ANNI MIRABILES: 5BC

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What was the most important year ever? Andrew Marr suggests it was probably 1776, but Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist's Washington bureau chief, has another idea ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

The most important year in history is both easy to identify and hard to pinpoint. Easy to identify because we use it to divide our calendar into “before” and “after”. Hard to pinpoint because there is some confusion about whether we got the calendar right.

You do not have to be a believer (and the author of this article is not) to recognise that Jesus’s birth was the most important event in human history. Jesus inspired the world’s most popular religion and plays an important role in both Judaism and Islam. But he also shaped all subsequent secular history. The Roman Catholic church is the world’s oldest global institution. The Reformation, which helped to inspire individualism and capitalism, was an attempt to return the church to its original purity. The French and Russian revolutions were inspired, in large part, by hatred of the religious establishment. Two thousand years after Jesus’s birth, about 2 billion people, or a third of the world’s population, call themselves Christians.

The frustrating thing is that we cannot pinpoint Jesus’s birth-year exactly. The Christian calendar presumes that it took place in year 1—everything before that is BC. But modern scholars have complicated the picture. The Gospel of Matthew places Jesus’s birth under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BC. The Gospel of Luke says that he was born during the first census of Judea in 6AD. The consensus is that he was born between 6 and 4BC. Let’s call it 5BC for the sake of simplicity—not as clear-cut as some of the other dates suggested, but then the year of Jesus’s birth is such a momentous event that it makes other contenders for the most important year look feeble by comparison.

In the coming days, other Economist writers will cast their votes for the most important year ever, and then you can cast yours (see poll at right).

 

Picture credit: Alan Kitching

(Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist's bureau chief in Washington and co-author most recently of the book "God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World". His last article for Intelligent Life was about the rise of the journo-gurus.)