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When I was a kid, I was always taught to refer to years using BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini / year of our Lord). However, I somewhat regularly hear people referring to years as in the CE (Common Era) or BCE (Before the Common Era).

Why do people use the latter terminology? For one thing, I find it confusing. It doesn't help that BCE is similar to BC. But moreover, there is only one letter of difference between the two terms, whereas with BC and AD, the terms are clearly different and I find it easier to distinguish! Were BCE/CE established earlier than BC/AD?

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

BCE/CE usually refers to the Common Era (the years are the same as AD/BC). That is, BC is usually understood to mean "Before the Common Era" and CE to mean "Common Era," though it is possible to reinterpret the abbreviations as "Christian Era."

The simplest reason for using BCE/CE as opposed to AD/BC is to avoid reference to Christianity and, in particular, to avoid naming Christ as Lord (BC/AD: Before Christ/In the year of our Lord). Wikipedia, Anno Domini article:

For example, Cunningham and Starr (1998) write that "B.C.E./C.E. …do not presuppose faith in Christ and hence are more appropriate for interfaith dialog than the conventional B.C./A.D."

If there is a standardization or shift occurring, it's likely toward BCE/CE, at least in the United States. Common Era notation is used in many schools and academic settings.

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"more appropriate for interfaith dialog" - ugh, I expected as much. Vomitworthy political correctness which results in the worst of all worlds - the dates are still based around the supposed birth of Christ, but the two acronyms BCE/CE sound far more similar to one another, having only one letter's difference, and confuse a bunch of people who were already used to the perfectly good BC/AD! – Jez Jul 5 '11 at 20:37
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@Jez, no, the dates are based around what is commonly understood to be "year 0" (not that such a year actually existed or that Christian scholars think "BC/AD" accurately reflects Jesus's birthday anyway). – Monica Cellio Jul 5 '11 at 20:49
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@Jez, I do agree the one letter's difference is a shame for readability... As far as I can tell, the idea of "Common Era" goes back at least to the 1700s use of "Vulgar Era", so it's not just political correctness. BC/AD doesn't have that great a foothold, in any case - it seems "Anno Salutis" and other versions abounded before anyone got used to BC/AD. You may be interested in some background on BCE/CE and an article including reasons some non-Christians prefer BCE/CE. – aedia λ Jul 5 '11 at 21:16
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Politically correctwise - doesn't "common era" imply that all the other calenders are inferior? – mgb Jul 6 '11 at 4:15
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Woah, “vomitworthy”? What narrow-mindedness… Jews and others do not object to using the same calendar that dominates Western society, they object to a naming scheme that states quite literally that Christ was the messiah. It is an effort to be more inclusive, not a personal insult by way of putting you through the anguish of having to detect a ‘B’ or the lack thereof. – Mk12 May 15 '13 at 1:00

There are a few issues with BC/AD:

Miscalculation

A.D. 1 was first calculated in the first millenium based on available knowledge at the time. Later on, it was found Jesus likely wasn't born that year, but a few years earlier (i.e., in the somewhat ironic 3–4 B.C. area). Marking it as the "Christian Era" (or more commonly, the "Common Era") allows the same epoch to be used even though the best calculation for Jesus's birth has changed.

Globalization

While Christians make up a very large chunk of the world's population, they are no where near the majority. Most organizations and political entities, for the sake of convenience, have adopted the Western calendar, but "Anno Domini"/"Before Christ" are meaningless terms. Replacing it with "Common Era"/"Before Common Era" reinforces the notion of a global, common epoch starting at the height of the Roman Empire.

When "Christian Era" is used, it's still clear what epoch is being referred to (i.e. the Western one) without having to have some special knowledge about what "anno domini" means or who Christ is.

Calendar confusion

Wikipedia also mentions an issue with the Julian Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar historically both using AD/BC, leading to some confusion as to which calendar system is being referred to:

The terms "Common Era", "Anno Domini", "Before the Common Era" and "Before Christ" can be applied to dates that rely on either the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar. Modern dates are understood in the Western world to be in the Gregorian calendar, but for older dates writers should specify the calendar used. Dates in the Gregorian calendar in the Western world have always used the era designated in English as Anno Domini or Common Era, but over the millennia a wide variety of eras have been used with the Julian calendar.

Switching to CE/BCE makes it clear the Gregorian calendar is being used.

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Personally I always thought it was MORE culturally insensitive.

BC is "before christ", whether you believe in him or not. It's just as good as the Nth year of reign of Pharaoh Whoever - doesn't require you to believe in the deity of a particular egyptian

Whereas making it "common era" implies that it's the correct one and all the others are wrong.

Archaeologists also use BP - before present - which is confusingly set as 1950. Astronomers of course have the best solution - just count days.

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If the terminology were "Before Jesus", you would be right, but "Before Christ" presupposes that you accept Jesus as Moshiach. – Dan Jul 6 '11 at 6:23
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@user744 - good point, I will regard it as "Before Carpenter" then! – mgb Jul 6 '11 at 18:23
    
"Common" just means it doesn't relate to the founding of any city or republic, or the reign of any given king. – Jon Hanna Feb 10 '13 at 0:03
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How does common imply it is the correct “one”? It is the most commonly used system, so why not call it the common era? – Mk12 May 15 '13 at 1:02
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@Mk12 - it's only the common one assuming you are in a christian (or christian conquered) country. It's like calling British English Common-English and any other version a mere uncommon deviation – mgb May 15 '13 at 2:06

While this issue always seems to get mired in arguments about political correctness, I'd offer another perspective. I switched to BCE/CE before I was even aware of the political correctness issue: I had previously found the whole BC/AD confusing, so when I happened upon the new abbreviations in a scholarly source and then looked them up, to me, it made a lot more sense for stylistic reasons.

Here are just a few problems with BC/AD:

  1. They're inconsistent. BC is an abbreviation of the English phrase before Christ, while AD is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase anno Domini. It's very strange that going across the arbitrary division line between two years also requires a change in the language of abbreviation. Also, traditional convention says that BC comes after a date (e.g., 1200 BC, or year 1200 before Christ), while AD comes before the year in a date (e.g., AD 1200, or anno Domini 1200, which follows English style of in the year of Our Lord 1200). While that convention is no longer universally maintained, it's odd and confusing.

  2. They're prone to misinterpretation. In particular, the language inconsistency noted above has given birth to a widely-held misconception that AD is an English abbreviation for after death (i.e., after the death of Christ). Obviously this is wrong, but it was actually the first explanation I heard as a child, which then caused great confusion when I encountered a teacher telling me that it meant something else in some obscure dead language. I'm not alone in having heard this false etymology, as many internet discussions will attest.

  3. They're literally wrong. As noted in a previous answer, the birth of Jesus Christ is now estimated by most scholars to have occurred at least a few years earlier. (I've seen everything from 7 to 2 BCE -- and yes, in this particular sentence, using the abbreviation BC seems to me an oxymoron.) In any case, "common era" solves this problem by just admitting that we're using a common convention, which even Christian scholars now widely regard as inaccurate. But it's still a convenient and "common" way of referring to our "era" of year reckoning. Insisting that we hold onto the older style too seems to be promoting ignorance of the fact that the abbreviations are literally false.

  4. They cause confusion. One item of confusion occurs because of the erroneous after death etymology above. (I distinctly recall asking someone about this when I was a small child: "So how do they number the years while Jesus was alive?" No answer.) But even if we understand what AD means, the convention can create confusion even when Christian scholars are trying to refer to, well, the years around the time of Jesus Christ. Because we know the birth year is off, any date in the first century BCE or CE is automatically a bit offset compared to the reference point that BC/AD uses. Dates in the early Church are a bit uncertain anyhow, but if a Christian scholar is trying to relate a possible date to the timeline of Jesus Christ's life, you have to do a little conversion in your head. Whenever I see BC/AD with a year within a few decades of Jesus's purported lifespan, I tend to think of an imaginary (sic) appended afterward. In other words, when a reference to the timing of Christ's birth should have maximum usefulness due to proximity of the dates, it actually breeds confusion.

Any one of these reasons alone wouldn't be enough to argue for a new convention. After all, there are all sorts of inconsistent and illogical stylistic elements in English usage. But when you take into account that the old meanings are widely believed (even by Christians) to be actually wrong, you now have a convention that's actively creating confusion.

BCE/CE still recognizes the implicit (though erroneously calculated) division point in eras. You still can't explain the reckoning of BCE/CE without referring to Jesus Christ (even if it's coupled with "And there was this monk guy named Dionysius who got it wrong..."). And aside from the minor point mentioned in the question that they look a little too alike compared to BC/AD, I think there's a strong argument for stylistic and logical advantages.

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+1 What does Arius say? – ab2 Jan 21 at 22:30

I think 'we' (Europe and its former colonies) have already standardized on BC/AD.

I also thought BCE/CE were new and designed to

  • preserve dates
  • be easy to remember (being so close to the original BC/AD)
  • recognize that other, more populous, non-Christian cultures use this dating system where the start date is culturally irrelevant.

The use of BCE/CE could be considered 'political correctness', especially since it is hardly common outside of academic circles.

Anyway, you don't need to worry, BC/AD has not lost at all to the metric system or Kwanzaa, it is still very much what is used and recognized (but I haven't looked at any high school history books lately).

Note that BC/AD was introduced in the 6th c...um...BC which superseded the year style based on the founding of Rome AUC (or to superseded one based on 'year of ruler's reign' - wikipedia is not clear which).

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Good enough for me. As you say, the usage is hardly common outside of academic circles, but at least it has the merit of being easily related to standard usage. A bit like degrees Kelvin, which one cannot help noticing retained the unit of a degree Centigrade, only changing the base-line. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 21:43
    
@FumbleFingers - and of course "degrees Kelvin" is wrong -it should be simply Kelvin. – mgb Jul 5 '11 at 22:12
    
@Martin Beckett: You sound like my scientist brother lol. He's pointed that out to me before. But because he's a scientist, he uses the term more and is familiar with it. I'm not, so I like having the word 'degrees' to remind me what we're talking about. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 22:26
    
@FumbleFingers, the official reason for not being degrees is that it's not a scale divided into parts (as is Celcius) but for some odd reason it's also not a plural. So you have space at 3Kelvin but also a 100Kelvin difference between ice and steam. – mgb Jul 5 '11 at 22:49
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@Martin Beckett: That's never come up with bro before. I guess the word 'Kelvin' is like 'sheep' then? – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '11 at 22:54

I had understood BCE to mean "Before the Common Era" and CE as "Common Era", which was successful in removing Christianity from the year naming system. Well, successful in that the name changed, but not so successful since the numbers are still exactly the same, and still have an end and start at the traditional year of the birth of Christ.

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You make it sound as though “removing Christianity” was the purpose, as though it was an act of oppression. The goal is to be more inclusive of people who do not recognize Jesus as the Christ, people. It's not that complicated. – Mk12 May 15 '13 at 1:05
    
Ok. But that does mean if it were changed from BC to BJ (for before Jesus) then it would just be naming it after a historical figure. Or if it had started out as BJ, then there would be no need to change. I agree that BC and AD are implying that Jesus is the Messiah, which is not inclusive of those who think he isn't, or who don't believe in the concept at all. My point was that the year numbers themselves are still based on his life, and I overlooked the significance of the words used to describe that. – thursdaysgeek May 15 '13 at 22:28
    
Yes, it would be better that way (though AD is more of a problem than BC—I meant to say people who do not recognize him as the messiah, such as Jewish people). BCE and CE of course remove the reference to Jesus completely, so you are correct in saying that it is still centred around him. – Mk12 May 15 '13 at 22:54
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Even so, I do not think of it as a failure to remove Christianity, but in this way instead: no matter who likes or dislikes it, we are stuck with this system by now—adopting a new reference point would be confusing to everyone. In the interest of having a global standard, it makes sense to secularize it, even if it does have religious origins. I understand that it is only superficially secular, but as I said it is not practical to change the numbers. BCE and CE serve their purpose of being more inclusive. Nobody is denying where 1 CE came from. – Mk12 May 15 '13 at 23:07
    
All BC/BCE does is raise the question, "Why is the 'current era' so significant?" And we all know the answer to that. – Ben Piper May 13 '15 at 17:01

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