Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Access ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman calendars to better understand the Bible

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”.

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 us and our Scriptures, calling both “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 of 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 to ask God for guidance and prepared. Nehemiah’s trip from Susa to Jerusalem (over 900 miles) took up to two months by caravan. The walls of Jerusalem were begun in July and completed in early September. Ezra’s festivals followed soon after.

The calendars below, taken from AmazingBibleTimeline.com, can help modern Bible readers understand when events occurred in Scripture. Please also see Timeline of Events in the Iron Age and Calendars, Cultures, and Politics.

Robust Thrift

Thrift doesn’t start with seeking sales and clipping coupons, but with a character of contentment.

Disasters strike, both in nations and in families. Hurricanes happen, jobs are lost, and terrorists crash airliners into buildings. Our first reaction is disbelief and disorientation. On 9/11/2001 many Americans spent the day staring at the television, unable to accept that such an attack happened in the USA and uncertain of what the attack meant for our future. On any day, when a family member is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a friend dies in an accident, or a husband loses his job, our normal reaction is stunned silence, fear, sadness, and stunned silence again.

Our second reaction depends on the individual. Some people sink into despair, others begin frenzied work, and still others lash out at whoever or whatever they think is responsible for their pain. Over time, those who are psychologically healthy transform their hardship into a new way of looking at the world, adjust their actions, and resume a normal if inexorably altered life. Those who cannot end up getting help from health care providers and ministers to help them reassemble the pieces of their shattered soul.

Robust Thrift

One of the best ways to live life and to handle disaster, is thrift – using resources (money, possessions, and time) carefully and avoiding waste. Though not valued in convenience-focused, image-obsessed America, thrift enables individuals, families, communities, and nations to weather the storms of life. Robust Thrift, thrift that comes from strength of character rather than just a desire to save money, is best. It forces us to focus on what is truly important, teaches us that we can live joyfully with far fewer things than we think we need, and provides the freedom of greater control over our lives. Ultimately, disengaging our happiness from our desire for things makes us free. Robust Thrift, is not merely about actions – it is about attitudes, and ultimately character. There are three major character traits associated with Robust Thrift – Humility, Security, and Godliness.

The first kind of thrift is financial, and most articles and books on thrift focus here. They discuss coupons, bargain hunting, and haggling. Most of this advice is useful, but limited, because it doesn’t address the underlying attitudes and belief systems. Robust thrift in financial matters is an outgrowth of humility, a self-forgetfulness that focuses its attention on God and others.

Vendors make mountains of money catering to our vanity. The woman who boasts of her ability to get a “great deal” will often spend more money than she should simply to get more “great deals” that she can then brag about. Photographers, venue operators, caterers, florists, and decorators gouge brides and families who want their wedding to be more grand and glorious than those of their friends. Automakers sell the image – tough and individualistic, sleek and sporty, or trendy and socially conscious – far more than they sell the car. Clipping coupons is no cure for the vanity that besets us, and there is no financial thrift without humility.

The second kind of thrift deals with possessions. We fill drawers, closets, attics, basements, garages, and storage units with things that cost us money to buy, money to store, money to maintain, money to move, money to protect, and money to dispose of. Our surfeits of stuff also take time to buy, time to store, time to maintain, time to move, time to protect, and time to dispose of. We get food that we don’t like to fill our pantry just because it is “on sale”, and collect trinkets that we don’t need because they are “free”. Shelves in book stores and libraries groan under the weight of tomes telling us how to declutter our lives, but we rarely do it. Why? Because we mistake possessions for security. Some belongings such as a shelter, food, and clothing contribute to our security, but most, like the 27th key chain that we got free at the trade show but can’t bear to part with, do not. Those who find security in something other than possessions will find that their thriftiness is robust – it can weather the storms of life.

The third kind of thrift deals with time. Time is our most precious possession, and armies of authors wielding quills, pens, or keyboards tell us how to use ours. Despite their best intentions and advice, we waste vast amounts of time. Why? Because we do not know who we are, and what we are supposed to do. A young man graduates from college and faces a bewildering array of possible careers, possible pastimes, and even possible wives. Paralyzed with choices, and never having taken the time to discover who is he, who God is, and what He has created him to do, the man takes whatever opportunity is easiest. Without knowing our Maker, the One who created us to do a specific task as we have created saws to cut wood, we cannot do otherwise. Robust thrift with our time is rooted in glorifying and enjoying God, and allowing Him to direct our steps.

Conclusion

Thrift is a good thing – we could all stand to take better care of our resources. But thrift is ultimately a matter of the heart. Robust Thrift moderates our money with humility, purges our possessions with security, and targets our time with Godliness. When hurricanes happen, jobs vanish, and terrorists attack, Robust Thrift will help us overcome adversity every day.

Calendars, Cultures, and Politics

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

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 often 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 brief 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. 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.

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 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.

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.

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 5 and 6 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 in the West is 1 January, but in Iran it is Nowruz (the first day of Spring), 19, 20, 21 or 22 March.

While no man can change 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 enjoy the individuality of people groups, past and present, by looking at their calendar.

Hermeneutics – The Art and Science of Bible Interpretation

Hermeneutics, defined as the science of interpretation, is important in every field of endeavor (1). People working in law, philosophy and religion use hermeneutical techniques to interpret communication, whether written, oral or otherwise, but so do friends arranging a party, and even lovers proclaiming their everlasting devotion. Biblical hermeneutics applies the art and science of hermeneutics to gathering meaning in the Bible.

When a book is written and subsequently read, information and emotion are transferred from author to reader, and both have an important role in the process. Things become more complex when the reader is not the reader that the author was writing for, as is the case with the Bible. The role of the author is to assemble his ideas in a coherent fashion and then decide how best to communicate those ideas to his intended audience. He may use different languages, different genres (narrative, poetry, law, prophecy, wisdom, letters, and apocalyptic), different words, and different stories to illustrate his points (2). The author then puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to write his work.

Authors always write for specific audiences just as actors always play for specific audiences. The audience usually shares the author’s language, culture, geography and period in history. Communication with such an audience, while difficult in the best of circumstances, is far easier than communication with audiences that do not share these characteristics with the author. The role of the original readers of the text is to understand the meaning that the author put into the text when he wrote it for them.

When the reader is not from the intended audience, such as modern day interpreters striving to understand and apply the Bible, communication is more challenging. Intended audiences of Bible books intuitively understood the background, setting, assumptions and authorship of the texts and could apply the message directly to their lives. Modern interpreters must discover the background, setting, assumptions and authorship and how the intended readers understood the passage (exegesis) (3). Only then can they understand the meaning in their context and finally apply the passage to their lives (3).

Further, all readers bring their own set of experiences, beliefs, preferences and assumptions about reality to any work that they read (2). In postmodern thought, it is not authors but readers who actually determine the meaning. On one hand, this is ridiculous. No judge writing a criminal verdict or bank sending out an account statement would agree that it is the reader who determines the meaning of what they have written. On the other hand, reader biases inevitably lead them to see things in a way that the author never intended, and miss things that the author intended to be clear. Readers must be aware of these things, the glasses through which they see reality, and be careful. All participants are important in conveying God’s message in the Bible. However, modern readers of Scripture are neither authors nor intended audiences, and we must therefore take special note to avoid the pitfalls of interpreters.

Four major challenges exist for a third party striving to understand a Biblical book (2). First, the Biblical languages of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic are far different than almost all modern languages. Even Modern Greek (13M speakers), Hebrew (9M), and Aramaic (400K), spoken by less than 0.5% of the world’s population today, are significantly different from their forebears. Since languages never translate exactly into one another, meaning is inevitably changed and the author’s original meaning becomes more difficult to find. Second, the geography of the Middle East, Egypt and Southeastern Europe, the setting of the Bible, is vastly different from that of Northern Europe, Central and East Asia, the Americas, and the rest of the world. It is difficult to understand many of the events in Bible history without understanding the geography. Third, ancient Near Eastern culture is vastly different than cultures today, even modern Near Eastern ones. Webster defines culture as “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period (4).” Culture involves religion, food, and everything large and small that characterizes a unique people. Much of culture is unnoticed by its natives; just as fish do not notice the water they swim in. Therefore, it is very hard to know, much less adapt to, a culture foreign to a person’s native one. Such adaptation, or at least knowledge, is important to understanding how the original audience understood a passage. Fourth, life from 2000 BC to 100 AD was vastly different than it is today, so time is a great separator of modern man from the original Biblical audience.

Geography is the easiest to overcome. The physical layout of the Bible lands and even their climate has changed little since Jesus’ time. It is not difficult to travel to most of the places that our predecessors walked. Culture is the hardest to overcome. Veteran missionaries born in the West who have spent decades in modern foreign cultures still cannot be totally a part of them (5). They can adopt the dress, the language, the food, the housing, the mannerisms, and even many of the attitudes of their new culture, and yet remain just a little bit outside (5). How much less can any of us become part of a culture that no longer exists? The best that we can do is to come close. Usually that is good enough.

Time is a very great distance between the modern day and the Biblical day which can never be fully overcome. Human nature and the natural world have stayed basically the same and yet the technologies of our lives and many of our ways of thinking have changed dramatically since Solomon wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” The ancients held a largely cyclical view of life while moderns hold a more linear view. The ancients believed that religion and society were inseparable while most Westerners sharply divide the spiritual and the secular. Americans in general really believe that all men are created equal; a statement which would have been ludicrous to the most progressive Sumerian. Most of our assumptions about life are unquestioned, just as our forefathers’ were, and therefore color our observations without us even knowing it.

Another way in which time separates us from our forebears in the Bible could be known as “chronological chauvinism.” Later generations in the developed world generally think that they have better understanding of almost everything than previous generations did. As a young teen I was visiting a park in Bakersfield, California with my grandmother and she showed me a 19th century locomotive. As I mentally compared the old fashioned looking engine with mental visions of jet airplanes and spaceships, I asked her why earlier generations weren’t smart enough to figure out the wonderful things that we had. Taken aback, she scolded “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again! Why do the young always think that they are better than the old?”

In the same way, modern man believes that ideas of the divine right of kings, arranged marriages, inequalities between persons in society, and many other ancient ideas are not just incorrect but shameful. We judge not only the wisdom of our ancestors but also their morality. As such, we listen little and learn less. Our forebears had many things wrong with their worldview, but so do we. I am confident that people studying us 100 years from now will be dismayed by what they perceive as our ignorance and wickedness, and others later will think the same of them.

Time, and all of the attitudes surrounding it, does indeed pose a major obstacle to our understanding the word of God.

Many in history, such as the famous Alexandrian bishop Origen, have emphasized the allegorical over the historical sense of Scripture. They may give a passing nod to the historical meaning of a passage but then construct an allegorical meaning which they consider to be the true one. Often, the true historical context and significance is ignored and interpretations become fanciful. Allegory is present in the Bible but the plain historical sense of what was written is usually the better guide to truth.

In conclusion, hermeneutics refers to deriving meaning from content, such as speech or literature. Biblical hermeneutics deals with correctly interpreting the Bible. It is harder than it seems, with culture, geography, time, and language forming high barriers to understanding, much less applying the Bible to the modern day. It is not subjective; the Biblical authors put meaning into their words just as authors today do (2 Peter 1:21). Despite the fact that perfect interpretation is impossible (in everything, not just Christianity), mankind can understand God’s intent through Scriptures, and interpreting the Bible is one of the highest callings anyone can undertake. The Bible reveals the person of God, the highest and most wonderful person that man can conceive.

References

1. Hermeneutics, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd collegiate edition, Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1984
2. Klein WW, Blomberg CL, Hubbard RL, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville TN, 2004, pp 3-21
3. Fee GD, Stuart D, How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2003, p 23
4. Culture, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd collegiate edition, 1984, Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1984
5. Reyburn WD, Identification in the Missionary Task, Perspectives in the World Christian Movement, 4th ed, Winter RW, Hawthorne SC (Editors), William Carey Library, Pasadena CA, 2009, pp 470-476