Today marks the fourth anniversary of yours truly taking
over the reins of this very column, a subject that I elaborate on in my blog.
However, this merely serves as the inspiration, not the subject, for this
week’s trivial topic: creation dates. Specifically, tomorrow the earth will
celebrate its 7,514th birthday—at least according to the Eastern Orthodox
Church calendar, which interpreted Christian Biblical texts to arrive at an
explicit creation date of Sept. 1, 5509 B.C.
Now, before we begin tossing around epithets or invoking the
touchy debate of intelligent design versus the Flying Spaghetti
Monster, let’s bear in mind that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is far from
the only faith that has assigned a specific calendar date to the beginning of
time. For example, the Mayan Long Count Calendar is renowned for having a
“zero day”—an official beginning of time—calculated as either Aug. 11
or Aug. 13, 3114 B.C.
Perhaps the most well-known creation date among Western
Christians is the one derived from the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar. Two
17th-century Christian scholars—Irish Archbishop James Ussher and Cambridge
University Vice-Chancellor John Lightfoot—both deduced from their
interpretations of Biblical accounts that the earth’s creation occurred at
nightfall on the Sunday preceding an autumnal equinox.
However, the two scholars disagreed on the details. Ussher
held that the Earth began at the nightfall preceding Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.
Lightfoot, on the other hand, pegged the year as 3929 B.C. Ussher’s date,
published in 1650, was more popular, and some Creationists still cite the collective
Ussher-Lightfoot chronology as the basis for a literal age of the earth at or
around 6,000 years.
Jewish scholars put forth similar efforts to identify the
earth’s age using the Hebrew calendar. A popular creation date cited by this
reckoning is Oct. 7, 3761 B.C. (or Tishri 1, AM 1 using Hebrew calendar
reckoning). However, discrepancies exist—both between and within
Judeo-Christian denominations—based on which translation of text the theory
cites. (Discrepancies in the book of Genesis arise when comparing the third-century
Greek Septuagint and the fifth-century Latin Vulgate.)
Moreover, all of the Judeo-Christian creation date theories
mentioned above derive their dates using the Julian calendar—enacted by Rome in
45 B.C.—rather than the modern Gregorian calendar. Scholars used the Julian
calendar as a means to tie Biblical accounts to independently recorded Roman
history, effectively giving Biblical researchers a starting point for their
calculations. These scholars then had to reverse-engineer a Julian chronology,
effectively writing a calendar that predates the actual invention of the
calendar system itself.
WHAT IS THE TERM FOR A CALENDAR THAT’S EXTENDED TO REPRESENT
A DATE THAT OCCURRED BEFORE THE INVENTION OF THE CALENDAR ITSELF?
What’s the term for a calendar that extends backward, to a
time before the invention of the calendar system itself—a breed of historical
calculation often used to derive precise creation dates using the sacred texts
of various religions?
A proleptic calendar
is the term you’re looking for. Perhaps the most famous (relatively speaking)
example is the proleptic Julian calendar, which Judeo-Christian scholars have
used to pin exact dates on Biblical and Talmudic accounts of past events.
Enacted by Julius Caesar (hence the name), the Julian
calendar became Roman law in 45 B.C. So any events occurring before 45 B.C.
would be part of the proleptic Julian calendar.
(Let’s not confuse the proleptic Julian calendar with the
so-called astronomical Julian calendar,
which includes a confusing “year 0” between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. The
astronomical Julian calendar is itself proleptic, employed to calculate the
past dates of astronomical events, with the year 0 used for simplified
mathematical calculations. Hope that clears things up.)
It’s possible to extend any calendar proleptically, though
it can easily lead to confusion. For example, scholars can and often do extend the
modern Gregorian calendar proleptically to account for dates prior to its
introduction in 1582. However, proleptic Gregorian dates overlap with standard
Julian dates, so historians must document precisely which calendar they’re
using when specifying calculated dates. And when calculating the birth of the
world, precision is everything.
That said, some proleptic calculations of religious events
defy simple comprehension. Take, for example, the complex cycle of yugas
observed by Hindus.
Based on astronomical measurements of solar years—the length
of time that the Sun takes to
return to the same position along the orbital ecliptic—yuga “ages”
vary in length between 432,000 and 1,728,000 solar years. (And that doesn’t
account for the fact that solar years don’t match up to calendar years, and
they also aren’t static—they vary over time).
Using the proleptic Julian calendar, the current Kali Yuga
age began at midnight, Feb. 18, 3102 B.C. Of course, Hinduism preaches a
continuous cycle of death and rebirth, so pinning down a Hindu “creation
date” for the universe is beyond the context of the faith.
Despite that fact, Hinduism does calculate the life cycle of
its creator god Brahma as a function of multiple yugas, working out to some 311
trillion years. Now that’s some old-school Geek Trivia.
Check out the Trivia Geek’s blog!
Keep in touch
with Trivial Pursuits, the
Trivia Geek’s online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked
notions, bizarre concepts, wild schemes, and trivial observations unfit even
for Geek Trivia.
The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.
This week’s quibble comes from the August 17 edition of Geek
evaders.” Several TechRepublic members took issue with my description
of a modified base-35 number system for encoded signals on Ohio State’s
now-defunct “Big Ear” radio telescope. Member Slprice started it off with this quibble:
“If the digits have the values
of 0 through 35, then that would be a base-36 number system.”
But member Mikes had my back on this one:
“Actually, digit ‘0’ is not
used according to the article. That would make it base-35.”
I should have made it more clear
that the Big Ear used a modified
base-35. In the “real” world, Slprice
would have had me dead to rights. Keep those quibbles coming!
Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?
Check out the Geek Trivia Archive,
and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.
Test your command of
useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic’s Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically
sign up today!
The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.