The most important year in history – does Gutenberg 1439 really beat Jesus 5BC?
You might expect that of readers of The Economist. After all, there would be no such dedicated group if their beloved magazine had never been printed, and they have ever been a little myopic.
But the single most important date in history?
Andrew Marr, who suggested the poll, is persuaded that 1776 trumps all others.
It is perhaps symptomatic of the age that the birth of technology should be considered more important than the man who split history in two and brought salvation to the world. Johannes Gutenberg may have figured out how to print words on paper, but it was Jesus Christ who healed the sick, cast out devils, destroyed the power of Satan, led the captives free from Hades and sacrificed himself in an agonising death in order that we might all be saved.
It all makes inventing the printing press sound something of a breeze.
Words are of little consequence without the Word.
As the poll presently stands, some 2,600 have voted and the most important dates stack up thus:
1. 1439: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press
2. 5BC: the birth of Jesus
3. 1953: the discovery of DNA
4. 1945: the fall of Nazism and the atomic bomb
5. 1776: the year America declared its independence from Britain
The debate began with an article by Andrew Marr in the summer issue of Intelligent Life magazine. He and five Economist journalists drew up an informal shortlist of important years and voters were allowed to plump for one of their selections or choose any other year of their choice.
Other suggestions included: the year the Ford Model T hit the road (1907); the birth of Mohammed (570); Isaac Newton invented calculus (1693); Charles Darwin wrote about evolution (1859); the twin towers fell (2001); and the French had their revolution (1789). At least one reader thought Michael Jackson’s death was worth mentioning, and quite a few felt the most important year in the whole of history was the one when they were born.
The birth of Jesus was proposed by Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist's Washington bureau chief, who is not even a believer. He wrote:
The most important year in history is both easy to identify and hard to pinpoint. Easy to identify because we use it to divide our calendar into “before” and “after”. Hard to pinpoint because there is some confusion about whether we got the calendar right.
You do not have to be a believer (and the author of this article is not) to recognise that Jesus’s birth was the most important event in human history. Jesus inspired the world’s most popular religion and plays an important role in both Judaism and Islam. But he also shaped all subsequent secular history. The Roman Catholic church is the world’s oldest global institution. The Reformation, which helped to inspire individualism and capitalism, was an attempt to return the church to its original purity. The French and Russian revolutions were inspired, in large part, by hatred of the religious establishment. Two thousand years after Jesus’s birth, about 2 billion people, or a third of the world’s population, call themselves Christians.
The frustrating thing is that we cannot pinpoint Jesus’s birth-year exactly. The Christian calendar presumes that it took place in year 1 - everything before that is BC. But modern scholars have complicated the picture. The Gospel of Matthew places Jesus’s birth under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BC. The Gospel of Luke says that he was born during the first census of Judea in 6AD. The consensus is that he was born between 6 and 4BC. Let’s call it 5BC for the sake of simplicity - not as clear-cut as some of the other dates suggested, but then the year of Jesus’s birth is such a momentous event that it makes other contenders for the most important year look feeble by comparison.
Cranmer has been contacted by The Economist because, although they appear to have announced a final result, this poll remains open.
It appears that we have the opportunity to impress upon the world that the one who separated from BC from AD, and who bequeathed to the world the manifesto which has influenced every political manifesto since, is rather more significant than the one who first printed it.
Do vote. It is August, and readers and communicants will have little better to do. Cranmer is informed that the poll will probably close next week, and they are not expecting it to change vastly.
Let us prove them wrong. Cast your votes HERE.
And forward the link to as many as you know who might care.