and the festive season of the Saturnalia became associated with Sol Invictus, the Sun God of Mithraism.
Needless to say, the widespread popularity of this festive season proved something of a stumbling block in attracting new believers to Christianity. It was one thing to ask converts to abandon their faith in Sol Invictus or the old Roman gods. It was something else again to insist that they must also give up their annual holidays and licence to party!
The Roman Church writer Hippolytus (c. 170 — 236) addressed this problem and was not long in finding a solution: A popular tradition held that Creation had taken place on the 25th of March. Hippolytus concluded that the Crucifixion must then also have taken place on 25th March in the year 29. Further, since he believed there should be an exact number of years between the Incarnation (when Mary became pregnant) and the Crucifixion, it followed that the Annunciation (when the Angel informed Mary that she was "highly favoured") must also have taken place on 25th March. And, if Mary fell pregnant on the 25th of March, then Jesus must have been born nine months later on 25th December! There you have it — Q.E.D! (Hippolytus should be the patron saint of every researcher who knows what he must demonstrate before he begins his research!)
In short, the Church appropriated the feast of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun and replaced it with the feast of the Birth of the Unconquered Son. And that's why the banks are closed on December 25th.
The reason we're now counting down to the Millennium is equally esoteric. According to Dr Barbara Thiering, Australian biblical scholar and author of several recent controversial books on the origins of Christianity,
"... the year AD 1 was chosen [by the early Church] as the first of the Christian era. It was not the year of the birth of Jesus; the gospels themselves make that quite plain. But it was not randomly chosen, and it was not chosen at a very much later time, as has usually been believed. It came into use in Christian circles early, and depended on a longstanding chronological scheme that went back to apocryphal works such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees."
Based on her reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls (documents dating from the time of Jesus, only discovered this century in caves near Qumran), Thiering maintains that the Dead Sea community comprised a sect separate from other Jews of the time and that "the main practice that marked their difference was their use of a different calendar."
Influenced by the Pythagoreans, they believed that theirs was the only true liturgical calendar approved by heaven. The whole of history was to be understood in the context of a solar calendar based on a year of 364 days. (The actual length of 365+ days was met by intercalation — the practice of inserting extra days, as we do in leap years.) Everything was governed by a symmetry which rested on the number seven. The great events of history were believed to fall in sets of seven years, and of 49 years or of 490 years.
If an event happened at a time thought to be significant, then it proved heaven was on their side and that, in time, their faction should come back into power in Jerusalem and the Temple. Thus the question of political power was inseparable from the question of calendar.
These theories lay behind the establishment of the Christian Millennium. During the first century BC it had come to be believed that the last millennium in the whole of world history had begun in what we now call 41 BC. A thousand-year Kingdom of the Jews was to begin in that year. Herod the Great, whose rise to power had begun at that time, would found the dynasty. The line of David would have a place, put only in a subordinate role.
But the popularity of Herod the Great did not last. As he declined into illness, a new faction arose, declaring that the Kingdom must continue, but without Herod or his line. Here, finally, is the really interesting bit: there was an obvious way to express this political sentiment in a chronological way and it was this method that gave us the starting date of the (first) Millennium. A zero generation of forty years was allowed and so what the early Christians believed to be the last millennium of all time was begun again. Reckoning from 41 BC, the year 1 BC became the year 0 of the final millennium, and the year AD 1, its year 1.
At first, this dating was established to support the dynasty of the first high priest in Jerusalem under direct Roman rule, but over the course of the first century, the Herods declined and disappeared and the priests merged into a continuing traditional Judaism. Only Jesus, representing the line of King David, was left. It was his succession to the Kingdom that was then believed to have begun in AD 1. It was to end in the year AD 1000, with the end of this world and the Last Judgement.
The Christmas Holiday appears to have come full circle: starting as a pagan festival, it was blatantly appropriated by the Church. But today the religious aspect no longer dominates and it is once again, as it was originally, a time of feasting, merriment and revelry. The next time someone from Christian Heritage remonstrates with you to "put Christ back into Christmas", you might suggest that it would make more sense — and probably generate a great deal more fun — if we were to put "Saturn back into the Saturnalia".
As for the Millennium, it does mark something special: One thousand years ago, the year AD 1000 finally arrived. As Thiering puts it, "The accounts of the medieval Church reflect the crisis of those years. It was no newly conceived theory that put the Last Judgement in that year, nor a misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation... It was, rather, the end of the line for a hypothesis about history that went back to at least the third century BC."
That Millennium came and went. There was no Last Judgement. The world did not end. This Millennium marks 1000 years to the day since the chronological beliefs of the first Christians were proven wrong.
I'll drink to that.
Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov, Avon Books, New York, 1969; Jesus of the Apocalypse, Barbara Thiering, Doubleday, Sydney, 1995; Mapping Time - The Calendar and its History, E.G. Richards, Oxford University Press, 1998; Classic Ancient Mythology - the Legends of Egypt, Greece and Rome, Richard Patrick and Peter Croft, Galley Press, London, 1987; The Christian Calendar, L.W. Cowie and J.S. Gummer, G & C Merriam, Springfield, 1974.
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