If you attend the Easter Vigil mass this evening, you will hear many readings from Scripture on salvation history, starting with the first chapter of Genesis, and the creation of the world. This may bring to mind something from Christmas Midnight Mass. At Midnight Mass this past Christmas I heard for the first time the sung Christmas Proclamation, which was not only very cool, but also contained within it a lot from Genesis, and a lot of numbers to perk up the ears of an astronomer and historian:
The Twenty-fifth Day of December,
when ages beyond number had run their course
from the creation of the world,
when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;
when century upon century had passed
since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,
as a sign of covenant and peace;
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,
came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses
in the Exodus from Egypt;
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace,
JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and when nine months had passed since his conception,
was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,
and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
“When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world”—that phrase sounded like a very nice, poetic rendering of a basic idea of modern cosmology, of the modern “scientific” view about the age of the universe: The universe appears to be Old, having begun at the Big Bang, and with about 14 billion years having passed since.
The Christmas Proclamation is itself pretty old, having come from the “Roman Martyrology”, which has a centuries-long history of its own. Older references to the Proclamation tend to be in Latin, but looking at the Latin versions reveals that the modern Proclamation with its poetic cosmological language is not the same as the older versions. Here is an older English version the Proclamation, from a book on Advent published in 1870:
The eighth of the Calends of January.*
The year from the creation of the world,
when in the beginning God created heaven and earth,
five thousand one hundred and ninety-nine:
from the deluge, the year two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven:
from the birth of Abraham, the year two thousand and fifteen:
from Moses and the going out of the people of Israel from Egypt,
the year one thousand five hundred and ten:
from David’s being anointed King, the year one thousand and thirty-two:
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel:
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad:
from the building of the city of Rome,
the year seven hundred and fifty-two:
in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus:
the whole world being in peace:
in the sixth age of the world:
Jesus Christ, the eternal God, and Son of the eternal Father,
wishing to consecrate this world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived of the Holy Ghost,
and nine months since his conception having passed,
in Bethlehem of Juda,
is born of the Virgin Mary,
being made man:
The Nativity Of Our Lord Jesus Christ According To The Flesh!
This is as interesting as the modern version! The numbers here are different, and the poetic reference to a modern idea of the age of the universe is gone. That makes sense, since in 1870 modern cosmology was only coming into existence (and the Proclamation dates back centuries before 1870). The “scientific” view about the age of the universe at that time was that the universe had no age—that is, that it was eternal, or infinitely old. This idea pre-dated the Roman Martyrology, and even Christianity itself; the idea of an infinitely old universe—with no beginning, no creation point, no “birthday”—dates back to at least Aristotle. You may recall that Einstein introduced his “Cosmological Constant” into his General Theory of Relativity, to force the theory to allow for a static, unchanging, infinitely old universe, such as he thought the universe was.
But of course the Bible does not speak of an infinitely old, uncreated universe—the Bible speaks of a Beginning: “In the beginning…”. And if there is a Beginning and there is a Nativity of Christ, then some span of years exists between The Beginning and The Nativity.
Interestingly, the Old Version of the Christmas Proclamation puts that span of years at 5199. I’ve always seen Biblical chronologies put the creation at 4004 years before Christ, making the universe be just over 6000 years old now. According to the Jewish calendar the universe is currently 5781 years old. But according to the Old Version the universe’s age is just over 7200 years (the 1870 book notes that “on this one day alone, and on this single occasion, does the Church adopt the Septuagint Chronology, according to which the Birth of our Saviour took place five thousand years after the creation; whereas the Vulgate version, and the Hebrew text, place only four thousand between the two events”). It seems the Bible can yield different ages for the universe.
Thus the Old Version of the Christmas Proclamation says Jesus Christ was born 5199 years after the creation of the world, and 2957 years after the Flood of Noah. As 5199 – 2957 = 2242, then according to the Old Version, the Flood was 2242 years after creation. Genesis 5 from the Vulgate (and thus from translations like the Douay-Rheims or the NAB) gives the lineage of Adam to Noah, Adam being Noah’s 7th great-grandfather. It gives the age of each father at each son’s birth. Do the math, and you will find that Noah was born 1056 years after the creation of the world (and when Noah was born, all his paternal ancestors were still alive, except Adam and Seth—with Enoch walking with God, of course). Genesis 7:11 says that the Flood came when Noah was 600, so that puts the flood at 1656 years after creation. (Interestingly, all Noah’s ancestors had died by that point—Methuselah passing away the year of the Flood.)
Since Genesis only gives the father ages in round years, there is inherent “slop”, or what scientists call “uncertainty”, in the numbers. For example, Gen 5:3 says that Seth was born when Adam was 130. So Seth could have been born right after Adam’s 130th birthday, or just before Adam’s 131st birthday. That “slop” in each birth year could add as much as roughly another decade to the 1656 value, although to add a full decade would require every father to have been on the verge of his next birthday when his son was born. Thus, we might say that, according to the Bible, the flood occurred at 1661 ± 5 years after creation. That is a big difference from 2242.
The same holds true for the next item in the Old Version. It says that Jesus Christ was born 2957 years after the Flood, and 2015 years after the birth of Abraham. As 2957 – 2015 = 942, then according to the Old Version, Abraham was born 942 years after the Flood.
But Gen 5:32 says that Noah gave birth to his three sons when he was 500 years old, and Gen 12:10 says Shem gave birth to his son, Arpachshad, two years after the Flood, when Shem was 100 years old. Let’s take these two verses to mean that Noah was roughly 500 when he had his three sons in close succession, and that Shem in particular was born when Noah was 502 (since the Flood was when Noah was 600). Gen 12:10-32 then gives the lineage of Noah to Abram (Abraham), Noah being Abraham’s 8th great-grandfather. Do the math again, and you get that Abraham was born 1948 years after the creation of the world (and every one of his paternal ancestors, from Noah on down, was still alive when he was born).
So, since we calculated that the Flood was 1656 years after creation, that puts Abraham’s birth at 1948 – 1656 = 292 years after the Flood. Thus the Old Version of the Christmas Proclamation puts 942 years between the Flood and Abraham’s birth; the Bible, 292 years. Again, a big difference, and far beyond what can be explained by uncertainty in the numbers!
All this makes me consider the whole purpose of these numbers, both those in the Bible and those in the Christmas Proclamation. (I am no theologian, so this is just my own take on something where I don’t know any more than the next guy—but at least I did the math.) It seems clear to me that these numbers are not meant to convey actual ages. Genesis 24:1 and 25:8 both speak of Abraham living to a “ripe old age”. But Gen 25:7 says he lived to 175. So, the fact is that, according to Genesis, Abraham died younger than every one of his male ancestors, going all the way back to Adam, except his grandfather, Nahor (who was unfortunate enough to die at 148). Moreover, when Abraham died, Eber, Shelah, and Shem were still alive—Shem having lived through the Flood.
Taking things literally, we can imagine that at Abraham’s burial these old men were shaking their heads, talking about how back in their day men were men, and they didn’t die at young ages like 175. But it seems to me that Genesis is telling us we are not to take these things literally. It tells more than once that Abraham lived to a ripe old age, and that does not mesh with taking the numbers literally and imagining Shem at Abraham’s burial.
This brings to my mind how the new Cosmos: Possible Worlds show spoke of science “debunking” Genesis; Cosmos would probably take the numbers literally, even though, as we see in the Old Version of the Proclamation, the Church itself has not really concerned itself with the literal details of the numbers (and lest the reader think that mine is a wholly “modern” take on this: the 1870 book notes, in regards to the Vulgate vs. the Septuagint ages, “this is not a fitting place to explain this discrepancy of chronology; we merely allude to it as showing the liberty which the Church allows us on this question”; in other words, the Church itself is not concerned with the details).
Thus the two Christmas Proclamations are essentially the same. They differ only on the numerical details, and those have never been of great concern. An interesting thing about both the modern age of the universe and the Biblical age is that they both agree that there was a Beginning, and that the universe has an Age; the difference is one of details. By contrast, the ancient, Aristotelian idea was that there was no Beginning and thus no age—a difference of far more than details.
The Christmas Proclamation has indeed been changed, presumably in light of science, but the changes have been in details—and it is clear that no one was ever so concerned with those details in the first place. The details are just for poetic impact. The central concept of the Proclamation—that God created the world, and that in the fullness of time Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah—remains unaltered. And I like the modern version’s poetic nod to modern science.
*For whatever reason, the 1870 book gives the date as Christmas would be celebrated on the Orthodox calendar.