"CE" and "BCE" vs. "AD" and "BC"?

Ancient Christian Calendar

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There is a trend among scholars towards using "BCE" and "CE" as year markers rather than "BC" and "AD". As abbreviations for Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE), they do not specifically privilege Christianity (the criticism of using "BC" and "AD") and instead simply make reference to the fact that we are living in an era shared in common between Christianity and other religions—though Christianity and Judaism are the two religions usually in mind. Some regard this secular preference for BCE and CE as anti-Christian or an atheist conspiracy against Christianity. Here are the facts.

BC and AD as Christian Dating Conventions

The tradition in the West is to base the count of our years around the alleged time when Jesus would have been born. Every year since his birth is "A.D." which stands for the Latin phrase "anno Domini" ("in the year of the Lord"), first used by the monk Dionysius Exiguus. Every year before his birth, counting backward is "B.C," or "Before Christ." Defining dates on not only the existence of Jesus but also his role as a religious figure is a preference granted to Christianity that is unavailable to any other religion or belief system. This is a natural problem for secular academia.

Also ignored is the fact that even if Jesus existed, there is no clear consensus on when exactly he would have been born. So even if one assumes that it is legitimate to use Christianity as the basis for how we define our dates and years, we can't assume that we are doing it correctly. If we're doing it wrong we should change it, but it's far too late to make changes. So what do we do?

BCE and CE as Dating Conventions

Use of BCE and CE has been growing in recent years, but they aren't nearly as new as many Christians seem to assume. More and more academic publications have been using BCE and CE, but especially BCE because they are discussing non-Christian cultures, religions, and politics. The World Almanac switched over to BCE and CE for the 2007 edition and other more popular publications have been following suit. In a few other cases, like the Kentucky School System, efforts to switch over were reversed after some Christians protested.

The idea of a Common Era instead of Anno Domini has been around for centuries, but the label used to be Era Vulgaris. We must remember that in the past, "vulgar" simply referred to the common people and the countryside and was not necessarily derogatory. The earliest use of this appears to be a 1716 book by John Prideaux, a bishop in England who wrote about "The vulgar era, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation." Because "vulgar" later came to denote something indecent, though, this use seems to have fell out of favor.

By the 19th century, the use of BCE was common in Jewish writings. Judaism has its own calendar, of course, but if they are writing something they expect non-Jews to read, it helps to use a more recognized dating convention. Since they don't believe that Jesus is their Lord, however, it would be inappropriate for them to use AD—and even BC suggests a primacy of Christianity. Use of BCE and CE thus became common long before Christians started using the labels themselves.

Why Use BCE and CE Instead of BC and AD?

There are several good reasons to choose BCE and CE over BC and AD:

  • AD is almost certainly inaccurate—if Jesus existed, he almost certainly wasn't born in the year suggested.
  • BC and AD privilege the role of Christianity in a society where it is no longer the defining belief system (separation of church and state, remember?)
  • BC and AD imply the validity or truth of Christian theology—specifically, that Jesus is a god.
  • BC and AD force non-Christians to imply or acknowledge the supremacy of Christianity.
  • AD is awkward to use with centuries as opposed to specific dates—"12th century CE" while "12th century AD" means " the 12th century in the year of our Lord," which makes little sense.
  • Opposition to BCE and CE tends to be based on religious rather than academic grounds, thus demonstrating that using them involves submitting to a religious agenda.

Perhaps it isn't much, but every time you use BCE and CE instead of BC and AD, you are showing respect for non-Christian cultures/religions as well as refusing to submit yourself and your writings to a Christian agenda that is all about asserting dominion over culture, politics, society, and even your very thought processes.

Domination is frequently founded on little things that people take for granted and/or don't feel are individually worth the trouble of fighting. Collectively, though, all those little things add up to quite a lot and make domination far easier. When we learn to question the little things and resist taking them for granted, it becomes easier to question the big things as well, thus making resistance to the entire superstructure of privilege easier.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. ""CE" and "BCE" vs. "AD" and "BC"?" Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/bc-vs-bce-which-should-we-use-250186. Cline, Austin. (2021, February 8). "CE" and "BCE" vs. "AD" and "BC"? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/bc-vs-bce-which-should-we-use-250186 Cline, Austin. ""CE" and "BCE" vs. "AD" and "BC"?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/bc-vs-bce-which-should-we-use-250186 (accessed May 30, 2023).