Millennial Blues by Robert Gorham Davis (June/July 1997)

Athousand years is a long time. In the decimal system–which we can hardly avoid, since we have ten fingers useful to count on–the number is a good round one, consisting of one 1 and three 0’s. There have been two periods of approximately this length since the birth of Christ, the two together labeled in Christian calendars as “the year of our Lord” or “A.D.”

These dates–with the “A.D.” usually assumed and therefore omitted–appear also on the front cover of periodicals which, as their group name “periodical” suggests, come out at set periods, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. If you know when the present issue went on sale at the newsstands, you know when the next issue should be available. The equivalent to A.D. in present-day Moslem or Communist countries I do not know. It all depends what they figure from, unless they use our calendar.

The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, establishes one thousand as a sacred round number. In Chapter 20 Verse 3, predicting the future, it tells how an angel came down from heaven, “holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit and sealed it over him that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand Years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while.”

The footnote in my Oxford annotated Bible says of this period of a thousand years: “. . . beware of reading into this passage more than is warranted, e.g., nothing is said here about a reign on earth.” This footnote is aimed at, among others, sects called “Pre-Millennialists” and “Post-Millennialists.” A millennium of a thousand years seemed long before anthropologists began talking of the Cro-Magnon humans who lived in the paleolithic age, which lasted for 750,000 years. But Fundamentalists, who are biblical literalists, reject pre-Adamic humankind. They ignore whatever scientists such as the Leakeys or Stephen Jay Gould may think, though early humans left plenty of fossils to prove their existence and habits of life.

But there are other puzzles about this passage, too, which is not uncommon with the Bible. Why the “must” in the statement: “after that he must be loosed for a little while”? This in reference to an all-powerful God? Presumably God ordered the loosing, but what were his motives? The same question arises with Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit and Cain’s killing Abel. An omniscient God foresaw and not only approved both violations, but caused them.

Two letters treating the date of the Millennium were published in the New York Times of December 13. They responded to a press release of the Royal Observatory in England, published as a news article on December 9.

Both letters say the Millennial anniversary has already occurred. One pokes fun at the statement of the Observatory that there was no year zero when Christ was born, “that we have lost a year as a result, is silly. . . . We can have a year zero any time we want.” This last statement is puzzling.

The other letter agrees about the faultiness of the date, but not because of the missing year zero. It finds the best evidence to be the birth-date of Jesus in the Gospels, as stated in Matthew 2:1, for instance, that Jesus “was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King.” Herod the king died, it is agreed, in B.C. 4. This is accepted as evidence by the Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown in his Birth of the Messiah.

If you look up “Jesus” in the Micropaedia of the last edition of the Britannica, you find that Herod, during whose reign Jesus was born, died supposedly about 6 B.C., not 4 B.C., making a spread of some six years in recorded authoritative opinion of the date of the end of the second millennium of the Christian era. The current date could be put at any time from the years 2000 to 2006, with 2004 favored. Of course there is some disagreement about whether Jesus Christ existed at all.

Imagine basing a calendar for world use on the birth date of the founder of the world’s largest religion, and then not knowing when that founder was born! Everything depends on when you begin counting. The Romans counted from the founding of the city of Rome–Anno urbis conditae, A.U.C. Christians counted from the death date of Herod. The calendar we use now was prepared at the order of Pope St. John the First by a sixth-century monk with the remarkable name of Dionysius Exiguus or Denis the Little, a monk famous for his skill in arithmetic and in the astronomy of his day, such as it was before the development of telescopes.

Counting years and days is a matter of elementary astronomy and arithmetic, and the movements of the earth, a sphere with a double motion. It spins, making days, and circles the sun, making years. The phases of the moon mark months. The trouble is that none of these–daily spins of the earth, lunar months, or the earth making a wide circle around the sun–create intervals of round numbers. We have to counter this by leap year and giving odd numbers of days to the months. If God made the universe as the basis for a calendar, his mathematics was imperfect.

Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, first advanced the theory that the earth is a planet like other planets, and circles the sun as they do. When the sun sets and it grows dark, another day has ended. Some of us since 1540–including Galileo–had known better than to say “sunset” after the Pole Copernicus consented to the publication of his Of the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. Or we knew what we were doing when we said “set.”

I admit that I say “sunset,” but I do so because everyone else does. It is a matter of common usage.

Galileo’s dates are 1564-1642. When he was released by the Inquisition after imprisonment for promoting Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolved about the sun, he said defiantly to church authorities, “E pur si muove.” “Nevertheless it (the earth) moves.” It is commonly taught in school that in the time of Columbus most people thought the sun revolved around a motionless earth.

The sun is a long way off from the earth and simply looks as if it were setting. At three o’clock in the morning the earth has its back (our side) to the sun, so to speak, and none of the sun’s light reaches the surface of our side of the earth. During the winters of two years I went back and forth to Argentina. This made the astronomic arrangements, the contrast between North and South, very evident.

From time to time during the years I taught, I asked my students what causes the phases of the moon. They rarely knew. They had little sense of the triangle of sun, moon and earth or the distances involved. The sun from which all human energy comes is some 93 million miles from the earth. The moon’s rotation around the earth creates the month, and the earth’s spin creates the day. The earth makes a large circle around the sun which creates the year with its four seasons. These things should be taught all students in school so that they feel at home in the universe they live in. Now they mostly see day and night without understanding them.

This brings us back to the basic question of the enormous size and age of the universe and the strange movements that go on within it. Who or what was responsible for this? The question is unanswerable, and perhaps never can be answered because of the limits of the human body and beliefs in a single all-powerful God. The absurd excitement in the press over the Millennium, an event which may or may not have occurred before the New Testament scheduled is partly a result of applying to what scientists assume about the beginning of things ideas derived from the woefully incorrect opening of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament. Look up, for instance, what it says about the firmament.

We must learn to stop asking of the existence of the universe “Why?” and “How?” We will get no answer.

Foundation member Robert Gorham Davis, a major literary critic for many years and author of the ground-breaking essay, “Logic and Logical Fallacy,” has taught at Harvard, Smith College and foreign universities. He retired as Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Columbia University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation