The way that humans have constructed and lived by calendars has changed several times over the centuries, though now nearly all the world agrees that today is June 8, 2018, even if there are religious calendars, such as in Judaism and Islam, that would give a different name to this date.
But despite the various changes in how we keep track of the Earth's annual movement around the sun, we can -- and do -- overlay today's calendar on the past to determine the timing of certain historical events. And sometimes when it comes to matters of religion, dating matters.
For instance, many sources report that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina on this date in the year 632, either A.D. or C.E, depending on whether you want to use Christian or academic terminology. Muhammad was believed to be about 63 years old at the time of his death.
Does it matter whether he died on June 8 or, say, Sept. 20? In terms of what Islam teaches, its core tenets, no. What matters is that he was a real human being who lived in a particular place at a particular time.
Much the same can be said of Jesus of Nazareth.
Christians have long celebrated his birth on Dec. 25, though there really is no biblical or other historical evidence to verify that date. Again, what matters is that he was a real human being in real history and did and said certain things.
Well, wait. Let me add a bit of information about that Dec. 25 date from Alfred Edersheim, author of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, published in the 1880s. Edersheim takes great pains to argue for the accuracy of that date in a long footnote:
"There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds which seem to me historically untenable. The subject has been fully discussed in an article by Cassel in Herzog's Real. Ency. xvii. pp. 588-594. But a curious piece of evidence comes to us from a Jewish source. In addition to the Megillath Taanith (ed. Warsh. p. 20 a), the 9th Tebheth is marked as a fast day, and, it is added, that the reason for this is not stated. Now, Jewish chronologists have fixed on that day as that of Christ's birth, and it is remarkable that, between the years 500 and 816 A.D. the 25th of December fell no less than twelve times on the 9th Tebheth. If the 9th Tebheth, or 25th December, was regarded as the birthday of Christ, we can understand the concealment about it."
See what historians, theologians and others sometimes go through to make an argument?
There are, of course, religious traditions that grow out of particular historical figures and some, such as Hinduism, where that is much less important than the teachings and practices of the faith.
In any case, just be aware that you may run into Muslims today who will be commemorating the death of their prophet. And now you won't be ignorant of what's in their hearts.
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CINCINNATI -- While I'm here through the weekend for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I won't be adding the usual second item here to the blog each day. Normal blogging will return after I get back to Kansas City next week.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.