7.2. The fascination of numbers


At first glance, the source of the apocalyptic fascination with the years 1000 and 2000 might be the obscure texts of Revelation 20, where the expression “a thousand years” or “thousands of years” (according to other Bible versions) is used six times. Revelation 20 is the foundation of the entire millennial doctrine, but the text does not refer expressly to the years 1000 or 2000; this is why the “thousand years” was interpreted over time either symbolically or literally, as a specific and practical calendrical unit. In any case, religion cannot explain why the attraction for the year 2000 transcended the cultural and religious barriers; it was not limited to Christian people. And if we ask ourselves what exactly in nature functions according to cycles of 1,000 or 2,000 years, the answer is nothing. This means that the explanation to the problem of the year 1000 or 2000 is not to be found in religion, but in psychology.

The number 1,000 seems mystical, powerful and especially complete for the simple fact that it is a round number. The modern man thinks in the decimal (base 10) system of numeration; he imagines, conceives and organizes his environment though this system of numeration. Money is the best example of the way we apply numbers in the material world: we have money of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 1,000 or 2,000 units. Nowhere in the world is there money of 3,245 units, of 1,415 units or any other numerical values that are difficult to operate with.

Most ancient systems of numeration were built on the value of 1, 5 and 10. The Latin system was based on six symbols with dual significance, used to form both words and numbers: I = 1, V = 5, X =10, L = 50, C = 100, D = 500, M = 1,000. The Egyptian numbers were based on the value of 10: 1, 10, 100, 1,000 and so on. Babylonia used a sexagesimal system (base 60) intertwined with a decimal one. The current system of numeration, from zero to nine and base ten, is the combination between the Hindu and the Arab systems. The presence of ten proves that all systems of numeration have in common a biological root. Thousands of years ago the ability to count and to calculate was rare, and those who possessed it used as computing tools the most accessible things: fingers.1392

The connection between fingers and numbers entails psychological consequences. Given the fact that fingers are ten in number, it is very easy to see this aspect as a “whole.” In other words, the number ten is a round number and becomes a round, a sphere or a perfect quantity. What is beyond the number ten is an addition. Up to ten we can count on fingers. For numerical values above ten the counting process must start over, as a revolution. Thus, if ten is imagined as a whole, then the number 15 is like a whole plus a half-whole, the number 20 as two wholes, 50 as five wholes or 80 as eight wholes. But, when it comes to the numbers 100, 1,000 10,000 and so on, these are seen as a copy of the perfect number ten, all being wholes formed from adding other wholes.

When numbers are applied to time, time becomes divided and organized according to the adopted system of numeration, together with all the psychological and cultural significances of that system. In this case, ten, 100 or 1,000 years become temporal wholes. If 1,000 years passed since the birth of the Savior, this means a cycle was completed, a period ended, and something has to happen to mark the event. The medieval Christians were fascinated by the year 1000 without having a veritable religious reason; likewise, the modern man lives under the impression that the years 2000 or 2100 might be marked by important events. We can say, therefore, that the fascination with round years is only a product of the cultural representation of time, and not a consequence of a divine revelation. In fact, for God round numbers and the transition from one millennium to another have no value or special significance. God neither celebrates nor prepares nasty surprises for the world for the simple fact that a millennium is over. The decades, the centuries or the millennia are only human constructs; they have nothing to do with the divine order. God is atemporal; he created time and the main markers of the flowing of time, but he is not influenced by it (Genesis 1:14).

It is true that in the past the number ten was considered the perfect number (the Pythagorean tetractys), but God does not think in the decimal system and the divine order is not limited to a human system of numeration. There are no numerical values or signs more or less special to God. If people had, for example, eight fingers, the system of numeration would be octal (base 8: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, … 18, 20, 21, …), or if we had 16 fingers, the system of numeration would be hexadecimal (base 16). The Babylonians imagined time as being cyclic or circular, and they had a siximal (base 6) system of numeration. This is why today we have 12 (from 12 astrological signs in the zodiac) or 24 hours in a day, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, or the year initially had 360 days (according to the 360 degrees of a circle).1393

Whether or not numbers are the substratum of the material world as the ancient philosophers believed, this is an issue which might be further debated. But it is certain that the current system of numeration is as human as possible. We may perceive the numbers and the years 2000, 2012, 2020, 2033 or 2222 as beautiful, proportionate, harmonious or interesting, but, religiously speaking, they have nothing special compared to other years.

Throughout history apocalyptic exegetes attempted to find the date of the end of the world by using elaborate calendars and complex calculations with biblical numbers. The problem is that, as strange as it may sound, in the year 2000 there had not actually been 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. The explanation for this anomaly consists in the fact that the recording and the quantification of time is a very relative issue, based on human opinions. The concept of year suffered a constant evolution, depending on time and place; it did not always have 365 days and 12 months. So, even if Jesus Christ had clearly said that he would return exactly after 2,000 years and there would be a divine pattern of quantifying time based on the number 1,000, the uneven flowing of time and the uneven measurement of time are things that dismantle any prophecy or prediction.

A calendar is a method through which man attempts to make order in the temporal chaos by establishing patterns and connections. All calendars have been based on astronomical patterns filled with cultural choices. Modern society could not exist without a single, global and precise method of time measurement. Ancient civilizations, however, had a different attitude regarding time; each one had its own system of time measurement, until it came under the influence of other civilizations.

For the ancient Romans, until …

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