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B.C./A.D. versus B.C.E./C.E.

This topic has generated more discussion and controversy than any other subject on the studentsfriend.com website. The question of how to designate our years arouses passion because it touches on matters of tradition, religion and political correctness.

(Comments may have been edited for clarity and brevity and are arranged from oldest to newest.)

1/20/03 studentsfriend.com to J.R. McNeill, historian and author
I am enjoying reading an advance copy of your book,
The Human Web, as part of my preparation for revising the Student's Friend outline of world history...I am interested in your choice of the BCE/CE dating system instead of the traditional system that your father (historian William H. McNeill) used in his earlier books. I would welcome your reaction to the following thoughts that I placed on my website today.

Our calendar is based on the birth of Christ; all years before Christ's birth have traditionally been designated B.C. (before Christ) and those after his birth as A.D., an abbreviation for the Latin term anno Domini which means "in the year of the Lord."

Some historians have adopted an alternative dating system, referring to B.C. as B.C.E. (before the common era), and to A.D. as C.E. (common era). The change was made to mask the Christian basis for the dating system and presumably make it more palatable to non-Christians.

The new designation is unsatisfactory on several levels. In the first place, no "common era" exists. It can't be found in history books or the dictionary. It was just made up. If there is a common era, it didn't begin in the year one; it probably began around 1500 A.D. when ocean exploration connected the world in a global trading network.

On a cognitive level, B.C.E. and C.E. repeat the same letters in the same order making the distinction between them harder for the eye and mind to grasp than the traditional system that uses all different letters. To understand the meaning of dates, readers may have to stop and consciously translate the letters.

The politically sensitive thinkers who developed the new terminology were not so bold as to identify a new, logical, non-Christian basis for dating time such as the beginning of agriculture ten thousand years ago or the beginning of civilization five thousand years ago. Instead, they kept the Christian system but attempted to obscure its historical origin, a curiously anti-historical act.

As it now stands we have two competing dating systems: the system used by some academics and the system used by most everyone else. Students are caught in the middle, forced to translate between their history textbooks and the dates they encounter in other classes and outside of school. History education should work to facilitate understanding, not interfere with it.

If historians wish to remove echoes of Christianity from the dating system, there are easier ways than making up confusing new terminology. They can simply consider B.C. to stand for "before common dating" and A.D. to stand for "after common dating." While there is no common era in history, common dating clearly does exist. It would be sensible to have a common terminology to describe it.

1/20/03 J.R. McNeill reply
I agree that BCE and CE are less than ideal. So, for different reasons, are BC and AD. I prefer what Mark Elvin does, using + and - signs, so today's year would be +2003 and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War -431. No quarreling over what initials might stand for.

But no publisher with a general readership in mind will stand for this. I personally don't think the choice is significant, and that as long as the numbers stay the same students will be able to navigate easily, but I'm sure plenty of people will disagree.

1/20/03 studentsfriend.com reply
I really like the Mark Elvin approach you mentioned and will consider adopting it. It is more readily understandable than any of the competing initials. The initials do matter to me. I swear I still have to mentally translate the letters BCE and CE into words before I know whether I'm reading about - or +.

1/21/03 Dan, teacher, Arkansas
The attempts at restructuring the dating system are at best a misguided effort to acknowledge the idea that many people who now reside in traditionally "western" countries of the world do not subscribe to the tenets of Christian theology. This idea of being "fair' to other cultures does have some merit; however, to throw the baby out with the bath water is not the answer. Historians wouldn't dream of doing away with traditional views and concepts of non-western cultures in an effort to "clean up" mistakes, unwholesome attitudes, etc. because this would be tantamount to cultural revisionism.

To remove these concepts and trappings from Western thought is to remove the "heart" from western ideas. Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought is Western Civilization and to deny these things is to start the slide back to propaganda as opposed to historical accuracy. Would these same people throw out the Golden Rule, habeas corpus, the worth of the individual which are all ideas [from] Western thought!

2/15/03 from studentsfriend.com
This discussion of AD versus CE generated some immediate reaction from our online friends such as Dan (just above). Another writer, who may be Jewish, disagreed with my defense of the traditional BC/AD dating system, saying that the traditional system leaves her feeling "left out." That made me feel bad. Another writer, who may be Christian, applauded my "sensible...intelligent" position. That made me feel better.

A disagreement based on religion is the last thing I want to get in the middle of. My dislike of the BCE/CE system has nothing to do with religion; I prefer the traditional dating system on the grounds of practicality and historical integrity. Still, I would prefer not to appear as a cretin.

On his website, D. Glenn Arthur Jr., a Christian, makes this reasonable case:

"...'CE' is a more considerate way of labeling dates in the Gregorian calendar without rubbing non-Christian's noses in the fact that so much of the world is using a calendar based on the alleged birth-year of the man we Christians believe to be the Messiah...So never mind the "political correctness" angle -- just look at it in terms of politeness, consideration, and accuracy.

I'm all for politeness and consideration in human relations, along with religious and ethnic tolerance. The religious tolerance website has this to say:

"(AD) is an acronym for "Anno Domini" in Latin or "the year of the Lord" in English...We should treat others as we would wish to be treated. Since only one out of every three humans on earth is a Christian, some theologians felt that non-religious, neutral terms like CE and BCE would be less offensive to the non-Christian majority. Forcing a Hindu, for example, to use AD and BC might be seen by some as coercing them to acknowledge the supremacy of the Christian God and of Jesus Christ."

Okay, these arguments are compelling, but I just can't bring myself to use a dating system that is cognitively weak and based on an historical fiction called "the common era." The next edition of the Student's Friend may sidestep the whole issue by adopting the - and + dating system suggested by J.R. McNeill in his message above.

Now, with that settled, what shall we to do about other culturally restrictive terms such as Arabic numbers, Jew's harp, French Fries, and alphabet? Let's see...a precedent has been established...how does this sound: common numbers, common harp, common fries and common phoneme-based-writing-system? But, wait...isn't phoneme derived from the land of Phoenicia? How many of us are Phoenicians? Oy vey!
I'll have to get back to you.

In the meantime, this website will be written in what I shall call "common language" (after all, only a minority of English-speakers live in England).

2/16/03 B.R., Canada
One point I'd like to make. Your essay mentions: "As it now stands we have
two competing dating systems: the system used by some academics and the
system used by most everyone else." I don't think that this is correct. We
actually have many many competing dating systems...Also, the BC/AD and BCE/CE are not competing dating systems. They are the same system. For example 2003 AD = 2003 CE. The only thing different about them are the letters associated with them.

CE/BCE is gaining ground. It was started by a few theologians. It has been
picked up by historians. Other groups...use it.

2/17/03 studentsfriend.com reply
B.R., thank you for your clarifications. Please don't take offense, but I'm reminded of those bright students in my classes who feel the need to point out the exception to any generalization I make. Regarding the competing dating systems, I was referring to the two systems that are competing in our culture and classrooms here in the U.S. It is true, as you say, that people around the world use a number of different calendars, a fact about which our students should probably be made aware. And to be precise, perhaps I should not refer to AD versus CE as competing dating systems but as competing naming systems or nomenclatures relating to dates.

2/20/03 D. Glenn Arthur, Jr.
I noticed that Dan from Arkansas (above) replied, "This idea of being 'fair' to other cultures does have some merit; however, to throw the baby out with the bath water is not the answer,"which I found interesting because the whole point of CE/BCE nomenclature is to be fair while NOT having to throw out the whole Christian Gregorian calendar to do so. He also warns against historical revisionism, but changing the abbreviations we use now is less revisionist than our insisting on using Christian numbering for years before the middle of the Sixth Century, when Anno Domini counting was first used, for the sake of mere convenience. (Note that I do not endorse editing the notation used in older documents when quoting them, to try to pretend that earlier writers used the new nomenclature, for that would in fact be revisionist.)

I recall hearing that one of the major modern Drudic sects tried to divorce their calendar from Christianity by counting from the birth of agriculture "about ten thousand years ago," but I couldn't find any references to that on the web when I went looking for info.

3/24/03 studentsfriend.com reply
I appreciate everyone's feedback on this issue of competing dating systems - I mean nomenclatures. I'm a lot smarter now than I was before. But, I have yet to receive a response regarding two dimensions of the issue to which I alluded earlier.

1) What, exactly, would be wrong with the idea of keeping the old nomenclature of BC/AD while applying new designations to the initials? BC could stand for Before Common Dating; AD could stand for After Common Dating. Wouldn't this accomplish the goal of removing Christian references to the dating system without confusing people with a new set of initials? This approach is based on the historical reality of common dating rather than on the historical fiction of a common era. Also, using all different letters is cognitively superior to repeating pairs of the same initials.

And, just for the record, students DO get confused about dating systems. Most of my students have never heard of BCE/CE until they arrive in my 9th grade class. Some students struggle with the concept of counting backward and forward from year one. They don't understand why dates in the fifth century are in the 400s. Why add more confusion to this mix? I believe my job as a teacher involves a responsibility to reduce confusion as much as possible. This is what one college student - a pre-service teacher - wrote to studentsfriend.com about the CE approach:

"I'm taking an Astronomy class and couldn't figure out the CE business in the textbook that the professor wrote. I searched the Web tonight and found your site...Now that I know what's going on I will be able to address this issue in my classroom next year."

Perhaps the next edition of the Student's Friend will retain the BC/AD system and inform students that these initials may be considered to represent Before Common Dating and After Common Dating, while making it clear that several other nomenclatures and designations are also in use.

2) How, exactly, are we to deal with other culturally restrictive terms in our language such as "Arabic numerals", "alphabet" and the "English" and "Spanish" languages? If we accept the precedent established by BCE/CE, shouldn't we rename these and similar words to remove their specific cultural references? Members of ethnic groups and nationalities worldwide may chafe under the cultural imperialism imposed by the term Arabic numbers. Indians may be especially upset since the numerals in question actually originated in India.

How does the logic of BCE/CE allow us to continue using the term alphabet ? It refers to the first two letters of the Greek language, not the English language. As an English-speaker, I may feel left out. How, in fact, can we continue to use the term English to describe our language when the vast majority of people who speak English reside outside of England? As a citizen of a country that overthrew British rule, I may object to the continuing cultural imperialism implied by the use of English as the name of my American language.

Doesn't the logic of BCE/CE compel us to revise our dictionaries to remove all words that relate to specific cultural origins that have since spread beyond those cultures? Is this really where we want to go?

Speaking of cultural imperialism, doesn't a dating system based on the birth of Christ and termed the "common era" suggest that the Christian era is the common era of all humankind? It occurs to me that any non-Christian who gives this matter some thought might reasonably conclude that a conscious decision to use CE is more offensive than retaining a traditional designation based on simple etymology.

9/8/03 Chris from Montreal, Canada
I am happy to have found that there is some debate going on over the topic of changing AD/BC to CE/BCE. I have just finished my PhD in Religious Studies and have been asked to change my dating from AD/BC, and I have refused based not on any religious grounds but for reasons similar to your own...

BCE/CE simply masks what the common dating system in the Western world is. It remains based around the birth of Christ and hiding this fact is both insulting and dishonest, which I personally think is worse... So, I prefer to use the old system for the sake of simplicity and integrity. If people want to use a new dating system, I propose using PC (Politically Correct) and BPC (Before Politically Correct). This would start some time around 1980 or perhaps a little earlier. AD 1980 would thus become the year 1 PC.

9/12/03 studentsfriend.com reply
I love it...PC and Before PC!
Here's what I ended up saying in the latest edition of the Student's Friend, my concise outline of world history for high school students and teachers:

BC and AD
..... s..People in different parts of the world have adopted many ways to mark the passage of time. The Chinese calendar counts years from the reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor in 2698 BC. The Islamic calendar numbers years from 622 AD when Muhammad fled from Mecca. Both calendars are based on lunar cycles. The year 2000 in our calendar is 4697 in the Chinese calendar and 1421 in the Islamic calendar.
......Our solar calendar comes from ancient Egypt. It was modified during the middle ages in Europe, and it has been adopted by most of the world for official purposes. Years are numbered from the birth of Christ: years before year 1 are designated BC for "Before Christ;" years after year 1 are designated AD, an abbreviation for the Latin term Anno Domini, which means "in the year of the lord." AD years are counted forward from year 1; BC years are counted backward from year 1. Thus, 500 BC was earlier than 200 BC.
......In recent years, people who wish to avoid the reference to Christ have begun using the term BCE (Before the Common Era) to replace BC and CE (Common Era) to replace AD. The terms BCE and CE are found in some history books. The Student's Friend uses the traditional terms BC and AD because they are more widely known in our culture, because there was no Common Era in history, and because non-Christians may object to the suggestion that the Christian era is the "common era" of humankind.

Note: The above comments were posted during 2003, the first year this discussion appeared on the studentsfriend.com website. But the discussion didn't end then. Following is a sampling of more recent contributions.

5/2/05 Anna from Philly
I know I'm a bit late on this topic (postings are from 2003) but I'd like to comment on the bit from the "religious tolerance" website: "Forcing a Hindu, for example, to use AD and BC might be seen by some as coercing them to acknowledge the supremacy of the Christian God and of Jesus Christ."

This is so ridiculous a remark that I can't believe any teacher wouldn't immediately hoot it down.  Firstly, all that one is acknowledging is that the calendar we use was developed by Christians and, since the counting had to start somewhere, it starts with the approximate date of a person who really was born.  Secondly, does anyone feel "coerced" into acknowledging Thor once a week? Or the goddess Frig every Friday? Or Saturn every Saturday? Or the god Mars for a whole month?

3/12/06 CJ, student
I am a junior in high school and I recognize the fact that there are people of other religions attending our public schools, however, history cannot be changed.  CE/ BCE and +/- is just another ploy to eliminate God from our schools.  Many people do not even know what AD or BC stand for.

From a historical perspective, AD and BC are proper terms.  The Gregorian Calender was constructed after much labor under the rule of Pope Gregory, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe, regardless of a person's religion, if any, it is only proper for them to give the credit which is due to those who created the calender. I enjoy debates, it is a good way for open minded people to learn about the views of others.

3/27/07 Ken, aspiring history teacher
While I certainly understand the desire to not offend anyone who is not Christian, I really think the change is a politically correct attempt to whitewash the problem without changing a thing  (i.e., 2007 A.D. is the same thing as 2007 C.E.).  Call a monkey a  lunchbox, it's still a monkey. So, my question is, how do I answer a student who asks, "What is  'common' about the "Common Era'?" I haven't heard an answer yet that makes sense.

1/21/08 Steve, M.A. in philosophy
I am Jewish, albeit not religious.  I found the discussion of the terms interesting--very interesting.  Still, from my point of view, it missed the point and didn't escape some bias rooted in a view of our civilization as Christian.  For me, it is simply a matter of the meaning of the abbreviations and asking who embraces the meanings and who doesn't?  I reject the characterization of the new terms as "artificial." If I understand correctly, BC and AD were not adopted until much later.  So, it too was "artificial" and introduced a Christian bias into the way we refer to the years.  To remove the bias would seem the Christian thing to do.

Someone compared this to asking everyone to no longer say "French Fries" but "Common Fries."  That's a bogus analogy.  "French Fries" does not refer to all food as BC, AD, BCE or CE try to cover the entire range of history.  Just needed to share my thoughts...

10/18/08 Lauren, mom of a high schooler
Thank you for your website.  Luckily it was the first one that came up when I was searching with Google for the definition for the term CE, which I found in my daughter's already confusing, overly PC, high school world history material.  Some kids have a hard enough time with boring, pedantic teachers and a subject they don’t understand the use of in this exciting culture. 

I like the solution presented in your site -- keeping the old nomenclature of BC/AD while applying new designations to the initials. BC could stand for Before Common Dating; AD could stand for After Common Dating.” -- for the reasons you state: 1) to accomplish the goal of removing Christian references to the dating system without confusing people with a new set of initials. 2) based on the historical reality of common dating rather than on the historical fiction of a common era.

4/29/09 Helen, attorney in Michigan
All legal arguments must be supported by reference to authority.  I believe historians operate the same way.  The only way to do this is to make reference to the historical authority that precedes. BC and AD are simply the initials that have recorded our time and history for 2 centuries: a method of recording that is found in all historical documents relevant to learning history in Western Civilization.  Why confound it with an additional hurdle of translation? 

11/2/09 Josh, college student majoring in history
You took issue with the fact that no such thing as a “common era” exists (which I acknowledge), but there is no common dating either, as shown by the hundreds of different calendars that have been used throughout history by cultures around the world.

Why, as an educator, do you take issue with the Common Era dating system because it causes confusion among students?  There are lots of things that, while confusing, students must learn.  Yes, teachers should try to not confuse students unnecessarily, but the avoidance of confusion must be weighed against the benefits of the confusion. I feel that by clinging to a culturally restrictive dating system based on the logic that (a) everybody else is doing it and (b) it’s hard, you are showing your failure both as teachers and students of history. 

Final thought from studentsfriend.com:
It is clear from this discussion that the essential reason some people wish to change the designation for our system of counting years is because it involves religion, a touchy subject as we know. This numbering system is based on the birth of an historical figure. Had that figure been Caesar instead of Christ, we wouldn't be having this discussion. There are no similar attempts to rename the alphabet, the English language, or Arabic numbers, which, like BC/AD, designate fundamental cultural systems that have spread beyond their places of origin -- but do not involve religion. Is it logical to change the name of our year-numbering system because it does?

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