Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Should Christians Abandon B.C./A.D.?

I'd like to add my two cents to the interesting discussion by Bob Cargill and Daniel McClellan about whether Christians should abandon the customary "B.C." (Before Christ) and "A.D." (Anno Domini) dating system and adopt the "B.C.E." (Before the Common Era) and "C.E." (Common Era) in widespread use now in the academy.
Anyone who's ever taught or taken a class in biblical studies, much less published a book or article in the field, will have run into this question: Which dating system to use? And why?
With all due respect to Bob and Daniel, I wholeheartedly disagree with the specific proposal that Christians should abandon the B.C./A.D. system for the sake of following "the scientific community." 
The primary reason is that "B.C.E." and "C.E." are vacuous: they don't mean anything. What actually is the "common era"? Can anyone actually tell me what is "common" about the years 1-the present? And what was it that happened "before the common era" so as to make it, well, 'un-common'? 
It seems to mean the terminological shift is nothing but a rather facile attempt to take a dating system which clearly places the Incarnation at the center of human history and secularize it. But the attempt ultimately fails, since whether you use B.C.E/C.E. or B.C./A.D., the Incarnation is still at the center of the system. There's no other identifiable historical event that marks the transition from one age to the other, whatever one concludes about the chronological controversy regarding exact calendar date of Jesus' birth.  
Second, as a Catholic, I actually believe that all human history does revolve around the Incarnation of Christ. While Bob Cargill may be right that the "use of B.C. and A.D." is not "the central identifier of a person as a christian," historically, the confession of faith in the Incarnation stands at the very heart of the Gospel. As 1 Timothy states: "the mystery of our religion" is that "He was manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim 3:16).   If others find this confession of faith in the Incarnation offensive, then it seems to me that the consistent thing to do would be to create entirely different system, a secular system of dating that is based on some other event--rather than cloaking a Christocentric calendar in secular clothes. 
So, until such a system is created and forced upon me, I will happily continue to use B.C. and A.D., as well as other such unfashionable terms like "Old Testament" and "New Testament," and hope that my respect towards people of different faiths will be judged on other grounds. 

P.S. This is, of course, exactly what Bob said members of the Catholic Church would do ;).

As a sidenote, it's also worth pointing out the origin of the linguistic inconsistency in the B.C./A.D. dating system: Have you ever wondered why "B.C." derives from English ("Before Christ") and "A.D." from Latin (Anno Domini)? Pick up an old Catholic Bible, and you'll find no such inconsistency: in bygone days, the designation for the age before Christ was abbreviated "A.M." (Anno Mundi)--that is, "In the Year of the World." In this system, the dating was counted from creation to the Incarnation, following the biblical timeline, in a way similar to orthodox Jewish calendars.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, as someone 60 this Oct. I have never got used to anything else but BC and AD. Yes, the Incarnation is certainly everything for the Christian!

Donna said...

I agree 100%! I somehow never knew about Anno Mundi, but I like it. I think it highlights the shift caused by the Incarnation more than just saying "Before Christ".

Daniel O. McClellan said...

A good defense of the use of BC/AD, but I'd like to contribute something in the way of clarification. "Common" in "Common Era" does not mean run of the mill or bland, but popular, or widespread. It refers to the use of that dating system by the majority of the population while royalty referred to regnal years. The word may have a different connotation in many minds today, and I understand that some people view it as a demeaning or marginalizing designation, but that's not at all what it is meant to be.

Secondly, my post was not meant to convey that I think everyone has to adopt the other system, but rather that there's nothing in the BCE/CE dating that merits the kind of opposition that is found so frequently in this discussion. If someone doesn't want to miss out on another way to make a confession of faith, that's their prerogative, but I don't think it's accurate to argue that BCE/CE is inappropriate, offensive, or anti-Christian in any capacity.

Rudy said...

Let's be honest, BCE and CE were invented by those whose prejudices against the Christian faith were bothered by using the BC and AD. The mere mention of Christ is enough to have these scientist and scholars going into apoplexy.

John Roberson said...

As you say, "the Incarnation is still at the center," yet we're calling it "common." B/CE is therefore colonialist, so self-conscious non-Christian academics should avoid it as such.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

To me the "BCE/CE" trend is an indication that some people in the scholarly and scientific communities have a discomfort with Christianity. But if BCE and CE makes them happy, I would rather see them use it than impose on the rest of us a whole new system. Hopefully enough of the world will continue using BC and AD so those labels will continue to be recognized.

On a different subject, I just added The Sacred Page to a catalog of blogs on Facebook. I hope you won't mind being passed around the globe in the Facebook community.

JohnO said...

Playing devil's advocate, shouldn't the BC/AD calculations be altered then? Since they're off, and don't reflect the actual date of the incarnation? Why is "Close enough, good enough"?

I am rather persuaded by arguments. While we should feel free to write with AD/BC in our own faith communities (dealing with the questions above), why is it wrong for the Academy, representing no singular faith position, to adopt a different dating system? Just because the B/CE switch is at the same time as the AD/BC switch doesn't mean it is made for the same reasons (it would seem to be for entirely practical reasons so we don't have to do tons of wasteful work re-numbering everything.

Lucien said...

Good points Brant I agree.

I was worried after seeing Michael Barber utilize BCE and CE in some of his articles, that you would agree with the "academy" too.

Robert R. Cargill said...


thanx for your comments. i put some responses to the discussions here:

as far as vacuous dates go, as soon as the polar ice caps melt, we will have the first truly global common event upon which to date all subsequent events (like amos 1).

cheers -bc

Lucien said...

From Mr. Cargill's blog (posted by Mr. McClellan):

"Daniel O. McClellan, on September 30th, 2009 at 4:53 pm Said:
I agree with you Bob. I think the main obstacle this campaign has is the pushing back from conservative Christians who feel the designation is some kind of atheist or anti-Christian crusade. In actuality, the designation was developed by 17th-18th century European Christians to distinguish the “vulgar” (”common”) calendar from the regnal calendar. There’s nothing offensive about wanting to be less polarizing and disrespectful in a global community, and most people don’t use AD correctly anyway."

Let me repeat this sentence for you: There's nothing offensive about wanting to be less polarizing and disrespectful in a global community...

There are at least over 1 billion people on the planet (global community) who would possibly be offended by the change in terminology that has been utilized for centuries. But you still don't think it could be polarizing or disrespectful?

I guess Mr. McClellan subscribes to the theory that there is no tradition like a new tradition.

However, for those of us like our traditions aged to perfection, even though we may not always understand them according to the standards set forth by the "academy", we actually appreciate them.

I encourage theologians to continue to utilize BCE/CE it helps me to separate the wheat from the weeds.

Daniel O. McClellan said...


In that globalized academic community far more people are inconvenience by BC/CE than would possibly be offended by being inclusive. I italicize that because I don't imagine the majority of Christians find BCE/CE offensive.

No, I don't think it would be polarizing or disrespectful to change a centuries old religio-centric tradition. To insist that it is is to insist that only your sensitivities matter. You may appreciate your traditions all you want (I don't belittle BC/AD at all), but when engaging in cross-religious dialogue I think it's inappropriate to demand others adopt your particular traditions when it's not necessary.

I stand by my statement. There is absolutely nothing offensive about being inclusive, and I heartily disagree with the idea that unnecessary Christian offense should be prioritized over justified (and statistically larger) non-Christian sensitivities.

Lucien said...


Here is the statement I wanted you to stand by (I even repeated it for you):

"There’s nothing offensive about wanting to be less polarizing and disrespectful in a global community, and most people don’t use AD correctly anyway."

I wanted you to attempt to establish how there is absolutely “nothing offensive"; since as you can see from this combox that there is absolutely something offensive about changing the designation to several Christians at this blog alone.

Your statement could have been something along these lines if it were to be consistent, "Even though Christians, inside and outside of academia, will be offended by the change in designation; it makes sense to adopt this novel (and unambiguous) designation to make the point that we are not thrusting Christ as Lord upon our non-Christian partners in dialogue.”

And let us look to another one of your subsequent statements, "I italicize that because I don't imagine the majority of Christians find BCE/CE offensive"

I think your imagination is keeping you from making an intellectually consistent statement in this case too.

This imagined majority of Christianity can be made to say, or believe, just about anything if you want them too. My imagined majority of Christianity would be offended by BCE/CE, Christ is Lord after all!

Plus if we are to assign a designation to truly be less offensive to non-Christians then BCE/CE wouldn't satisfy the requirement for too long. BCE can also stand for Before Christian Era and Christian Era for CE. Eventually we will have to come up with something without the letter C in it and possibly J too. :)

Lucien said...

I think an additional good point to be made here would be that those from other faith traditions (outside of Christianity) to refrain from speaking for Christianity.

If I were to try to convince, say Mormons, in an argument that I thought Joseph Smith was not a martyr and in my comments spoke for the "majority" of Mormons being in agreement on this point, I would be being dishonest.

Daniel O. McClellan said...


If you mean to aver that I'm not a Christian because I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then I'm not interested in continuing this discussion.

Lucien said...

Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate?

If not, then a Christian you are not.

Lucien said...

Christians, historically speaking, have believed the following about Jesus of Nazareth:

"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."

If you, as a Mormon, can not give assent to all these articles of the following creedal statement then no you could not be considered a Christian.

If the Church of Latter Day Saints has changed it's doctrines on Jesus of Nazareth I would be glad to look into the data.

But if not, then your attempts to speak for Christianity are not reasonable.

Just like I could and should not speak for Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses and the other religions that started up here in the USA during the 19th century.

You could argue for changing the designation all you want but obviously from a different starting principal and perspective.

Daniel O. McClellan said...


You do not speak for Christianity today, and even less so for biblical Christianity. The creed you cite was not formulated until centuries after Christ's death and does not represent pre-Nicene Christianity. If exclusion is your priority in your definition of what it means to be a Christian then that's your prerogative, but don't presume to speak authoritatively concerning my personal relationship with Christ or on behalf of the Christian church as a global body.

If you have something relevant to this blog post to say then please do so, otherwise I'm done reading your responses.

Lucien said...

No, I do not speak authoritatively for Christianity but luckily my Church does.

It teaches exactly what constitutes being a Christian. There are teachings such as the Trinity the core and highest teaching; one that we have to give assent to. Jesus Christ is true God and true man; another teaching I have to give assent to. And many, many more beautiful dogmas that give life a framework grounded in reason and purpose.

If you personally gave assent to the belief that God became man, walked on this earth, sacrificed Himself on the cross for our redemption and rose again; then you would be able to understand why changing the designation from BC and AD to BCE and CE would be offensive.

If this is all true it is the focal point of all history and something to be proclaimed to all generations.

Exclusion is not a priority for me; I want every one to join the Catholic Church. But affirming people in their error is not charity; it is the opposite of charity.

John Bergsma said...

Ah, Brant, your Cajun nature just can't resist coming out swinging and starting a brawl. You got kahunas we Frisians just don't.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the use of the word "common" is that is only "common" because people self-described as "Christians" have happened to have conquered and ruled most of the world over the last five centuries or so, (in a highly unChristian manner of course), and their countries continue remain economically and ideologically dominant, for now. It's simply saying: we'll carry on using the Christian system but pretend it isn't Christian. I have no objection to the CE part standing for "Christian Era" since it doesn't involve obfuscation, but does not involve clearly confessional statements such as Anno Domini. Maybe one day a truly secular calendar will be invented we can all use civically. (Like I sometimes wish Christmas was replaced as a public holiday by the winter solstice so that all the commercial capitalist tat would go away and we could celebrate Christmas on the 24th/25th properly without Santa or Rudolph in site!)

Lucien said...

Unfortunately Anon you are correct in some of your points here:

1) The imperialistic European's wore the banner of Christ while committing atrocities.

2) To this day the descendents of those imperialistic European's capitalize on their position of influence and are marginal Christians to say the least.

But there are some other points to consider:

1) Like it or not the imperialistic European's did have success in their ventures; Christianity did spread. Was this a blessing from God? It seems to be how the original people of God (Israel) operated as well. Think about how bad the atrocities would have been without Christ; an example being Nazi Germany.

2) The descendents of those imperialistic European's would be much worse without Christ. It has taken the US a long time to realize that slavery and racism are evils (and we are still learning about abortion) but we are finally getting it into our heads.

Christ and His Church influence the world one conversion at a time and there are so many people who fight against God's will in their lives that it takes so long. That length of time we are experiencing and sometimes get frustrated with is an expression of God's mercy.

Unknown said...

When my students ask "What does CE and BCE mean?" I answer with this:

"CE means 'Christian era' and BCE means 'before the Christian era.'"

in Christ,