30 Dec 2019

The Calendar Chasm: World of Israel vs Modern West

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Bible, Christmas, Church History, Easter, Exegesis, Genesis, Haggai, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Backgrounds, Worship
Gregorian Calendar

Our Calendar

There is a massive historical chasm between the world of the Bible and the world north American believers live in. This becomes a problem when we are unaware of it because we can distort the biblical text with the hidden assumption that ancient people lived, and thought, as we do.

Take as one example, the calendar that we live by. Today is December 30, 2019. Not only in California, but everywhere. Sometimes we are vaguely aware that there is a Chinese calendar, but we typically assume that it is December 30th in Beijing, Moscow, and even Iran. This is a dangerous assumption.

This has not always been the case in the world and certainly was not in the Bible (in either Testament). The calendar is one of the most important ways groups of people have, historically, understood their self-identity. Calendars were not simply a method of keeping time but vehicles to tell national or religious stories.

The modern world, of which the United States is part, follows the Gregorian Calendar that was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. It was followed almost immediately in Roman Catholic lands like Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. But Protestant Europe (Germany, England, Norway, etc) resisted mightily this intrusion of the Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Europe did not adopt it. But within 200 years the land of Germany adopted it. The British Empire did not adopt it until a few years before the Revolutionary War. When adopted the date went from September 2 to September 14, 1752, overnight! Thus this became the calendar in the American Colonies too. The Soviet Union (formerly Russia) did not adopt this calendar until the 20th century.

The adoption of the Gregorian Calendar was to change the date of Easter because it was not falling where it needed to. This is why the date of Easter (for example) is different for the “West” than for the “East” because Eastern Christians never adopted the Roman Catholic calendar. One of the great ironies of certain critics of Christmas and Easter as “papal” inventions blissfully (unaware!) use a real Roman Catholic invention every single day of their lives.

Calendars in the First Century

But it was not so in Jesus day or the first century church nor ancient Israel. The Roman Empire officially adopted the calendar of Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Today’s date on the Julian Calendar is actually December 15, 2019. This was the basic calendar of western Europe until it was supplanted by the Roman Catholic Gregorian calendar.

In the Roman Empire there were numerous competing calendars: Macedonian (retained in most of the areas held by Alexander the Great), Egyptian and Jewish. The Julian Calendar, like the Gregorian, is a solar calendar of 365 days. It would not be until the time of Constantine that the seven days for a week became normative.

Israel’s Festival Calendar

But the Jews never adopted the Julian nor the much later Gregorian Calendar. Many do not realize there is a calendar in the Bible itself. It is a lunar, not solar, calendar that runs from new moon to new moon and is 29 or 30 days. Today’s date on the Jewish calendar is 2 Tevet of the year 5780. This calendar comes out of the Law of Moses and dates in the Bible are in relation to that calendar. The day ran from sundown to sundown, thus what we call Saturday evening was actually the beginning of what we call “Sunday.”

The Jews had a seven day week (the Romans had an eight day week. Interestingly enough, it was the Emperor Constantine who adopted a seven day week in AD 321) which is based on the days of creation and the Sabbath. Days are simply numbered in relation to the Sabbath. The New Testament continues the “policy” of the Hebrew Bible in numbering days in relation to the Sabbath. Thus “Sunday” (a word that is never used in the Bible) is never “Sunday” in the Bible but the “first of the sabbath” and so on. In fact it not certain that any apostle would even know the word “Sunday.”

Our modern days, however, are all named for pagan gods:

Sunday (Sol, Sun god);
Monday (Moon god);
Tuesday (Tiu, Anglo-Saxon name for Mars god of war);
Wednesday (Odin/Woden, supreme deity of the Anglo-Saxon/Norse mythology);
Thursday (Thor, Anglo-Saxon god);
Friday (Frigga, the goddess wife of Odin);
Saturday (Saturn, Roman god of fun and feasting).

In the Bible, including the NT, days are not given these pagan names but numbered in relation to the Sabbath as noted above.

In the biblical calendar there is no winter, spring, summer and fall seasons. Israel has basically two meteorological seasons, a long warmer summer and a cooler wetter “winter.” What the Bible calls “seasons” in older translations of Genesis 1.14 are not winter, spring, summer and fall. In the 2011 NIV we read, correctly,

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years

The “sacred times” are marked on the calendar in Genesis 1. these are the festival “seasons” of Israel. The season of Passover, the season of Weeks, the season of Tabernacles, etc. What is so interesting is that though Paul certainly told Gentiles they did not have to observe special days as a requirement for salvation, it is certain that he taught Gentiles Jewish time. For more on Genesis 1.14 see “Seasons or Special Days: Genesis 1.14 and Israel’s Worship Calendar.” The NT does not follow “Roman” time but “Jewish” time.

In modern America, even for most believers, “time” is a completely secularized concept. This is not only unknown in Scripture but it is completely alien to it. It would also have been alien to any Greek or Roman of the day.

Time is filled with God and tells the story of Yahweh and God’s mighty acts on behalf of creation through God’s people Israel. The Calendar was the vehicle for teaching the faith in Yahweh and what God had done and will continue to do.

This calendar is deeply embedded in the very fabric of Scripture itself. A simple example would be the prophet and book of Haggai. Haggai’s name, חגי, is quite literally “festive” or “festival.” The book of Haggai dates itself as follows,

1.1, “on the first day of the sixth month,
the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai

2.1 “on the twenty-first day of the seventh month,
the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai

Etc. The sixth month is Elul. The seventh month is Tishrei. Haggai dates the oracle to the “twenty-first day.” What is the twenty-first day? It is the last day of Sukkot or the Festival of Tabernacles which follows on the heels of Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei. Jews would read (or hear) these words in association with the festival they were observing. Haggai’s message is clearly appropriate for the calendar it is associated with and adds considerable layers of meaning to the book. But when we ignore the biblical calendar we miss what the text assumes you and I bring to the text.

The early church continued this calendar. The Way did not tell the story of Rome or Alexander but of what the God of Israel had done in and through Jesus the King of the Jews who has inherited the nations. This explains a great deal in the early church. The calendar is the story of God with God’s creation blessing the world through the family of Abraham. That is the story the Way celebrates in the “time” allotted to it.

Jesus lived according to this calendar.
Jesus died according to this calendar.
Jesus was raised by Yahweh in the flesh according to this calendar.
Yahweh poured out the Spirit and renewed God’s covenant according to this calendar.

It would serve us well to at least recognize it in the biblical narrative.

Helpful Resources

David Ewing Duncan, The Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. (A general and lively read into the history of calendars around the world).

Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding the Calendars in the Old Testament in Context. (This is one of the better introductions to the biblical calendar and how it structures the biblical narrative).

Jin K. Hwang, “Jewish Pilgrim Festivals and Calendar in Paul’s Ministry with Gentile Churches,” Tyndale Bulletin 64 (2013): 89-107. (This is an in-depth look at calendars in the Roman Empire of the first century. Hwang delves deeply into the evidence in the New Testament, especially Paul, on how the NT uses the Jewish rather than a Roman or Gentile calendar. He concludes that Paul did teach the Jewish calendar to his Gentile converts even as he did not require Gentile observance of sacred days).

2 Responses to “The Calendar Chasm: World of Israel vs Modern West”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Bobby, very good article that once again shows us that we don’t understand the scriptures as much as we would like to think we do. In regards to the days, being evening to evening, we argue this was a Jewish concept, but in Genesis this approach is laid out during creation. Following this understanding makes the reality that the early saints observed the Sabbath, not only because it was the Sabbath, but because it was that evening when the First Day of the Week was observed. This makes the story in Acts 20 about the boy who fell from the window after falling asleep on the first day of the week and as Paul preached until midnight make sense.

  2. Ed Dodds Says:

    This runs parallel to the importance of Jewish “Zodiac” – Astronomy – Astrology re: the heavens declaring the attributes of God. The stories assigned to each astronomical sign differ on a national narrative basis. Whether one agrees with his final conclusion, Mike Heiser’s use of these insights is informative https://drmsh.com/september-11-happy-birthday-to-jesus/


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