CE and BCE

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


What do BC, AD, CE, and BCE stand for?


B.C. is generally thought to mean "before Christ," and has been used to date events before the birth of Jesus. A.D. is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase anno Domini, which means "in the year of our Lord," and is used for dates after the birth of Jesus. This system was devised by a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, back in the year 525(A.D.). He used the presumed year of Jesus' birth as a starting point. Unfortunately, since then, scholars have discovered that Jesus was actually born around 4-6 B.C., so his calculations were off by a few years. Nonetheless, he believed that the birth and life of Jesus were the "turning points" in world history, and that the world should forever commemorate that moment. A mere two centuries after Dionysius, a monk known as Venerable Bede introduced a Latin term that is roughly translatable as "before Christ" to identify the years preceding Jesus' birth. By the ninth century, A.D. was a common notation, but B.C. didn't really catch on until the fifteenth century. This dating has been used for centuries by Western scholars. Simply put, B.C. was everything "before Christ," and since His birth, we have been living A.D. "in the year of our Lord." 

However, the world has changed dramatically over the past few decades. People have long acknowledged that Christianity is not the only tradition (not even among Western nations) and argued that it is patently unjust to force a religious system on those who do not share the values of that tradition. Some detractors have called it "political correctness" gone overboard, but the words anno Domini have been gradually replaced by C.E., meaning "the common era." B.C., meanwhile, has been changed to B.C.E., "before the common era." All the previous dates remain the same, but the change in notation is thought to be more neutral.

The term "the common era" has been around for hundreds of years, but only recently has been applied to the designation of dates. Interestingly, the term is derived from the Latin word vulgaris, (from vulgus, the common people). It means "of or belonging to the common people, or everyday." Historically, scholars used the phrases "Vulgar Era" or anno Domini somewhat interchangeably when writing about the time after Jesus. Unfortunately, the word "vulgar" now has a different meaning in our culture (crudely indecent), so the Latin word was dropped for its English counterpart "common."

The word "common" also refers to the fact that the Christian calendar (the Gregorian) is the most frequently used calendar system around the world. Any other calendars are normally confined to small geographic areas -- usually by followers of a particular religion. 

Of course some scholars see the terms C.E. and B.C.E. as meaning the "Christian Era," and "before the Christian Era," respectively, but most understand the terms to mean "common." As other non-religious academics (history, anthropology, and archaeology) continue to use these abbreviations, it is thought that they will eventually totally replace BC and AD. It isn't that one is right and the other is wrong; it's a matter of being sensitive to other cultures and belief systems. In general, people's preferences derive from that with which they are most comfortable and whichever pair is more commonly used.

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