Saturday, March 24, 2007


In which century is 1240 BC/BCE? This question was put to me by Robert Wright, and I am grateful to him for making me think it out again. To answer it, the whole system of dating has to be considered. Most historians don't stop to think about this, but I care about it, and I gave it much thought in 1999 (when everybody was thinking a new century and millennium was about to begin in 2000 CE). The basic starting point is this: there is no year named 0 (Zero), though recently I saw a scholar referring to the year "0 CE", and he was not trying to be funny (he is preaching the doctrine that the town of Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus of Nazareth; never mind, the holy family were very resourceful and probably lived in one of the caves in the vicinity).
   There is no such thing as "year Zero" in the present international system of dating. There is 1 BCE (the year before the Christian era, or the common era, or the current era, as I like to say) and 1 CE (the first year of the era), but no year that can be called "Naught" or "Zero". Each year in the current era (or in any other dating system) must have an ordinal number: first, second, third, and so on; and likewise the centuries, and millennia (or millenniums, and while we are here, remember that Julius Caesar spelled millennium with double l and double n, because the word is constructed from mille 'thousand' and annus 'year'). So the first year of a period (decade, century, millennium) will have the number 1 attached to it (1, 101, 1001): from the 1st day of January till the 31st day of December it will be year 1, as the first year of the first decade of the first century of the first millennium.
   Think of the first decade (and count the years on your fingers!): it began on 1.1.1 and ended on 31.12.10 (when ten full years had been completed). Of course, nobody realized that at the time, because they used other dating systems; the "Christian era" was invented hundreds of years later, and it does not really matter when Jesus of Nazareth was actually born!
   The second decade starts with year 11 (10+1) not with the year 10. And we did not reach the beginning of the 21st century and of the 3rd millennium until the first of January in the year 2001.
   The person responsible for this Christian dating system was Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the strict, exact, small, short, poor, or whatever) in the sixth century (the period of the 500s). At that time it was accepted that Jesus the Christ was born on the 25th day of December (in an attempt to take the Romans' minds off sun-worship at the winter solstice when Old Sol was reinvigorated, and to suppress the licentious saturnalia festivities, but somehow they found their way back into Christmas). The Julius Caesar calendar was not going to be changed to make the Christ's birthday the first day of the first year of the new era, so it had to be accepted that he was actually born in the year before the first year of the Lord (the anno Domini dating scheme). However, it appears that Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and Matthew's Gospel has the baby Jesus being threatened as a rival by Herod the Horrid. Accordingly, Jesus was born in or before 4 BCE. But the date of Herod's death is not entirely certain, and Dennis's guess might be correct after all.
   Question: What century is 1240 BCE in? Answer: The 13th century before the current/common/Christian era. But the beginning and end of each BCE century is a tricky problem. First consider the CE case. The year 1240 CE is in the 13th century CE. It starts in 12001 and finishes on December 31 in 1300. (When they reached it they realized why they had been calling all the 1201-1299 years the 13th century, because it is the 13th set of one hundred years in the series.) The 14th C begins in 1301 and ends in 1400.
   The 20th C began in 1901 (and everybody at the time recognized that), and it closed at the end of 2000, not at the beginning of 2000!!! The New York Times of the first day of January in 1901 declared that the 20th century had started, and it reported on all the celebrations. What had happened to corrupt our thinking 99 years later? I blame it on the root of all the evils in our world: the motor car. The odometer in an automobile (whether it measures miles or kilometres) starts with zero, a whole row of 000000 in fact. When the number 10 appears it does actually mean that ten miles or kms have been completed. 2001 CE was the beginning of the 21st century (hundred-year epoch) and of the 3rd millennium (thousand-year epoch).    
   Now, back to the beginning of the current era. The first year CE was 1 CE (it was the first year of the first decade of the first century of the first millennium CE) There is no year called 0 (zero) in this system, belonging to either CE or BCE. So 1 CE was preceded by the year 1 BCE. Accordingly, 1 BCE was the end of the 1st century BCE, and it must have started 100 years earlier, in 100 BCE. Thus C13 BCE begins at 1300 and ends at 1201 BCE. C12 BCE begins in 1200 BCE. The CE centuries end with the year that gives the century its ordinal number: 2000 (20 hundred) is the end of the 20th century. Similarly, but oppositely (conversely), the BCE centuries start with the year that gives them their ordinal number: 1300, in the case of the 13th century BCE. I think I have got it right. Please tell me if I am wrong.
   So what is the date and month of the day preceding the 1st of January 1 CE? The years may go "backwards" but not the months and days within them. Accordingly it is the 31st of December 1 BCE. But would it be possible to have a year called "Naught"? It is conceivable that you could have a system with the first year labeled 0, so that year 10 would be the start of a decade, not the end. And the year before it could be called -1 ("minus 1") and the year after 0 would be +1. But the first day of the year 0 would have to be day 0 for consistency, and this seems nonsensical to me. A month or a year starts with "day one", its first day. The late Stephen Jay Gould (Questioning the Millennium, 1977) tried to sort out the question of "the millennium" in all its aspects. He also tells us about the B.P. ("before the present") system (p. 107-108). As a palaeontologist dealing with the distant past, he does not use BCE because his eras are only approximately dateable, but he gives the example of 32,410 B.P. as a radiocarbon-date for a Paleolithic cave-painting from Chauvet in France. But such dates go out of date fairly quickly, while BCE years are fixed. Finally, a recommendation for adopting the BCE/CE system as opposed to the partisan religious Before Christ and Anno Domini. The A.D. is incomprehensible to billions of people, and it is just silly when it turns up in "the 20th century A.D." ("the twentieth century in the year of the Lord"??). Give us a break! And that is what Dionysius Exiguus did: he made a break on the time-line, a dividing point, which we can call zero, perhaps, but it is a point, not a year.

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