Learn Classical Hebrew

On Date Terminology, BCE and CE versus BC and AD

Originally published:

Well, the controversy over how to write dates has now spilled over into popular culture. I recently heard some sort of comedy show in which the stand-up comic made fun of people who use the terminology CE and BCE instead of AD and BC respectively. Since I am among those people, I will make a likely futile effort to explain why I believe that CE and BCE are least among a variety of evils.

I don’t want to belabor what is a now common explanation and story. There are people who feel a religious attachment to any given dating system–for example, Jews who use a chronology dated from the date they regard as the creation of the world, about 6,000 years ago. This is often abbreviated AM which stands for Anno Mundi or the “year of the world.” Another example would be Muslims who use a lunar calendar which begins the year that they believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven. People with these attachments will use the system they prefer and ignore anything the rest of have to say.

For most people today, the dating abbreviation AD and BC are just formulaic. Very few people think about what those letters mean. It is therefore sensible that they wonder what all the fuss is about. But the abbreviations do have meaning. In fact, they stand for “before Christ” and “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “the year of our Lord.” For non-Christians these terms can be difficult to use.

An interesting side note is that AD is correctly used before the year rather than after as you most commonly see it. That’s because it means, “In the year of our Lord 2011,” etc. The fact that you usually see this printed as 2011 AD is just another indication that AD has ceased to have any meaningful connection with Christianity.

Most scholars would probably prefer to use BC and AD just because of their relative ubiquity and acceptance in most modern contexts. As letters, they just have a meaning of “we start counting at an arbitrary year 1″ which happens to be about 2011 years ago as I write this note.” But those who are sensitive to the religious connotations have standardized for a few decades now on a different set of abbreviation: CE and BCE.

CE is supposed to mean “Common Era,” but note that it can be understood as “Christian Era.” Some hoped that this would placate those Christians who might resent having time torn away from them. BCE then means “Before the Common Era.” But it could likewise mean, “Before the Christian Era.”

There is one good academic reason for using BCE and CE. The year 1 which Christians have been using for millennia now does not correspond to any particularly interesting event in Christian history. The date was originally set based on someone’s computation of the birth date of Jesus, but that (medieval) scholar simply got it wrong, as absolutely everyone agrees. Without wasting time on the discussion of Jesus’ birth year, I hope it’s safe to say that if everyone agrees that the year 1 is arbitrary, then it can be used without worrying about whether it has any particular significance for any religion.

Therefore, the year 1 in the BC/AD or BCE/CE system is ideal. Before this tempest in a teapot for better or for worse the Christian dating scheme was by far the most popular dating system in the world. Now that the tempest has blown over, it can be seen as a dating system that has the advantage of having no ties to anything religious.

As far as I know, CE and BCE are used only in books and articles where there is some apprehension that Jews might be offended by BC and (especially) AD. Fortunately, AD is rarely used–if it’s after the year 1 most people just write the year without any qualifier. Therefore, in most cases, Jews who are sensitive to this issue will only flinch at the occasional BC.

As you can tell from the way I’ve written this, I think the whole discussion is silly. But that doesn’t mean I won’t take sensibilities into account. After all, if you are interested in Classical or Biblical Hebrew, chances are you don’t agree with me. You might be a committed Christian who wants to retain AD or you might be a Jew who is offended by it. There’s probably no good way to cut this Gordian knot, but as you’ll see if you keep reading here, for the most part I will use the terminology CE and BCE. After all, if you’re a Christian who likes AD, you just have to read C as “Christian.”