How Ancient Jews Dated Years

As published in Strata in Biblical Archaeology Review

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


During the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), which ended with the destruction of the Temple, Jews minted their own coins dated to the first, second, third, fourth and, more rarely, even fifth year of the revolt. Zev Radovan/

During the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), which ended with the destruction of the Temple, Jews minted their own coins dated to the first, second, third, fourth and, more rarely, even fifth year of the revolt. In other words, dating began with the beginning of the revolt. Many of the coins also bore legends like “Jerusalem the Holy” or “Freedom of Zion.”

The Romans crushed the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. (except for the holdouts at Masada, among other places), but the Jews managed to revolt again a little more than 60 years later. This revolt, the so-called Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.),a lasted only two-and-a-half years. And the coins from this revolt are much rarer. As in the first revolt, however, coins are dated beginning with the start of the revolt. An example is a coin inscribed, “Year 1 of the Redemption of Israel,” or another inscribed, “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel.” Rarely, a coin bears the legend “Year 3 of the Redemption of Israel.”

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

During the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries), a different dating system developed, beginning not with the start of a revolt, but rather the disasters that ended them. For example, synagogue inscriptions and tombstones are sometimes dated as so many years after the destruction of the Temple that effectively ended the first revolt.

At just about the time the second revolt ended with the defeat of the Jews, the Romans made Jerusalem into a Roman colony and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina.b Jews were not even allowed to live there. The bitter taste of defeat grew even stronger.

The newly discovered document is dated to “Year 4 of the Destruction of the House of Israel.” Courtesy Yad Ben-Zvi Institute.

Now a document has been discovered with a date based on the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 135 C.E. The newly discovered document is dated to “Year 4 of the Destruction of the House of Israel.” This is the first time this dating formula has been attested.1

The document was discovered and looted, as is so often the case, by Bedouin in the Judean Desert, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It seems there are still more documents to be found in the Judean Desert. How this one was acquired by the scholarly community, we are not told, probably because in the past when a leading scholar purchased such a fragment from the Bedouin, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had the scholar arrested!c All the IAA will say this time is that the document was “confiscated.”

The document, dated paleographically to the second century C.E., is remarkably well preserved and well written. The scribe records his name at the end of the document: “Joseph, son of Jac[ob the scribe].” The document was given by a certain widow named Miriam to her husband’s brother Absalom. The document attests that she had received from her deceased husband all that he had promised in their marriage contract (ketuba) and that she had no other claim to the family property of Absalom. The language is a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. The document is dated four years after the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

“Strata: How Ancient Jews Dated Years” originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first republished in Bible History Daily in September 2013.



a. See Werner Eck, “Hadrian’s Hard-Won Victory,” BAR, September/October 2007.

b. See Hanan Eshel, “Aelia Capitolina: Jerusalem No More,” BAR, November/December 1997.

c. See Update: Finds or Fakes? “Major Scholars Protest Eshel Arrest,” BAR, March/April 2006.

1. First published (in Hebrew) by Hanan Eshel, Esther Eshel and Ada Yardeni in Cathedra 132 (2009), pp. 5–24.


Learn more about ancient coins in Bible History Daily:

Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins

Rare Roman Gold Coin Minted by Trajan Found

Judaea Capta Coin Uncovered in Bethsaida Excavations

Ancient Coins and Looting

Coins Celebrating the Great Revolt Against the Romans Unearthed near Jerusalem


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  1. Scott says

    The IAA gets an artifact and does not want to give us info about it, at least for now, right? Isn’t that what we call unprovenanced? In effect, we know nothing about it but are expected to believe it. I believe it is authentic but without proof, I will not be able to continue to assume that. By withholding info, they are acting like those who plunder sites for relics. I hope that this is only a temporary withholding. Otherwise, we have become like those we throw rocks at.

  2. JAllan says

    I wonder when the Jews changed their religious calendar to the current one, based upon a Biblical calculation of the creation of the world, and began using the civil calendars of their nations of residence for secular purposes (incidentally, Jewish, Byzantine “etos kosmou” and Ussher’s date in the KJV and thus used by Christian fundamentalists are all different, so there must be ambiguities in the “begats” of the Bible)?

    I know that Western Europeans used the Roman years (AUC, from “ab urbe condito” or from the founding of The City, Rome) until sometime after 800, then began using AD, based on Ussher’s calculations, which later turned out to overestimate AD dates because of an error in the year of the death of Herod the Great, which according to Matthew happened AFTER the birth of Jesus, but on the calendar was 4 BC.

  3. est says

    The Jews never changed their calender. They use the world counting for merging life in general. Every year in the fall we celebrate the creation of the world, and every spring we celebrate Passover ; The freedom holiday the exodus from Egypt, the exodus from salves life style. Nothing had changed: since the Hebrew people gained freedom, God told Moses to start counting the years from spring time, from the month on Nisan (comes from miracle, in Hebrew Ness) and the creation of the world the month of Tishrei became to be the seventh counted month from Nisan) In Hebrew we say “The Seventh” – shvi-ee meaning that with in me, meaning the soul, which is hidden, this is why on Shabat, Saturday, the Hebrew people do not work, because when there is a soul, everything is already completed, and nothing lacks that the body should complete in actions. This is why in the seventh month of Tishrei we have five holidays to show when the soul is, there is happiness and rest.

  4. James says

    refer to Jack Finnagin’s handbook of biblical chronology et al, for scholarly evidence for a later date of Herod’s death. (1AD?)

  5. Maskil says

    @JAllan, I understand that in the era of Maimonides (12th Century), Jews switched from counting “years since the destruction of the Temple” to the creation-era “Anno Mundi” dating, e.g. 5774.

  6. Wayne says

    This article seems to imply that ancient Jews did not mint coinage before the time of the first revolt against Rome. Is that true? Or is it that no coinage previous to this time can be found with dates?

  7. Andrew says

    In relation to this story why does BAR refer to modern dates as ‘BCE’ or ‘CE’? The ‘Common Era’ dates from the birth of Christ and is simply another term of referring to ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. Why not just use the Christian terms that the whole world now uses as standard? There are other religions of course, but the Christian dateline has become standard and it’s rather irksome for it to be avoided with a simple change of name.

  8. Jim says

    Well said Andrew.

  9. ruben says

    well said Andrew. I find it quite inappropriate to write the letters CE instead of BC or AD, especially in a context where we are talking about Jews, the Holy Bible, the Romans, etc.,

  10. Stuart says

    “This article seems to imply that ancient Jews did not mint coinage before the time of the first revolt against Rome. Is that true? Or is it that no coinage previous to this time can be found with dates?”

    Prior to the revolts, the Jews used Tyrian shekels, which were the Levantine standard currency, and also had the advantage of not bearing a graven image. The moneychangers at the Temple converted the various coins of the Empire into Tyrian shekels, the only currency permitted by the Temple Priesthood to buy sacrificial animals.

  11. Stuart says

    Orthodox and Greek Catholic continue to use the putative beginning of the world as the basis for their chronology. The Romans, in their time, used two methods of dating: first, from the founding of the city; second, the eponymous years of the Consuls (i.e., in the Consulate of X and Y). Later, this was changed to year of the Emperor’s reign (i.e., in the sixth year of Claudius). The Greeks, on the other hand, used the Olympiads as the basis for their dating (i.e., the third year of the Nth Olympiad).

    This presents the historian with myriad problems of synchronization, because there are gaps in the Olympiads and of the Consuls, the date of the founding of Rome is approximate, and partial years are included in the count of imperial reigns (so that if an Emperor started his reign at the end of a year, it counted as a full year, and overlapped the last year of the previous Emperor).

  12. David says

    Thanks all the same, I’ll stick with CE and BCE; AD and BC are religious terms, and I prefer scholarly journals to use scholarly terms.

  13. Ric says

    AD is short for ‘Anno Domini’ and to use it implies that you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. A reasonable reader would not object to a writer using either BC/AD or BCE/CE; but to demand that another person use one or the other is literary fascism.

  14. steve says

    political correctness tries to creep in with CE/BCE. Time is an invention by man so things will change :)

  15. Sylvia says

    building on est’s comment (#3)
    I love your first person articles, because they are so full of food for thought, and as you get older, ever more so. Have you read any of the psuesdoepigrapha (sp) books? The book of Jubilees talks about nothing but time, and the earliest events of mankind in the time units it discusses. The units aren’t defined as we know them today, but they are time units. The Book of Jasher, which is another ancient Hebrew book, also discusses time units, and fills in a lot of holes the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, leave blank. The latter is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments: Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18, and 2 Timothy 3:8. To be mentioned in both canons, Judaic and Christian, and information from it used in the Talmud, Mishna and Josephus’ writings, it must be considered to be a book of value to read. Both of these books were written hundreds, if not thousands of years before either of the revolts. I haven’t gotten to the Books of Enoch yet, and a couple of others I have, but these books are extremely valuable reading to better understand Judaism, and by extension, Christianity. These books, and others, were considered to be very important reading before the first revolt. According to the history I have, they were removed from Herod’s Temple, before it was destroyed, by a Roman soldier who believed in Judaism, and smuggled to Spain for safe keeping, which the Sephardic rabbinate did. This story is more extensive, but there isn’t room for it here. The Christian motivated dating BC and AD, are not appropriate, but neither are the alternative BCE and CE. Both systems are man made, and not inspired by God.

  16. Kurt says

    Hebrew Calendar. The Israelites used such a lunisolar, or bound solar, calendar. This is evident from the fact that Jehovah God established the beginning of their sacred year with the month Abib in the spring and specified the celebration of certain festivals on fixed dates, festivals that were related to harvest seasons. For these dates to have coincided with the particular harvests, there had to be a calendar arrangement that would synchronize with the seasons by compensating for the difference between the lunar and solar years.—Ex 12:1-14; 23:15, 16; Le 23:4-16.
    (See also Chronology; Dates [Calendar]; Months; Years)

  17. Suzanne says

    JAllan says “I know that Western Europeans used the Roman years (AUC, from “ab urbe condito” or from the founding of The City, Rome) until sometime after 800, then began using AD, based on Ussher’s calculations….” Since Usher did not live until the later part of the 16th century and died in the latter half of the 17th, his calculations resulting in 4004 BC as the beginning of the world could not have been used during the 800+ years between 800 AD and Ussher’s death.

  18. Wes says

    The title of the article is broader than its content, which is basically about how the Jewish revolt of the 2nd century stamped dates on its coins. Much of the dating procedures in the era BC remains a mystery or else the result of various efforts at consensus. Books of the Bible conventions are not consistent. In some places, such as Chronicles, we have “in the nth year of the reign of King X”, whereas in others we are left to infer from the lives of elders who are “numbered” to live so many years, but never “registered” unless their children were noted to be born at a given year. Further questions remain.

    With regard to the actual calendars in use, I also suspect that there was a major shift in that convention too, judging from what we can decipher from the oldest written Hebrew excavations such as the Calendar of Gezer, reported on earlier in the BAR. It must have occurred some time between the 10th century and the return from Babylonian captivity.

    The artifact from which our knowledge of the Calendar is based, has been translated as:
    Two months gathering (September, October)
    Two months planting (November, December)
    Two months late sowing (January, February)
    One month cutting flax (March)
    One month reaping barley (April)
    One month reaping and measuring grain (May)
    Two months pruning (June, July)
    One month summer fruit (August)

    Scholars have speculated that the calendar could be a schoolboy’s memory exercise, the text of a popular folk song or a children’s song. Another possibility is something designed for the collection of taxes from farmers.

    Perhaps someone familiar with the Hebrew text can fill us in on the names of the months. But significantly enough, this calendar appears to begin at the fall rather than the vernal equinox. Somewhere I thought I saw a suggestion that this calendar was solar rather than lunar, suggesting kinship with the Egyptian calendars in use at the time. But Ptolemaic versions of this appeared to begin around 20 July.

    As to the Hebrew calendar in use today and that which appears in much of the Bible ( including Exodus!), the names of the months appear to be remarkably similar to those of the Babylonian calendar. Or the Arab calendars of the present day. Clearly Babylon was a center for what we would now call fundamental astronomical research, tracking the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars and connecting it to terrestrial phenomena such as seasons and lengths of illumination during the day, rationales for times to plant or harvest crops. This body of knowledge was known to have been transmitted to the Greeks via the Persians after the time of Alexander. A 6th century “sojourn” in Babylon probably contributed significantly to the ancient Hebrew calendar as well.

  19. DALLAS says

    The “anno mundi” (year of creation) approach to chronology started in the Middle Ages, with Christian scholars leading the way. Most Jewish documents started being dated that way some time in the 1200s or 1300s. Ussher’s approach was a late, 17th-century version of this method. By the latter 18th century, it was already obsolete, because Enlightenment historians and natural scientists were aware that the Earth is much older than written history. They didn’t exactly know how much older — that wouldn’t be determined until the last century.

    Before the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish dating was based on the year Alexander conquered Jerusalem. Before that, no one knows for sure. The biblical text implies that it was either dated from the Exodus or from the reigns of the monarchs starting with David.

    The absolute year count (absolute chronology) should be carefully distinguished from the annual calendar, which is cyclical, based on the lunar month and solar year, and does not require an absolute year anchor. The biblical calendar started in the spring (Aviv, or Nisan), as was widespread (although not universal) in the ancient world and connected to Passover; the Jewish calendar since the first exile (585 BCE) has started in the fall (Tishrei), for not-totally-clear reasons — probably something to do with the proclamation of divine sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah.

  20. 666isMONEY says

    Roman coins were the Χάραγμα of the beast.

  21. Stephanie says

    What is the shackel coin worth today? Is there coin dealers that would be interested?

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  1. Thinking Religion 39: Charleston, Confederate, Climate - Thinking.FM linked to this post on June 24, 2015

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