AN ARBITRARY COUNTDOWN
December 31, 1997
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Steven Jay Gould, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. Heís the author of Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalistís Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown.
DAVID GERGEN: Steve, millennium madness is almost upon us as the year 2000 approaches, but our forebearers--many generations ago--had a very different view of what the millennium was all about. Tell us about it.
STEVEN JAY GOULD, Author, "Questioning the Millennium:" It is a strange change of meaning because the original millennium has nothing to do with counting periods of human history in thousand-year intervals. The original millennium is a prediction about a grand and glorious future, when the devil will be bound for a thousand years, and Christ will come again to reign on Earth. Itís a prediction in Chapter 20 in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelations, since millennium means "a thousand years," literally, that makes sense. In other words, itís the thousand-year period of future bliss after Christ returns when He will rule with his saints upon the Earth.
DAVID GERGEN: If you go back--refresh us just a little bit more in Revelation and the 20th verse there because there is a second coming. What was foreseen was at the second coming there would be an apocalypse.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Yes, this is going to be the grand battle. The devil is cast into the bottomless pit. Jesus comes to reign for a thousand years. After that period is over, then the devil is released. He teams up with Gog and Magog--thereís another grand battle and then comes the true last judgment. All the bodies are resurrected, and the good ones go up, and the bad ones go the other way.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, for a long, long time people thought the apocalypse was almost at hand, and Christ, Himself, told his apostles that the apocalypse might happen even in their lifetime.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Indeed. I tink thatís why the transfer got made to counting periods of a thousand years because Jesus says in the three synoptic gospels quite explicitly that this end is going to come soon, the second coming, the millennium. He says there are some of you who will still be alive--some of you standing here today will still be alive when the Son of man comes into His Kingdom. And then it didnít happen. So when youíre faced with that situation--which by the way is the only constant feature of the history of apocalypse--is every predicted date for Armageddon hasnít come to pass, and people have to come down off their mountaintops in disappointment and thatís exactly whatís happened. In fact, the first major Christian apocalyptic movement known as the Modenists, was I think in about 150 AD, so this is very early in the history. Itís been part of the history of Christianity right from the beginning, but, of course, it never happens, so then you have to ask the question: Well, where did we go wrong? Why didnít it happen? We thought there was going to be this grand second coming in the millennium, and what arose out of that in trying to explain when it would come, since they were wrong about the first predictions, was a kind of complicated argument that we wouldnít find satisfactory today because itís only based on metaphor and analogy but was important to folks at that time--they reasoned as follows: The Bible says in many places--Psalm 90 and very explicitly in Peterís 2nd Epistle--that one day with the Lord is as a thousand human years. So they reasoned as follows: If God created the world in six days and then rested for a seventh, and each of his days is like a thousand of our years, that meant that the Earth could endure for 6,000 years, six of Godís days, after which would come the grand Sabbath, the thousand year millennium, Godís day of rest; therefore, you see, if you could only figure out when the world began, then you would know when it has to end, because it can only last 6,000 years. Thatís when people started counting human history in millennia, that is, each thousand year period is one of Godís six days. After theyíre all finished, the world ends.
DAVID GERGEN: And then they figured out, I guess, around the 16th century or so, that if you look back from Christís birth and you went through all the begats in the Bible and measured back, you could date the beginning of time from about four thousand years before--
STEVEN GAY GOULD: That became the most common way to try to do it. You have to assume the Bible is absolutely literally true, which, of course, it isnít, since the Earthís 4 1/2 million years old, but--
DAVID GERGEN: You will hear from our viewers on that.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Nonetheless--but if you take the Bible absolutely literally, you can make a pretty good estimate thereís still some doubts because not every date is filled in, and there are some overlaps, but a lot of people played that game, and they came up with about 4,000 B.C., the most popular date was Archbishop Usher, 17th century English cleric, who had October 23rd at 12 noon in 4004 B.C.. Let us not accuse him of any imprecision. Other estimates came up with the venerable B in the 8th century--something like 3950--the Hebrew Bible counts 3761, I think. But everybody pretty much agrees.
DAVID GERGEN: So if it goes back 4,000 and there are 6,000 years before the apocalypse from the beginning of time until the seventh day, when you get the apocalypse and the second coming, that gives you 4,000 years before Christ was born and then 2,000 years after.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Oh, indeed. If you believe that system, weíve either gotten there or are getting there very soon--if Jesus was really born in the year zero, and, therefore, the Earth began in 4000 BC, then that gives you a reason to think under that system that itíll end in 2000. The problem is Jesus was not born then. That is, the man who developed our modern BC/AD system of time, a man named Dionysus Exiguous, a monk.
DAVID GERGEN: Dennis the Short.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: --made a little mistake in Jesusís birth. It turns out that Herod died in 4 BC, and thatís well attested. So if Jesus and Herod overlapped, which is certainly a requirement of the biblical narrative, or you wouldnít have stories like the slaughter of the innocents and the return of the magi to their own country--then Jesus must have been born in 4 BC or earlier. So if Jesus was born in 4 BC and the Earth was created 4,000 years before--thatís where Usher got his 4,004--then it should have ended--you would think--in 1996 on October 23rd, but really in 1997, because little Dennis made another mistake. He didnít include a year zero. Shouldnít blame him. There was no zero in western numbers at the time. And therefore, 6,000 years after 4,004 BC is October 23, 1997, last month, and it didnít happen.
DAVID GERGEN: That mistake by Dennis the Short--there was no zero in the mathematics of his time--has caused enormous confusion about when to celebrate the end of a millennium. We now think of a millennium in the more secular terms--a thousand years--so when should we celebrate the end of this millennium--December 31, 1999, or December 31, 2000?
STEVEN GAY GOULD: A wonderful unanswerable question because itís not about the world out there, itís about our somewhat arbitrary systems for ordering, but it all arises from little Dennisís business of not having the year zero. We shouldnít blame him. There was no zero in western numbers at the time--didnít come in till the 10th century--but because there wasnít a year zero, AD time began on January 1st , year one, itís like having a ruler that begins at 1 instead of zero.
DAVID GERGEN: So logic says that this millennium, this century ends on December 31st, year 2000?
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Right. And the beginning is 2001, which is why Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick call their book and movie that. Yes. If you follow out Dennisís logic, you see the year 100 if you want each century to have a hundred years has to go into the first century, and the problem never goes away--1800 goes with the 1700 years--1900 goes with the 1800 years--and 2000 is sadly not the beginning of the millennium but the end of the 20th century.
DAVID GERGEN: You say in your book, though, that at the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century the high culture of our society dictated and we all agreed that the 19th century ended and the year 1900 came to an end, 1901 started, but you say this time around weíre going to end this century on December 31, 1999.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Yes. Thereís a big debate in the 1890's, but there was a meaningful distinction between what you might call high and pop culture then and the folks who controlled things, the official celebrations, the newspapers and magazines, high cultures; they accepted Dennisís mathematical necessity, and every official celebration at the beginning of the 20th century was January 1, 1901. But you see the man in the street--pop culture--has always favored the zero zero. It just looks more interesting. 1999 to 2000 is much more interesting than 2000 to 2001. So pop culture has always wanted that solution but never had any power. In this century itís one of the outstanding sociological phenomena of our time. There is no distinction anymore between pop and high culture--Benny Goodman, Wynn Marsalis--playing jazz band--symphony orchestras--itís fine, since pop culture has always favored the zero zero year and high culture doesnít exist to impose a different solution anymore, this millennium is going to turn in 2000 by popular decree, and Dennisís whole problem is going to be solved because the 20th century gets only 99 years that began on January 1, 1901, when high culture was still in control and will end by popular proclamation on January 1, 2000.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, we can understand millennium madness, indeed. Steven Jay Gould, thank you very much.
STEVEN GAY GOULD: Thank you.