Ancient Jewish Calendar Construction—No. 1

A look at historical, archaeological, and scientific findings.

By GRACE EDITH AMADON, Research Worker, Takonta Park, Maryland

In the study on the ancient Passover date in the February Ministry, attention was called to the statement by Aristobulus that the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month always followed the evening when the moon rose full at sunset.1 That the earth's satellite rises full at sunset, about the middle of each lunation, is commonly known; but that this astronomical event could occur always on the same Jewish date requires more explanation than at first ap­pears from the original text of the commentary of Aristobulus. For it involves the astronomical premise that the Passover moon had to be caught full, as observed from one particular geographi­cal position only, if its date were to be constant and its relation to the festal sacrifice were always to be the same. Deuteronomic law early pro­vided for exactly such a place with respect to the paschal offering, and it was described as a place "which the Lord Thy God shall choose to place His name in."

"Thou mayest not sacrifice the Passover within any of thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee : but at the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place His name in, there thou shalt sacrifice the Passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that thou earnest forth out of Egypt." Deut. 16 :3, 6.

Jerusalem the Appointed Place

These specifications are very precise, and when carefully analyzed, they will be seen to represent the important relation that existed between the Passover date and the calendar moon. Moreover, in connection with them (1) the sickle was first put to the barleycorn each year (Deut. 16 :9) ; (2) a handful of ripe bar­ley was waved by the priest on a certain date, called "the morrow after the sabbath" (Lev. 23 :11) ; and (3) on the fiftieth day after this day of the wave sheaf—inclusive of both days—the one-day feast of Pentecost was appointed by law. (Lev. 23:15, 16.)2 In these instruc­tions we have calculation pure and simple—one that is based upon a particular latitude and longitude, that is, the Holy City where God ulti­mately chose to place His name.

In ancient times, when the occupied territory of the earth was small, the question of a pri­mary meridian could not have greatly compli­cated the calendar problem. For the people of Israel, however, several millenniums before navigation and discovery forced a prime meridian and its calendar line,3 divine law had been very explicit with regard to the exact place where the moon's phases and dates were to be taken ac­count of. And even before a permanent place had been found for the ark of God, and the temple had been built, David had appointed the tribe of Issachar in command of the Jewish year. They were men "that had understanding of the times," or years (1 Chron. 12:32), simi­lar to the wise men of Ahasuerus (Esther 1 :13), and in Jewish history they are always spoken of as astronomers.' Moreover, previous to David's administration, we find double dates for the new moon in Israelite practice. (1 Sam. 20:24, 27.) This fact is good evidence that it was anciently known that the local phases of the moon are dated earlier and earlier as the earth revolves eastward. Hence the double new moon date was but an attempt to accommodate the festal ceremonies to the communities scattered abroad—a later lunar date in the east than in the west, paradoxical though it may seem.

In addition, from the time of the earliest itineraries by a missionary people, it must have been discovered that the moon's first appearance after the conjunction commonly depends not only upon the geographical latitude but also upon the longitude of an observer—that fre­quently the new moon may not be seen in a certain place, but yet may be seen in another place not far to the west. Again, it may be seen in both places at once.

Double Date—Both Solar and Lunar

Had Aristobulus lived in the twentieth cen­tury, when he could have been in touch with the whole world through radio, cable, or tele­phone, it would have been revealed to him that civilization has not given a preference to a universal standard day; but instead, after cen­turies of argument, navigation accepted a standard solar meridian.5 By this convention both a western solar date and an eastern solar date are in progress as the earth turns round, the Asiatic, or eastern, date being one day in advance of the American, or western, date.

It can similarly be stated that ancient lunar dates have had a like rule of correspondence to the revolution of the earth—that no universal standard day of the moon has kept pace with the earth's twenty-four-hour motion, but that, instead, lunar calendars also became in­volved with an eastern and western date. We know that this is true on account of the double-dated new moons, as mentioned in Samuel. Jew­ish history also records a diversity of lunar dates being operative in various parts of the world.6 Ultimately these double new moon days became a fixed feature in the Reformed Jewish calendar. The farther west Jewish civilization advanced, the greater the necessity for the dou­ble moon dates. They always occur at the end of every thirty-day month—one new moon sab­bath for the old month, and a second new moon sabbath for the new month.7

The first was originally called tricesinta sab­bata, signifying a "thirtieth-day" new moon festival, while the second was called Rosh Ho­desh, as usual, and marked the actual beginning of the new month. This Jewish calendar sab­bath was well known to ancient Gentile writers, and is referred to by Horace in his Ninth Satire, which represents the poet conversing with his friend Fuscus Aristius about this Jewish ors­tom.9 It is an episode that becomes an addi­tional witness to the ancient methods of calcula­tion. Those in charge of the calendar had to know just when the thirty-day months would occur, for frequently tricesima sabbata had to be celebrated before the new moon crescent was seen. Once the people cried, "Mekudash, Meku­dash, sanetificata est, sanetifleata est," insisting that the crescent had been seen and that the new moon day should be sanctified; whereupon Rabbi Simeon, son of Gamaliel, replied that according to the calculation of the synagogue, the new moon must be designated on the next day.9

The Astronomical Council

Under the second temple—from Ezra to 70 A. D.—the time finally came that the new year was appointed by a judiciary act which was preceded by the hearing of witnesses. Accord­ing to Schwarz, it is probable that the Great Synagogue established this custom that the new moons—at least of Nisan and Tishri—should be confirmed by observation and the deposition of credible witnesses.10 It became the duty of every Israelite to inform the Jewish court per­sonally if he had seen the new moon. He might even override the Sabbath; and no matter how many witnesses were called before the Sanhe­drin, every testimony was heard. On the con­trary, no final result was ever to be made public, and for this reason only men who were reticent and trustworthy were summoned?11

The patriarch who presided over the astro­nomical council had to know whether the wit­nesses gave a correct report of the moon's posi­tion. He must be able to calculate in advance with great precision the direct visibility of the the crescent.12 Sidersky, citing Albiruni, in­sists that these calculations had been in use since the second century B.C., and that probably they go back much earlier in point of time.13 Zuck­ermann maintains that the formalities of the ancient tribunal were used merely to confirm the astronomical calculations, and above all, to surround with mystery the deliberation of the council behind closed doors.14

In any event, it is most important to know that in New Testament times the Jewish people had an established institution of their own for regulating their form of lunar year; and that it was presided over by patriarchs who were well informed and well trained in calendar science. Furthermore, the early testimony of Claudius Apollinaris and other Quartodeci­mans,15 the later witness of the Karaites,16 and the medieval calendar controversy between the Jews of Jerusalem and Babylon,17 definitely demonstrate that a change in the ancient feast laws of Moses could not have occurred without polemics.

As to the period of reform of the ancient Jewish calendar, Sidersky has pointed out that after the long period of Roman persecution, during which the Jews could scarcely announce their feast dates, the correction of the calculated conjunction which started the Jewish year would necessarily have to be checked with a solar eclipse occurring at the beginning of Nisan. He has shown that, in the period from 10 B. C. to 550 A. D. only one solar eclipse took place near the let of Nisan that could have been seen in Western Asia ;18 namely, that of April 2, 219 A. D., as recorded by Ginzel and Oppolzer.19 In this same year the Jewish Academy at Sura was established, with 1,200 students in attend­ance. At Nehardea, Mar-Samuel was working on calendar reform.20 Jewish sources do not in­sist upon any calendar reform before this time. Josephus is very clear on this point and says:

"And how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do for during so many ages as have already passed, no one hath been so bold as either to add anything to them, or to take anything from them, or to make any change in them." 21

There is also additional proof in recent in­scriptions from the Greco-Syrian city, Dura­Europus, which show that traditional intercala­tion was still in force as late as 31 A. D.22 Since the succession of lunar months was the same as usual in the crucifixion period,23 it is equally conclusive that the beginning of the year, which was governed by the reports of the moon wit­nesses, was permanently established under the Second Temple at least. We have proof of this in the Biblical and historical synchronisms for the same period. They show that the ancient Jewish calendar was definitely lunar in the first century, and that the Passover on 14 Nisan also maintained its customary calendric relation to the full moon; namely, on the next day after.

About the simplest form of synchronism is found in connection with Paul's Passover feast at Philippi, as recorded in Acts 20.

Paul's Passover at Philippi

The traditional date for Acts 20 is 60 A. D. This is the date which appears in the margin of all Oxford Bibles of the facsimile series. Re­cently German scholarship has proposed an earlier date-59 A. D., and even 58 A. D.24 This earlier dating, however, is based upon an earlier year than 35 A. D. for Paul's conversion-an ar­gument that does not harmonize with the autumn ending in 34 A. D. of Daniel's "seventieth week." We shall apply the synchronism to the year 60 A. D., and then demonstrate that it could not agree astronomically with the other years pro­posed. The synchronism consists in an equa­tion that identifies Sunday as the twentieth day after Paul's Passover at Philippi. The follow­ing diagram illustrates (See PDF)

It has frequently been said that the Bible does not take note of any intercalary month. But, in harmony with Luke's account, the pas­chal month in Acts 20 was necessarily interca­lary. In Ant. III.X.5, in the Greek, Josephus speaks of Nisan fourteen "according to the moon." This phrase is significant. Philo also understood this Passover-full-moon analogy ; and in early Christian literature, the names of Philo and Josephus are repeatedly associated with those of Aristobulus, Anatolius, and Theophilus, as maintaining that the ancient Jewish Passover occurred after the full moon. There is no crucifixion calendar of ancient record; but on the basis of the Passover relation to the full moon, one can be constructed. And it will agree with the ancient synchronisms.

1 Nicolai Nancelii, Analogia Microcosmi ad 3facrocos neon, col. 1204. Lutetiae, Parisiorum, 1611.

2 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 340; The Desire of Ages, p. 77. .

3 W. G. Perrin, "The Prime Meridian," The Observa­tory, Vol. L, August, 1927, p. 238 ff.

4 Jewish Encyclopedia.

5 Bulletin No. 78, "Notes on the History of the Date or Calendar Line," reprinted from the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. XI, No. 6, pp. 385-388, 1930.

6 Samuel Poznanski, "Ben Meir and the Origin of the Jewish Calendar," Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. X, 1897, p. 152 ff.

7 Cf. Modern Jewish Almanac

8 Q. Horati Flacci, Satires I, ix, 67-74.

9 Aegidii Bucherii, Be Doctrina Temporunt, Antver­piae, 1634, p. 373.

10 Adolf Schwarz, Der jiidische Kalender, p. 15. B res lau, 1872.

11 Ibid.

12 D. Sidersky, Etude cur l'origine astronomique de la chronologie juive," Mentoires presentes par divers sa­vants é PAcadentie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres de P Institut de France, Vol. XII, part 2, p. 622. Paris, 1913.

13 Id., p. 596.

14B. Zuckermann, Materia lien zur Entwicklung der altjiidischen Zeitrechnung int Talmud, p. 21. Breslau, 1882.

15 Theodor von Zahn, Forschungen vu? Gesell,. des N. T. Kanons, III, pp. 177-196.

16 Philip Birnbaum, The Arabic Commentary of Yefet ben 'Ali the Karaite on the Book of Hosea, p. xxviii. Philadelphia, 1942. (An argument against Talmudic authority.)


17 Ref. 6, p. 158.

18 Ref. 12, cf. Table on p. 646. "

19 Id., pp. 647-648.

201d., p. 648, par. 42.

21 Josephus, Against Apion LS, tr. Whiston, 1844.

22 M. I. RostovtzefE, F. E. Brown. and C. B. Wells, The Excavations at Dare-Europus, Seventh and Eighth Seasons, 1939, p. 309, note S.

23 Jotham Johnson, Dura Studies, p. 8, note 25. Philadelphia, 1932.

24 Emil Schiirer, A ifistory of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, First Division, Vol. II, pp. 182-184. Scribner's, New York.

25 The conjunction dates for Near East Civil Time are computed from Ginzel's Chronologie. The hours and minutes are given in decimal form.

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By GRACE EDITH AMADON, Research Worker, Takonta Park, Maryland

March 1944

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