Did the Christian Church Condemn Zero?

I have been reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. It is an interesting read and unabashadely revisionist, though -- as far as I can tell -- not motivated by religious or political reasons. The thrust of the book is that the American Indians, especially those in South America, had created great empires and civilizations with their own technological and mathmatical accomplishments prior to the coming of Columbus. On one hand, this runs afoul of traditional views of American Indians as having been uncivilized. On the other hand, it runs afoul of liberal views of the American Indians as living in complete harmony in nature. The rise and fall of more than one Indian civilization can be traced to their use and abuse of the surrounding environment.

Early in the book, Mann makes a stray comment that caught my eye because I had recently seen the issue discussed elsewhere. On page 19, Mann writes that the Mayans first used the "zero" -- which he calls "arguably the greatest intellectual feat" -- in the fourth century whereas "It didn't appear in Europe until the twelfth century. Even then European governments and the Vatican resisted zero--a something that stood for nothing -- as foreign and un-Christian." Mann, 1491, page 19. Although the evidence of Mayan mathmatical progress seems well supported, what about the charge that the Vatican opposed the use of zero?

In a discussion group I participate in, Bede's Journal's Religion and Science Group, the issue of zero had been raised and a knowledgeable contributor stated that he was not aware of any evidence of papal resistence to zero, although there may have been some local opposition scattered about. There was opposition to zero by some traditionalists, who preferred the Roman system (which lacked zero) and the use of the abacas. As this article notes, adoption of zero "seems to have been slow, for institutions such as the Medici bank and the English Exchequer (the pioneer of the abacus) did not adopt them before the sixteenth century." I have done some online searching and found no evidence of official Vatican opposition to zero.

Is this another anti-Christian myth or is there some truth to this? Feedback would be welcome.


BK said…
Let me get this straight -- there is a claim that the people in Europe didn't use the number zero prior to the twelfth Century? So, when they had ten apples and sold them all, they didn't realize that they had no apples left? Of they just didn't know what to call it? Pardon me, what is suggested as the alternative to having "zero" as a number?
Layman said…

They apparently used the Roman system of numbering which did not have a zero. They certainly understand that there was a concept of having nothing, but apparently that is different than using an alpha-numeric designation for zero. Wikipedia has an entry on it here:


"A notation for the value zero is quite distinct from the role of the digit zero in a positional notation system. The lack of a zero digit prevented Roman numerals from developing into a positional notation, and led to their gradual replacement by Arabic numerals in the early second millennium."
inverse19 said…
We have now proven mathematically that null zero is not proportionate mathematics , that there is no such thing as a null zero, but an inverse zero, we are in the process of challanging this in the current mathematical theory.

Inverse 19 may 5th 2009

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