Happy 5767! Where Did That Number Come From, Anyway?



The count of the "Jewish" year used throughout the world is 5767.

Why? It is assumed that this is Anno Mundi,the years of the world from Creation, or at least from the birth of Adam. The count is based mainly on Seder Olam Rabba, a treatise ascribed to Rabbi Jose ben Halafta of the second-century C.E. It is mentioned in the Talmud, but was not used as a calendar until the ninth century, when the Jewish center of gravity moved away from Babylon.

Details first appeared in the late eighth-century Baraita de-Shmuel — which used the chronology of the years from creation, and which, within 200 years, became the accepted count throughout the Jewish world.

The earliest use occurs on an inscription in the Byzantine synagogue of Horvat Susiya, south of Hebron, which is dated to the year "Four thousand and — (the remainder is missing) from when the World was created." The end of the Second Temple is dated to the year 3828 by Seder Olam Rabba. It counts 1,656 years from creation to the Flood, 392 years from the flood to the birth of Isaac, then 400 years to the Exodus, 480 years to the building of the Temple and another 900 years to its second destruction.

That works out at 68 C.E, which is very close to the date of 70 based on Roman sources, and the date of creation is then 3760 BCE, which is the date we use, being 5767 minus 2006. An exact date is given in some Jewish sources, which say that creation started on Oct. 7, 3760.

Be that as it may, science says otherwise. The accepted science is that the age of the earth spans from 4 billion to 6 billion years, and the oldest known rocks are estimated at 3.9 billion years "by measurement of lead isotypes that condensed from the primeval cloud of interstellar gas and dust from which the entire solar system is thought to have been formed."

Humankind came on the scene much later — after the formation of land masses and seas — when life appeared in the form of plants and primitive organisms. Some kind of development then ensued, which gave rise to more and more complex organisms that eventually resulted in the appearance of Homo Habilis — man walking on two legs, or rather, primeval woman, walking in Africa.

Against that, why is it that our dating goes back to just 3760 BCE?

True, it's based on the ages of all of those biblical characters, but why do they go back for less than 6,000 years? Why do our records go back to only that date?

Chapter 10 of Genesis sets out a picture of the world and its inhabitants after the flood, and it includes other cultures, particularly the Egyptians (Mitzrayim) and the Mesopotamians (Babel and Ashur), which have their own records, which are partly available to us today. How far back do their records go?

The Egyptians, who were concerned to push back their monarchic history of as far as possible, counted their first royal dynasty as starting at about 3150 BCE.

As for Mesopotamia, its civilization may go back to the earliest Stone Age of about 8000 BCE, but its named history is no earlier than the Egyptian record.

All this suggests that named history as we know it today cannot go back farther than about 3000 BCE at the earliest, while before that folk memory takes over. That memory, in oral form, could perhaps have gone back another 500 years, or 1,000 at the most. Our tradition tells us that it goes back to some date between 3000 and 4000 BCE, and the given one of 3760 then becomes quite believable.

So where does that leave us — in a world 5767 years old, or one that is billions of years old?

The answer must be that both are right; we live in at least two worlds. The world of science has revealed many truths, but we, as creatures on this Earth, have every right to see its creation in our own terms and within our own tradition.

That tradition is not too interested in seismic eruptions or monstrous dinosaurs. We are concerned to make sense of our precarious position on the face of this sphere of molten material to understand how we derived from our immediate ancestors, and how they derived from theirs.

Our tradition gives us a place in the nations based on the earliest records available to us and them. It is clear that such records would place our beginnings in a world of nearly 6,000 years ago, and at a date, that we still record, of 5,767 years before the present.

Stephen Rosenberg is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.