Last updated 5 Jan 2005 | ©2001-2005 by Sharon L. Krossa. All rights reserved. |

Since at least 1999, there has been great and furious debate in many forums (newspaper columns, letters to the editor, television media, internet newsgroups, mailing lists, around the kitchen table and elsewhere) about whether "The New Millennium" or "The Third Millenium" started in 2000 or 2001. All too frequently in these debates, an unexamined assumption on both sides has been that there is some kind of scientifically and/or logically correct answer and therefore that if the 2001 advocates are right the 2000 advocates must be wrong and vice versa.

But all of this is so much nonsense, and ignores the fundamental nature of the terms we apply to calendars; calendars, and especially the terminology of calendars, are the product of human cultures, not nature. Culture, not science, determines the meaning of our labels for days, months, years, decades... millennia. Neither science nor logic decrees that Sunday (or Monday, or Saturday) is the first day of the week -- culture does. Neither science nor logic decrees that January (or March, or February) is the first month of the year -- culture does. In just the same way, neither science nor logic decrees that 2000 (or 2001) is the first year of the New Millennium or Third Millennium -- culture does.

This means that if enough people decide that the Third Millennium started on 1 January 2000, well, then, that's when the Third Millennium started and they are not wrong. Whenever people ten or forty or a hundred or four hundred years ago may have considered the Millennium to start doesn't, in the end, matter, because it is the current culture that is making these determinations for these current times. But by the same token, if enough people decide that the Third Millennium started on 1 January 2001, well, then, that's when the Third Millennium started and they are not wrong. And, given that we live in a many cultured world, and given that significant numbers of people do indeed hold to each position, we have the end result that for some people it started in 2000 and for some it started in 2001 and both groups of people are equally right, just as both those who consider the first day of the week to be Sunday and those who consider the first day of the week to be Monday are equally right. (That being said, it is worth noting that world wide there was significantly greater celebration of "the New Millennium" on 31 Dec 1999-1 Jan 2000 than 31 Dec 2000-1 Jan 2001. This doesn't mean the people who celebrated the start of the New Millennium on 31 Dec 2000-1 Jan 2001 were wrong, merely in the minority.)

Now I'm sure some reading this are thinking, but what about the logic of numbers and counting? Surely when the third millennium starts is determined by this universal and unchanging logic of numbers and counting? To which the answer is: no. For one thing, there isn't as much universal unchanging logic to numbers and counting as many people assume, especially when it comes to counting time. Sometimes we start counting at zero and sometimes we start counting at one. For example, when we count the seconds of a foot race, we start counting at zero, as we do when we start counting the years of someone's age. But when we start counting the number of nights we're going to stay in a hotel, we start counting at one (even if we're not going to stay the whole night). Then there is the complication of whether we are counting (using cardinal numbers) or numbering (using ordinal numbers). For example, a six month old child is not yet one year old, but he is in his first year, while a one year old child is in her second year, not her first.

And sometimes whether we start counting or numbering at zero or one depends not only on what we are counting/numbering and whether we are counting or numbering, but also on what culture we belong to. For example, in the UK they start numbering the floors of a building at zero, while in the US they start numbering the floors of a building at one (so the top floor of a three-story building is the "second floor" in the UK but the "third floor" in the US).

At the heart of the reasoning of most 2001 advocates is that the man who came up with the numbers we use started his counting of years at one (because he didn't know about zero), therefore we must start our counting of calendar years at one, and so the Third Millennium started in 2001. At the heart of the reasoning of most 2000 advocates is that these days we start counting years (for birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) from zero, therefore we must start our counting of calendar years at zero, and therefore the Third Millennium started in 2000. And this is a disagreement where logic and science favours neither side, for each is a perfectly logical and sound conclusion from their respective initial premises (that is, that counting of calendar years starts at zero or one) and neither science nor logic has any say in the correctness of those differing initial premises, for that is determined by culture. There is no law of nature that dictates we must start counting calendar years at zero or at one -- culture may choose to do as it will.

And cultures do change their minds about how they count time and arrange calendars. For example, a few hundred years ago, if on a Tuesday you wanted to arrange to meet again next Tuesday, you would arrange to meet again in "eight days", but today you would arrange to meet again in "a week" (seven days); if on 15 April 1533 you wanted to arrange to meet again on 15 April 1534, you would arrange to meet again in "a year and a day", but today you would arrange to meet again in "a year". The absolute time between one event and another didn't change over the centuries, but how people counted that time did. In the past, they started counting days at one, but today we start counting days at zero. So there is no requirement that we start counting calendar years at one, just because our ancestors did. But by the same token, there is no requirement that we don't, either!

The issue is, of course, even murkier. While it is true that the man who came up with the calendar year numbers we use today (Denis the Short) did not have the concept of zero and did start his counting at one, he also got the numbers wrong. He intended to base his numbers on the birth of Jesus, but modern scholars say he we was off by about four years. So neither 2000 nor 2001 marks the start of the Third Millennium after Jesus' actual birth -- that happened around 1996 or so.

Further, Denis started his "1 AD" on 1 January -- a week (or eight days ;-) *after* when he considered Jesus to have been born (25 December). Denis may not have had a concept for zero, but he still placed the conception and birth of Jesus in the year before "1 AD". And note that Denis did not call this year "1 BC" -- the BC calendar system for the time before Jesus was invented much later. Denis was only interested in the years after Jesus; he didn't make any suggestions for changing how earlier years were numbered.

But wait, there's more! The start of the new year has changed more than once between Denis' time and modern times, often with different parts of Europe starting the year on different days. For example, at some point after Denis, many European cultures using Denis' year numbers changed the start of the new year to 25 March -- the day Jesus was conceived. But they didn't renumber the years, though they were still in the cultural mode of counting years starting with one rather than zero (and counting Tuesday to Tuesday at eight days, etc.). Later still, some cultures moved the start of the year back to 1 January, again without renumbering the years (and again still in the cultural mode of counting years and days starting with one).

As a result, for example, at the very same instant on 25 June 1603, on the Scottish side of the Scottish-English border, they considered it to be 1603 years from Christ, starting the counting at one from 1 January after Christ's birth, while at the very same time on the English side of the border they considered it to be 1603 years from Christ, starting the counting at one from the conception of Jesus on 25 March. So in England on 25 June 1603 it was 1603 years and three months (and a day ;-) after Jesus' conception, but next door in Scotland it was 1604 years and three months (and a day ;-) after Jesus' conception.

Then there is the twist provided by the choice of calendar system -- Julian or Gregorian. Denis the Short used the Julian calendar, but modernly we use the Gregorian. If we still used the Julian calendar (as some Orthodox Christians do), whether it started in 2000 or 2001, the New Millennium would have started 13 days later than it did in the Gregorian calendar (because 1 Jan 2000 Julian = 14 Jan 2000 Gregorian and 1 Jan 2001 Julian = 14 Jan 2001 Gregorian.)

Well, anyone still think the choice between 1 January 2000 and 1 January 2001 for the start of the New Millennium is "obvious" and something all right thinking, educated people must agree on?

When Does the New Millennium Begin? http://www.hermetic.ch/cal_stud/newmill.htm |

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