Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XXVI

The Jews and Chronology


So much are we accustomed to use the Christian Era in every sphere of life, in dating our letters, newspapers, and documents, and in all our studies of history, that we seldom think that any other way of reckoning time does exist or ever did exist.

When we study ancient history we do learn that other eras were in use, and some of us have come into touch with the era of Mohammed, either in history or in our coin collections. This last, like all that went before it, has now become a thing of the past, having been, for all practical purposes, abolished by the Turks themselves, and very significantly in the year 1335 of their era.

The very use of B.C. for the ages before Christ ought at once to suggest that these earlier centuries have been re-arranged for us. Men could not count B.C. before Christ came, not even in the Old Testament. Accordingly there is some interest in looking into the methods attempted by the "people of the Book," to date the events in their national history and historical records, and to inquire what help they and the early Christians got from neighbouring nations in arranging chronology.

We know that when the Greeks and the Romans attained to a sense of nationalism, they began to count the years. Earlier periods are the uncounted dark ages. Greece then began in the year 776 B.C. to reckon through periods of four years, and each of these was termed an Olympiad. Rome started from the ideal founding of the city, and this was said to have occurred 753 B.C. It is generally indicated A.U.C.

Now these two reckonings, though alien to Israel, helped both Jew and early Christian over several centuries, and, if we want to work out for ourselves the years before and after Christ came, we must attain to a very clear knowledge and working power with these years.

But long before coming into touch with foreign things the Jew was attempting to arrange his own history from within. Accordingly we find, as was natural, that he made a start in dating from the beginning of his national life, with the Exodus. The solitary remaining date of this era seems to be that set down in 1 Kings 6:1, as its four hundred and eightieth year. Some, on account of various readings in the Greek Version, would fain dispute this text, but it is worthy to note that it carries us back to the only period of Egyptian history where the incidents recorded in Exodus fit in with any degree of probability.

Perhaps the Jew in his earlier periods had some acquaintance with Egyptian reckonings, but they manifested an instability, and did not lead out of uncertainty, and accordingly he was never tempted to take them over toward the dating of his own history. He did, however, imitate to a small extent, by dating events from the particular year of the reign of his own kings, and after the disruption of the kingdom he synchronised the beginnings and endings of the kings of Israel and Judah with one another.

With a broader outlook the Jew might have got much help from Assyria, and have left us more certainty in the dating of his history. There each year received its own special name, from some great officer of state, and if the Jew did fail us, the Assyrian tablets dug up from Mesopotamian mounds have enabled us to date our Bible history, without the shadow of a doubt, back to the days of Solomon and David, and thence with considerable certainty, to the centuries of the patriarchs.

We meet with another attempt at what seems to have been the fixing of an era in Ezekiel 1:1, where the thirtieth year carries us back exactly to the date of the finding of the Law in the Temple in 622 B.C. That event and that date seem to have had little influence on the Israelites generally, but when we look back over the centuries, and consider the importance of the finding of that old book in the ruinous house, we cannot but admit the aptness of that year for the commencement of an era. Between the Exodus and the Advent there was no year to compare with it. But with the days of captivity this era too passed out of mind.

In post-exilic days the books of Haggai, Zechariah, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah give their datings according to the reigns of the Persian kings, and we have reason for great satisfaction in this matter, because we are thereby enabled to fit the story of Esther with accuracy into the romance of Greek history.

Soon, however, the conquests of Alexander gave the Jews a more stable chronology than they had yet attained to. The Seleucidæ kings dated their settlement in Antioch as the capital of Syria from the year 312 B.C., and the Jew, with all the nations of the Near East, took and used this ear for many centuries, calling it the era of Shetaroth or Contracts. Down to the Middle Ages it is used in connection with everything Jewish, and we have come across hundreds of Hebrew tombstones, on which at the close of the date there was the familiar contraction "sht."

Twice only does this era seem to have been broken into, and that was on the occasion when the Maccabees and Bar Cochab struck Hebrew coins, and dated them during their short periods of power with "the year of liberty."

Since about 1400 A.D. it has been the custom to count from "the year of the world," the Jew making his calculations from the 7th October, 3761 B.C., on which day he imagines the world to have been created. Accordingly, the Christian year 1938 is to the Jew, 5698, its beginning being, however, from the Autumn of 1937 A.D. But of course this reckoning (some of the years have 12 and others 13 months) is altogether artificial, and the Jew has never been able to use it, except to a very limited extent in things purely Jewish. Even now it is to him little more than a mere curiosity, appearing sometimes on Jewish newspapers, and in the dating of Hebrew Books, but usually alongside of the Christian reckoning. Jewish newspapers, printed in Jerusalem, have the Christian dating only. In short, practically every Jewish document, every Jewish paper, every Jewish tombstone bears upon it to-day the era of Jesus Christ. Every other dating is unintelligible till translated into His reckoning. The Jew cannot understand his own history unless he reckons B.C. and A.D.

A short time ago we acquired a work on Jewish literature, written in the Hebrew tongue. The writer was a master of his subject, but he was afraid to use the Christian era, and he could not use the Jewish, and the result is that there is considerable difficulty in getting through the volumes.

This absence of a stable chronology puts the Jew at a great disadvantage in the mastering of his own history. He frequently confuses the Pharaoh of the Exodus with Pharaoh (Necho) who contended with Nebuchadnezzar; and only recently a young Jew, who hopes some day to sit in Gamaliel's chair, innocently asked, when we were talking to him about the prophets, "But did not Jesus Christ live before Jeremiah?"

Naturally the persistent intrusion of the Christian era into everything in the world's history is unpalatable to the stricter Jew and to those who seek his favour. It has thus come about that attempts at compromise and evasion have been resorted to. In Jewish books and papers we often meet with letters B.C.E., or if the work comes from Germany, B.G.Z.R., both of which mean "before the common era." Other modern Jews have attempted to start an era from the Fall of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D. This is convenient, because you have only to subtract 70 from the Christian era to get your date if in A.D., and to add 70 for any date B.C. This is of course, only a using of the Christian reckoning without confessing it, and besides, it is curious indeed that a people should attempt to date their history from the year of their nation's greatest disaster. A more reasonable plan is the last that was introduced--the beginning of a new era from the Liberation of Jerusalem by our Scottish soldiers in 1917. We have handled books dated up to the "Year viii. of Liberty," but they cease then, as even this era has not "caught on."

Now what does all this mean? Every attempt of mere man to create an era or stamp his date on the world's history has failed. Only in the era of Jesus Christ is any stability to be found. Everything must be reckoned in terms of Him. He sets kings into their own place. A sharp advocate quotes a law of say xxvi. Victoria, but the moment he has done so, we see his lips moving, and also the lips of those around him, counting out what they can only understand, the date of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone takes His place in the centre of the world's history. We date back, as we date forward, from Him. He is the Key to the understanding of all history. He alone can say, "Time centres all in Me." Take His Name and His era from the world, and all is confusion. Without His light all is darkness.

He has redeemed to our understanding the history of our race, by stamping His date on every event in the world's story, from the Gate of Eden right down to the coming eternity. And the redemption of time is but an index of the Redemption that is in Him for eternity.

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