Book Review — The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction

Originally posted over on alltheknowledgeintheworld on blogspot:


historyOfTimeThe History of Time: A Very Short Introduction
by Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Click here to see it on amazon

Oxford University Press, 2005.

It’s very easy for readers of the Bible and of history to mistakenly think that the modern calendar we have grown up with actually applies to the dating of events in the past. In fact, for the US and for England our current calendar only goes back to the mid 18th century. The one in use before that had its own problems and was variously and differently applied to some very significant issues in the history of the world and of the Church in particular. But even that particular calendar (the Julian) is not the basis for much of what goes on both in the New and the Old Testaments.

How did people in the past reckon their days? How can we better understand terms like “the eighth day” and “third day” in their Biblical and Historical context? An understanding of how the ancients actually kept track of their own calendars, began their months, and counted their days can be very helpful.

Holford-Strevens’ discussion is kept at an introductory level, but his glossary is necessary. The study of time keeping, days, and calendars requires learning a little specialized vocabulary. And while Holford-Strevens does a good job explaining terms, once they are explained the terms are used.

The book is an introduction. This means that there are no large discussions over controverted issues, no detailed footnotes. But, the discussion and presentation is based on very sound scholarship. The brief discussion in the text does make reference to primary sources where it is beneficial. And Holford-Strevens includes an annotated list of works for further reading.

Seven chapters are followed by two appendixes, a list for further reading, a glossary, and an index.

The chapters follow on the main themes of time keeping:

  1. The day
  2. Months and years
  3. Prehistory and history of the modern calendar
  4. Easter
  5. Weeks and seasons
  6. Other calendars
  7. Marking the year

The introductions to these topics are very helpful in demonstrating not only where certain concepts and structures came from, but also how they were discussed historically.

For example, subdividing the month into 7-day weeks was not a common idea in ancient times. The Romans, from whom our main system of months derive, actually used an 8-day market cycle. It is called nundial (nine-day).

The Romans (and to some extent other cultures too) used an inclusive count for days. Thus a “nine-day” was a Roman market “week” consisting of eight days, starting over again on the ninth day. In the Gospel of John when the disciples are gathered on the “eighth-day” that means a week later, the same day of the week as before. “The third day” is today, tomorrow, and the third.

All in all, the introduction is very helpful for western and near eastern calendars. Holford-Strevens also discusses Chinese, Japanese, and Mesoamerican calendars. While these latter calendars fall a bit outside my research interest, I would still say that this volume’s introductions to those calenders were, perhaps, too brief to be helpful.

It is “very short”–only 142 pages in a 4.5×6.75 inch volume, just over 1/4″ thick. There are 26 illustrations, mainly of ancient calendars. The format of the book and the size of the page makes many of these illustrations hard to see. For example, the first illustration “Detail of Egyptian diagonal calendar” is photo reduced to fit 5 3/4 x 1 1/2 inch space. This makes any features noted of the calendar in the text very difficult to see because of the small size. Illustration 12, a photo of a sixth century mosaic of Dionysius Exiguus’s tables for calculating Easter is printed inverted.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens is also co-editor/author of The Oxford Book of Days (2000), and The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999).

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