Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Use A.D. and B.C.! (Out with C.E. and B.C.E.!!)

Posted by NT Wrong on January 4, 2009

multifaith_calendar_2009The abbreviations C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before Common Era) are commonly used in modern biblical scholarship to refer to the eras which were formerly known as A.D. (Anno Domini – The Year of The Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ). The usual rationale for the change is sensitivity to other religious and non-religious users of the Gregorian calendar. That is, given the number of worldwide users of the Gregorian calendar who don’t believe Jesus of Galilee is ‘The Lord’, a more neutral term is thought to be provided by ‘Common Era’.

However, what is ‘common’ about the Gregorian calendar? To the contrary, however the dating system is named, it refers to a specific tradition of the Christian West. The calendar has a very specific origin in the Christian tradition, and is calculated with respect to the estimated year of birth of the person central to the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ. (In actual fact, Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated the year of Jesus’ birth when he developed the calendar’s antecedent in AD 525, but that’s another story…)

By using ‘C.E.’ and B.C.E.’, we universalize a peculiar tradition. We make it out to be ‘common’ or ‘natural’, not requiring any special marking or qualification. As a consequence of the fact of Western power, the Gregorian calendar has been adopted as the most-used calendar in the world, and so does have some degree of ‘commonality’ in day-to-day use. But the change from A.D. to C.E. (and from B.C. to B.C.E.) obscures the particular Christian basis of this ‘common’ calendar, misrepresenting it as ‘normal’ – as somehow transcending historical particularities. By contrast, the other calendars are made out to be the only ‘localized’ and ‘particular’ calendars. While the Christian calendar is ‘naturalized’ by its designation as ‘common’, other calendars (Jewish, Persian, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Ethiopian, Thai, etc) are ‘artificial’ and ‘contingent’.

Stop this neo-colonialism! Use A.D. and B.C. again!! The specific marking of these older terms, which refers to the Christian concept of ‘Christ’, may well be offensive to some people. But this offence is substantial and systemic, not removeable by changing the name of the year which is dated from the birth of Christ. The hegemony of the Western calendar is a fact, and just one of the many effects of Western power in the world today — a minor but not insignificant fact, given the universal importance of local calendars in shaping culture. To obscure the Western calendar’s particularity by making it into a false universal is a double injustice — both the initial violence of changing local calendars, and then its covering up with the misleading term “common”. This is ideology at work.

Scholarship should be on the side of pointing out where injustices arise, not in covering them up.

33 Responses to “Use A.D. and B.C.! (Out with C.E. and B.C.E.!!)”

  1. James C said

    While not high on my priorities, I always thought it pretty pointless to change to BC/AD. However, I suspect most journals and publishers demand BCE/CE. I suppose if it’s pointed out then most would let it pass…

  2. And to be “Fairly Conservative”, only the Julian calendar has “B.C.”, the Gregorian calendar started some centuries later and started where the old Julian ended 😉

  3. NT Wrong said

    James C – Yeah, I did say it was a ‘minor’ point in the larger picture of colonialism. The principle is the same as some of the more significant issues, though.

    I suppose you mean you “always thought it pretty pointless to change [from] BC/AD.” True – it is pointless, ignoring the substantial issue that the dating is from the ‘birth of Christ’ in this ‘age of Grace’. It’s not only windowdressing, though – it’s boarding up the windows so we can’t see through. 😉

    JP – True – the Julian calendar was the antecendent. But the Gregorian calendar reforms the Julian, and goes back to AD 1 in its dating (and back to the BCs). It’s the Gregorian which is in use today, more or less. Although, I was told they subtracted one second from the clock at the start of 2009!

    I’d like to bring back intercalation.

  4. Phil H. said

    Let’s just stick with what we scholars are doing now (B.C.E. and C.E.) notwithstanding the conspiracy theories (e.g. it’s all a plot to secretly establish Christianity as the norm;) The gregorian one is indeed now a “common” calendar in international dealings so why pretend it isn’t. Take as your consolation that Jesus wasn’t born in 0.


  5. NT Wrong said

    Hi Phil –

    I’m not suggesting any conspiracy theory. The machinations of power can be quite subconscious — even the powers-that-be don’t see what they’re doing. Often they consider themselves to be merely operating from rational and beneficent motives.

    Is “Let’s just stick with what we scholars are doing now” a good rule for scholarship?

    The pervasiveness and widespread commonality of the Gregorian calendar in international dealings is my very concern for making clear its genealogy. It is common because the Christian West holds power.

    A year zero? Unthinkable! 😉

  6. missivesfrommarx said

    I favor using BCE/CE because my students don’t know what it means, and it gives me an opportunity to talk about the problems with BC/AD AND the problems with BCE/CE. If I just used BC/AD I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk about it at all. The BCE/CE use at least draws attention to the issue.

  7. Vlad said

    The people who would be offended already know where C.E. and B.C.E come from. We’re not enlightening anyone. Since a consensus on nomenclature has been reached, best to leave it alone.

  8. NT Wrong said

    Missivesfrommarx: – Ah, now that sounds good.

    That’s much the same reason I favour using a bible translation that is not gender neutral in a university setting.

    By the same token, would you use ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ in a scholarly journal, with footnoted explanation?

  9. Ken Brown said

    I take your point, but have to quibble: I was under the impression that the “common” in C.E. means not primarily “the era we all agree upon,” but “the era we live in” (i.e. the era we have in common). So when I say “such and such happened in 325 C.E.” I mean something like “such and such happened in the 325th year of the era we also live in”). B.C.E., then, means only “number of years before the era we live in.”

    Though it is valid to object that the “common” choice of where to divide the eras presupposes a Christian worldview which is not shared by all who use the calendar, it is nevertheless necessary to divine them somewhere. Since we have no absolute beginning to date from (we don’t know precisely how old the universe/earth/human history is), we are forced to divide time into some sort of C.E./B.C.E. arrangement, for the simple reason that we need to be able to count forward and backward simultaneously.

  10. Quixie said

    I don’t think the use of CE and BCE was established for reasons that you state.

    I think it is simpler than that. It was intended so that Jewish scholars (for one) would not be stuck dating everything with a reference to “our Lord.” I suppose they could use the traditional Jewish dating system, but that would be WAY more confusing and alien to non-Jews than any AD or CE convention could ever be. What Jewish year are we at anyway? five thousand something?)

    The conspiracy to obscure imperial co-option you imagine is a stretch IMO.
    It’s just an academic convention, like millimeters and centigrade . . . . meant to standardize scholarship and research.


  11. NT Wrong said

    Ken – I’m not sure I understand your quibble. We don’t live in any era, in reality. An ‘era’ is by definition an ‘agreement’, a cultural agreement, an arbitrary categorisation.

    I agree that any dating system that wishes to fix dates must begin somewhere. I’m just interested in making it clear where that beginning is, rather than covering it up.

    … For a ‘minor’ point (James C [well, me really, not James C]), about which everybody knows the risks (Vlad), it’s generating a fair bit of discussion.

  12. James C said

    Yes, sorry, I did mean ‘from’. On low on priorities, I think we probably agree on the principle of covering up etc.

    On gender, in a confessional context, maybe I (and you?) don’t care (like social justice and the Bible, I suppose it isn’t so bad if people misread for good reasons!). But the Bible is a public document – so to speak – and the language of all biblical texts was gendered. So let’s show the Bible for what it is: a gendered text.

  13. James C said

    ..and in fairness I did say low on ‘my’ priorities rather than minor. I’m not surprised there has been a rapid and lengthy response but that makes it neither minor nor major of course. Besides, I agree with you that a minor point can illuminate all sorts of cultural issues, inc. power issues.

    Anyway, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m pretty much agreeing with you.

  14. NT Wrong said

    Quixie – That was the rationale I identified – religious sensitivity.

    And it remains the case that Jewish scholars do still date everything to Jesus when using the ‘common’, ‘international’ calendar. The AD/BC references just make that clear. (It’s the year of “the Lord” (Jesus=YHWH for Christians), not “our Lord”.)

    And I’m certainly not suggesting a conspiracy. As I said in response to Phil, I think that the change was made from rational and beneficent motives – but with rather different effects.

    The change from BC/AD to BCE/CE is like the change from Empire to Commonwealth. The issues raised are a microcosm of the dynamics of postcolonialism as a whole.

  15. Ken Brown said

    What I meant was: given that precise dating requires setting a breaking point from which to count backward and forward, C.E. refers primarily to dates on our side of that division (i.e. dates “in common” with ours), while B.C.E. means dates not on our side of that division (i.e. dates not “in common” with ours).

    I suppose you are right that such necessarily presupposes a “common” agreement, and certainly this should be made clear, but it seems clear to me that the use of B.C.E./C.E. is driven primarily by this need, not by some unconscious attempt to extend Christian presuppositions by stealth. So it doesn’t seem all that helpful to revert back to B.C./A.D.–such would only unduly prejudice in favor of the religious origins of the system, which is now otherwise maintained for secular reasons.

  16. NT Wrong said

    James C –

    Yeah – I’m with you on gendered language. And religious use of the Bible is a different story…

    I stand corrected – ‘low’ on your priorities, rather than ‘minor’. Although, I admit I think it’s minor compared to some other issues in the world. But it’s a blog post, after all. It’s interesting me right now how people are responding to this, as the arguments correspond closely to the ones used for related (and more important) postcolonial issues.

  17. NT Wrong said

    Ken – I see. Maybe. Although, I think vulgaris was used to describe the AD era, which would suggest a different meaning if there’s some link to CE.

    And – once again – I’m not suggesting any stealth/conspiracy/New World Order in any of this. To the contrary, the motivations of power are usually a complex of self-interested and allegedly charitable motives, so that those people operating within the machine are themselves deceived first.

    I think the religious-to-secular reasoning is the reason we tell ourselves – which covers up some other forces. (And I think the secular/tolerant reasoning has good effects in itself.)

  18. Ken Brown said

    I do agree with your second paragraph about the largely unconscious nature of systemic evil, though whether that is particularly applicable to one’s dating system may be debatable. Certainly where one divides the eras is a “minor” issue relative to the other evils of colonialism, but not for that reason unworthy of scrutiny.

  19. NT Wrong said

    Right, Ken.

  20. Geoff Hudson said

    [comment moved to hobbyhorse comments post]

  21. Doug said

    Hmm, I thoiught I’d posted something similar in the past, but it must have been on my previous trial blog. I have to say that I largely agree with you. Posted in the year 2762 AUC

  22. steph said

    oh botherations to you all. I’d rather make up my own – AJB and BJB in a really ‘post modern’ mood and get rid of the christology at least. Or maybe I’ll just go for plus and minus. 🙂

  23. NT Wrong said

    Plus and minus Beaudrillard? Oh Steph, you’re sooooo, like, postmodern! LOL!!

    Does the BP dating system work in reverse? Are we in BP -59 now?

  24. steph said

    what the…?

  25. NT Wrong said

    The ‘Before Present’ system for ancient dates treats 1950 as the ‘Present’.

  26. steph said

    Oh … we are year 1 in PM. 2008 was 1 PPM.

  27. wm jas said

    BCE/CE hurtfully reminds non-Christians that the Christian calendar is the most commonly used one. BC/AD hurtfully reminds non-Christians that the most commonly used calendar is of Christian origin. Either way, it’s rude. In fact, it’s neo-colonialism — that is, the modern equivalent of the practice of invading foreign countries, forcing them into submission, stealing their resources, and exploiting their people. File under “justice.”

    This is a parody, right?

  28. missivesfrommarx said

    NT Wrong: I hadn’t thought about using BC/AD in a journal article, but I like the idea. That’s what JZ Smith does in the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion he edited–he says he’ll use AD/BC because the alternative is not really any better.

    I do insist on using “he” when talking about Yahweh in journal essays, just to draw attention to the fact that he was a “he.”

  29. It’s 5769, by the way.

    Too many people outside of academic circles don’t know the BCE/CE terminology. Unnecessary scholarly obfuscation is just confirmation of the popular perception that academics are all jammed in some ivory tower whittling away at the centuries with senseless, arcane, jargon-laden blatherfests that have nothing to do with anything real.

    The era is the same. The new terminology was implemented for religious reasons. I personally don’t prefer it, but won’t argue about it. It’s now appropriate, if not required, in some audiences. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s illogical to relabel an era, when no different referent is involved.

  30. NT Wrong said

    Kev – yes – it’s unnecessary scholarly obfuscation. And yes – it’s a facade.

  31. NT Wrong said

    wm jas – no, I file my parodies under the ‘humour’ category. This is serious. Much more minor than Gaza, but serious all the same.

  32. Well said. It’s a nasty bit of liberal elitism and christophobia.

    I have always presumed that the usage originated in Israel where they had a legitimate reason to de-Christianize, and was then adopted in the US by academics eager to be PC.

  33. NT Wrong said

    Roger – you say you entirely agree with me in your post. But I don’t think you do. In any case, I almost entirely disagree with you.

    In the first place, contemporary Jewish scholars are well represented amongst the opponents of CE/BCE whom I’ve discovered – some of them are Israeli. For example, Daniel Boyarin and Gideon Bohak, both Israeli citizens and Jews, make good comments against CE/BCE.

    Moreover, if it were successful, what you call the ‘political correctness’ of changing to CE would be a good thing, in my opinion. (Calling something “PC” is not a good argument, but an increasingly meaningless piece of rhetoric.) Why use a term such as “Year of the Lord [Jesus]” which is clearly Christian when discoursing with those who don’t accept such lordship and/or reject it? It’s use in a Christian community is fine, but outside of that community it could be problematic. So the purpose for CE’s use in academia has a defensible basis. And while it is true that some people might use ‘CE’ from a motive of elitism, such a possible motive does not discredit the (pluralistic) rationale for the change, either.

    But instead, the problem I identified lies in the fact that nothing really changes when you change the name (it’s a facade) — and, what is more, it covers over the problem as though there were no problem. In other words, in the change from AD to CE we can witness the core problem of postcolonialism, in microcosm.

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