Questioning the Millennium Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen Jay Gould is no millenarian. In Questioning the Millennium, he neither anticipates nor debunks the advent of a new age of prosperity and peace. Rather, the preeminent Harvard paleontologist and author ofThe Panda’s Thumb (1980) and Full House (1996) here directs his discriminating mind and great storytelling ability to the historic and scientific significance of units of one thousand years.

Although he writes at the end of the twentieth century and at the end of the second millennium, the scholar Gould offers here no prognostications about life in the twenty-first century and in the third millennium. He is interested in neither scientific prophecy nor science fiction. Nor does he try to explain the psychological forces that often make issues of calendar and millennium matters of religious debate and fanaticism about the end of the world. Tragedies like the Xhosan revolt in South Africa in 1857, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, the rebellion of John Chilembwe in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1915, and even the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 provide a context for Gould to examine the apocalyptic vision in which mass religious hysteria flourishes.

As he suggests in his subtitle, A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown, Gould approaches the topic of millennia scientifically and focuses on the issues of time organization, astronomy, and history as they pertain to calendars, especially the Christocentric calendar on which millennium countdowns are based. In particular, Gould reflects on three questions that provide an organizational structure for Questioning the Millennium. What does the word “millennium” mean? When do millennia start and end? Why do humans consider such temporal transitions so significant?

In the first part of Questioning the Millennium, Gould explains how the word “millennium” has evolved from an apocalyptic to a calendric meaning. Starting from its Latin etymological meaning of a unit of one thousand years, the word originally referred to the Second Coming of Christ, which, according to many Christians, would herald a new blessed era of one thousand years followed by the end of the world and the Last Judgment. To reinforce this apocalyptic meaning of “millennium,” Gould has incorporated into his book fifteen black-and-white illustrations of hell and judgment, including medieval manuscript illuminations, details from Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel in the Vatican, and paintings by El Greco, William Blake, and Pablo Picasso.

Originally, Gould explains, the apocalyptic millennium had no special connection with years divisible by one thousand. Christian Montanists predicted the Second Coming in the second century c.e., the Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer considered the year 1525 fatal, and American preacher William Miller prophesied the end of the world in 1843-1844. Christians have particular reasons for calculating a coming apocalypse in terms of millennia. Working from the biblical tradition that one thousand years is equivalent to one day in the sight of God (Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8) and that God created the world in six days (Genesis 1:1-2:1), early Christians concluded that human history would last six thousand years from the moment of creation until the Second Coming. The only question was the starting date, the date of creation. Here Gould cites a variety of Christian authorities who worked on this question in millennial terms. In 221 c.e., the Roman Sextus Julius Africanus calculated fifty-five hundred years to have passed since creation to the birth of Christ and predicted the Second Coming for 500 c.e. Just after 1000 c.e., a Christian monk named Raoul Glaber wrote of the imminent coming of Christ because a one-thousand-year period had passed since the time of Christ. In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher, the Anglican Primate of All Ireland, calculated the year of creation to be 4004 b.c.e. All these computations have in common the birth of Christ as the principal historical marker for counting back to creation and forward to an apocalyptic millennium. At the same time, Gould suggests, the birth of Christ also has encouraged the semantic transformation of “millennium” from a vision of Armageddon to a significant anniversary date. The apocalyptic millennium thus becomes a calendric commemoration of one-thousand-year intervals of time.

Or does it? In the next part of Questioning the Millennium, Gould addresses his second millennial question, namely, when millennia start and end. Here the date of the birth of Christ is, once again, an important focal point for the Christocentric calendar established in the sixth century by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) and still in use today. In typical good humor, Gould notes that Dionysius’...

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