What Calendar Did Yeshua Follow?
So which calendar is the true calendar of the Bible? As of this writing, there are three calendars vying for this distinction. They are:
- The rabbinc Jewish or Hillel 2 calendar, which originated in ca. A.D. 359–360 as the last act of the last Jewish Sanhedrin and was approved and sanctioned by Roman emperor Constantine. (For more information on the history of this calendar, go to https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/new_moons.pdf.)
- The aviv barley/new moon calendar (for more information on this calendar, read my online teaching at https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/cal_demyst.pdf and https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/vis_moon.pdf).
- The vernal equinox calendar.
- There are several other fringe calendars (e.g. the Noah calendar, the Enoch calendar, and several Essene calendars) that have caught the attention of some Bible students that are totally unsupported biblically; therefore, we won’t even take the time even to address them.
In previous articles, we have discussed the Hillel 2 calendar above, which most of Rabbinic Judaism currently follows, but was not the calendar that the biblical Jews followed.
The next calendar, the abib/aviv barley, visible new moon calendar, which is the one that this ministry follows for the reasons given in the article links provided above.
The last calendar is the vernal equinox calendar, which looks to the vernal or spring equinox to determine the beginning of the new biblical year and, hence, the dates for the biblical feasts, while ignoring the abib/aviv barley growing in the land of Israel. This is what we want to discuss below. Many modern believers, in frustration over calendar controversies and in light of the confusing nature of the subject itself, have thrown up their hands in frustration and have chosen simply either to follow the traditional rabbinic or Hillel 2 calendars, or to base the biblical calendar on the spring equinox. For example, the Christians church uses the spring equinox to determine the date of Easter. But is this how the Bible and the first century Jews determined the biblical new year and festival dates? This is the question we’ll answer below.
Overview of the Biblical Jewish Calendar
The calendar that the rabbinc Jews use today is a modified version of the one used at the time of Yeshua and the apostles in the first century and originates from ca. A.D. 360. It was the opus maximum or life work of a Jewish sage named Hillel 2 (A.D. 330–365, Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, by R. J. Zwi et al, p. 78, Holt et al; 1966). Up until that time, the entire Jewish diaspora (Jews living outside the Holy Land) depended upon the Judean Sanhedrin (the ruling Jewish body of elders in Jerusalem) to determine the calendar and legal observance of the annual biblical Sabbaths. Yet because of the persecution in the Roman world against the Jews, the messengers from Judea were often menaced or threatened as they attempted to convey calendric rulings from Judea to Jewry in the diaspora. This presented a perplexing problem for synagogues in distant lands such as Babylon or Egypt that depended upon news from Judea to determine their calendar, and hence feast day observances. “But as the religious persecution continued, Hillel determined to provide an authorized calendar for all time to come, though by doing so he severed the ties which united the Jews of the Diaspora to their mother country and to the patriarchate” (Dictionary of Ancient Rabbis, by Jacob Neusner, p. 200, Hendrickson; 2003). This is a brief explanation of the origins of the modern rabbinc Jewish calendar.
By contrast, and in contradistinction to the rabbinc calendar, the Torah-Word of Elohim states that the new year should start on the month when the barley was green in its head (i.e. abib/aviv) and at the sighting of the crescent new moon (Exod 9:31; 12:1-2; 13:4, for more information on this calendar, read my online teaching at https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/cal_demyst.pdf and https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/vis_moon.pdf). This determines the entire calendar for the upcoming year including when to observe YHVH’s commanded annual feasts (Lev 23). In an effort to be faithful to YHVH’s Word, the Jewish sages of the Second Temple era established elaborate rituals and protocols to determine when the new moon had occurred. (This information is available from ancient Jewish sources, and I reference them in my articles on the subject at https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/teaching.html#feast.)
The Vernal Equinox in Determining Passover
Up until the second centuries A.D., the rabbinic Jews in fact followed the abib barley calendar as I document in my other (earlier referenced) calendar articles. True, the Jews supplemented the observance of the barley with astronomical observances as well (e.g. the equinox, which they learned from the Babylonian astrologers) along with other natural spring phenomenon. Nevertheless, their ancient writings reveal that a recognition that the barley has preeminence for determining the year. A Jewish Torah scholar or sage (a second century A.D. Tanaitic source) says in the Babylonian Talmud,
Our [sages] taught, based on three things is the year intercalated: on the abib, on the fruits of the trees, and on the equinox. Based on two of them the year is intercalated but based on one of them alone the year is not intercalated. And when the abib is one of them everyone is pleased. (Bavli Sanhedrin 11b; from http://www.Karaite-Korner.org/abib_faq.shtml#rabbanites_and_abib)
Another Jewish sage declares,
Our [sages] taught [that] the year is intercalated based on [the abib in] three regions: Judea, Transjordan, and Galilee. Based on two of them the year is intercalated but based on one of them alone the year is not intercalated. And when Judea is one of them everyone is pleased because the omer [wave-sheaf] offering can only come from Judea. (Bavli Sanhedrin 11b; ibid.)
These quotes from the Babylonian Talmud reveal that the Jews in Babylon (outside the land of Israel) used other factors (i.e. the fruit trees and the vernal or spring equinox in addition to the abib barley) to determine the biblical calendar. This is because Babylon was hundreds of miles north and east of Israel, and lacking modern communications abilities and means of rapid travel, it wasn’t easy for the Jews outside the land of Israel to look to the barley and new moon in Israel to calculate the biblical calendar. These are no longer impediments in our modern times of instant communications, so gaining this information is no longer an issue.
The Biblical Calendar and the Vernal (Spring) Equinox
Because of a misunderstanding of how and to what degree, if any, the vernal equinox factored into determining the biblical calendar, some folks are recommending that the vernal equinox be the main factor in establishing the new biblical year.
Those who champion this view assert that the biblical calendar must be regulated by the sun and moon only, and that the abib barley has little or no bearing on the biblical calendar. They state that the new month must fall after the vernal or spring equinox, which occurs approximately on March 21. In my extensive studies of the ancient biblical calendar, I can find no evidence to support this view. In fact, it was the Babylonians and Roman Catholics (in determining Easter) that took this position—not the biblical Israelites or even the rabbinic Jews!
It was the Constantine-era rabbinic calendar (commonly known as the Hillel 2 calendar and that is still in use today by most religious Jews worldwide) that factored the vernal equinox into its calculations and not the biblical calendar that was in use at the time of Yeshua. According to the eminent Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, the rabbinic or Hillel 2 calendar of Judaism (originating in ca. A.D. 360) “ensures that the festival of Passover falls at the full moon of the lunar month of Nisan (the fifteenth of Nisan), always coincides with the first full moon after the vernal equinox (Mar. 21), and that the festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot), which falls at the full moon of the lunar month of Tishri, always coincides with the first full moon after the autumnal equinox (Sept. 21)” (Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, p. 111, by Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson; 2002, emphasis added). Note that although the author mentions the vernal equinox and full moon in determining the date of Passover, there is no mention of the new moon (which occurs some two weeks before the full moon each month) in this quote. He also makes no mention of the vernal equinox being a factor in determining the new year. We’ll discuss this point further below.
It is true that for the Hillel 2 calendar, the Jewish sages used the spring and autumn equinoxes as one aspect among about a dozen to help determine the time of the spring and fall feasts. It was, however, only a minor factor for the Jewish sages in determining the feasts in biblical (or pre-Hillel 2 calendar) times, which the calculated Hillel 2 calendar of the Jewish sages replaced in A.D. 360.
With regard to the significance of the vernal equinox in determining the spring feasts, several other sources chime in on the subject. Read these, and then we’ll discuss what they are saying, and what they are not saying.
[The Jews] at the time of Jesus Christ [did not] as yet possess any fixed calendar, but on the basis of purely empirical observation, on each occasion they began a new month with the appearing of the new moon, and likewise on the basis of each repeated observation intercalated a month in the spring of every third and second year, in accordance with the rule that the Passover under all circumstances must fall after the vernal equinox. (History of Jewish People in the Time of Christ, first division, vol. 2, p. 366, by Emil Schurer; Hendrickson; 2009)
The rule, according to which it is determined whether to intercalate [i.e. add a thirteenth month] or not, was very simple. It required that care should be taken that the Passover festival, to be celebrated at the full moon in Nisan (14th Nisan), should in any case fall after the vernal equinox, when the sun stood in the sign Aries. …With this also agree the statements of Philo and Josephus [Ant. iii. 10. 5]. If one therefore toward the close of the year noticed that the Passover would fall before the vernal equinox, the intercalation [i.e. the addition of a thirteenth month] of a month before Nisan would have be to be resorted to. (History of Jewish People in the Time of Christ, first division, vol. 2, pp. 370–371, by Emil Schurer; Hendrickson; 2009)
The year consisted of twelve months whose limits were determined by these observations [i.e. the visible sighting of the crescent new moon]. But, since the lunar year consists of only 354 days, eleven less than the solar year, it was necessary from time to time to ‘intercalate’ a thirteenth month before Passover, to prevent its being moved back into the winter. This intercalary month was a “second Adar” and was added whenever a consideration of the sun’s position [i.e. the vernal equinox], the state of the crops [i.e. the barley, since the wheat wasn’t ripe yet], or of the new-born lambs, made it appear necessary. (The Pharisees, by Louis Finkelstein, pp. 601–602, Jewish Publication Society, 1938; Philadelphia)
The full moon in [the month of] Nisan is the first after the vernal equinox and marks the celebration of Passover.” (Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, p. 455, by Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson; 2002, emphasis added)
Thus Passover must be celebrated in the month of Nisan, called in the Bible the month of Abib [barley] (spring), and never before the vernal equinox.” (The New Jewish Encyclopedia, p. 70, Behrman House Publishers; 1976, emphasis added)
According to Eusebius, long before Christ, the Jews anciently (as attested to by Philo, Josephus, Masaeus, the two Agathobuli, and Aaristobulus, who was one of the 70 Jewish scholars who translated the Septuagint) sacrificed the Passover lamb after the vernal equinox, in the middle of the first month. (Ecc. Hist., book 7:16–19, emphasis added).
On account of three signs do they [the judges of the Sanhedrin, Sanh. 2:1ff] intercalate [i.e. add a thirteenth month onto the end of the year] the year, because of the tree, and because of the lateness of the spring equinox. On account of two of these they will intercalate the year, but on account of only one of them, they will not intercalate the year. But it if they declared the year to be intercalated , lo, this is deemed intercalated. If the premature state of the grain was one of them, they would rejoice. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says, ‘Also on account of the lateness of the spring equinox.’ On account of [evidence of conditions in] three regions to they intercalate the year: Judea, Trans-Jordan, and Galilee. On account of evidence produced in two of them they intercalate the year, but on account of evidence deriving from only one of them they do not intercalate the year.…And if the land of Judea was one of the two regions, they would rejoice, because of the [first fruits of] the grain which would come from there. They do not intercalate the year because [the season of the kids], lambs, or pigeons has not yet come. But in the case of all of them, they regard it as a support [for intercalating] the year.…And Yochanan the scribe was before them, He said to him, ‘Write: [In Aramaic] “To our brethren, residents of Upper Galilee and residents of Lower Galilee, may your peace increase! I inform you that the time of the removal has come, to separate the tithes from the olive vats.…To our brethren, residents of the Upper South and residents of the Lower South….We inform you that the time for the removal has come, to separate the tithes from the sheaves of grain.…They intercalate the year only if the spring equinox is distant by the better part of a month. How much is the better part of a month? Sixteen days” (Tosefta Sanh. 2.2–2.7; ca. A.D. 300).
A careless reading of the quotations above might cause one to come to the conclusion that the ancient Jews believed that the beginning of the first month of the biblical calendar had to fall after the vernal equinox. But this is not what the Jews of the first century believed or taught. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that the Jews considered the vernal equinox when determining the timing of Passover, for they all state that Passover or the time of the full moon (not the new moon) must fall after the vernal equinox. There is no mention that the new moon (rosh chodesh) had to fall after the vernal equinox, only that Passover or the full moon must fall after the vernal equinox. The full moon usually occurs 14 to 15 days after the new moon. Therefore, the ancients did not base their calendar on the first new moon after the vernal equinox, but rather on the first new moon that fell closest to the vernal equinox, which means the new moon could fall two or more weeks before the vernal equinox, just as long as Passover (which was on the fourteenth day of the first month at the time of the full moon) would occur after the vernal equinox. If it didn’t, then the Jews added a thirteenth month.
In the Scriptures, there is no evidence whatsoever that the vernal or spring equinox was a factor in determining the biblical calendar. No direct or indirect mention of it is even made in the Bible, nor do biblical historians indicate that it was the main factor for determining when the new year began and hence when the biblical feasts were calculated during Bible times.
Although the vernal equinox occurs in the spring of year and this fact was duly noted by the later Jewish sages, it was simply coincidental and ancillary to the indices of the abib barley, which in the Bible determined when the new year began.
Based on our research, we find that the vernal equinox only became a major factor in determining the Jewish calendar when the Jews were in exile in Babylon and outside the land of Israel where access to information about the state of the barley in the land of Israel was difficult to obtain. Then hundreds of years later in the time of Constantine in A.D. 360 when the final Jewish Sanhedrin invented the Hillel 2 calendar, the vernal equinox was taken into consideration, again, since obtaining information from the land of Israel about the state of the barley was difficult or impossible to obtain. Because of limitations on communications and travel, it wasn’t possible to communicate the state of the barley and the sighting of the new moon in Israel to Jews scattered in remote lands outside of Israel—a problem that no longer exists.
It is true that some post-biblical era Jewish sages viewed the equinox as a minor consideration in determining the biblical calendar; however, the Scriptures give absolutely no indication that the equinox was to play any role in determining the new year or YHVH’s feasts. To look to the vernal equinox as such is an extra-biblical, man-made doctrine. Moreover, to say that the vernal equinox factored into biblical calendric calculations is to read into the Word of Elohim something that is simply not there! The Scriptures never even refer to the equinox directly or indirectly!
YHVH gave only one determiner of when the new year would begin: the abib barley! In looking to other indicators beside the abib barley (for an explanation of the abib barley, see https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/pdfs/cal_demyst.pdf), the Jews were adding to the Word of Elohim. Yeshua condemned the Jewish leaders of his day for rejecting the Word of Elohim and then adding to or substituting for it the traditions of men (Matt 15:9; Mark 7:9). Let us not be guilty before Yeshua of the same sin!
Here is a link to a free, printable biblical calendar for 2019: https://www.hoshanarabbah.org/calendars.html