Chronology and Prediction
Early traditions which related chronology to apocalyptic predictions focussed on references to 1000s in Scripture. In Psalm 89(90).4, it reads ‘a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday, which is past’, and in II Peter 3.8, ‘But of this one thing be not ignorant, my beloved, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’.
The second passage in particular encouraged some people to think the Creation Week – six days of work, one day of rest – was a model for the totality of human history. If each ‘day’ lasted 1000 years, then the world would last 6000 years, with a final 1000 years for rest.
Then, one needed only to work out the age of the world, and there were a number of ideas put forward:
- (AMI) Creation = 5,500 years before the Incarnation. The 6,000th and final year of the world would then fall in AD 500 or thereabouts. This model was proposed, separately, by Hippolytus of Rome and Julius Africanus in the third century.
- (AMII) Creation = 5,199/ 5,200 years before the Incarnation, with the Year 6,000 therefore falling around AD 800. This calculation was proposed by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. It was popularised in the Latin West by Jerome but found little favour in the East.
- Creation = 5,008 years before the Incarnation. This calculation became the dominant accepted tradition in the Greek East.
- (AMIII) Creation = 3,952 years before the Incarnation, with the Year 6,000 to fall in AD 2048. The reason for the drastic reduction in the age of the world was that previous efforts had relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. The Hebrew – and its Latin translation in the Vulgate Bible – gave many different ages for the Old Testament Patriarchs. In the Greek, for example, Adam lived 230 years before Seth was born, but in the Hebrew only 130. The full calculation may only have been made properly in seventh-century Ireland or at least by the time Bede first used it in his work ‘On times’ (AD 703).
Whether many people believed that the 6,000 year of the world would bring some kind of change is a matter of some scholarly debate. In Acts, Jesus announced ‘ It is not for you to know the time or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power’ (Acts, 1.7). Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, expressly forbade Christians from trying to predict the End. There is, nevertheless, evidence that people did consider the possibility that chronology was a predictive tool.
Augustine also challenged the millenarian idea that after 6,000 years there would be an earthly millennium in which Christ reigned with his saints (Rev. 20,4). Instead, he argued, the Seventh Age began with the Incarnation. The implication for those in c. AD 500 or c. AD 800 was that the completion of 6,000 years might signy the end of time rather than a new age of peace.
Debates about chronology and apocalypticism paved the way for more hope and anxiety around the millennial anniversaries of Christ’s Incarnation (c. AD 1000) and Passion (c. AD 1033). Augustine’s association of the millennial reign of Christ with the Incarnation, in particular, may have supported rather than undermined apocalyptic expectations here, as is suggested by curious comments by Bede (c. 703) and Haimo of Auxerre (c. 850) on the matter.
Nothing was clearly promised in Scripture and this was the line most Christians took. Bede, for instance, followed Augustine in saying that you will be disappointed if you make a prediction and then the End comes too soon or too late in relation to it. The only thing one could do was to prepare. Uncertainty, here, encouraged people to act for the better.
- R. Landes, ‘Lest the Millennium be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography, 100-800 CE’, in W. Verbeke, D. Verhelst, and A. Welkenhuysen (eds.), The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, (Leuven, 1988), 137-211.
- —, ‘The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historiography, Medieval and Modern’, Speculum, 75. 1 (2000), 97-145 [link].
- J. T. Palmer, ‘Calculating Time and the End of Time in the Carolingian World, c. 740-c.820’, English Historical Review, 126/ 523 (2011), 1307-1331.