The other day, Robert Cargill wrote an opinion piece, “Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System,” for The Bible and Interpretation website. Several bloggers have reacted to the piece. Bob himself did a follow up post on his official blog. Being, at worst, a cultural Christian as opposed to a believing Christian, I not sure what to make of some of Bob’s argument. I do worry that he develops a largely fallacious argument for what amounts to a convention. BCE/CE is conventional usage in much of the scholarly community. It didn’t start that way but it is now. I use BCE/CE because it is conventional and because I don’t think most readers would understand my real preference, VA/AVA.
The whole issue reminds me of an argument I had with Bill Dever at Gezer in 1970 or so. Bill claimed in a presentation to the Gezer staff that the reason we used the metric system was that it was more accurate than the English system of inches, feet and yards. After the presentation, I told him that that just wasn’t so. We used the metric system because that’s the system modern archaeologists use. There are many good reasons to use the metric system; accuracy isn’t among them. All that’s required for accuracy (or precision) is a set rules for infinitely regressive subdivision of basic units. The English system (or should I say the American system?) has that: 1/2 in., 1/4 in., 1/8 in., 1/16 in., 1/32 in., 1/64 in., 1/128 in., . . . (one doesn’t even need the mils copout).
In my view, when it comes to a dating system, the geologists and paleontologists have it right. They use BP, before present. (What follows about BP is mostly my BS, see the comments) One always knows when the present is and referencing it seldom offends anyone; so, it’s a great neutral reference that everyone shares in common. It’s too bad it keeps moving. It works for geologists and paleontologists because their dating error range is typically much larger than the useful lifetime of the media they use to express themselves. But in this age of electronic publication, there is another approach: soft date publication, a little program that increments dates expressed in days, months and years before the present so that they are always correct. For convenience, such software should also convert dates in, say, the Gregorian calendar to years, months, and days before the present and then update them every time someone opens a page or downloads a file. I’m playing with two Perl programs that will do those two things. Or at least they are supposed to do those two things. The first one should be easier than the second one. For various reasons, primarily programmer incompetence in the case of both programs and the general weirdness of 0 VA/AVA and the Perl specific weirdness of 00:00 Jan 1, 1970, GMT, in the case of the second program, they are not quite ready for real time (pun intended). Even if I get them to work, I doubt the method will catch on but they will be fun toys.
If you’re not sure, VA means Vulgaris Aerae and AVA means Ante Vulgaris Aerae (I made this last one up or at least I think I did).
Updated evening of October 7, 2009 to acknowledge comments.

6 thoughts on “AVA/VA, BCE/CE, BC/AD or BP”

  1. The base for BP does not keep moving; it’s conventionally set at 1950, before the orgy of nuclear testing screwed up atmospheric C14 levels (see Wickipedia “Before present”).
    I’m offended by your coinage of “Ante vulgaris aerae”. Maybe the genitive in “Vulgaris aerae” can be justified, genitive with the preposition “ante” certainly can’t. Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that “aera” “epoch from which time is reckoned” is first attested as late as Isidore.

  2. You guys won’t let me have any fun at all. You correct that by convention BP is set at 1950. Why I didn’t think of that when I wrote this post or when I started working on my little software project is beyond me. It also makes my little programming task a lot easier but not nearly as much fun. Why not use star dates? That would make for a lot of fun in itself.
    Dan, if you are offended by my error using the genitive of aera with ante, you would likely have come and done me bodily harm if you knew my original formulation.

  3. The speed with which publication now changes immensely complicates any dating system without a fixed starting point. For better or worse, we are stuck with the BCE/BC vs. CE/AD break; but if Islam continues to grow we may see a shift forward by a few centuries! I think we should go back to a more neutral date to begin with — something Sumerian. Since there are no Sumerians left, nobody can argue that there is a political agenda, and the dates there are at least as precise as those traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (whenever that was!).

  4. I’d prefer switching to astronomical year numbering. So 2000 AD becomes just 2000. And 4 BC becomes -3 since one adds a year 0.
    The adding of a year 0 is a major convenience. And the use of +/- instead of prefixes or suffixes makes it feel more scientific.
    Much more practical than switching to Julian Date.

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