Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino
Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.
Question #45 – If the Christian Era Begins with the Birth of Jesus, Why Doesn’t Our Calendar Year Start on December 25?
The Christian era theoretically begins with the birth of Jesus Christ, but the calendar year begins January 1 instead of December 25, the traditional birthday of Jesus.
This anomalous situation is because the Christian era was not calculated until the sixth century and was not generally accepted in Christendom until about the year 1000. Consequently the beginning of the era was projected into the past.
The Romans reckoned time from the legendary date of the founding of Rome. The starting point in Roman chronology was Anno Urbis Conditae (A.U.C.), which literally means “in the year of the founded city.”“The Christian era was not calculated until the sixth century and was not generally accepted in Christendom until about the year 1000.”
About 532 A.D., after Christianity had become dominant in the old Roman Empire, a learned monk of Rome named Dionysius Exiguus worked out a Christian system of chronology to take the place of the then prevalent pagan system. He concluded that Jesus was born December 25, 753 A.U.C.
During the first centuries there was little uniformity in the date observed as the nativity. The first Christ-mass was celebrated on December 25 in Rome about 350 A.D., but this was regarded as a legendary date as Christmas was observed on different days throughout Christendom.
Dionysius should have begun the new era with December 25, but he decided to begin it with January 1 because he wanted to leave the Roman year and months intact and did not want to upset the established order.“Modern scholars believe Dionysius was off several years in fixing the birth date of Jesus Christ and consequently we have the anomalous situation of Christ having been born at least four or five years before the beginning of the era that bears his name.”
Accordingly he began the Christian era with the first day in 754 A.U.C. His new system did not completely supplant the old system in the Western world until about 1000 A.D.
Emperor Charles III of Germany was the first sovereign to adopt the new system and in 879 A.D. he adopted Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord.”
Modern scholars believe Dionysius was off several years in fixing the birth date of Jesus Christ and consequently we have the anomalous situation of Christ having been born at least four or five years before the beginning of the era that bears his name.
After the Christian calendar and era became firmly established with December 25 as Christmas, it was impractical to change it and upset the entire system.
As a matter of fact, the entire Christian world is not yet in agreement even on the traditional day of the birth of Jesus.
While Roman Catholics and Protestants generally observe Christmas on December 25, Orthodox Greek Catholics observe it on January 6 and the Armenian Church on January 19.
The epoch beginning with the birth of Jesus is also called the “common era,” particularly by orthodox Jews, who are compelled to recognize it for practical purposes, but who object to it as the Christian era on the ground that such notice might be interpreted as a recognition of its founder.“The entire Christian world is not yet in agreement on the traditional day of the birth of Jesus.”
Strict Jews who use the Christian date seldom add the letters A.D. The Jewish calendar reckons time from the year 3761 B.C, the traditional date of creation of man.
This Jewish calendar, which assumed its present form in the fourth century A.D. in the time of Hillel II, is based on the motions of both the sun and the moon and in consequence the Jewish New Year; and thus other Jewish holidays do not fall on the same date each year according to the Gregorian calendar.
Although Christmas is a fixed date in the Christian calendar, Easter and certain other church days are variable dates and are determined somewhat after the manner of the Jewish calendar.
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New Map of the World, from Hendrik Hondius (1597-1644) and Jan Jansson’s “Atlas Novus,” Amsterdam. The Minneapolis Institute of Art. P.14,612.