6,000 Plus l000

Are we relying on ancient speculations to set time for the Advent?

by Robert Johnston, PhD, Chair of the New Testament Department at theSeventhday Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University,Berrien Springs, Michigan.

We are hearing again the ancient lore: world history will continue for a great week of time consisting of six divine days, each equal to a thousand human years, followed by a seventh millennium corresponding to the sabbatical year of Leviticus 25:2-4 during which the earth will rest uncultivated. That will be followed by the eternity, in which the saints will inherit the earth, corresponding to the jubilee of Leviticus 25:8-12. From this timetable we can calculate approximately when Christ will come and when the millennium of Revelation 20 will begin.

Where the Idea Came From

This attractive concept has a fascinating history that needs to be known. (1) Such knowledge will greatly aid our discernment

In the beginning was Psalm 90:4: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night."(2) New Testament writers rightly understood this verse to mean simply that the eternal God sees time differently than mortals (as in 2 Peter 3:8, 9). But some Jewish sages and mystics living in the period beginning about a hundred years before Christ seized upon the verse as a key to unlock mysteries and a starting point for speculations.

An interesting example is found in the book of Jubilees, written about 100 B.C. How is it that God told Adam "In the day that you cat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2:17), but Adam lived on to the age of 930 years (Gen. 5.5)? Psalm 90:4 supplied the solution: "In the testimony of the heavens a thousand years are one day, and this explains why it was written about the tree of knowledge, On the day that you eat from it, you will die. So he [Adam] did not complete the years of this day, but died during it" (Jubilees 4:30).

The Sabbath day and the sabbatical year came in for various kinds of speculative reinterpretation in the Jewish writings and later in Christian writings, but the most fruitful source of speculation was interpreting the seven-day and seven-year periods in the light of Psalm 90:4. To be sure, there was confusion over whether the new age of redemption came at the beginning of the seventh millennium or at the end of it-whether it corresponded to the seventh year or the jubilee that followed it. Nor did everyone divide history up in the same way. One ancient book apparently divided it up into 10 "weeks" (1 Enoch 91; 93). Perhaps the more popular pattern was seven plus an eighth. This typological interpretation of the week and of the septennate (week of years) reinforced the literal Sabbath in the Jewish sources, but it tended to replace it in the Christian literature. Thus a pseudepigraphical writing of the second century A.D. interpreted Genesis 2:2 to mean "that the Lord will make an end of everything in six thousand years, for a day with him means a thousand years" (Epistle of Barnabas 13:4, 5).

The book goes on to paraphrase Isaiah 1:18: "The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but that which I have made, in which I will give rest to all things and make the beginning of an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world. Wherefore we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into heaven" (verses 8, 9). This theme was echoed with variations or developed by many well-known Church Fathers right through to the Middle Ages and beyond.

Of the dozens of rabbinic passages expressing the idea of the cosmic week, perhaps the most famous is in the Babylonian Talmud: "The Tanna debe Ehyyahu teaches: The world is to exist six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation [no Torah]; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years is the Messianic era, but through our many iniquities all these years have been lost" (Sanhedrin 97a, b). This was a comment on what Rabbi Kattina had said "Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one [thousand, the seventh], it shall be desolate" (97a).

Do we find any of this in the New Testament? Yes and no. In Revelation 20 we find a final millennium, followed in chapter 21 by eternity; but there is nothing about a preceding 6,000 years. There is a cosmic Sabbath without a cosmic week! The book seems to be intentionally reticent about such speculation.

What Ussher Did

Let us now fast-forward to the time of James Ussher (1581-1656), the learned Anglican bishop of Armagh in Ireland.' In his time the various millennial speculations were well known. In fact, the talmudic passage quoted above, which lent itself so well to Christian apologetics, was apparently known already to the Reformers, at least to Melanchthon.(3) It was almost certainly known to Ussher, an accomplished Hebraic scholar.(4) This saying gave Ussher his overall framework, into which he fitted a detailed chronology that he thought to obtain by a study of the genealogies of the Old Testament and secular synchronisms. But in fact, he could make everything fit only by considerable manipulation.(5)

He also ignored the differences between the ancient manuscript traditions. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Church, following the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation), placed the date of Creation at least 5,500 years before Christ, and many expected the end of time in 1492.

According to the Talmud, 4,000 years elapsed between the Creation and the Messianic age. By Ussher's time scholars had fixed the year of Christ's birth at 4 B.C., correcting the date given by Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century. Thus counting back 4,000 years brings us to 4004 B.C.(6)

William Miller followed Ussher's chronology, except that he found an error in the time of the judges and for no good reason added 10 years to the period of the Kings. While,Ussher's 6,000 years would end about 1996, Miller moved the end back to 1843/ 1844. His followers chose October 22. After that date passed, Miller's followers went back to their calculations. Sylvester Bliss figured the 6,000 years would end in 1882.

Prominent Adventists Got Sucked in

All premillennialists(7) of the nineteenth century believed in the cosmic week. One set of calculations pointed to 1866, another to 1870. Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, calculated the end of the 6,000 years to be in 1872, but Christ would come in 1874. Since that time the Jehovah's Witnesses have set new dates: 1881, 1914, 1975, all based on recalculating the 6,000 years. In the run,up time to each date their membership grows rapidly; when the date passes, it drops drastically.

Our Seventh-day Adventist pioneers believed in the cosmic week, and early articles about it by G. W. Molt and J. B. Cook appeared in the Review and Herald. But the most influential proponent was John Nevins Andrews, who published in 1883 a series of six articles in the Review with the general heading "The Great Week of Time." Andrews believed that the six days of Creation were based on the 6,000 years, not the reverse: "We think that God chose the period of six days such as are known to man for the work of Creation in order to represent to man that in six days of 1,000 years each, days such as are known to God, he would accomplish the period assigned to man before the judgment."(8)

Andrews carefully hedged many of his dates with the word "about," and rather than offer a precise date for the end of the cosmic week, he said, "The sixth period of 1,000 years must end in this century [the nineteenth century], though we cannot fix the year when it will terminate." As late as 1899, Adventist publications stated firmly that the end would be sometime around the year 1900. This belief that the end will come sometime during a somewhat extended period with an end point can be called "soft time-setting," as contrasted with setting a definite firm date ("hard time,setting").(9)

After the turn of the century Adventists understandably turned away from speculations based on theories about a cosmic week, and Uriah Smith soon called them "but conjecture and tradition," adding that "the question of the nearness of the second coming of Christ is not left to rest upon such a foundation. (10) Adventists did not again become interested in the idea of a great week of time until the year A.D. 2000 began to appear over the horizon.

Our survey has shown that the idea of the cosmic week has been popular for more than 2,000 years, though the various calculations differ quite widely from each other. We have also seen that the idea is inevitably associated with hard or soft time-setting.

Finally, we can observe that these calculations have so far all led to disappointment that was proportional to the excitement that earlier attended them.


1 For the early history of the idea of a cosmic sabbath, see Robert M. Johnston, "The Eschatological Sabbath in John's Apocalypse: A Reconsideration," Andrews University Seminary Studies 25 (Spring 1987): 39-50. For later developments I am indebted to three contributions by Warren H. Johns, namely, "How Accurate Is Biblical Chronology?" Ministry, March 1984, pp. 11-15; "Ellen G. White and Biblical Chronology," Ministry, April 1,984, pp~ 20-23; and especially "Millennialism and Adventisrn" (unpublished paper dated Jan. 12, 1994). See also James Barr, "Why the World Was Created in 4004 B.C.: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 67 (Spring 1985):575,608.

2. Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

3. In addition to the sources listed in note 1, 1 am also indebted here to Saul Leeman, "Was Bishop Ussher's Chronology Influenced by a Midrash?" Semeila 8 (1977): 127.129.

4. See Barr, pp. 581, 582.

5. See Leeman, pp. 127, 128.

6.  This is all explained in detail by Barr and Johns in the articles cited above.

7. Premillennialists believe that the Second Coming will precede the millennium.

8. Review and Herald, July 17, 1883; July 24, 1883; July 31, 1883; Aug. 7, 1883; Aug. 14, 1883; Aug. 21, 1883.

9. See Signs of the Times, Sept. 20, 1899.

10. Review and Herald, Aug. 13, 1901.

"Previously published in "Heart of Our Hope", A Special Edition of Adventist Review on the Second Coming, October 19, 1998.