In an earlier article (Parshas Emor, “What Year Is It?”), we mentioned that the universal minhag of counting the years according to brias ha’olam (the creation of the world) is relatively new, only gaining wide usage in the time of the Rishonim. Until then, most Jews used an earlier system known as the Minyan Yevanim (the Seleucid Count). As the Gemara states, “In the Diaspora, we do not count except only for the Minyan Yevanim” (Avodah Zarah 10a).
When did Minyan Yevanim begin? The Gemara explains, “They ruled in Eilam for six years and then their kingdom spread throughout the whole world.”
Who are “they” who ruled in Eilam for six years and then went forth and conquered the world? The Seder Olam and other sources explain that this refers to Alexander the Great, who began his world conquest by conquering Eilam (Persia). Minyan Yevanim started six years after that, when Alexander’s warriors poured out of Persia and began conquering the entire civilized world.
Why did the Jews adopt this year to date their documents? One reason given is that after Alexander reached Yerushalayim, he announced his intention of placing a statue of himself inside the Bais Hamikdash. Horrifi ed at such sacrilege, Shimon Hatzaddik patiently explained to Alexander that this mode of self-aggrandizement would be odious to the Jews.
“Instead,” Shimon Hatzaddik suggested, “let us establish a lasting memorial to your fame by naming our male kohanim born this year ‘Alexander.’ In addition, we will adopt the Minyan Shetaros that marks the year you began conquering the world. In these two ways, your fame will forever be embedded in our collective memory!”
Alexander enthusiastically agreed to the proposal, and the Minyan Yevanim formally came into use on the 1st of Tishrei, 3449/313 BCE, lasting for about 1,800 years until the Radbaz (Rav David Ibn Zimra) formally discontinued its use in Egypt.
Ostensibly, this leads to a problem. According to the Seder Olam, the Minyan Yevanim began in 3449/313 BCE, when Alexander the Great began conquering the world. However, glance into any secular encyclopedia or history book and you will see in black and white that Alexander the Great died on June 10, 3439/323 BCE, a good 10 years before the Minyan Yevanim began! As powerful a warrior as Alexander was, can it be claimed that he was capable of mounting a world conquest after his death?!
Because of this quandary, many secular sources date the Minyan Yevanim not from any event of Alexander’s life, but rather from the famous Battle of Gaza, in which one of Alexander’s successors, General Seleucis, gained control of Syria and Babylonia. So how do we reconcile Chazal’s insistence that Minyan Yevanim dates from the time of Alexander the Great with the secular sources’ claim that he was already dead?
The answer is that there is no need to reconcile the contradiction! It is well known that the chronology of Seder Olam – the authoritative history sefer written in Talmudic times based on the Tanach and Chazal – differs from the chronology of secular historians to such an extent that secular historians displace the Churban Bayis Rishon from its correct date of 3338/423 BCE, 169 years back to 3507/586 BCE. This discrepancy of 169 years is due to a number of factors discussed by Rav Hersh Goldwurm in History of the Jewish People, The Second Temple Era (p. 211).
One of these factors is the disagreement regarding Alexander’s death. According to the Gemara cited earlier, Alexander conquered Persia only six years before the Minyan Shetaros, in 3443/319 BCE, and lived for a number of years afterward.
According to secular historians, however, Alexander conquered Persia much earlier, about 20 years before Minyan Shetaros. Since Alexander died at the incredibly young age of 33, by their reckoning, he was already dead by the time the Minyan Shetaros began ticking.
This argument creates a 14-year discrepancy between the Jewish and secular chronology. Add that to a 155-year divergence between the chronologies that exists for other reasons, and you get the 169-year discrepancy between Jewish and secular timelines.