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Religious Tolerance logo

"CE/BCE" or "AD/BC" dating notation

Historical background of the use
of "CE" and "BCE" to identify dates

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The religious basis of calendars around the world:

There are many religious calendars in existence, but each is normally in use in one region of the world -- typically by followers of a single religion. Almost all of the world's religious calendars are based on religion, astrology, or myth:

bulletThe Baha'i calendar is based on the date that the Bab declared that a new manifestation of God would appear.
bulletThe Creativity Movement, a racist, sexist and homophobic religious group, bases their calendar on the date when their religious book was published.
bulletThe Hindu calendar is based on a planetary alignment in 3102 BCE.
bulletThe Jewish calendar is based on their belief in the date of creation.
bulletThe Mayan calendar was based on the day that they believed that Venus was born.
bulletThe Muslim calendar is based on year of the hegira -- the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.

The significance of 1 CE and 1 AD:

The division between BC/BCE and AD/CE is not based on religious considerations. Nothing of a religious nature happened during 1 BCE and 1 CE -- in fact nothing of truly momentous importance happened at all, to our knowledge.

Some interesting events at that time were:

bullet1 BCE: Some historians have concluded from their analysis of Josephus' writings that Herod the Great died in 1 BCE. However, Josephus also mentioned that an eclipse occurred just before Herod's death. The great early astronomer Kepler dated that eclipse to 4 BCE. Most historians now place Herod's death as during 4 BCE. 1
bullet1 CE:
bulletGaius Caesar and Lucius Aemilius Paullus were appointed as consuls.
bulletLions became extinct in Western Europe.
bulletThe Aqua Alsienta aqueduct was constructed.
bulletSilk first appeared in Rome.
bulletBuddhism was first introduced in China. 2

So, unless one is a lion, a Buddhist, or student of ancient Roman civilization, the basis for 1 CE and 1 BCE remains an arbitrary selection.

BC and AD do have a religious significance because they state that Yeshua of Nazareth is both God and Messiah: AD means "Year of the Lord." BC means "Before Christ" or "Before the Messiah." This religious component makes CE and BCE more attractive to many people -- particularly secularists, non-Christians and liberal Christians. CE and BCE are notations that are not based on religion or myth. They can be embraced by all.

History of the AD/BC notation:

The AD/BC notation was first proposed by the monk Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) in the year 525 CE. He used it to identify the years in the Easter tables that he prepared. He did not use the notation to date historical events. "Dionysius implied, but never stated, that Jesus was born 25 December 1 BC." 1 The basis on which he linked the divide between BC and AD to the birth of Jesus is unknown. There is general agreement that he guessed incorrectly. Most theologians and religious historians believe that Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus) was born during a Fall -- or less likely during a Spring, sometime between 7 and 4 BCE. However, we have seen estimates as as early as the second century BCE and as late as 4 CE.

According to Wikipedia:

"Another calculation had been developed by the Alexandrian monk Annianus around the year AD 400, placing the Annunciation on March 25, AD 9 (Julian) -- exactly 8 [sic] years after the date that Dionysius later calculated. This Era of Incarnation was dominant in the East during the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire, and is still used today in Ethiopia, accounting for the 8 or 7-year discrepancy between the Gregorian and the Ethiopian calendar." 3

"The Anno Domini era became dominant in Western Europe only after it was used by the Venerable Bede to date the events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731" CE. 1

"Even though Anno Domini was in widespread use by the ninth century [CE] Before Christ (or its equivalent) did not become widespread until the late fifteenth century....In 1422 [CE], Portugal became the last country of western Europe to adopt the Anno Domini..." notation. 3

Until the eighteenth century CE, the term Anno Salutis ("in the year of salvation") or Anno Nostrae Salutis ("in the year of our salvation"), Anno Salutis Humanae ("in the year of the salvation of men"), and Anno Reparatae Salutis ("in the year of accomplished salvation") were sometimes used in place of AD. 3

Also in the eighteenth century CE, English Bishop John Prideaux, referring to Yeshua, wrote:

"The vulgar era, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation."

At the time, "vulgar" meant "of or belonging to the common people." Even today, one can occasionally see the abbreviation "e.v." or "EV" used. It stands for "Era Vulgaris" -- the Common Era.

In the middle 19th century, Alexander Campbell, wrote:

"The vulgar Era, or Anno Domini; the fourth year of Jesus Christ, the first of which was but eight days."

In the early 20th century, the Catholic Encyclopedia stated:

"Foremost among these (dating eras) is that which is now adopted by all civilized peoples and known as the Christian, Vulgar or Common Era, in the twentieth century of which we are now living."

Proper English usage has AD precede the date (as in AD 2006) and has BC follow the date (as in 7 BC). 3 This does not appear to be universally followed. A Google search for "1492 AD" returned about 1,650 hits; "AD 1492" returned 1,060. This format is not generally used with CE. A search for "CE 1492" returned only 75 hits; "1492 CE" returned 874.

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History of the CE/BCE notation:

There appears to be no consensus on the origin of CE/BCE:

Linguist Peter Daniels suggests that:

"CE and BCE came into use in the last few decades, perhaps originally in Ancient Near Eastern studies, where:
(a) there are many Jewish scholars and
(b) dating according to a Christian era is irrelevant.
It is indeed a question of sensitivity." 4

A BitNet Email exchanged from the early days of the Internet by a James Marchand speculated that the CE notation started in the:

"... 18th century, when a great deal of PC work went on. I have seen it called the Christian era, so that removing Christ did not work for some. It is also called in English "the vulgar era," "our era." In German, one avoids mention of Christ for whatever reason by saying "Vor unserer Zeitrechnung," for example. In French, one can say "tère commun" or "notre ère." I would hate to see AD, AM and PM go down the drain. I was raised in a monolingual community where no language was taught even in the high-school; the expansions of these abbreviations were practically my only confrontation with Latin (maybe also i.e. and e.g.)." 5

To which Dennis Baron responded:

"Interestingly, perhaps predictably, the standard dictionaries are of no help on the dating of these abbreviations.

bulletThe _OED_ defines C.E. (or C. AE.) as Common Era, sometimes Christian Era. _Christian Era_ was first used in English ca. 1657; the synonymous _Vulgar Era_ is dated 1716. There are no dates or cites for
_Common Era_ (s.v. CE, Common, Era, Common Era).
bulletWebster's 3rd defines Common Era as `Christian Era.' Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary defines C.E. as 'common era,' but does not define _Common Era_.
bulletThe _Random House Dictionary of English_ 2nd ed defines _Common Era_ as 'Christian Era.'
bulletAnd the politically aberrant _Random House Webster's College Dictionary_ does the same."

"Only Rosten's Joys of Yiddish comments on these abbreviations that they have long been popular with Jewish scholars who were uncomfortable with a christological dating system. This I know from personal experience to be true. Unfortunately I can find no information to hand on just how long this has been a common practice, or if it indeed originated with Jewish scholars. I have made some inquiries and will let you know if I find anything more definite. However the assumption by the common dictionaries that common = Christian suggests that this attempt to unbias the reference system with respect to religion fares no better than attempts to reduce sex discrimination (wherein _chairperson_ is often the signal that the _chair_ is a woman, and _Ms._ is often treated as a synonym for _Miss_). Not that dictionaries are universally fair to Christians (check out some definitions of
_jesuitical_ and _pontificate_)."

According to Wikipedia:

"The term 'Common Era' is traced back in English to its appearance as 'Vulgar Era' (from the Latin word vulgus, the common people, i.e. those who are not royalty), to distinguish it from the Regnal dating systems typically used in national law.

The first use of the Latin equivalent (vulgaris aerae) discovered so far was in a 1615 book by Johannes Kepler. Kepler uses it again in a 1617 table of ephemerides. A 1635 English edition of that book has the title page in English - so far, the earliest-found usage of Vulgar Era in English.

A 1701 book edited by John LeClerc includes "Before Christ according to the Vulgar ?a, 6". A 1716 book in English by Dean Humphrey Prideaux says, "before the beginning of the vulgar ?a, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation." A 1796 book uses the term "vulgar era of the nativity". 6

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Dionysius Exiguus," Wikipedia, 2006-JUL-21, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

  2. "1 AD", Wikipedia, 2006-JUL-28, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

  3. "Anno Domini," Wikipedia, 2006-JUL-28, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

  4. "Common Era," Answers.com, at: http://www.answers.com/
  5. Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear, "5.0247 Origin of CE/BCE (2/59) at: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/
  6. "Common Era," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

Copyright © 1999 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-APR-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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