A Matter of Time

You may notice that I use a different notation on this blog than is more widely in use to reference dates.  Then again, you may not notice, because you have better things to do.  I thought it was about time (clever play on words there, yes?) to address the issue.

In its simplest construction, dates throughout the western world are based upon the Gregorian Calendar, introduced in October 1582 by the Roman Catholic pope Gregory XIII and named after him.  It was a minor modification of the ubiquitous Julian calendar — the predominant calendar in the Roman Empire and subsequently most of the western world for more than 1,600 years, itself a revision made by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE of the Roman calendar.  Gregory’s reform reduced the average year from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days, adjusting for the drift in the tropical (or solar) year that the inaccuracy had caused during the intervening centuries.  The Gregorian calendar spaces what are known as “leap years” to make its average year 365.2425 days in length; this medieval correction approximated the 365.2422-day tropical year that is determined by the Earth's revolution around the Sun.  According to the US Naval Observatory, the rule for leap years is, “Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are” (c.f., "Introduction to Calendars,” United States Naval Observatory, May 15, 2013).

There were two reasons for Gregory to change the calendar, both of them institutionally self-referential to Catholicism, though ironically, or perhaps accidentally, this produced a scientifically more accurate and universally applicable method of dates.  In the first case, the Julian calendar assumed incorrectly that the average solar year is exactly 365.25 days long, an overestimate of a little under one day per hundred years — the Gregorian calendar shortened the average calculation of a year by 0.0075 days to stop the drift of the calendar with respect to the astronomical equinoxes.  In the second case, in the years since the First Council of Nicaea of the fledgling Christian sect in 325 CE the excess leap days in the Julian calendar had caused it to drift such that the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere was occurring well before its March 21st date as calculated by the Julian algorithm; this date was important to the early Christians because it is fundamental to the calculation of the date of their celebration of Easter.

Gregorian calendar

To reinstate the association between March 21st and the spring equinox, Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal bull called Inter gravissimas on February 24, 1582 which ordered the date be advanced by 10 days; thus, Thursday October 4, 1582 was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582; what would have been October 5th on the Julian calendar was now October 15th on the Gregorian.  In addition, the reform also altered the lunar cycle used by the Catholic Church to calculate the date for the celebration of Easter, because astronomical new moons were occurring four days before the calculated dates.  The Gregorian reformed calendar was initially adopted by the Catholic countries of Europe and their overseas possessions.  Over the next three centuries, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries also moved to what they called the “Improved Calendar," as it was more astronomically accurate and therefore a scientific improvement on the Julian.  In 1923, Greece was the last European country to adopt the new calendar, but only for non-religious, civil purposes.

Owing to its origin in the Catholic (Christian) religion, dates in Gregory’s calendar either occurred before or after Jesus of Nazareth was born, the seminal event in the Christian faith.  One might conclude that dates were either BJ or AJ (before Jesus or after Jesus).  But because his followers believed he was the Jewish Messiah, or Christ, dates were designated to have occurred either “BC” (before the birth of the Christ) or “AD” which is the Latin acronym for Anno Domini or "the Year of the Lord” (“lord” being a title by which the Christ was commonly referred to); 1 being the first year of his life.  Of note to pedants like myself who are generally consummate bores at cocktail parties, BC/AD notation refers to the “Dionysian" era, and it is only correct that AD should be written before the year, while BC, BCE, and CE are written after the year.  Thus 2021 CE in Dionysian notation should be written AD 2021, literally, Anno Domini (the Year of the Lord) 2021.

I do not believe Jesus was the messiah (Christ) or a deity.  Every plot twist in the stories of the life of Jesus was a syncretistic borrowing from an existing middle-eastern or Mediterranean religion of the day, including the virgin birth, a star appearing in the east, the newborn infant being worshipped by kings, miraculous works and healing the sick, being fated to die, rising from the dead, and ascending in glory to claim dominion over the world.  And the storyline wasn’t limited to religious figures.  Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and even Pythagoras were all said to be born of virgin mothers and been resurrected after death! The same is true of the Caesars.  You’d think the Gospel writers might have hidden their plagiarism better, or at least come up with some original material. I find it offensive, and highly Eurocentric, to signify the passage of time with reference to an event central to belief in a “god" revered for a relatively short period by an offshoot sect of a nomadic desert people whose only claim to hegemony is they had the good fortune to hitch their buggy to the ruling empire.

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
(John Dominic Crossan)

I therefore use the notations BCE and CE.  CE is an acronym meaning "Common Era" (equivalent to AD, minus the Christianity), so called because Pope Gregory XIII accidentally, while trying to make a more accurate religious calendar to calculate his church’s celebration of Easter, made a more scientifically accurate calendar with regard to astronomy.  It is true though the simplest reason for using BCE/CE as opposed to BC/AD is to avoid reference to Christianity and, in particular, to avoid naming Christ as a lord with any kind of authority over the affairs of humanity.  Shortly after the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally, with a focus on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity written by Bede the Venerable around 731 CE, Anno Domini was used officially under the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 CE) until finally, in the 11th century, it was adopted for official use by the post-Schism Roman Rite (Catholic) Church.  BCE and CE have a shorter history than BC and AD, although they appear in non-ecclesial documents as early as the 1700’s CE.  The religious diversity of our contemporary, pluralistic world, and the American separation of church and state, demands we adopt the abbreviations BCE and CE so as not to privilege one religion over secular society.  

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