October 23, 1997
Today Is the Day
By STEPHEN JAY GOULDI do apologize for intruding upon a perfectly pleasant morning with the potentially unwelcome news that the world will end today -- precisely at noon. I base these tidings on the most famous and widely accepted chronology built by a method that the greatest Western scholars once viewed as beyond reproach.
In this standard scheme, widely accepted from the days of the early Church Fathers (for example, Lactantius in the fourth century) to the beginnings of modern geology in the 18th century, the earth would endure for exactly 6,000 years -- since God had fashioned his entire creation in a mere six days, and several biblical passages proclaimed that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years" (II Peter 3:8). The completion of these 6,000 years would evoke Armageddon, followed by the true Millennium -- the thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth, initiated by his Second Coming and corresponding with God's seventh day of rest (Revelation 20).
Thus, if one could determine the date of creation, one could know the moment of apocalypse with certainty -- exactly 6,000 years after the beginning of the world. The chronological craze that swept European scholarship during the 17th century emanated from this millenarian theory, as a rash of religious wars convinced many pundits that the end of days must be nigh. By accepting the Bible's literal truth, and then counting the time of creation, the ages of the patriarchs and the reigns of the kings (and also using the chronologies of other peoples to fill in the missing centuries of the biblical narrative), these scholars tried to locate the moment of creation.
The most popular version, devised by Archbishop James Ussher in 1650 and widely propagated by inclusion in nearly all subsequent editions of the King James Bible, set the moment of creation at Oct. 23, 4004 B.C. -- precisely at noon.
Ussher calculated this moment at exactly 4,000 years before the birth of Jesus. But the sixth-century inventor of the B.C.-A.D. time system, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short), had made a little error in determining the birth of Jesus. Copious evidence placed the death of Herod in 4 B.C. at the latest. So if the lives of Jesus and Herod overlapped (as any biblical literalist must accept given such stories as the return of the Magi to their own country and of Herod's subsequent slaughter of the innocents), then Jesus was born in 4 B.C. (however oxymoronic the statement), if not earlier. The date of creation therefore slides back by four years, to 4004 B.C.
One might think that the allotted 6,000 years should have ended on Oct. 23, 1996, with no event of greater note than the Yankees' miraculous victory (not, alas, to be repeated this season) in Game 4 of the World Series. But Little Dennis also made another error -- not really his fault this time, since Western arithmetic had not yet developed the concept of zero. He began modern time on January 1, year one -- not January 1, year zero. Therefore, Ussher's 6,000 years will end today -- at noon on Oct. 23, 1997.
Oh, I know that the corps of carpers and whiners will be active as usual. Yes, I know that Ussher was using the old Julian calendar, and that he chose Oct. 23 as the autumnal equinox for that distant date on his erroneous scorecard -- so maybe the end really came last month on the Gregorian date of the equinox. And yes, I know that the earth is really 4.5 billion years old. (As a paleontologist, I even get paid for such tidbits.)
Still, why take chances? As you read this column, I should be bound for Japan. If luck and airline schedules hold, I can cross the international date line in the morning -- and noon on Oct. 23 will simply disappear, as I cascade immediately into Oct. 24. But do they let you back in after such a ruse? And into what?
I would rather stake my faith on the one empirical constancy in the history of this entire enterprise: apocalyptic predictions always fail! Thus, if I land upright in Japan, I will know that the anticipated apocalypse has been postponed once again. The only true pattern of the ages -- the failure of apocalyptic predictions -- will have repeated one more time to suffuse our spirits with the satisfaction of a knowable world order. God must be in his heaven -- and all must be right with the world.
Stephen Jay Gould is a professor of paleontology at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of ``Questioning the Millennium.''