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Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Yehoshua bar Yosef was born in the year Zero

"Genealogists," my alleged ancestor Mohammad ibn Abdullah is said to have quipped, "are all liars." That didn't stop him, though, from retaining one to trace his ancestry back to Ibrahim ibn Tarah, and thence to Adam. What makes genealogists so inclined to stretch the truth, however, is not so much a lack of ancestral names, but an overabundance of them. Dozens of different cultures have maintained genealogical lines going back to the dawn of history. Since this predates the Dispersion of Tongues, it means that the earliest ancestors have many different names by which their various lines of descent remember them, resulting in a tendency to sometimes inflate one's genealogy with duplicate names.

Now, what does all this have to do with Jesus being born in the year Zero? Well, in addition to genealogists being liars, so are historians. History not being all that lucrative of an independent profession, historians tend to work for either the church or the state. Given that these two seldom play independent roles in establishing the facts of history, the two are for most historical purposes indistinguishable. Occasionally, though, a heretic will arise and point out that the officially sanctioned historians got it wrong. Although he may be shouted down for the rest of his (sometimes considerably shortened) lifetime, his version of history might just gain widespread acceptance--although it may eventually take a regime change to make it official.

One such case, joining history with both genealogy and biochemistry, was the long campaign of historical author Fawn Brodie to convince the historical establishment (of which she was not a bona fide member, never having majored in history) that Thomas Jefferson was the father, and his wife the aunt, of all the children born to their slave Sally Hemings. To do so, she had to resort to the chronology of respected Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Dumas Malone--and eventually, with the help of that new tool for forensic genealogy--DNA testing--won over all but the most ardent protectors of Jefferson's disputed honor, his adjunct descendants in the Euro-American line.

Another case has now come to my attention. John P. Pratt has proposed nothing more radical than that Dionysius Exiguus, a monk from Russia who died about 544, actually knew what he was talking about when he placed the conception of Jesus at the time of the spring equinox in the year he then called (European science not yet being familiar with the concept of Zero) 1 AD. This calculation, which set a date for Christmas which has never since ceased to be in effect, has nonetheless been ridiculed by some who have made the incredulous suggestion that Brother Denny "perhaps ... had never read the gospel account of the birth of Jesus" in researching for his momentous proclamation.

Ah well, another look at the evidence--by a published astronomer, no less--has now shown Brother Denny to have been right after all, at least to the significance of the spring equinox. Turns out that, in addition to failing to factor in the existence of a year named Zero, his assuming to have determined the date of Jesus' conception was a bit of a stretch; it was actually, though, within the Twelve Days of Christmas from the actual date of his birth.
Here's the article, in which John Pratt calculates Jesus to have been born the week of April 6, 0 AD. His public ministry began 29½ years later, and just about the time he was to have celebrated his 33rd birthday, the eclipsed full moon rose blood-red over the hill upon which he was crucified.

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