BC or BCE, AD or CE?

In scholarly circles it is almost universal to refer to dates as CE, or BCE these days.

The use is based on an objection to the meaning of the more common BC and AD. BC means ‘before Christ’, where ‘Christ’ of course refers to Jesus. But this isn’t just saying ‘Before Jesus’, it is saying ‘Before the Messiah’. So that is kind of presumptuous for the majority of the world who might recognize that Jesus was born around the right period, but would would beg to differ that he was the Christ. Similarly ‘Anno Domini’ is “The Year of Our Lord”, which really assumes that Jesus is your Lord. BJ and AJ would be better, although BJ might be unsuitable for younger readers…

But I have a real problem with BCE and CE. Because they mean ‘Before the Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’. Which is a problem because the birth of Jesus doesn’t define a ‘common era’, it is a highly specific cultural fluke cemented as a majority position by a combination of church hegemony in Europe and the European industrial revolution. If China had been first to widespread industrialization, we might have a very different view of what the ‘common’ era is.

But I realise I’m not going to come up with a practical alternative. So I amuse myself in calling BCE and CE “Before the Christian Era” and “Christian Era” to point out that the dating is specifically Christian, and that anyone else using the dating is only doing so because a certain group of western nations hooked their chronology so strongly to the birth of a peasant from Galilee who they thought was desperately and cosmically important.

Ultimately any ‘common’ calendar is actually an exercise in cultural imperialism. A necessary one, of course, but we should be a lot less squeamish about recognizing as such.

Pretending the birth of Jesus is somehow a ‘common’ epoch-making event is as much of an insult as defining the first 14 billion years of the existence of the universe ‘before Christ’.

Of course, the best solution is to create your own calendar. That’s fun. Mine’s a lunisolar calendar with weeks based on phases, months on new moons and years on the equinoxes. But then I’m really pathetic like that.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “BC or BCE, AD or CE?

  1. …as much of an insult as defining the first 14 billion years of the existence of the universe ‘before Christ’.

    Funny! How about the next 14 billion years? ACE for “After Christian Era”? Or AOR for “Age of Reason?”

    The pastor at the church I attend used the BCE/CE label on a timeline a couple of weeks ago. He accepts text messages during the sermon and was soon asked to explain what the terms meant. During his explanation he mentioned that some people might be uncomfortable and not accept the BC/AD labels, for the reasons you noted in your post. At which point I heard a grumble from a couple of rows behind me and a comment to the effect that “Sure, *they* might be uncomfortable with it, but *we* shouldn’t be…” At which point I thought to myself, “Yeah, stinkin’ fundies in every evangelical crowd…” :^)

  2. Ian

    Receiving text messages during preaching! Wow, that’s an interesting idea.

    I suggested it to a minister friend of mine last night. The rest of our friends seemed to think it was a better idea than he did!

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