Calendars, Cultures, and Politics

People follow calendars, but they also create and use them to advance their personal and political agendas.

The two primary parameters that shape human thinking, regardless of culture, antiquity, or language, are space and time…spacetime for the physicists among us. It is difficult to understand any communication without a common understanding of these parameters. Such simple phrases as “See you tomorrow” require both parties to have a similar understanding of “tomorrow”.

In the absolute sense, time is dictated by the rhythms of nature as determined by the Creator. In the past it was viewed as the distance in history (as opposed to geography) between events. In that mindset, the idea of saving time was ludicrous. Time progressed at its own rate and rhythm and man could do nothing to change those realities. Ancients wanted tasks to be quick and efficient just like moderns do, and for many of the same reasons, to maximize the duration of pleasant experiences and minimize that of unpleasant ones. However, in the ancient mind time was not like money, which could be stored. It had to be used.

Calendars are a way of dividing time into days, fortnights (14 days), and years. They are unnecessary in hunter-gatherer societies but are vital in agricultural societies. Calendars require reading, and in many ways form the foundation on which math is built. They allow man to track the weather, record planting dates, and schedule religious festivals. Calendars allow travelers to track long trips and help coordinate the movements of merchants with their caravans and generals with their armies. This article is a summary of calendars in world history, and how people use them to reflect themselves.

The idea that time can be divided has endured from the beginning of humanity. The movement of sun and moon divide time into roughly equal segments. These segments are known as days, fortnights, and years. If time is circular, knowing the number of each year (5500 BC, 5501 BC, or 5502 BC) is unimportant.

The idea that time is linear, not circular, makes counting years important. It was no longer adequate to welcome a new year; royal bureaucrats labeled them “the first year of King XXXX”, “the third year of King YYYY”, etc. The invention of the clock in Medieval Europe brought the idea that time could be divided not only by natural rhythms but by human ones.  Combined, these ideas give modern man his view of time.

The Julian calendar was instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC to align dates for military and economic purposes in the Roman Republic (509-27 BC). Extending from modern Portugal to Syria and Belgium to Egypt, the Republic confronted a bewildering array of calendars, including the original Roman calendar, and Greek, Egyptian, and Persian ones. Astronomers and mathematicians had long known that a year was 365.25 days long, but only with this period of peace imposed by Roman arms (Pax Romana) did anyone have the power to align the disparate time systems. Though technically Caesar’s reforms applied only to the Roman calendar, within a century, calendars in other provinces of the Empire aligned themselves with his. Since the previous Roman year was only 355 days, 46 BC had to be extended for several weeks to allow 45 BC to begin on 1 January. Having 12 months, 365 days, and an additional day every three or four years, the Julian calendar became the standard in the Roman and later, Western world.

Christians from the fall of Rome to the late Middle Ages marked the passage of time according to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Events were cited by their distance from Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or some holiday. The first day of each month was the Kalend. “Nones” were the seventh day of the month (for months with 31 days) or the fifth day of the month (for those with 30 or fewer days). “Ides,” such as the Ides of March in Shakespeare’s telling of Julius Caesar’s assassination, were the 15th of the month (for months with 31 days) or the 13th of the month for other months. Days in between were counted by their distance to a Kalend, None, or Ide.

In 1582 the Gregorian Calendar, which made small improvements to its Julian ancestor, was adopted throughout the European world, which included the colonies in North and South America, India and the trading islands of the Pacific. Since the 16th century marked the beginning of European global domination, by the 20th century, every nation on earth used the Gregorian calendar, at least internationally. The Gregorian calendar remains the most common calendar worldwide.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar or luni-solar calendar, not a solar one, and includes 12 months with 354 days. The first year is 621, the year Muhammad and his few followers escaped Mecca to Medina. It is used for religious purposes and to date certain events. The abbreviation is AH (Latin Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijra”). Authors writing about Islam, for example, will often use two dates in their work. The first surviving evidence of use of this calendar is AD 643/AH 22. Islamic calendars differ throughout the world, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia using slightly different versions. Because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the date in lunar years is catching up to the date in solar years. On the Gregorian year of AD 21,000, the Islamic (Hijra) year will be 21,004.  

Other calendars abound, largely for religious and political purposes. The Hebrew Calendar is a luni-solar calendar used predominantly for Jewish religious observances.  The French Revolutionary Clock and Calendar were used from 1793 to 1805. Its purposes were to convert France to a decimal system and remove all traces of religion and royalty from French life.  In the North Korean (Juche) Calendar the first year is 1912, the birth year of the “Eternal Ruler” Kim Il Sung. It officially replaced the Gregorian calendar in North Korea on 9 September 1997 (Juche 86). Day and month stay the same, but the year is calculated by subtracting 1912 from the current year.

Russia retained the Julian Calendar (orthodox version) until 14 Feb 1918. After the communists took over in November of that year, they developed the Soviet Union Calendar and implemented it from 1929-1940. In keeping with Communist efforts at modernization and productivity, it implemented continuous five and six day work weeks, unlike the interrupted seven day week (Sundays off) in the Western World.

These are only a few of the many calendars that have been and are being used around the world. Calendars must be aligned to foster trade, communication, and security within and between regions. However, they are also a reflection of the times and the people that implement them. Different peoples celebrate different holidays at different times. Even using a Gregorian calendar, New Years Day in the West is 1 January, but in Iran it is Nowruz (the first day of Spring), which is 19, 20, 21 or 22 March.

Since nations must cooperate with each other in trade and other areas, all modern countries measure their days as 24 hours long and fortnights as 14 days long. Years are also more or less than same all over the globe. Other characteristics of measuring time, such as the names of months and years, the location of holidays on the calendar, and the identity of the first year, are highly political.

The Christian Experience

The Bible records over 4,000 of history, from the earliest human settlements from Mesopotamia to Arabia to the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. It thus covers dozens of cultures, nations, and tribes, each with their own understanding of space and time. The Quran doesn’t do this, and neither do the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or any Sutra. The Bible stands alone – no other book is like it.

However, the vastly different understandings of key concepts in Bible, such as space and time, make it tough to understand. Christians are baffled, and skeptics ridicule the Scriptures, calling them “incoherent” or worse. Moderns reading the Bible have to cross a gap of at least 2000 years, multiple languages, and many cultures. Further, the Bible is not written as typical modern history, although its historical accounts are reliable. It hits the highlights. As a result, readers tend to “telescope” events, believing that they occurred over days or weeks when in fact they happened over months or years.

We read about Moses’ law, David’s wars, and Elijah’s miracles, and think that Moses was legislating, David fighting, and Elijah working wonders all the time. They weren’t. Each man was living life, including the slow, discouraging parts, just like we do. Nehemiah, for example, received the report of Jerusalem’s broken-down walls in November but didn’t leave for Judah until the following spring. In the meantime, he prayed for God’s guidance and prepared. Nehemiah’s trip from Susa to Jerusalem (over 900 miles) took up to two months by caravan. The reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem began in July and was completed in early September. Ezra’s festivals followed soon after.

Conclusion

While no man can change space or time, every people has used its calendar to reflect its religion, politics, culture, and values. Having begun millennia ago, it is not likely to change now. While continuing to follow a standard to facilitate the activity of the modern world, we can understand and enjoy the individuality of people groups, past and present, by looking at their calendar. More importantly, we can grasp many important truths in Scripture and grow in our understanding and enjoyment of God.

Related Articles

  1. Some Differences in Life between the Ancient and Modern Worlds
  2. Timeline of Antiquity Before Christ

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM, DECBA Colonel, US Army (ret)

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