How Ancient Jews Dated Years

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/www.biblelandpictures.com

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), 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.”
 


 
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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.

 


 
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Notes

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

a. See Werner Eck, “Hadrian’s Hard-Won Victory,” BAR 33:05

b. See Hanan Eshel, “Aelia Capitolina: Jerusalem No More,” BAR 23:06.

c. See Update: Finds or Fakes? “Major Scholars Protest Eshel Arrest,” BAR 32:02.

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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.


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