The AD/BC or CE Question

Michael Ostling, at History Today, probes once again into the faith orientation of how we date things. To say it is AD 2011 is to post a date on the basis of the Christian faith and the Christian dating system; to say “CE” is to post a date without reference to a faith.

What do you think? Should we have “CE” or “BC/AD”?

What year is it? This most basic of historical questions yields no universal answer. For Orthodox Jews, counting from the putative creation of the universe, the October 2009 issue of History Today, where this article first appeared, was published Anno Mundi 5770. According to the Muslim lunar calendar, dating from Muhammad’s Hijra (flight or emigration) from Mecca, it is now ah 1430. Persians, Mayans, Jains, even Freemasons, all have their own eras. But it is the Christian era, counting ‘the years of the Lord’ from the birth of Christ, that is now ubiquitous in business, politics and historical writing. In that system, it is 2009 – but should one say ad 2009 or, as is increasingly common among scholars, 2009 CE – 2009 of the ‘Common Era’?

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  • Amos Paul

    Here’s the thing–there is, I think legitimately, a lot of angst from various sources to officially referring to this as the Year of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, on the one hand, there’s that.

    However, on the other hand, a lot of this drama that I’ve experienced has been via debates of what term to *teach children* about history with. The strongest move against AD/BC has been in academic textbooks down to the elementary level because people, as we know in America, have complained about religious indoctrination.

    But the problem with this criticism is this. What does the teacher say when the child asks, “What break in history is BCE/BC marking? What began the dating of this Common Era?” The only correct answer–the birth of a globally and historically recognized religious figure known as Jesus Christ.

    If we continue using our current dating methods (and I seriously doubt that’ll change), we *cannot* alter or change the Christian history and context of *why* things are dated as they are. I think that this is more than just an issue of what dating system to recognize. I think that it’s one of mainstream society wanting to adopt a religious position (for it *is*, indeed, a religious poisition) of anti-religion so that we never have to discuss it all. This, in my opinion, is just unhealthy and ignorant.

  • By calling this year 2011, we are inherently making reference to the Christian faith, whether we attach AD or CE or nothing at all.

  • Kind of a silly distinction to me. No matter what you call it, you’re measuring from the same spot. Thus, if I had to choose, I’d say keep it the same. At least that way, people know where we got our dating system from. The real question would be whether it would ever be suitable to start a new era, with an entirely new calendar. Otherwise, making the distinction makes little difference, other than allowing us to forget about our history. Just because we say “The Year of Our Lord” doesn’t mean we’re buying into a religious faith,” and just because we say “Common Era” doesn’t mean we’re bowing out of it. It’s just a name.

  • It’s a silly discussion, but it’s fine to have a silly discussion if everyone recognizes that’s what it is. So consider that distinction recognized.

    I’m for BCE/CE, mostly on accuracy grounds. If we say 1 B.C., we are saying “one year before Christ,” which is actually untrue because Christ was not born in 1 A.D., so far as we know, but somewhat later. Likewise, 1 A.D. is not actually the “year of our Lord.” So BC/AD, even if you’re OK with the terminology, is not accurate.

    But you can start the “Common Era” anytime you darn well please, and if that coincides with the general time of the birth of arguably the most important thought-shaper in world history, the One who influenced this era more than any other person, that makes sense, too.

  • CE can also stand for Christian Era.

    I tend to use CE for several reasons. One is that Christ Jesus wasn’t born in the year 1, so if you really want to count the year of our Lord you have to knock a few years off. Another is that it’s inconsistent to have a Latin name for our era and an English name for “Before Christ” (or “Before the Common Era,” but notice how regularly people who use CE still tend to drop the E in BCE).

    But the biggest is, honestly, the common attitude behind my colleagues who insist on sticking to AD: “This is what it’s always been called, what it’s supposed to be called, to change it means to deny Jesus, so I’m sticking with it.” It’s like the Christmas Wars all year round. Yuck. Include me out.

  • If we want to be neutral with regard to religion, we would date according to the age of the planet.

  • Bill McReynolds

    I have decided that, for me, CE means “Christian Era”!

  • Amos Paul

    @4 Paul,

    Saying that CE merely happens to ‘coincide’ with Jesus Christ is pure historical deception. For the vast majority of this AD/CE, that is the *explicit and primary reason* that our dating methodology was chosen, established, and named.

    Whether or not it’s a couple of years off the mark is irrelevant to the historic cause, reason, and central point of the whole system.

  • I trust the next step will be to get rid of our weekly nod to Thunor (or Thor, if you like), every Thursday?

    (I happily use B/CE when writing for secular audiences. The resurrection of Jesus is the epicenter of history no matter how you notate the date.)

  • JBL

    Slightly off topic, but as an independent software engineering consultant, I would love any substantial change to the current dating system. Because then people who spend money on such things will go hog wild like when we had the Y2K thing, and I will be further gainfully employed 🙂

  • Robin

    I also vote that we rename the planets to create a wall of separation between astrology and religion. ON a somewhat related note, does anyone know what they name planets after in countries uninfluenced by Western traditions?

    I mean we have Jupiter and Mars and Saturn as a relic of Roman civilization. What do they name the planets after in China?

  • I personally found it disconcerting when the new designation began appearing because I had never encountered it and had to figure out which was meant. I am sure however that it actually adds complication in a minor fashion to schooling, since obviously kids would have to be taught both the new and old designations in case they read some older books for research at some point. It does seem a bit silly to try to avoid the very person who was the starting point of the system in the first place. Perhaps we should pick a beginning of history and count forward and do away with the mid point? Probably wouldn’t happen anyway due to further confusion. Oh well.

  • PSF

    I like BC/AD.

    BCE, if simply a device to mask what actually defines the new era (Jesus Christ), just seems to be dishonest.

    Also, referring to CE as the “common era” is even worse in terms of religous tolerance. At least BC recognizes the particularity of one tradition, which has been important for Western civilization. Calling this the “common era” for the whole world seems to be a totalizing move. (Though this is masked for those holding the universalizing assumptions of modernity).

    In the end, I don’t think it matters that much. Let’s just be honest about what it is we are referring to.

  • That some consider this a pointless or silly discussion is precisely why I advocate for the BCE/CE markers. Yes, the dates remain rooted in the same general historical/religious milestones, but in an increasingly post-Christendom context, it is an easy, yet meaningful gesture.

  • DRT

    BCE/CE is what I think the current system represents in the world and it makes no sense to me to insist on potentially irritating others by using AD and BC.

  • So far, it seems BCE/CE has had the same fate as inclusive language. It reigns in the academy and at a certain level of book publishing. Beyond that, newspapers, popular media, and other outlets of culture ignore or are unaware of it. It suspect that’s how it will stay.

    I don’t have a problem using the “neutral” (though it’s not really so) dating in pluralistic settings as a token of appropriate sensitivity. In the church, however, we should use the BC/AD terminology because it is a statement of our faith in Christ as the turning point of the ages.

  • Christian (sorry, I mean ‘X’

    Is there an analogy here to be made with the “merry Christmas” vs. “happy holidays” debate?

    Most of the people I’ve talked to from other religious traditions (I’m a Canadian in a highly multicultural context) have thought that replacing “merry Christmas” with “happy holidays” is a silly bit of political correctness. Some are even insulted at the insinuation that we think so little of them in assuming that they would be offended by being greeted with “merry Christmas”?

    I think the gesture is really only tolerant to secular non-religious people, who actually make up only a small minority of both Canadian and US populations. If it’s a tolerant gesture, then it is so only in a very “modern” (Enlightenment-Liberalism) sense.

  • Bob Young

    I’m leaning toward AC/DC as an alternative, dividing history into years prior to and since the release of “Back In Black”. Of course, the years prior might be duly noted as BS (the Bon Scott era), but the Brian Johnson era might not be politically correct. Hmm – what to do?

  • Seth

    I see no inherent problem with changing AD to CE. After all, Christ never mandated that we change our calendar to orient around His birth. That said, if the only reason we are doing this is to seek to obliterate the obvious Christian roots in the term AD, let’s be consistent by renaming January, February, March, May, June, and all of the days of the week to obliterate all religious references in our calendars.
    If the goal is to minimize the impact that Christianity has had on the western world, then we’re teetering on the edge of historical revisionism.

  • Anna

    bob young at 18 wins the internet.

  • Bob Young

    Thanks Anna – I’ve always wanted to own my own internet. Is this one lovingly hand-crafted by Al Gore?

  • Ken Anwari

    We still name most of our months & days after pagan deities of former majority religions, so what’s this tempest all about?

    Simple solution for those upset by this: Just tell yourself that BCE = Before the Christian Era & CE = Christian Era. =]

  • Chris

    Hmmm. Like the USA going to the metric system? When did that start, back in the 70’s or 80’s? I remember a interstate sign telling us it was so many miles and kilometers to Cincinnati. We were warned that we would all be using the metric system soon. Yeah. Oh well. 🙂

    On a serious note, Christianity doesn’t stand on using the current designation, which isn’t even accurate. No big deal.

  • Jonathan

    I don’t much care either way, but it strikes me as more indicative of cultural imperialism to use “Common Era” and “Before Common Era” than “Anno Domini” and “Before Christ”.

    Before Christ/Anno Domini is a simple statement of fact — setting aside the inaccuracy due to the miscalculation of when Jesus was actually born (likely 6 BC).

    Before Common Era/Common Era is a disingenuous renaming, because its “common era” is merely the Western European year numbering scheme. “Hey, everybody, let’s all have a common calendar. Hmm, which one should we choose? How about this one we Western folks have been using for centuries? And we’ll just paper over that last fact. It’s not our era, it everyone’s era.”

  • Phillip.

    Since Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom, not a calendar, I do not think it really matters. Some of the comments above are correct, I think, in that the only ones who take this very seriously are some academics and their publishers. So, in those contexts, Why not use them? Be all things to all men or people, depending on our context.

  • Robert

    What’s the big difference when it’s still based on the same incorrect date for Jesus’ birth? People from other faiths don’t normally get offended when we follow Christian traditions anyway; I think it’s a projection of the Christian tendency to get offended at people who differ from ‘us’.

  • JohnnyM

    Both BC and AD can be construed as faith statements. Before Christ implies that the Christ/Messiah of Jewish Scriptures has come. Anno Domini is more overt. In the year of our Lord implies a confession that this Christ/Messiah is Lord of all. Little is accomplished by CE and BCE designations. In order to understand the terms Common Era and Before the Common Era, one has to relate them to the accepted year of the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, most people have little knowledge of the significance the meaning of BC and AD and their function as faith statements has long been lost. As faith statements they fall into the category of “In God We Trust” on our currency and coinage. The Supreme Court has held (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984) that the motto does not constitute an establishment of religion because it has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” I think the same is true for BC and AD, and therefore, the efforts to change the designations are much ado about nothing.