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The missing years in the Hebrew calendar refer to a discrepancy of some 165 years between the traditional Hebrew dating for the destruction of the First Temple and the modern secular dating for it (586 BCE) that results if its traditional date 3338 AM (Anno Mundi) is interpreted according to the standard Hebrew calendar.
Misconceptions regarding the missing years
Differences between the standard Hebrew and Gregorian calendars
The traditional dates of events in Jewish history are often used interchangeably with the modern secular dates according to the Gregorian calendar. For example, year 3338 AM on the Hebrew calendar is typically equated to 586 BCE. Implicit in this practice is the view that if all the differences in structure between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars are taken into consideration, the two dates can be derived from each other. This is not the case. If the traditional dates of events before the Second Temple era are assumed to be using the standard Hebrew calendar, they refer to different objective years than those of the secular dates. The discrepancy is some 165 years.
The conflict does not necessarily imply that either the traditional dates or the secular dates must be objectively wrong. It is possible that the traditional dates did not use a consistent calendar matching the year count of the standard Hebrew calendar. For instance, it could be that one or more substantial calendar shifts have occurred, or the years counted might in certain periods have differed from astronomical years. Taking into account the possibility of a changing structure of the Hebrew calendar, theoretically, both the traditional dates and those of secular scholars could be correct.
Two-year difference within the Hebrew calendar
Today, Hebrew dating places the creation of the world near the end of "Year One" AM and afterwards the first year of Adam's life as "Year Two" AM. However, Seder Olam Rabba shows that the Hebrew dating originally counted the first year of Adam's life as "Year Zero" AM. This may mean that the Hebrew dating has shifted in the course of history such that traditional dating of ancient events appears two years earlier than the modern Hebrew dating would be (Edgar Frank, Talmudic and Rabbinic Chronology, 1956). Alternatively, it could be that there was no calendar shift, or a shift of only one year, as the discrepancies regarding Adam's year of creation (he was not born) may only, or partially, reflect different views of the process of Creation.
Rabbinic tradition says that the First Temple was destroyed in "year 3338" AM and the Second Temple in "year 3828" AM. If there was no calendar shift, the Common Era equivalents would be 423 BCE and 68 CE, respectively. If there was a calendar shift, the destructions would have taken place in our years 3339 and 3829 AM, or in 3340 and 3830 AM, and the Common Era equivalents would be 422 BCE and 69 CE, respectively, or 421 BCE and 70 CE.
If there was no calendar shift, the length of the missing-years period would be 163 years (586 minus 423). If there was a calendar shift, the length of the missing-years period would be 164 or 165 years.
The missing years and Daniel
A popular explanation for the missing years suggests that the Jewish sages interpreted the prophecy in First Temple to the destruction of the Second Temple and, working backwards from the destruction of the Second Temple (in 3828 AM), wrongly dated the destruction of the First Temple (in 3338 AM).as meaning that there would be 490 years from the destruction of the
A variation on this argument states that the Jews deliberately altered the dating so that the true date of the "anointed one" (Mosiach) mentioned in would be hidden. Other apologists[who?] have countered with claims that the dating was indeed altered for one or another reason and should be understood as fable, not history.
These explanations come from the ambiguous meaning of the word 'week' in Hebrew, which means 'a heptad', or a group of seven. The Hebrew word for 'week' is used to refer to periods of seven days as well as seven years. The understanding of this number as referring to 490 years can also be found in Seder Olam. Christians also interpreted these verses as years and connect them to Jesus, although Rashi's interpretation is such that it upholds the tradition that the anointed one in question is the Persian king Cyrus. See Prophecy of Seventy Weeks.
Mistakes in the Hebrew or secular dating
If traditional dates are assumed to be based on the standard Hebrew calendar, then the differing traditional and modern secular dating of events cannot both be correct. Attempts to reconcile the two systems must show one or both to have errors.
Missing reign lengths in the Hebrew dating
The modern secular dating of the Babylonian and Persian periods are reconstructed using the following sources:
- Greek sources: The historians Herodotus, Ctesias, Thucydides, Xenophon, Dinon and Diodorus Siculus as well as the philosopher Aristotle, the playwright Aeschylus and the Egyptian priest Manetho.
- The Royal Canon of the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, which provides astronomically tabulated dates of the kings of the period.
- Persian sources, including king lists like the Saros Canon, as well as other inscriptions such as the Behistun inscription or the Cyrus Cylinder, and administrative records as the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, and the Persepolis Treasury Tablets.
- Babylonian sources such as astronomical records recording eclipses, temple inscriptions and various royal documents including the Nabonidus Chronicle, as well as business documents as the Marashu Archive.
Secular scholars see the discrepancy between the traditional and secular date of the destruction of the First Temple arising as a result of Jewish sages missing out the reign lengths of several Persian kings during the Persian Empire's rule over Israel. Modern secular scholars tally ten Persian kings whose combined reigns total 208 years. By contrast, ancient Jewish sages only mention four Persian kings totaling 52 years. The reigns of several Persian kings appear to be missing from the traditional calculations.
Missing years in Jewish tradition
R' Azariah dei Rossi, in Me'or Einayim (circa 1573), was likely the first Jewish authority to claim that the traditional Hebrew dating is not historically precise regarding the years before the Second Temple.
R' Nachman Krochmal in Guide to the perplexed of our times (Hebrew, 1851) points to the Greek name Antigonos mentioned in the beginning of Avot as proof that there must have been a longer period to account for this sign of Hellenic influence. He posits that certain books of the Bible such as Kohelet and Isaiah were written or redacted during this period.
R' David Zvi Hoffman (1843–1921) points out that the Mishna in Avot (1:4) in describing the chain of tradition uses the plural "accepted from them" even though the previous Mishna only mentions one person. He posits that there must have been another Mishna mentioning two sages that was later removed.
It has been noted that the traditional account of Jewish history shows a discontinuity in the beginning of the 35th century: The account of Seder Olam Rabbah is complete only until this time. It has been postulated that this work was written to complement another historical work, about subsequent centuries until the time of Hadrian, which is no longer extant. It appears that Jewish dating systems only arose in the 35th century, so that precise historical records would naturally have existed only from that time onwards. The Minyan Shtarot system, used to date official Jewish documents, started in the year 3449. According to Lerman's thesis, the year-count "from Creation" was established around the same time (see Birkat Hachama).
It has also been posited that certain calculations in the Talmud compute better according to the secular dating (Y2K solution to the Chronology Problem, Hakirah Vol. 3).
Two reasons are given as to why the Rabbis may have deliberately removed years from the timeline.
- 1. R' Shimon Schwab points to the words "seal the words and close the book" in the book of Daniel as a positive commandment to obscure the calculations for the Messiah mentioned within. However, R' Schwab withdrew this suggestion, labeling it a mere thought experiment.
- 2. The Y2K solution proposed in the Hakirah article suggests that the sages were concerned with the acceptance of the Mishna. There existed a Rabbinical tradition that the year 4000 marked the close of the "era of Torah". The authors of the Hakirah article propose that the Sages therefore arranged the chronology so that the redaction of the Mishna should coincide with that date and thus have a better chance of acceptance.
Critiques of secular dating
The astronomical data used by the secular historians has been criticized. Physicist and science historian Robert R. Newton has found  Ptolemy's work to contain errors and fraudulent observations. (Bickerman questions if the Royal Canon is actually the work of Ptolemy.) Dolan notes that Babylonian records of astronomical events are subject to interpretation as they do not clearly distinguish between eclipses and weather phenomena; moreover eclipses may have been missed or their extent misrecorded as a result of observation conditions. Dolan also notes that the dates of ancient texts have also been the subject of interpretation due to broken texts and uncertainty about ordering. Aaronson points out that the Persian inscriptions consist only of names and titles with virtually no explanatory content, and that the identification of the individuals mentioned is also a matter of interpretation. (Aaronson also notes that some ancient Persian sources, such as two of the inscriptions of Arsames and Ariaramnes, have subsequently been revealed to be forgeries.)
Aaronson and Heifetz note that the Greek sources contradict each other and the archaeological sources and reconciling the difference involves additional interpretation. They argue that the sources can be interpreted in a manner consistent with the traditional dating as well as with the secular dating. They consider the reigns of certain Median and Persian monarchs to have been overlapping whereas the secular dating counts them as non-overlapping. They also argue that certain kings named in Greek sources who have been counted as separate monarchs are in fact the same individual - in particular they argue that only one Alexander of Macedonia fought a king Darius of Persia, not two Alexanders as the secular dating requires.
The following sources are thus taken into consideration in support of the traditional dating:
- The internal chronology of the Hebrew Bible.
- Transmitted tradition regarding the dates of annually commemorated events.
- The Tannaitic chronicle Seder Olam Rabba and later chronicles such as the Seder Olam Zuta, Seder_Ha-Dorot and Toldot Am Olam.
- Comments on historical events in other Jewish writings such as the Talmud and the commentaries of Rashi.
- The secular Greek writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the national traditions preserved by the Persian historian Firdausi.
- The Greek, Babylonian and Persian sources cited by those supporting the secular dating, but interpreted in a manner consistent with the traditional dating.
This approach to the discrepancy is the most problematic. The reinterpretation of the Greek, Babylonian and Persian sources that is required to support the traditional dating has been achieved only in parts and has not yet been achieved in its entirety. Similar problems face other attempts to revise secular dating (such as those of Peter James and David Rohl) and mainstream scholarship rejects such approaches.
Years each Temple stood
Rabbinic authority Baal Haturim indicates from that the first temple stood 410 years, and the second for 420 years.
The 70 years between the first and second temple supports the above-noted 490 years, and 70 CE (3828 AM) minus 490 years = 3338 AM (421 BCE).
- Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology, by Mitchell First (Jason Aronson, 1997)
- Talmudic and Rabbinic Chronology, by Edgar Frank (New York: Feldheim 1956)
- Chronology of the Ancient World, by E.J. Bickerman (Cornell University Press, 1968, 1982)
- The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy. Robert R. Newton (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1977)
- Daniel 9 in You Take Jesus and I'll Take God by S. Levine, revised edition, Hamoroh Press, Los Angeles, 1980 - explains the Jewish understanding of Daniel 9:24-27
- The Romance of Biblical Chronology, by Martin Anstey (London: Marshall Brothers, 1913) - interprets Daniel as prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus, so the Temple as having been destroyed in 502 BCE
- R' Shimon Schwab in “Comparative Jewish Chronology in Jubilee Volume for Rav Yosef Breuer” pp. 177–197.
- David Zvi Hoffman "Ha'mishna Rishona" (Heb.)
- Fixing the History Books, Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz's Revision of Persian History, by Brad Aaronson - Jewish scholarly critique of secular dating
- Fixing the Mind by Alexander Eterman - a rebuttal of Heifetz's critique.
- Secular Chronology by Walter R. Dolen - Christian scholarly critique of secular dating
- Jewish Dating System - defense of modern secular dating
- Significant Events In Jewish And World History - timeline based on traditional Jewish sources
- A Y2K solution to the Chronology Problem - theory based on calculations in the Talmud