Like many people, I like to celebrate when my car has gone 100,000
miles. That coincides (quite intuitively) with the odometer
rolling over from 99,999 to 100,000. It works just the
way you want, because the car was built with the odometer set
to zero (as any sane person would initialize it). Imagine a
car maker starting the odometer at 1, with the rationale
"that's what it should read during the first mile".
"We have uniformly rejected all letters and declined all discussion upon the question of when the present century ends, as it is one of the most absurd that can engage the public attention, and we are astonished to find it has been the subject of so much dispute, since it appears plain. The present century will not terminate till January 1, 1801, unless it can be made out that 99 are 100... It is a silly, childish discussion, and only exposes the want of brains of those who maintain a contrary opinion to that we have stated."
Please see Sean Oberle's article, below.
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If you are one of those people who insist that the millennium starts January 1, 2001, you probably are a stickler for being correct. You believe that while 2000 might have aesthetic and popular appeal, being correct is more important. In fact, I bet you spent much of 1999 telling people something like: "There was no year zero. Therefore the first millennium was 1 to 1000, the second is 1001 to 2000, and the third doesn't start until 2001."
Well, if your motivation truly is to adhere to accuracy (rather than some childish desire to show up people), then read on with an open (if skeptical) mind.
You've probably read one of those millennium articles that say it's all due to the 6th Century monk Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) "leaving off" a year zero. Dionysius is the fellow who started the tally that became our count of AD years. The count is his. If we are going to be sticklers, then we ought to adhere to the way that Dionysius was counting. Otherwise, what's the point of being pedantic? Thus understanding how his tally works and whether the so-called missing zero matters is key to having an educated opinion in the 2000/2001 debate.
The first step is to realize that we have an odd situation in which the tally we apply to our calendar originally was designed for use in something other than a calendar, and someone centuries later started applying it the way we understand it.
In the process, the tally, which originally consisted of cardinal numbers became changed to ordinal numbers.
Thus for you 2001 "purists" the dilemma becomes: Are you going to apply the numbers in their original cardinal form, or are you going to insist that the misunderstanding that occurred centuries later is "technically correct." It seems rather silly to insist that a mistake is "technically correct." The numbers in their original form gives use Millennium 2000. It's the mistake understanding that gives us 2001.
WHAT ARE CARDINAL AND ORDINAL NUMBERS?
Ordinal numbers (often written first, second, etc.) tell us which unit we currently are dealing with, while cardinal numbers (one, two, etc.) tell us how many units have occurred.
If this distinction is unclear, think of a measuring ruler. The number 1 does not occur at the edge of ruler, but at a particular distance from the edge (an inch, centimeter or whatever). Thus you have two concepts. The "the 1st inch" describes a length of one dimensional space that occurs BEFORE the number. But the number one is a point that describes what comes before it. There is a difference between placing a mark "IN the first inch" and placing it "AT one inch." As well, if you were at 1.1 inches and someone asked, "How many inches came before this point?" even though you were in the second inch, you would correctly answer, "one."
Now, substitute "year" for "inch." If the year 1 AD refers to the cardinal count, the name would mean "one year passed before this year." It would be very similar to how we define a child's age. A child becomes "one" AT year one, but we call the tyke "1 year old" IN the 2nd year of life, 2 during the 3rd, and so on.. This also is similar to how we note hours: 1 o'clock begins the 2nd hour because the number 1 refers to the hour that already occurred not the one that is occurring.
These examples show how we count time cardinally in some cases. However, to be fair, we also count time ordinally. December 1 applies during the first day of that month.
Thus all we can say so far is that the year names might come from a cardinal count. We still have to look at the history below to determine which is correct.
If I am correct, 1 AD would be the second year, and by extension, 1999 would be the 2000th year, making 2000 the 2001st year. That would make those millennium celebrations on Dec. 31, 1999 correct and the pedants who insisted "technically next year" technically wrong.
SO WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THE FIRST YEAR?
You probably noticed the lack of a name for the 1st year and now are wondering if the name of the 1st year is 1 BC (before Christ). The AD years are considered the "Christian Era," so, you wonder further, how could the 1st year of the Christian Era be "before Christ?"
The problem with that question is that Dionysius never referred to it as 1 BC. The BC term originated centuries after he lived, so cannot describe his thinking. If the creator of the BC term (the English monk Bede the Venerable) assumed centuries later that the year before AD 1 was "before Christ," that doesn't mean that Dionysius thought that way. (More on Bede later.)
So, even though the first year of this era has a name that would make it appear to part of the previous era, it is part of this era. While the reason for this is technically different, it is similar to why the hour 12:00 to 12:59 is actually the first hour even though a person totally unfamiliar with our clock would reasonably surmise that 12 started the 12th hour.
We have no problem remembering how our clock works because we deal with 12 as 1st hour twice a day. But we've forgotten how the Dionysian tally works because not only is the history a bit sketchy, the question comes up only once every 100 years.
Nonetheless, it is just as wrong to say the Dionysian era, which AD numbers signify, started with AD 1 as it would be to say the day starts at 1 a.m. Thus we have a situation in which the "technically correct" answer of 2001 is silly adherence to Bede's misunderstanding.
DID DIONYSIUS COUNT WITH CARDINAL NUMBERS?
Let's look at what Dionysius was doing when he created the tally that became our years. He was expanding something called a paschal table, a matrix by which the Roman Church could calculate the date of Easter. Easter is a movable feast. Its date changes year-to-year. Because of mildly complex calculations involving 28 cycles of 19 years, the dates of Easter run a pattern that recurs over 532 years (19 * 28 = 532). This is called a Great Paschal Period.
Dionysius designated the first year of his table "532 ab incarnatione Iesu Christi" or "532 from the incarnation of Jesus Christ." His designation later became our AD 532. Incidentally, this recurrence of 532 will become important in a minute. Meanwhile, the following is what Dionysius said about WHY he set up the tally that we now use as a year count.
"I have been unwilling to connect our cycle with the name of an impious persecutor, but have chosen rather to note the years from the incarnation of Jesus Christ to the end that the commencement of our hope might be better known to us and that the cause of man's restoration, namely, our Redeemer's passion, might appear with clearer evidence."
The "impious persecutor" was the Emperor Diocletian, under whose rule of Rome many Christians had been martyred. When Dionysius constructed his tables, the calendar in common use counted years from the first year of Diocletian's reign a few hundred years before. Basically, Dionysius said he didn't want the year tally in a Christian table to have connection to a murderer of Christians. Instead, within his tables, he counted years from Christ's incarnation.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INCARNATION AND BIRTH
Most of us always have heard the creator of our calendar thought that Christ was born in AD 1. That's a reasonable assumption, certainly. However, if you review authoritative sources, you'll find something that might surprise you: most knowledgeable historians say Dionysius thought Christ was born in 1 BC. (Yes, Dionysius was off by about 3 years, but that's irrelevant to this discussion. That's a different "real millennium" debate.)
Many of these historians who realize that Dionysius dated Christ's birth in 1 BC, however, explain away this seeming oddity by assuming that because Christmas is so close to New Year's that Dionysius simply must have ignored the first week of Christ's life and started his count on January 1, AD 1. Frankly, that is nothing but speculation.
The problem with this speculative theory is that Dionysius said he was measuring years from the INCARNATION of Christ. Incarnation is not birth.
While this is a theological oversimplification, think of incarnation as conception. In Christian theology, Jesus became incarnate ("the word became flesh") in Mary's womb at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. The Feast of the Annunciation is nine months, one human gestation period, before Christmas on March 25.
So should we believe that Dionysius used incarnation precisely? We must believe so. He was a translator, and he was influential on theological matters, influential enough, in fact, that the pope himself assigned him the paschal table job. As a translator, using words precisely would have been important to him. As a highly connected church scholar, he would have understood the difference between incarnation and nativity.
It is inconceivable that he would have used the word incarnation loosely on a document to be used in an official capacity by the Church. When he said incarnation, he meant the event the Church celebrates on March 25.
That means that if he set incarnation in 1 BC, as most experts agree, his starting point (the epoch) is at least nine months before the year named 1 AD. It might be plausible that he excluded a few days between December 25 and January 1; less so that he excluded the better part of a year.
But did he believe that Christ became incarnate in the year preceding the year he tagged 1?
WHY 1 AD IS THE SECOND YEAR OF THIS ERA
Let's examine the reason why most experts say Dionysius actually set Christ's incarnation and birth in 1 BC. We know very little about how Dionysius set Christ's incarnation. As a matter of fact, that quotation above in italics is nearly all we have. But by comparing that statement to his tables, historians deduce 1 BC. Here's why:
Read his statement again. From it we can tell a few facts, including these two: His year tally starts from the incarnation, and his tables are rooted in that year tally.
Remember I told you that the recurrence of 532 would be important. Dionysius was tabulating those 532 year cycles, and he started a cycle with a year he called 532.
Do the math: If 532 was the first year of a cycle, then the cycle before it consisted of 531 AD years (1 to 531) plus one other. That other year is what we now call 1 BC. If he did what he said he did, tie the cycles to a count that starts with the incarnation, then a synchronicity between the year of incarnation and the first year of a cycle would make sense. That's why the historians believe he set incarnation in what we now call 1 BC.
SO WHAT ABOUT JANUARY 1?
Meanwhile, you've probably noticed the conspicuous absence of January 1 in my discussion. It is true that when Dionysius lived, January 1 was New Year's day in the Roman civil calendar. The problem is our modern assumption that Dionysius somehow wanted to renumber the Roman civil calendar. This assumption is based on his statement in the above quotation that he didn't want to number years based on the Diocletian count.
But the statement is NOT necessarily a suggestion by Dionysius that the Roman civil calendar be reformed with new year numbers. Dionysius said only that he wished to disconnect his tables from the civil calendar. There is a way to do that which is more straightforward than the social disruption of totally overhauling a calendar: Create a numbering system for use within the tables that works independently of the civil year, and that is what Dionysius seems to have done. Get it? His tables worked independently of, not instead of the Roman calendar.
Incidentally, there is nothing odd about different counts working simultaneously. We do it today in the United States. Our popular calendar starts Jan. 1, the federal government's year starts Oct. 1, and, depending on our beliefs, religious years start on various other dates.
So why did a count starting with March 25 and designed simply for use within the Dionysian tables become associated with the world's common calendar, which starts January 1? It starts with Bede the Venerable, an 8th century English monk.
Historians credit Bede with popularizing the Dionysian count for use in the general calendar and with originating the term "before Christ." Notably, the English civil year until 1752, began on March 25 (yes, in the middle of the month) just like the Dionysian count.
But whatever the nature of this March 25th nexus in England, the Dionysian count gradually spread through Europe. However, for centuries various nations started the year at different times, mainly on January 1, March 1, March 25 and December 25. Eventually, especially after the 16th Century calendar reform by Pope Gregory, January 1 won out, and that's what we have today.
SO WHY ALL THIS "TECHNICALLY 2001" NOISE?
So here you are, insisting that the millennium starts January 1, 2001. What's your basis? Come on, you're making a claim about being "technically correct." What's your basis?
It's certainly not the originator of the count, Dionysius. His count makes sense only if we view it as cardinal: 1 applies during the 2nd year. That makes 1999 the 2000th year of the count.
If it is Bede, who seems to have mistakenly assumed ordinal numbers with the BC count, I'll call you silly. You'd be saying, "It is technically correct to adhere to Bede's mistake."
If it is Gregory, I'll ask you why. While Gregory's reforms are very important to our calendar unrelated to this particular point, the most bearing that Gregory has on the point is the universalization of January 1 as New Year's. But he doesn't help us decide which January 1.
If you simply insist on counting only AD years, regardless of the historical anchor point established by the originator of the count (Dionysius), I'll say you are applying more significance to the tool than what it measures. The Dionysian era begins one year before AD 1. We are celebrating 2000 years of that era, not 2000 AD clicks.
Which is it going to be: Dionysius' count, original and cardinal, yields January 1, 2000 or Bede's ordinal mistake yields January 1, 2001? Are you going to go with the monk who started it all, and whose count happens to agree with the popular sentiment of 2000, or are you going to insist that we stick to with some later monk's mistake?
The popular sentiment does have merit, incidentally. Calendars are our tools. We should define how they behave, not the other way around. Moreover, they bind us together as a society, and this 2001 nit-picking serves only as a source of pointless argument and a springboard for the more childish pedants among us to "get one up" on their friends..
Fortunately, our children need not deal with it in 2099 because the notion that there is some sort of opposition between correct and popular in this case is an illusion. The illusion exists because someone "analyzed" our year count in a vacuum, and that "analysis" caught on. When viewed in the air of historical facts, this "analysis" that yields 2001 is shown for the bunk it is.
Millennium 2000 agrees with BOTH popular sentiment and the original
Dionysian count. Millennium 2001 is adherence to a mistake.