The practice of reckoning dates from the creation was apparently not known or practiced by the rabbis of the Talmud. The Mishnah discusses several options for dating legal documents, and evidently permits only a those that refer to the year in the term of the reigning king. Among the non-sanctioned dating systems, the sources mention reckonings "from to the building of the Temple," "from the destruction of the Temple," and some others.
From the combined testimony of the Talmud and archeological data it is evident that the Jews, like their gentile neighbours, followed the convention of identifying years by the name of the incumbent ruler. Usually this was the Roman Emperor, but it could also be the consul or the provincial eparch.
The Babylonian Talmud informs us that one dating system was in use there: "according to the kings of Greece."
The reference here is to a practice that was in widespread use in antiquity, of indicating dates from a chronological point that is equivalent to the year 312 B.C.E. That was the year when the momentous battle at Gaza effectively divided up the Middle East between two of Alexander the Great's generals, establishing the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires.
The political and military tensions between those two superpowers (with Judea situated precariously in the middle) defined the Middle-Eastern map for centuries afterwards, until both fell to the Romans. Modern historians designate this dating system as "the Seleucid era."
In typical fashion, the Jews held tenaciously to this ancient calendric system long after those Hellenistic kingdoms had departed from the stage of history. Similar phenomena can be adduced in the realms of language, dress, etc., where Jewish customs preserve practices that can no longer be found among the gentiles from whom they were originally borrowed.
Throughout the medieval era, the Seleucid system remained the only officially sanctioned manner for recording dates in legal deeds among the communities that followed the Babylonian rite, and hence it was standardly designated as minyan ha-shetarot, the "documentary reckoning." It was presupposed by the renowned Babylonian "Ga'on" Rabbi Sherira in his masterful chronology of Rabbinic literature, and continued to be employed by Yemenite Jews well into the present century.
What, then, is the origin of the practice of indicating dates from the Creation?
The literary source for this chronology is a midrashic compilation known as Seder `Olam (the Order of the World) composed by the second-century sage Rabbi Yosé ben Halafta of Sephoris. Seder `Olam is explicitly devoted to the problem of calculating the sequences of events in Jewish history, based largely on the information supplied by the Bible. Even though Seder `Olam studiously counts the days and years between the individual events of scriptural history, it does not actually provide the total number of years that elapsed since the creation. At any rate, it was the only work of its sort to be attempted by the ancient rabbis, and it was cited approvingly in the Talmud.
I stated above that Seder `Olam's calculations were based "largely" on the Bible. There were in fact several exceptions to this characterization, in which Rabbi Yosé made use of more imaginative midrashic interpretations that were not supported by a straightforward reading of Scripture. Some medieval chroniclers who attempted their own calculations of the "creation" date based on their reading of the Biblical evidence, such as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud in his Sefer Ha-Qabbalah, reached conclusions that were at variance with those of Seder `Olam.
Although Jews who were politically subject to the Baghdadi Caliphate (and hence, religiously, to the Babylonian Ga'on) continued to follow the Talmudic convention of dating according to the "Greek kings," those communities that continued to accept the authority of the Palestinian leadership--primarily in Egypt and southern Italy, as well as the Holy Land itself--took the Seder Olam chronology as their norm in legal documents, which they dated from the alleged creation of the world. The founders of European Jewry seem to have inherited this practice from their ancestors in the Land of Israel.
For most Jews in medieval Europe, whose knowledge of history was confined to Biblical and Talmudic sources, the creation dates proved adequate and served them well for centuries.
Eventually the system did face a challenge. By the sixteenth century, educated Italian Jews were participating in the thriving culture of Renaissance scholarship, which included the critical study of ancient documents. Prominent among the Jewish humanists was Rabbi Azariah de Rossi of Mantua who composed a special work, the Ma'or `Einayim ("Enlightenment of the Eyes") devoted to the enrichment of Jewish historical understanding through the utilization of material preserved in Greek and Latin.
One of the many topics that was subjected to de Rossi's historical critique was the traditional calendar reckoning. Remarking that it was in any case a relatively recent convention, he meticulously demonstrated that it was also factually inaccurate. In some cases, he argued, the Biblical evidence was simply not sufficient to fill in the entire chronological sequence.
The most conspicuous weaknesses of the Seder `Olam system related to those eras that were not directly covered in the Bible, especially the Persian era, for which the traditional rabbinic chronology had to rely mainly on the cryptic historical allusions contained in the Book of Daniel. De Rossi showed that, when checked against the extra-Biblical historical records, the resulting chronology was severely flawed, cutting the era short by some 165 years!
Although Rabbi Azariah's conclusions were irrefutably correct, they became a topic of heated controversy. Conservative rabbis were convinced that by calling into question this relatively unimportant detail from the "received tradition," the gates would be opened for a frontal assault on the foundations of Jewish faith. Some of the traditionalists tried to appeal to Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan `Arukh, urging him to ban the book. Karo did in fact compose an order for the burning of the Ma'or `Einayim, but died before it could be implemented. Nonetheless, several communities issued decrees setting strict limits on who could read the work.
Of course, matters have changed a lot since then. Now that the scientific estimates of the ages of the universe, of our planet, and of the human race, have taught us to translate these eras into mind-boggling billions of years, there are few Jews who would insist on treating those traditional numbers as anything but symbolic.
But then again, are not symbols precisely what a religious tradition is all about?
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