Why 2023?

The Anno Domini system of calculating time eclipsed various other systems



If a school child asks, “Why will next year be given the number 2023?” the easy answer by a teacher or parent would be mathematical: “Because we add a one to this year’s number 2022. 2022 plus 1=2023.” As the pupil progresses in school, he or she learns of other dates in history such as Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Magna Carta of 1215, the Norman invasion of 1066. At some point, a perceptive pupil will make the discovery that this year’s designation of 2022 depends on some year in the past being regarded as Year 1. Clearly, a “Number 1” in every field, not just sports, is highly coveted. The child will want to know what was so special about Year 1.

The answer any teacher or parent, even non-Christian teachers and parents, must give is: Year 1 was the year (or the approximate year) Jesus Christ was born. Even the non-Christian pupil will have heard about Jesus Christ in connection with the well-known holidays of Christmas and Easter. And, for the same reason that these holidays are well-known and widely celebrated in this country, the pupil will have some appreciation for the significance of the man named Jesus Christ.

The perceptive student will note that we do not begin the computation of time based on the birth of other famous or infamous persons such as Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne, George Washington, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr. An older student may note that some dates are calculated based on events other than a person’s birth. For example, a Christian student may read from Matthew 3:1 “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign…” Or a student may read a presidential proclamation that refers to “the 200th year of the independence of the United States.” But we do not recalculate time beginning in 1776. 1776 is not the new Year 1.

Or is it? In his October 16, 2008 column about the Battle of Gettysburg and a party held by 200 private citizens who had donated money for a new visitors’ center, George Will declared: “The founding of the American nation was the hinge of world history.” Of course George Will was addressing his piece to a domestic, American audience. Nonetheless, it is embarrassing for George Will, or any person educated in Western civilization, not to add a caveat, “with the exception of the birth of Jesus Christ.” The Founders, and the rest of the world, were aware at the time of their great and marvelous achievement — a revolution against the great and powerful British Empire and the establishment of a government founded upon liberty. None of them, however, would have declared that this was greater than the birth of Jesus Christ – any more than we of our generation would accept the statement by one of the Beatles, published July 29, 1966, that they were more popular than Jesus Christ.

You may respond that it is only in hindsight that a recalculation is made, so that some day America, and indeed the world, may regard 1776 as a new Year 1. (The New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones regard 1619 as the date America was founded, but they would hardly designate it as Year 1.) Or, maybe people in the future will select some other year. No doubt if the Chinese Communists have their way, the entire world will mark their calendars as though 1949, the year the Communists took power in China, as the new Year 1.

It was only after a long passage of time, more than two centuries after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, that the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ was reflected in the way we mark time. Here’s how it happened:

In the year 525, this system of calculating time — called the Anno Domini system, short for the Latin Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (in English, “Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”) — was devised by a monk in Rome named Dionysius Exiguus. Two historians soon adopted this system: an African named Victor of Tonnenna in the 6th century and Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published in 731. Charlemagne, crowned Roman Emperor in 800, adopted this system and catalyzed its spread throughout the West, but it was a slow process that was not fully accomplished until the 15th century. In this process, the Anno Domini system eclipsed various other systems: the one used in Spain based on the commencement of Roman rule there (38 BC as Year 1), the system used by the Coptic Church based on the date Diocletian became emperor (284 AD as Year 1), and systems like the Hebrew (Jewish) one that used as Year 1 the date thought to be when the world was created. (Systems based on the date thought to be when the world was created are generically termed Anno Mundi, or “year of the world.”)

With colonization by European empires of lands and peoples outside Europe, the Anno Domini system spread throughout the world, eclipsing the Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, and additional systems. For example, the traditional Chinese calendar designated as Year 1 what we know as 2637 B.C. (https://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-chinese.html#anchor-count-years). Attempts by political regimes to start new systems ended with the demise of those regimes: for example, the French First Republic (selecting A.D. 1793 as Year 1) which met its demise in 1804, and the Italian Fascists (selecting 1922 as Year 1) who met their demise in 1943. With the globalization of commerce and communications, additional systems like the Islamic and Iranian calendars will either end or be restricted in use.

This post to be continued tomorrow…


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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