The Hebrew Year 5781—or Is It?

The important debate you’ve probably never heard of
From the October 2020 Watch Jerusalem Print Edition

The Hebrew calendar is supremely regulated and accurate. Divine and detailed biblical instructions are given for determining months and precisely pinpointing dates, especially for the holy days. The Hebrew calendar is unique in that it is exceedingly ancient, yet exceedingly advanced and exact. It is a combined luni-solar calendar, which means it relies on the movements of both the sun and the moon (unlike the solar Gregorian calendar or the lunar Islamic calendar).

However, while the Bible gives detailed instructions on how to measure months and days, it doesn’t specify how to number years. How do we know which year it is on the biblical Hebrew calendar?

Ask many creationists, and they’ll say that Adam was created roughly 6,000 years ago. According to the current, modern Hebrew calendar, which is figured from creation, we have just started the year 5781. How is this date figured? How accurate is it?

More importantly, does it matter whether we know what year it is?

5,781 Years From Adam

First, it is important to understand that the yearly numbering of the Hebrew calendar is not a biblical construct, as are the months and days. Rather, the current Hebrew system of counting years was not established until around c.e. 160, roughly 600 years after the completion of the Hebrew Bible.

The yearly calendar used today throughout Israel is what is known as an anno mundi calendar (a.m.; Latin for “in the year of the world”). This calendar counts forward from the biblical creation week to the present day (actually, it is counted from one year before the creation week, starting with a so-called Year of Emptiness). The Gregorian calendar, on the other hand, is an anno domini calendar (a.d.; Latin for “in the year of the Lord”) and centers around the birth of Jesus (albeit this date is highly dubious; internal New Testament evidence points to a more accurate birth year of 4 b.c.e.).

The yearly numbering of the Hebrew calendar is not a biblical construct. The current Hebrew system of counting years was not established until some 600 years after the completion of the Hebrew Bible.

The a.m. calendar comes from the Seder Olam Rabbah (sor), which translates as the “Great Order of the World.” Written around c.e. 160 by Rabbi Jose ben Halafta, this timeline outlines the chronology from Adam to the Bar Kochba Revolt of c.e. 135. Like the Mishnah, it was compiled at a time of enormous persecution, when it was feared that the Jewish way of life and Jewish knowledge faced extinction.

In the 12th Century, Rabbi Maimonides established a definitive numbering system based on the SOR.
Public Domain

For several centuries after the writing of the sor, there was some confusion among Jewish communities regarding the precise counting of the given dates. In the 12th century c.e., however, the rabbi Maimonides established a definitive numbering system based on the sor. This system has been used to today—a.m. 5781. Here is how this year is calculated.

3,338 Years to the Destruction

Counting the years from creation is fairly simple. Genesis 5 gives the genealogy from Adam to Noah. It outlines the lifespan of each individual and, most importantly, how old they were when their respective descendant was born. Still, it is impossible from this passage to add together these dates to the precise year, since the specific months of birth and death are not provided. Therefore, the accumulative sum of months will add up to an additional several years.

Just taking the raw numbers from Adam to the birth of Noah, there are 1,056 years. Genesis 7:11 tells us that the Flood occurred in Noah’s 600th year, which takes us to a.m. 1656.

To count from the Flood, the genealogies outlined in Genesis 11 are used. These take us to the days of Abraham, who was born a.m. 1948. (Again, this figure is not 100 percent accurate, since we do not know the precise months. For example, if each generation from Adam to Abraham was born six months into the counted year, this would constitute an additional nine years). The birth of Isaac is also recorded—a.m. 2048 (in Abraham’s 100th year). So far, so good.

Some difficulty arises during the time period from the patriarchs to the Exodus. The straightforward generational counts stop, and Jewish scholars rely on clues from other passages. Exodus 12:40 is a much-debated scripture, taken to mean the Israelites lived in Egypt 430 years (the Septuagint version reads Egypt and Canaan). Genesis 15:13 contains a prophecy that Israel would be afflicted 400 years. While it is clear that both accounts end at the Exodus, various sources are at odds as to when to start the 400- and 430-year counts. The sor calendar takes the 400-year date from Isaac’s birth, when Abraham was 100. However, a century before the sor calendar was written, the belief was that the 430-year count should begin from Abraham’s covenant with God at 99, one year before Isaac’s birth (Genesis 17). This is shown in the New Testament (Galatians 3:16-17). This would leave us with a missing 29 years. Nonetheless, for our purposes, we will continue to follow the conventional sor calendar dating.

Four hundred years from Isaac’s birth gives us an sor Exodus date of a.m. 2448. And 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that 480 years passed from the Exodus to the building of the temple, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign—a.m. 2928.

From this point on, things get more complex. While the reigns of the kings prior to the destruction of the temple are clearly listed, we cannot simply add these numbers. Also, since the end of one reign and the beginning of another date to the same year, for every new ruler one year of reign must be removed from the count. Using this rationale, the date for the end of the reign of Judah’s final ruler, King Zedekiah, and the destruction of the temple is a.m. 3338.

But again, this date cannot be definitively known from the Scriptures. It is clear that at least a number of kings served as co-regent (this is evident from comparing the chronology of the reigns of the kings of Judah with the chronology of the kings of Israel)—but there is a significant amount of debate on which kings had co-regencies and for how long. So, by this point in the calendar, we technically could have a plus or minus of several dozens of accumulative years.

Nonetheless, in its most simplistic form, simply counting the years given, the sor calendar gives the date of the temple’s destruction as a.m. 3338.

One would think that the closer we get to the present, the easier the count would get. But it is from this point forward things get really tricky.

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The ‘Missing Years’

The confusion has to do with the period between the destruction of the two temples—the first temple (around 586 b.c.e. on the conventional calendar) and the second temple (c.e. 70).

The destruction of the second temple at the end of the Jewish Revolt is widely accepted as dating to c.e. 70 on the Gregorian calendar. (Still, there has been some historical rabbinical debate about this—whether it dates to c.e. 68, 69 or 70. The sor calendar recognizes it as c.e. 68).

A number of rabbinic works state that the second temple stood 420 years. Subtracting this from c.e. 68–70, we arrive at roughly 350 b.c.e. as the date of the building of the second temple by Zerubbabel. The Prophet Jeremiah prophesied that the Jews would return and rebuild that temple 70 years after its original destruction (e.g. Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). This then places the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at around 420 b.c.e. on the Gregorian calendar.

This date probably comes as a shock. It is miles off from the general historical, conventional dating of the destruction of the temple, around 586 b.c.e.—roughly 165 years difference. In the calendar debate, these are known as the “missing years.”

The date of the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple is absolutely grounded in historical sources for the conventional calendar. There is some debate as to whether it was 587, 586 or 585 b.c.e., but plus or minus a year is negligible. This dating, in the mid-580s, is corroborated by the ancient, detailed, chronological texts of Babylon, Egypt, Persia and Greece, as well as early Jewish chronology (including Josephus), and the writings of dozens of other first millennium b.c.e. historians, all paired with and corroborating the biblical chronology. The sor calendar, on the other hand, stands entirely alone. Where, then, did the 165 missing years of the sor calendar go?

Click to englarge: Comparison of the SOR and Gregorian calendars
Watch Jerusalem | Edwin Trebels | Christopher Eames


This “discrepancy” has long been accepted as problematic and debated by numerous rabbis and other Jewish authorities. Many theories try to explain it.

One of the most-recognized areas of “trouble” is in the biblical listing of Persian kings. The book of Daniel references four Persian kings. Certain Talmudic sages took this to mean that there were only four Persian kings, filling a 52-year period. Conventional historical chronologies, however, show that there were in fact 13 Persian kings who ruled over a 207-year period between the Babylonian and Greek empires. This, then, would account for almost all of the discrepancy. (The apparent discrepancy in the book of Daniel is easily explained by the fact that it only notes the most significant rulers of Persia.)

Another explanation for why the sor gives 490 years between the destruction of the first temple and the destruction of the second is the 70-weeks prophecy found in Daniel 9, a chapter known to Judaism and Christianity as a prophetic time frame for the coming of the Messiah. The theory goes that Daniel 9:24-26 were taken to refer to 490 prophetic years between the destruction of the temples.

Verse 24 reads: “Seventy weeks [490 prophetic years] are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy” (King James Version).

Another theory endorsed by several Jewish scholars suggests that the statement at the end of the book of Daniel—“shut up the words, and seal the book” (Daniel 12:4)—could be a command to obscure the calculations of the Messiah’s coming so the time frame would not be known. This implies a deliberate misrepresentation of the 70-weeks prophecy within the sor calendar dates.

Orthodox Jewish scholar Mitchell First compiled an exhaustive book on the subject

Theories abound. Rabbi M. Breuer believes the sor count is not factually accurate but is instead supposed to be symbolic. Rabbi B. Wein agrees that the sor count is off but does not know why the ancient writers would have changed the conventional dates; he suggests that the explanation will be given by the Messiah at his coming. Other Jewish scholars and rabbis have explanations.

Orthodox Jewish scholar Mitchell First compiled an exhaustive book on the subject titled Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology. He explains the controversy, enumerating the different Jewish perspectives on it—from the earliest documented explanation (circa c.e. 900) to the present day. He first lists the substantive statements made on the issue by Jewish scholars and rabbis. All totaled, 17 were in favor of the sor chronology over the conventional, 41 were in favor of the conventional chronology over the sor, and 14 made the case that both are correct.

But why is this important?

It’s a Lot Later Than You Think

It becomes clear from the overwhelming weight of evidence that the soris off by nearly 200 years. This is shown by a vast number of parallel historical sources, including early Jewish sources—all of which do parallel biblical sources. And this conclusion is accepted by a large number, if not a majority, of Jewish scholars and rabbis. Yet in spite of its recognized flaws, the sor calendar continues to be accepted in the name of tradition.

This is no small or inconsequential mistake. When we add the “missing years” from the sor, we arrive at an actual “date from creation” of around a.m. 5950. And remember the “missing” 29 years, as part of the 430-year count to the Exodus? Adding these years would bring us to a date of about a.m. 5980 (click on the above timeline image for further explanation). Finally, when you take into account the accumulative biblical months related to births, regnal dates, and other potential errors, we are almost certainly several years beyond this date.

Why is this important?

Because the Bible shows us that the Messiah will come just before—or by—the year 6000!

The course of human existence is typed by the seven-day week. God accomplished creation in six days, and “He rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). Similarly, God commanded man to work six days of the week and rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10).

When we add the “missing years” from the Seder Olam Rabbah, we arrive at an actual “date from creation” of around A.M. 5950.

The Bible further brings out that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Moses also mentioned this in the Psalms: “For a thousand years in Thy sight Are but as yesterday when it is past …” (Psalm 90:4). This seven-”day” plan of God is found throughout Scripture—in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament (Revelation 20:4 expounds on a seventh-day “millennium” of rule by the Messiah and the saints). Numerous later rabbinical Jewish writings mention the 6,000-year “deadline” for the arrival of the Messiah.

Our founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, taught this truth plainly, writing, “So God allotted the first 6,000 years to physical man, to live his own way (deceived and swayed by Satan), to prove by 6,000 years of suffering mountainous evils, that only God’s way can bring desired blessings. That 6,000 years we may call ‘the day of man’” (The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like; free upon request). After 6,000 years, the Messiah’s new government will rule over the world for 1,000 years. Bible prophecy, now being fulfilled in so many dramatic world events, shows that we are near the end of mankind’s allotted 6,000 years.

The problem with dating the year to 5781 is that it obscures this critical truth. If we believe it is year 5781 and that the Messiah may not come for another 200 years, it is easy to become relaxed and complacent.

When you understand the Hebrew calendar and realize that even now we are potentially single digits to the year 6000, you become a lot more urgent! We are living in the final years!

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The Bible contains a strong warning about these times. It describes a time of world war and suffering just prior to the arrival of the Messiah: A “time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time” (Daniel 12:1). In fact, so great will be the destruction that, if the Messiah didn’t come, there would be “no flesh saved alive.” Truly, this could only describe our time right now—a unique time where humanity has only now invented the weapons capable of wiping out human life multiple times over.

But as the Prophet Daniel describes, the Messiah will come and stop the madness. Verse 1 continues, “and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” God will protect those who obey His commands. God then tells the prophet, “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (verse 4).

No man can pinpoint the exact date we are at in history. We have clearly established that—and the Bible itself states that “ye know neither the day nor the hour” of the Messiah’s coming. What we do know, however, is that we are within the final years before a.m. 6000. The arrival of the Messiah is imminent!