I have never been much for math but the concept of the ‘0’ has always intrigued me, perhaps because of its philosophical nature. How can one count or measure something that by definition has nothing to count or measure? The ancient Greeks, obsessed as they were with perfection, never came to terms with it. The Romans–ever practical by nature–used numbers for recording, bartering, etc. only, so they seemed to have no need for it, or never thought of it. Or perhaps, they feared and consciously avoided the 0, dimly perceiving its immense metaphysical weight.
In ancient cultures, from India, Egypt, China, and Meso-America, the ‘0’ had a differing but overall overlapping meaning. A ‘zero’ is the “space between” what we can measure. A zero dwells where reason cannot. As a practical example, the Roman Ptolemy apparently used a ‘0’ to measure the time of solar eclipses, when it was day, but not day, as one might interpret it. In China, a 0 functioned in writing as a “full stop.” One hits the reset button with the 0. More poetically, we might say that in calendars, a 0 functions as a beginning outside of time. The 0 creates time, or certainly at least, the meaning of time. Something has stopped, something else will begin, a new demarcation.
Over the last several years, we have seen the rise of BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to mark our passage through time. This shift has happened without anyone in particular decreeing it so, an interesting fact in itself. I came across a description of this change here from a reputable encyclopedic website, where they make two basic claims:
- That the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE has “nothing to do with removing Christ from the calendar and everything to do with historical accuracy, and
- That calendars should be concerned only with scientific accuracy.
Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!A
Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.
An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)
The article explains that the phrase “Common Era” (instead of A.D.) should not be viewed as a bow to political correctness, for scholars in the 17th-19th century used the term when communicating with non-Christians. The article notes that,
Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, “common era” was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as “the common era of Christ” or “the common era of the Incarnation” until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply “common era”.
All in all, the article’s author Josh Mark tells everyone to calm down. The Gregorian calendar is not really accurate, and the new designations make communication easier across cultures.
But I disagree. This change, now adopted across western-speak, portends a great deal. To make this case we first need to understand something of the nature of time itself.
As to the question, “What is time?” many things could be said. In his book The Ethics of Time John Pateleimon Manoussakis makes the observation that time should be primarily thought of as “movement.” We might assume this an obvious given, but some ancient philosophers thought movement essentially impossible. Zeno’s paradox suggests the impossibility of movement. Parmenides concurs, writing that Being
is simple, immovable, and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be; for now it is, all at once, one and continuous . . .
Heraclitus seems to promote movement, but his concept of flux remains so completely continuous, that we can truly said to go nowhere at all because we lack a solid reference point from which to measure. Without this, we cannot truly know if we have moved at all.
Anaxagoras broke this mold by claiming that Parmenides reached his conclusion by the movement of thinking, the movement of the “nous,” I.e., the “soul” or “heart” of a man (the word has various translations). This movement of our inmost being need not take us away from, but rather towards our perfection. To the question, “How does something become what is best for it?” Anaxagoras answered, “By being moved.” Plato tells us that Socrates joined in with Anaxagoras’ approach, and Manoussakis summarizes Socrates’ thoughts thusly:
If then one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it, the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.
St. Maximus the Confessor, likely quite familiar with Greek philosophy, saw as one of its problematic manifestations this fundamental disbelief in movement through the idea of “eternal return.” Anaxagoras and Socrates broke free from its clutches to an extent, but lacked a definitive goal. For St. Maximus,
rest is not simply the cessation of motion, but its intensification, so with the human will whose willful self-surrender to God’s will finds its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will never know any satiety.The Ethics of Time, p. 90
We can heartily agree with Anaxagoras, Plato/Socrates, and St. Maximus, but only if we know where we begin and where we should go. We can only discern “movement” with a fixed point of reference. With this in mind we can tackle the two main claims above.
Sure, the move to ‘BCE’ has some precedent, but it also obviously means to alter the Christian reference point. I have no love for the French revolutionaries, but at least they perfectly understood the meaning of time. When they wanted to change society, they changed the calendar, declaring the French Revolution itself as their ‘0’. To say that some in the 17th century used the term “Common Era” fails to answer the question. The question should be–what is meant by the change? Anyone who knows anything about the history of the west knows that a movement away from a strictly Christian conception of the world began in the 17th century. Scientists like Kepler wished to set aside a Christian way of speaking so that they could engage in where their treasure truly lay–scientific research and discovery.
Secondly, no calendar can have scientific accuracy as its main concern. Every philosopher and mathematician of repute acknowledges that the ‘0’ of any system has to lay outside the system itself. Every pre-modern dating system puts their ‘0’ outside of time, or at least on the margins of time and eternity. But one cannot use the tools of the system to measure outside of the system. Every calendar, then, is at root a religious enterprise, and not strictly scientific.
So too the switch to BCE/CE involves religion more than science.
We have yet to receive an explanation as to what this new reference point means by “common” (as in “Common Era”). I can think of two possibilities:
- It is the first salvo of a move to reorient time in another direction. Obviously, “Common” is without meaning but we will replace “Common” with what we really mean when we have got rid of Christian conceptions of time. Or,
- The meaning of time is that it really has no meaning. There is no real past for us to be concerned about–i.e., many made arguments in favor of gay marriage by simply stating, “Hey, it’s 2015.” In other words, “We live now and this is what we want to do, so . . . your objection is . . . ?”
This second view basically assumes that what matters is getting along and not thinking about such things like a ‘0’ or the meaning of time. Best to live our lives, watch what we want on Netflix, and buy what we want on Amazon.
All well and good . . . people have fought and killed each other over the concept of ‘0’ and the meaning of time, and people with the 2nd view are not likely to do this.
But we can’t live this way for long. We have to have a point of reference.
On a podcast that serves as the impetus for this post, the host and his guest made the observation that in many non-western countries, very few people know their birthdays. This perplexes many Americans–they can’t quite conceive of such a world. They obviously have the technical capacity to know this information, but it has no importance for them. When asked, “When were you born?” they get the quizzical response, “When my mother gave birth to me.” Their concept of themselves and their place in the world has no need of such precise information.
The fact that we have a hard time imagining our world without this information (think of how often we use our birthday as a means of identifying ourselves to companies, etc.) means that we may have found our own personal ‘0’ for our lives. Perhaps this explains why no one has put up much fuss over how we perceive the past. Our shared sense of things need not matter if we surmise the world began with us.*
*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common: