The Hebrew Year 5783—or Is It?

A chronological debate you may have never heard of

The Hebrew calendar is extremely regulated and accurate. Divine and detailed biblical instructions are given for determining months and precisely pinpointing dates, especially for the holy days. The Hebrew calendar is unique in that it is ancient, yet highly advanced and exact. (As headlined by a Haaretz article some years ago, the calendar can be characterized as “A Marvel of Ancient Astronomy and Math.”) It is a combined luni-solar calendar, meaning that it relies on the movements of both the sun and the moon (unlike the solar Gregorian calendar or the lunar Islamic calendar).

Yet while the Bible gives detailed instructions on how to count months and days, it doesn’t specify how to count years. How do we know which year it is on the biblical Hebrew calendar?

Ask many creationists, and they’ll say that Adam was created roughly 6,000 years ago. (The topic of the “dinosaur age,” naturally, is another matter.) According to the current, modern Hebrew calendar, which is figured from creation, we have just started the year 5783. How is this date figured? How accurate is it? Does it even matter?

And have you heard of the “missing years” debate that surrounds it?

5,783 Years From Adam

First, again, it is important to understand that the yearly numbering of the Hebrew calendar is not a biblical construct, as are the months and days. Rather, the current Hebrew system of counting years was not established until around 160 c.e., roughly 600 years after the completion of the Hebrew Bible.

This traditional yearly calendar used today throughout Israel is what is otherwise known as an anno mundi calendar (a.m.; Latin for “in the year of the world”). This calendar counts forward from the biblical creation week to the present day (actually, it is counted from one year before the creation week, starting with a so-called “Year of Emptiness”). The Gregorian calendar, on the other hand, is an anno domini calendar (a.d.; Latin for “in the year of the Lord,” otherwise referenced as c.e.) and centers around the birth of Jesus (albeit this date is highly dubious; internal New Testament evidence points to a more accurate birth year of 4 b.c.e.).

The traditional Hebrew a.m. calendar comes from the Seder Olam Rabbah (sor), which translates as the “Great Order of the World.” Written around 160 c.e. by Rabbi Jose ben Halafta, this timeline outlines the chronology from Adam to the Bar Kochba Revolt of 135 c.e. Like the Mishnah, it was compiled at a time of enormous persecution, when it was feared that the Jewish way of life and knowledge faced extinction.

In the 12th Century, Rabbi Maimonides established a definitive numbering system based on the SOR.
Public Domain

For several centuries after the writing of the sor, there was some confusion among Jewish communities regarding the precise counting of given dates. In the 12th century c.e., however, the rabbi Maimonides established a more definitive numbering system based on the sor. This system has been used to today—a.m. 5783. Here is how this year is calculated.

3,338 Years to the Destruction

Counting the years from creation, based upon the numbers given in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, is fairly simple. Genesis 5 gives the genealogy from Adam to Noah. It outlines the lifespan of each individual and, most importantly, how old they were when their respective descendant was born. (Still, it is impossible from this passage to add together these dates to the precise year, since the specific months of birth and death are not provided. Therefore, the accumulative sum of months may add up to an additional several years.)

Just taking the raw numbers from Adam to the birth of Noah, there are 1,056 years. Genesis 7:11 tells us that the Flood occurred in Noah’s 600th year, which takes us to a.m. 1656.

To count from the Flood, the genealogies outlined in Genesis 11 are used. These take us to the days of Abraham, who was born a.m. 1948. (Again, this figure may not be 100 percent accurate, since the accumulative months are not outlined. For example, if each generation from Adam to Abraham was born six months into the counted year, this would constitute an additional nine years). Nevertheless, continuing with the raw year information provided, the birth of Isaac is recorded as occurring in Abraham’s 100th year—thus a.m. 2048. So far, so good.

Some difficulty arises during the time period from the patriarchs to the Exodus. The straightforward generational counts stop, and Jewish scholars rely on clues from other passages. Exodus 12:40 is a much-debated scripture, sometimes taken to mean the Israelites lived in Egypt 430 years (the Septuagint version reads Egypt and Canaan). Genesis 15:13 contains a related prophecy of a 400-year period for Abraham’s “seed,” before they would be released from “affliction.” While it is apparent that both accounts end at the Exodus, various sources are at odds as to when to start the 400- and 430-year counts. The sor calendar takes the 400-year date from Isaac’s birth, when Abraham was 100. (A slightly variant calculation, from around a century before the sor calendar was written, is shown in the New Testament passage Galatians 3:16-17.) Nonetheless, for our purposes here, we will continue to follow the conventional sor calendar dating.

Four hundred years from Isaac’s birth gives us an sor Exodus date of a.m. 2448. And 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that 480 years passed from the Exodus to the building of the temple, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign—a.m. 2928.

From this point on, things get more complex. While the reigns of the kings prior to the destruction of the temple are clearly listed, we cannot simply add these numbers. Also, since the end of one reign and the beginning of another date to the same year, for every new ruler one year of reign must be removed from the count. Using this rationale, the date for the end of the reign of Judah’s final ruler, King Zedekiah, and the destruction of the temple is a.m. 3338.

But again, this date cannot be definitively known from the Scriptures. It is clear that at least a number of kings served as co-regent (this is evident from comparing the chronology of the reigns of the kings of Judah with the chronology of the kings of Israel)—but there is a significant amount of debate on which kings had co-regencies and for how long. So, by this point in the calendar, we technically could have a plus or minus several dozens of years.

Nonetheless, in its most basic form, simply counting the years given, the sor calendar gives the date of the temple’s destruction as a.m. 3338.

One would think that the closer we get to the present, the easier the count would get. But it is from this point forward things get really tricky.

Let the Stones Speak

The ‘Missing Years’

The confusion has to do with the length of the period between the destruction of the two temples—the first temple (around 586 b.c.e. on the conventional calendar) and the second temple (70 c.e.).

The destruction of the second temple at the end of the Jewish Revolt is widely accepted as dating to 70 c.e. on the Gregorian calendar. (Still, there has been some historical rabbinical debate about this—whether it dates to 68, 69 or 70 c.e. The sor calendar recognizes it as the equivalent of 68 c.e.).

A number of rabbinic works state that the second temple stood 420 years. Subtracting this from 68–70 c.e., we arrive at around 350 b.c.e. as the date of the building of the second temple by Zerubbabel. The Prophet Jeremiah prophesied that the Jews would return and rebuild that temple 70 years after its original destruction (i.e. Daniel 9:2). This then would place the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at around 420 b.c.e. on the Gregorian calendar.

This date probably comes as a shock. It is miles off from the general historical, conventional dating of the destruction of the temple, around 586 b.c.e.—roughly 165 years difference.

In the calendar debate, these are known as the “missing years.”

The date of the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple is absolutely grounded in numerous historical sources, backward and forward, for the conventional calendar. There is some debate as to whether it was 587, 586 or 585 b.c.e., but plus or minus a year is negligible. This dating, in the mid-580s, is corroborated by the ancient, detailed chronological texts of Babylon, Egypt, Persia and Greece, as well as early Jewish chronologies (including that of Josephus), and the writings of dozens of other first-millennium b.c.e. historians (all paired with and corroborating biblical chronological timestamps). The sor calendar, on the other hand, stands entirely alone. Where, then, did the 165 missing years of the sor calendar go?

Theories

This “discrepancy” has long been accepted as problematic and debated by numerous rabbis and other Jewish authorities. Many theories try to explain it.

One of the most recognized areas of “trouble” is in the biblical listing of Persian kings. The book of Daniel references four Persian kings. Certain Talmudic sages historically took this to mean that there were only four Persian kings, filling a 52-year period. Conventional historical chronologies, however, show that there were in fact 13 Persian kings who ruled over a 207-year period between the Babylonian and Greek empires. This, then, would account for almost all of the discrepancy. (The apparent discrepancy in the book of Daniel is easily explained by the fact that it only notes the four most significant rulers of Persia.)

Another explanation for why the sor gives 490 years between the destruction of the first temple and the destruction of the second is the 70-weeks prophecy found in Daniel 9, a chapter known to Judaism and Christianity as a prophetic time frame for the coming of the Messiah. The theory goes that Daniel 9:24-26 were taken to refer to 490 prophetic years between the destruction of the temples.

Verse 24 reads: “Seventy weeks [490 prophetic years] are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy” (King James Version).

Another theory endorsed by several Jewish scholars suggests that the statement at the end of the book of Daniel—“shut up the words, and seal the book” (Daniel 12:4)—could be a command to obscure the calculations of the Messiah’s coming so the time frame would not be known. This implies a deliberate misrepresentation of the 70-weeks prophecy within the sor calendar dates.

Orthodox Jewish scholar Mitchell First compiled an exhaustive book on the subject

Theories abound. Rabbi M. Breuer believes the sor count is not factually accurate but is instead supposed to be symbolic. Rabbi B. Wein agrees that the sor count is off but does not know why the ancient writers would have changed the conventional dates; he suggests that the explanation will be given by the Messiah at his coming. Other Jewish scholars and rabbis have explanations.

Orthodox Jewish scholar Mitchell First compiled an exhaustive book on the subject titled Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology. He explains the controversy, enumerating the different Jewish perspectives on it—from the earliest documented explanation (circa 900 c.e.) to the present day. He first lists the substantive statements made on the issue by Jewish scholars and rabbis. All totaled, 41 were in favor of the conventional chronology over the sor, 17 were in favor of the sor chronology over the conventional, and 14 made the case that both are correct.

But is the answer important?

A Lot Later Than You Think

It becomes clear from the overwhelming weight of evidence that the sor is off by nearly 200 years. This is shown by a vast number of parallel historical sources, including early Jewish sources—all of which do parallel biblical sources. And this is a conclusion accepted by a large number, if not a majority, of Jewish scholars and rabbis. Still, in the name of tradition, the sor calendar continues to be utilized.

But there is another side to the religious importance of accuracy in such calculations.

Both Judaism and various branches of Christianity recognize that the Messiah will come (or in the case of Christianity, return) just prior to, or by, the year 6,000. There are inferences to this in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. This is based on several scriptures that use the seven-day week to typify the course of human existence. God accomplished the creation in six days, and “He rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). Similarly, God commanded man to work six days of the week and rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10). The Bible brings out that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”—a day-for-1,000-year refrain Moses cites in the Psalms: “For a thousand years in Thy sight Are but as yesterday when it is past …” (Psalm 90:4; parallel New Testament scriptures include 2 Peter 3:8 and Revelation 20:4, which expounds on the seventh-day “millennium” of rule by the Messiah). Thus, each day of the week has a thousand-year parallel, finally culminating in the seventh-day, thousand-year “Sabbath of rest” that is the Messiah’s rule.

In the words of the rabbinic Midrash, “Six eons for going in and coming out, for war and peace. The seventh eon is entirely Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.” The Babylonian Talmud quotes Rabbi Katina: “Six thousand years the world will exist and one [thousand, the seventh], it shall be haruv …. Just as the seventh year is the Shmita [land Sabbath] year, so too does the world have 1,000 years out of seven that are fallow, as it is written, ‘And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day’ (Isaiah 2:11)” (Sanhedrin 97a).

Thus a weekly, seventh-day Sabbath of rest; a seventh-year land Sabbath of rest (Exodus 23; Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15); and a seventh-millennium Sabbath of world “rest.” Numerous later rabbinical Jewish writings mention the 6,000-year “deadline” for the arrival of the Messiah.

Our namesake Herbert W. Armstrong commented on this subject: “That master plan involves a duration of 7,000 years. The seven literal days of creation were a type. … God allotted the first 6,000 years to physical man, to live his own way … to prove by 6,000 years of suffering mountainous evils that only God’s way can bring desired blessings.”

With all this in mind, when we add the “missing years” from the sor, we arrive at an actual “date from creation” of somewhere around a.m. 5950. And when factoring in other unclear numbers, such as the debate about the date of Abraham’s birth—if indeed he was begotten when his father was 70, or if it was several years or even decades later (Genesis 11:26-12:4)—and taking into account the accumulative biblical months related to births, regnal dates, and other potential errors—we are conceivably decades beyond a.m. 5950.

To the non-religious observer, this may mean nothing. But to the religiously concerned, it means everything.

After all, the Bible contains a strong warning about the end of the “age of man.” It describes a time of world war and suffering just prior to the arrival of the Messiah—a “time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1; see also Jeremiah 30:7). In fact, so great will be the destruction that, if the Messiah didn’t come, there would be “no flesh saved alive.” (Is it coincidence that only in the past several decades has mankind developed weapons of mass destruction capable of literally wiping all life off the face of the Earth, many times over? Indeed, it is often stated that our greatest problem today is that of “human survival.”) Other biblical passages infer that time will be “cut short” in order to save mankind from otherwise inevitable extinction.

As the Prophet Daniel continues to describe, the Messiah will come and stop the madness. Verse 1 continues, with a promise from God to protect His people: “[A]nd at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” (In the words of Jeremiah 30:7: “Alas! for that day is great, So that none is like it; And it is a time of trouble unto Jacob, But out of it shall he be saved.”) God then instructs Daniel: “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (verse 4; again, uncannily predictive of our modern “Information Age,” not to mention our worldwide accumulation of weapons of mass destruction).

No man can pinpoint the exact date we are at in history. We have clearly established that (and the Bible itself states that “ye know neither the day nor the hour” of the Messiah’s coming). What we do know, following Bible chronology, is that we are within the final years before a.m. 6000.

Let the Stones Speak

Originally published on October 1, 2020, as “The Hebrew Year 5781—or Is It?”