So I've been reading about how of late historians are apparently taking to the Jewish nomenclature for our dating calendar. Wikipedia has debated the topic and has refused to come to a conclusive policy. Apparently, the main justification for those pushing the BCE/CE nomenclature, mostly theologians, is to not hurt the feelings of other religions. To not rub their noses in Christianity's glorious doo doo. This is my favourite page of debate on the topic.

1/20/03 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 nomenclatures: 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.

1/21/03 Dan, teacher, Arkansas
[...]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, [...] which are all ideas [from] Western thought!

3/24/03 reply

[...] 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?

and especially this bit:

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
[...] 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.

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.


As atheists, we should take a stand and fight not for a ridiculous change in nomenclature, but for a change in the actual dating system. The whole Christianity concept should be thrown out. IMO the best option from a Western civilisation standpoint for year zero is the French Revolution (being the birth of modern democracy). However, I expect China might have a very valid zero year option, as may India, I think they'd be the most relevant, as they're the most populous. We could also chose the creation of the United Nations, this would unite most of humanity...

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Pick a milestone like the discovery of the printing press and count from there, I say.  In fairness, our months and weeks are based on an entirely dead religion, so its probably not that bad for Christianity to head the same embarrassing footnote in history.
The point is John, the trend in history books IS to changing the nomenclature. To camouflage the fact that the system is a Christian one, without actually changing the dating system itself. The people pushing the camouflage are indeed silly, but at the moment they are winning.

I don't care where we start counting.  Besides, think of the economic cost involved in changing computers, calendars, birth certificates, etc.  Back in ancient times, it might not have been a big deal, but it would be a logistical nightmare to make such a transition today.  The cost would far, far outweigh the benefit. 


Besides, those of us in the United States should be more focused on going to the metric system than being concerned about what year it is.  How stupid is it that the only nations that don't use the metric system are the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia? 

But what of historians camouflaging history by using BCE/CE instead of BC/AD? There's no such thing as a "common era" why on Earth would historians take that path, you don't think it ridiculous?

It may be a bit silly, but I really don't care one way or the other.  Many of the days of the week, months of the year, and planets in our solar system are named after Greek, Roman, and Norse gods, but I don't see anybody complaining about that.

I agree, which is why I'm annoyed at those trying to render the nomenclature politically correct :(
Because BC/AD isn't technically accurate, either. According to Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (who died in 4 BC/BCE), but in Luke, Jesus was born in Nazareth because of the census of Quirinius (which occurred from 6-7 AD/CE). Either way you look at it, 1 AD is not Jesus' birth year, even if you believe the gospels. BCE/CE is more fitting because it reflects the arbitrary nature of the dating scheme.

One thing they fail to mention in this exchange is that BC/AD designation doesn't actually accurately denote the birth of Christ. Jesus, if he was indeed born as the unverified, anonymous rumor holds, would have been born anywhere between 6 and 2 BC, giving us the interesting condundrum of Christ being born "Before Christ." Whether it's BC/AD or BCE/CE, it is still based on the exact same arbitrary day that happened exactly 2011 years, 2 months, and 10 days ago.


I should also add that Jehovah's Witnesses use CE/BCE in favor of AD/BC in recognition of this fact.

The exactness of the year can be wrong - well how could it possibly be right since it's all mythology anyway!

Nonetheless the nomenclature does have that meaning. My annoyance is not about dating, it's about nomenclature. The new nomenclature trend simply camouflages, it's mass dishonesty. There's no such thing as a common era, not now, not ever.




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