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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Calendars

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The Old Testament mentions days, months, and years, the basic elements of a calendar; but it has no prescription for regulating one. It was in the rabbinical period that the written treatise on Jewish traditions, Rosh Hashanah , a part of the Mishna, organized the biblical data into the detailed calendrical system that the Jews observe today. We can assume that what the rabbis codified was in general practice among the Jews of the first century, the time of Christ and the apostles, but the New Testament offers little direct calendrical data. Periods into which certain important events are dated mention not the day and month, but the name of one or another of the ancient Jewish festivals: the Passover (usually in the passion pericopes, Matthew 26:1 , Mark 14:1 , Luke 22:1 , John 18-19 ; otherwise at Luke 2:41 and at seven passages in John preceding the passion); the day of Pentecost (the Jewish feast of Weeks), Acts 2:1 , Acts 20:16 , 1 Corinthians 16:8 ; and the feast of dedication (Jewish Hanakkah), John 10:22-23 . The New Testament offers no evidence that the Jews inside or outside Palestine observed the Roman calendar commencing on January 1, but the apocryphal book 1Maccabees and the Jewish historian Josephus do substitute Greek (Macedonian) month names for Jewish month names. We may assume that in business dealings Greek-speaking Jews made free use of them. This was little more than a linguistic convention, however, since the Greek months corresponded with the Jewish months, making little difference in the basis of calendrical reckoning.

The year Anthropological evidence from many regions show that it was possible in the most ancient times to chart the course of the sun in its annual orbit, which occurs in approximately 365 days. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes (the day in the spring and fall, respectively, when days and nights are of equal lengths) were commonly designated as the beginning of a new year. From biblical data and from Near Eastern writings we know that all the peoples from the Mesopotamian area, as well as the Arabians, the Greeks, and the Romans, chose the first, unquestionably because spring is when new life sprouts forth. In Phoenicia, Canaan, and Israel, however, the fall date was chosen, probably for the reason that harvesting marked the end of one agricultural cycle and prepared for the next. In the exilic and postexilic periods, the Jews shifted to the spring new year, but since rabbinic times the fall new year has been observed.

From biblical and archaeological evidence we are able to describe three different ways for reckoning the years and dividing up the months from one new year to the next. Each of them reflects a different social system and religious ideology.

First, a basically agricultural society is reflected in the “Gezer Calendar” discovered by R.A.S. Macalister. This is actually a schoolboy exercise in which primitive Hebrew letters are scratched on a clay tablet. It reads:

His two months are (olive) harvest,
His two months are planting (grain),
His two months are late planting;
His month is hoeing up of flax,
His month is harvest of barley,
His month is harvest and feasting;
His two months are vine-tending,
His month is summer fruit.
(trans. by W.F. Albright, Ancient Near Eastern Texts)

Two things are important to observe: (1) the list commences in the fall and ends with the following summer; (2) because it alternates between two-month and one-month periods and does not name or number the months, we can see that the succession of agricultural activities determines the order of items, and that the year is conceived on the succession of agricultural events rather than on astronomical observation.

Second, the entire Old Testament moves on to a lunar-solar calendar that is based on observation of the heavenly bodies and regulates a more sophisticated order of economic and religious activity. This type of calendar had wide currency among the more advanced societies. It is called “lunar-solar” because it allowed the sun's orbit to mark the years' beginning, but based the beginning of months on observation of the phases of the moon. The first appearance of the new moon would mark the new month. According to the Talmud, the priests would watch for this and proclaim it by sending messengers and blowing trumpets. The problem is, first, that the moon's circuit is about 29 1/2 days, forcing a vacillation between a 30-day and a 29-day month; and second, that twelve of these moon/months equal 354 1/4 days, about eleven days short of the solar year. From the Babylonians the Hebrews learned to add an extra month every two or three years. In rabbinical times this “intercalary” month was inserted seven times in nineteen years.

Third, a sect known as the Essenes created a purely solar calendar that combined mathematical calculation with a special ideology. Discarding observation of the new moon, the Essenes gave each month thirty days but added a special day at the end of each three-month period, giving a year of 364 days. We have reason to believe that when this party tried to put this calendar into practice, the Temple authorities drove them into exile. It would have disrupted the official religious festival cycle based on the lunar-solar year. We know about this erratic calendar only from sectarian books like the scrolls of Qumran.

The month In addition to knowing that the length of months varied and that a new-year date in the spring or fall determined which of them was first, we are able to observe through Israel's history an interesting development in the naming of the months. These names reflected the presence of one or another dominating cultural influence, first that of the Canaanites, then that of Mesopotamia.

The earliest practice was to use the Canaanite month-names, of which four survive in the Bible: Abib (March-April); Ziv (April-May); Ethanim (September-October); and Bul (October-November) (Exodus 13:4 ; Exodus 23:15 ; Exodus 34:18 ; 1Kings 6:1,1 Kings 6:37-38 ; 1 Kings 8:3 ). The other Canaanite months are known from Phoenician inscriptions. These are all agricultural names and reflect a seasonal pattern of reckoning, as in the Gezer calendar.

The usual practice in the Old Testament is to simply number the months from first to twelfth. Some of these numbered months are found in the passages mentioned above, hence the practice must be at least as early as the time of the Israelite monarchy. Because the first month is always in the spring, we must trace this practice back to the patriarchs, who would have learned it in Mesopotamia (Genesis 11:31 ).

When the Jews returned from Babylonian Exile, they brought with them the names of the Babylonian calendar, at the same time counting the new year from the spring. Although the rabbis returned to an autumnal new year, Judaism retains these Babylonian names as its own: Nisan (March-April); Iyyar (April-May); Sivan (May-June); Tammuz (June-July); Ab (July-August); Elul (August-September); Tishri (September-October); Marcheshvan (October-November); Chishylev (November-December); Tebeth (December-January); Shebat (January-February); Adar (February-March). The intercalated year is called WeAdar, “and-Adar.”

Simon J. De Vries


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Calendars'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/c/calendars.html. 1991.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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