To BCE Or Not to BCE: That Is a Very Common Question

A short post in order to discuss a topic that comes up a lot when I blog and when I tweet: Why do I use BCE and CE (Before the Common Era and Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ) and AD (anno domini–“in the year of [our] lord”)?

History of the Debate:  The use of BC and AD only dates back to the 16th century, when Pope Gregory XIII decided to begin to date the years before Christ’s understood birth as BC and after it with AD. So, the great PG-13 (as I lovingly refer to him) reformed the calendar, which is why many of us in the West use his solar-based Gregorian Calendar and dating system. Alternatively, the Islamic or Hijri calendar commemorates the movement of Muhammed from Mecca to Medina. It is a lunar calendar set by the moon that begins on January 16, 622 CE. The ending is often abbreviated to H or AH for ‘anno Hegirae‘ (“in the year of the Hijri”). Moreover, Romans dated years according to the founding date of the city (ab urbe condita) in 753 BCE. As Christians, Muslims, early Romans, and many other civilizations indicate: time (or at least the organization of it) is a construct.

Many academics (and, increasingly, non-academics too) have begun to adopt BCE and CE rather than BC and AD, because it has a more secularized feel to it. However, because the two are essentially identical in terms of the dates they reference, there is a Christian connection inherent in both. Style books are similarly torn. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t care what you do, as long as you are consistent, whereas the MLA likes BC and AD.

Addressing the Question: In order to try and remedy some of these misconceptions, I made this flowchart. Feel free to share (with attribution) on digital devices, print onto small business cards for use at conferences, disseminate at Thanksgiving, or ignore as you see fit. The choice is yours, and, well, that is really the whole point of this post.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 2.02.21 PM.png

Some of the B/CE inquiries I get on the blog or on social media are innocuous: People just genuinely want to know the correct way to denote a historical date. However, others ask the question because they believe my choice indicates something about me or about my religious affiliation. If I use CE, it must mean I am not Christian, right? Wrong. The answer is that I simply prefer to use CE and BCE, but if you want to use BC and AD, AUC, AH, or even a Star Trek stardate: That is totally okay with me. Just be consistent! <proverbial mic drop>

7 thoughts on “To BCE Or Not to BCE: That Is a Very Common Question

  1. There is also that small matter of Jesus having been born in 4 BCE as well.Which is a bit odd when you say he was born in 4BC! In other words “BC” is just wrong all the way around. As a Christian, I vote for CE all day long.

  2. Regarding the relevance of this decision for one’s religious confession, many late antique and Medieval sources from the eastern Mediterranean that were thoroughly steeped in the Christian tradition used a Greek calendar that started with Alexander. Choosing a calendar that didn’t attempt to start with Christ’s birth made them no less Christian. Just one more reason that my slight preference for BC/AD really doesn’t matter.

  3. To add to the confusion, as an archaeologist I also run into BP, particularly with reference to radiocarbon dating, which may be big BP or little bp depending on whether the dates are calibrated or uncalibrated. So I’d agree that the main thing is to be consistent. Pick a system and stick with it for that particular piece of writing. At least the dates within a single piece of text ought to then be consistent, which makes comparisons much easier.

  4. We still use Germanic and Roman gods’ names for our days of the week, and Roman gods’ and rulers’ names for the names of our months. So dating years by the Christian God/Son of God shouldn’t be offensive. 🙂

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