The Beginning of the World?

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written by many different writers over a long period of time, has this interesting log entry for 616 A.D.:

And in this same year had elapsed from the beginning of the world five thousand six hundred and eighteen winters.

Doing the math here, we come up with 5003 B.C. as being the year of the beginning of the world. (Remember that there never was a year 0.)

What can we make of this? We need to put the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. First of all, it is filled with references to Christianity and the conversions of “heathens” to “the true faith.” The Chronicle, remember was written largely by religious people who wanted to tell and retell the history of Britain.

As has been seen in a previous column, the Angles and Saxons weren’t so fond of keeping written records. They preferred to keep their history orally, passing down traditions and laws from generation to generation. Trouble was, if someone who had all those traditions and laws in only his head got that head lopped off on the battlefield somewhere, that information would be so much dust. So, when the Roman Christians converted the Germanic tribes to Christianity, they urged the new converts to keep written records (and, largely, did it for them).

So it should come as no surprise that much of these written records are concerned with the Christian history of the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

Now, what to make of the “beginning of the world” figure? Well, we today can probably point to Bishop James Ussher’s dating of Creation in 4004 B.C. as part of a controversy that still rages. Other, much older, traditions list varying dates, including the round 6,000, 5539, and so on. Each date seems to have a different method of calculations. But where did this 5003 come from?

In a study of these standard, known, dates throughout written history, the number 5003 doesn’t appear. Did some writer make it up? If so, on what was it based? A further reading of the Chronicle sheds no light on the subject. And remember, we’re talking about 616 A.D. here. Ussher wrote in the 17th century.

The answer, as with so many of these elements of times long past, is that we simply don’t know. It is an intriguing question, though. And we can partly answer it by answering not Why did they pick that date? but rather Why pick a date at all?

It could very well be that the writer wanted to place his people in the context of history. The year 616 was, after all, a momentous year in that it marked the conversion to Christianity of Ethelbert of Kent, the first great Germanic king to take up the cross. In this light, it is only natural that such an event would be compared to another momentous event, in that the former was the beginning of the world and the latter was the beginning of the age of Christianity in Britain. For a monk writing in the 7th century, these two events weren’t that far apart.

Another possibility is that the number itself had some secret meaning. This is often the case in the Bible. Many scholars now think that certain of the numbers quoted in the Bible were symbolic rather than literal. This could very well have been the case with 5003 as well.

Whatever the reason, the fact that someone chose to date the beginning of the world is intriguing and mystifying at the same time. Because of the lack of more evidence, we’ll have to chalk this one up in the Unknown column.