CE vs. AD

By Maeve Maddox

A reader takes issue with my use of the designation CE instead of AD in this sentence: “A mix of these tribes migrated to England in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.” Here is the reader’s reaction:

Give me a break with the New Age (CE) crap.  You can’t make-up words and slogans to change history or our calendar.  It’s AD period.

Clearly, the reader prefers the traditional Western designation of AD and BC to the equivalent CE and BCE to denote the eras demarcated by the birth of Christ.

Contrary to the reader’s belief, the use of AD in lieu of CE to denote the Christian era is nothing so new as “New Age.”

The term “New Age” refers to a movement of the 1970s that was characterized by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture. Environmentalism and an interest in spirituality and mysticism as opposed to organized religion are especially associated with the New Age phenomenon.

The designation CE as an abbreviation for “Christian era” predates the New Age movement by about 300 years. According to The World Heritage Encyclopedia, “The expression “Common Era” can be found as early as 1708 in English.”

Still earlier than that, another chronological term used by Christians was vulgaris aerae, “the common era.” (The adjective vulgar derives from the Latin noun vulgus, “the common people.”) This designation occurs in English as both “vulgar aera” and “vulgar era” and is abbreviated V.Ae. or V.E.

However, AD/BC have been with us for a very long time, and the reader is not alone in feeling a strong repugnance toward the growing practice of replacing it with CE/BCE.

At least one Christian governing body urges adherents to resist the CE/BCE notation, seeing it as a result of “secularization, anti-supernaturalism, religious pluralism, and political correctness.” On the other hand, many Christians support the change, in deference to non-Christian cultures that also employ the chronology.

The abbreviations CE and BCE may be interpreted as any of the following phrases:

Christian era, before Christian era
common era, before common era
current era, before current era

I started using CE/BCE in my posts for Daily Writing Tips because we have an international audience and because I’ve become aware that more and more publishers are adopting these designations. For example, five books pulled from my shelves at random reflect the changing convention:

AD/BC: Christianizing the Roman Empire, Yale University Press, 1984.
AD/BC: A History of Private Life, Volume I, Harvard University Press, 1987.
CE/BCE: The Encyclopedia of World History, Houghton-Mifflin, 2001.
CE/BCE: Life After Death, Doubleday, 2004.
CE/BCE: The Real Messiah, Watkins Publishing (London), 2009.

For my part, if the World were to organize a vote on the matter, I’d vote to keep BC/AD—if only for the fact that it’s easier to tell which is which. When I read a book that uses the BCE/CE abbreviations, I have to slow down when I come to a date because the letters CE are in both designations.

Any culture designing a chronology will choose a culturally significant event to mark “Year One.”

Before the AD designation became common, Christians made use of the Hebrew Anno Mundi chronology, which began with the estimated date of Creation. Some Christian writers reckoned time from the birth of Abraham. “Year One” for the Islamic calendar is the year Mohammad led his followers from Mecca to Medina—622 CE on the Gregorian calendar.

Whether we call the first year of our current era AD 1 or 1 CE, the fact remains that the reckoning is based on ancient Christian belief about the year in which Jesus was born. Modern scholars calculate that the historical Jesus was actually born four to seven years earlier than 1 CE.

I think it’s very likely that in another fifty years or so, a new world reckoning will supersede the current one for international use. A new chronology will separate the “before and after” eras with a new “Year One” based on some event lacking religious connotations.

Style considerations

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends writing CE and BCE without periods.

Writers making the switch from BC/AD to BCE/CE need to be aware of a difference in where the abbreviations should be placed in relation to the date. With BC/AD, the tradition is to put BC after the date and AD before the date:

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
Joan of Arc was executed in AD 1431.

With the BCE/CE designations, both follow the date:

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.
Joan of Arc was executed in 1431 CE.

Writers not governed by a publication’s style guide are free to use BC/AD. However, anyone who reads much history may as well get used to seeing BCE/CE.

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22 Responses to “CE vs. AD”

  • Julie

    It is annoying when you are reading about history and some jerk has to stick their political correctness into clear terminology that we instantly understand. Historical time scales are difficult enough to deal with, without this extraneous pc rubbish. What makes it really stupid is that the same point of time is being used as a reference point. The first rule of clear English is to leave out anything that clutters the meaning, such as the “E” in “BCE”. We don’t need it. and if it means the same thing, why do you need to change Before Christ into Before Christian Era? Which is easier to deal with when you are studying history? Actually, I understood it to mean Before Common Era, as first used by new age trendies and then taken up by the politically correct who dominate academia, which is becoming more trashed and worthless. The other form E.V, for Era Vulgaris, was started by followers of Crowleyanity, it might have been cool and different back in Aleister Crowley’s day; it is at least not as ubiquitous and irritating as BCE and CE. When I am reading historical information, I don’t want to have to stop to think what it means, whereas with BC/AD it is more instinctive and quickly grasped. I am not a Christian, and the Christian’s comment made me even more annoyed, this is not about sacrificing ourselves to other cultures, they will have their own languages and acronyms for describing this, and many of them refer to the same point in time. To me this is about history and an understanding of thousands of years.

  • Jason N.

    When I first read this I thought it was something from around 2000 AD. It surprised me to see people still not acknowledging the silliness of the BCE/CE scheme. Please stop promoting bigotry. Pay attention to Michael Perry’s post above, and adopt his suggestions.

  • John McLean

    “I think it’s very likely that in another fifty years or so, a new world reckoning will supersede the current one for international use. A new chronology will separate the “before and after” eras with a new “Year One” based on some event lacking religious connotations.”

    LMAO!!! You can’t possibly be serious.

  • A. Warren Duvall

    In reference to thebluebird11’s question: “Straw poll? What is that?” It is “an unofficial ballot conducted as a test of opinion: (eg.)I took a straw poll among my immediate colleagues” according to oxforddictionaries.com. I suspect you must not be from the United States of America, thebluebird11, because it is an Americanism, but more so because our television news unmercifully hammers us with the term every waking moment in the months before every American Presidential election.

    I dislike the “Before Common Era” and “Common Era” classifications, but not because of my religious faith. (I am a Christian, my faith is firm enough that every time someone mentions a year, I do not need him to remind me about Jesus.) I simply prefer “before Christ,” and “anno Domini” because I am an traditionalist (but not such a traditionalist that I prefer anno Domini nostri Iesu Christi).

    Why I think the new system of classifying years is stupid is that it does not even accomplish its ostensible goal of basing the calendar on anything other than the birth of Jesus Christ. It simply defines all time before the birth of Christ as, for some reason (though it is secular, so the reason presumably cannot be because Christ had not been born) as “uncommon,” and then Christ is born, and suddenly things turn “common.” It is a supposedly secular calendar still based on the birth of Christ, and considering the whole pre-Christian history of the world “uncommon.”

  • thebluebird11

    There is that saying that there are 2 kinds of people in this world; the kind of people who divide people into 2 kinds of people, and the kind who don’t. As much as humans are always picking at each other to find faults and differences and deficiencies in everything from what they eat to who they sleep with, and if they believe in God, or a god, or many gods or no god at all, I believe that we all have more commonalities than differences. I don’t see that using BCE/CE is a matter of being PC, in the sense that calling it the Common Era still acknowledges that the birth of Jesus was a turning point in history (albeit not the only one), and the entire planet accepts that date as the start of the common calendar. Other calendars exist in other cultures and religions and are usually used for cultural or religious purposes, but the stock market is closed on New Year’s and Xmas and pretty much everyone in the US, no matter their religion, celebrates Thanksgiving even if their actual ancestors weren’t here for the first one. So, whether Christians are still a majority on this planet or not, they are not the only people on the planet. Therefore, why irritate many other people with the terms BC and AD, when these people do not accept Christ as their lord/messiah, and neutral, less inflammatory alternatives (BCE, CE) are available? IMHO I think Christians get upset on religious grounds by non-Christians trying to replace BC/AD with BCE/CE because by extension we are stating that we do not accept Jesus as the focal point in our lives. Again, Jews for example have their own calendar; it is used solely for religious and cultural purposes. For regular daily use, the regular/common calendar is used, and nobody denies Jesus existed, and nobody denies that he and his followers had a huge influence on history. But there was plenty of history going on before he existed, and in the general scheme of things, he is but one history-maker. Hitler also had a huge influence on history, but I doubt we will be starting a new calendar any time soon, based on that.

  • BuckeyeSam

    “The designation CE as an abbreviation for ‘Christian era’ predates the New Age movement by about 300 years.”

    I won’t question the statement. I’ll just observe that I never before heard that CE and BCE had anything to do with referring to Christianity or to Christ. I’ve been under the impression that it was just another battle in the PC battle that American academics have waged on Christianity in the past few decades.

  • Robin Buckley

    I find this slow but steady political correctness movement sickening and frightening in so many ways, this is but one of them. We are now just a bunch of brain-washed and intimated wimps because of an agenda-driven group of secularists that are trying to change the American landscape. Didn’t I see a post just a few days ago about certain (seemingly benign) words are being removed from textbooks? It’s all so disgraceful and I refuse to support any of it. I will continue to use AD and BC and I guess I will be considered a “hater” because of it! (SMH)

  • venqax

    The BCE/CE thing is an annoying bit of PC that has crept into the normal world from academia. It is even more pointless than most PC nonsense because it changes nothing– the Christian Era is the Common Era. AD 2015 and 2015 CE are the same year. The advent of Christianity is what makes it common and is still the determinant reference point. It’s like putting a robot in the elevator to push the buttons for you, instead of just pushing them yourself. An extra step of translation for a normal person that serves no purpose (except to, yet again, devalue and deny the influence of Christianity on world history. Like those devices are in short supply.) It doesn’t matter if one is a Christian or not, the calendar is a cultural device. Even the Inquisition didn’t object to the pre-Christian pagan names for the days of the week and months (or at least not much.) I myself have always used Arabic numerals, and I’m not even a little bit Arabic.

    My complaint has always been the regularity of the improper placement of AD after the year instead of before it, where it belongs. The year is AD 2015, not 2015 AD. The local courthouse in my town has big, ornate 1995 AD engraved on a brass plaque on one its quoins. It always makes me suspicious of the quality of justice dispensed therein.

    A straw poll is just an unofficial poll that is done, usually without any of the formal voting rules that apply under parliamentary procedure. An informal “temperature reading” of a group, most commonly heard about in the political part caucuses.

    The Christ Myth Theory has been around for quite a while but it is not seriously entertained by any mainstream scholars of Christian or Western history. It’s a far enough stretch not to warrant mention in serious conversations about the subject of Jesus, early Christianity, etc. Up there with “Was Jesus really an ancient astronaut?” (spoiler: probably not.)

  • thebluebird11

    @John Moore: Straw pole? what is that?
    @Roberta: Even Jews believe that Jesus existed. We just don’t believe that he was the messiah. We believe the messiah is yet to come (don’t hold your breath).
    @Jeff: If you flinch at BCE/CE, you understand how some Jews (and perhaps those of other non-Christian religions) wince at BC/AD. We should all just give each other the space we need to live and breathe comfortably, so nobody gets hurt. It’s much more peaceful when people aren’t in each other’s faces, you know what I mean? Live and let live.

  • Roberta B.

    Why are some people so convinced that the person known as Jesus is purely “mythological,” or quite possibly could be (@David Knuttunen). As @Elsie stated, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth as a real, historical person is not debated by reputable historians. I can understand someone being skeptical about eyewitness or retold accounts of acts, sermons, and miracles (including resurrection) that might be construed as myth or legend….or as bluebird said, not wanting to appear to accept or concede that he is the messiah. However, I’m stunned at the hostility towards recognizing him as a historical figure who at one time walked the face of the earth in the region of Israel and whose brutal and unjust murder by fellow human beings for merely speaking to the masses inspired a flood of testimony and held a significant impact on concepts, thoughts, and opinions about human relationships involving subjugation and governance, individual rights, and choices over one’s own destiny. There are other historical figures recognized and accepted as real human beings whose existence is based on far less credible evidence than the body of writings about Jesus. Just because someone is not convinced by the recordings and interpretations of his followers is not reason to question his existence as an actual person or label him a mythological individual. I find that belief to be highly biased.

  • Maeve

    John Moore,
    The usage began in the US, but according to one of my sources, it has spread to the UK. You’ll note that one of the examples from my bookshelves is from a London publisher.
    You may find this article of interest: http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/common_era
    It includes this information:
    In 2002, the BCE/CE notation system was introduced into the school curriculum in England and Wales. In 2011 in the UK, the BBC announced it would be using CE/BCE notation on its programmes and website, permitting usage of either notation. Numerous British universities, museums, historians, and book retailers have either dropped BC and AD entirely or are using it alongside the BCE/CE notation.

  • John Moore

    I have never before heard of CE/BCE and never even seen it written before, and I write as a regular reader of history books and texts.
    A straw pole around my office has brought only looks of confusion as to their meaning. If communication is about conveying information clearly this idea must surely be a non-starter.
    Or perhaps it’s a parochial American hang up?
    Yours from Lancashire.

  • thebluebird11

    @Maeve: Perhaps I should have made clear that my response was to Michael Perry’s comments and not your post LOL

  • Jeff Meaeny

    I am a Christian who has always flinched at the sight of CE/BCE. Thanks for spreading a little understanding. I appreciate your informative and respectful take on this topic!

  • Maeve

    Sounds reasonable to me.

  • Elsie

    Your explanation of these abbreviations is incorrect. BCE does not mean “Before Christian Era” (since the Christian era began with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, it’s the same as saying “Before Christ”). Per the vast majority of sources, BCE means “Before Common Era,” and the reader who originally commented on this usage is wrong about it being New Age. He should have said “humanistic,” or, as Urban Dictionary noted, it was devised “for politically correct reasons”–to avoid reference to Christianity and avoid naming Christ as Lord.

    Still, the entrance of Christ into the world is the turning point of history, and we should stick with BC/AD. (To David Knuttunen, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth as a real, historical person is not debated by reputable historians.)

  • thebluebird11

    At first I read only the post by Maeve, about the reader who wanted to be given a break from the crap, and I thought wow, how rude people can be. Then I read the comments, and although I’m not a big fan of walking on eggshells to be PC, the terms CE and BCE have been around a long time, before Nazis were around for sure. To my knowledge (and I always stress that I am not a maven), Jews (of whom I am one) have used BCE and CE so as not to appear to “accept” Jesus as our Lord (i.e. by saying “in the year of our Lord”) or to use the word Christ. For the same reason, we have often used the abbreviation Xmas (so as not to write Christ). This is just our thing, and if it’s all the same to anyone, we would like to continue to do it, since it seems fairly harmless, in addition to which believe it or not Christianity is not the only religion on this planet. Again, I think bending over backwards to be PC is one thing, but being inclusive and sensitive to others is another. If you want to continue to use BC and AD, that’s fine (with me, if not your editors). And if I choose to use BCE and CE (however you want to expand the acronyms), that should be fine as well. They are pretty clearly understood to represent the dividing line there for the birth of Jesus, so why make the semantic mole hill into a mountain. The Jewish calendar still has more years before Jesus than since; we are currently in the year 5775 by our calendar. If you like, we could eliminate the BC/AD and BCE/CE issue by switching to that calendar. Deal?

  • David Knuttunen

    While I think there is a choice irony in dating all of our real-world calendar events from the imaginary birthday of a person who is quite possibly purely mythological (and certainly so in many respects), I also think the question is a tempest in a teapot. It’s a convention. I usually use “AD” and “BC” because it’s easier. I don’t have to explain myself to most people, and there’s one fewer letter than in “CE” and “BCE”. Also, I agree with the previous commenter: What exactly is common about the Common Era? In an ideal world, we’d have two terms that recognize the essentially arbitrary nature of the division, like the “AM” and “PM” of dividing our daily times. (Although I suppose local noon is not exactly arbitrary, if you want to split hairs.)

  • Elsie

    Your explanation of these abbreviations is incorrect. BCE does not mean “Before Christian Era” (since the Christian era began with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, it’s the same as saying “Before Christ”). Per the vast majority of sources, BCE means “Before Common Era,” and the reader who originally commented on this usage is wrong about it being New Age. He should have said “humanistic,” or, as Urban Dictionary noted, it was devised “for politically correct reasons”–to avoid reference to Christianity and avoid naming Christ as Lord.

    Still, the entrance of Christ into the world is the turning point of history, and we should stick with BC/AD.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Sorry, but CE doesn’t mean Christian Era. The roots lie in academia not in whatever illusion you might have. There it means Common Era. Wikipedia describes why:

    “Use of the CE abbreviation was introduced by Jewish academics in the mid-19th century. Since the later 20th century, use of CE and BCE has been popularized in academic and scientific publications and more generally by publishers wishing to emphasize secularism and/or sensitivity to non-Christians. The CE/BCE notation has been adopted by some authors and publishers wishing to be neutral or sensitive to non-Christians because it does not explicitly make use of religious titles for Jesus, such as “Christ” and Dominus (“Lord”), which are used in the BC/AD notation; nor does it give implicit expression to the Christian creed that Jesus was the Christ.”

    In short, the term was deliberately invented to exclude any Christian significance. That’s bizarre, since Common Era has no real meaning. Greek scholarship does have a historical era in which Koine (meaning common) Greek is spoken rather than the classical Greek of Aristotle and Plato, but that begins long before the Common Era.

    Years ago, I participated in an interesting academic discussion about the term. I stressed what really was, yet another illustration of the academic world attempting to rewrite the past to suit contemporary, academic fads and dogmas. I didn’t hesitate to point out how unhealthy that was, comparing it to the Nazis who, unable to remove the Jewish-Christian poet Heinrich Heine poet from school textbooks because he was so well-known, resorted to claiming the author was unknown. In short, Jews weren’t to be allowed to shape German history for the much the same reason Christianity was not to be allowed to shape modern history. Both must be purged.

    There’s a long history of that. For generations, archaeology in the Americas deliberately distorted research results to conceal the development of complex civilizations in the Western hemisphere before the Europeans arrived. The entire Nazi, Aryan supremacy madness was born out of serious linguistics, which sought racial justifications for an interesting bit of history, that most European languages flow from what was once called the Indo-Aryan language spoken north of the Persian Sea. Only in recent years through DNA tracking has one dogma attached to that spread of the language began to be rejected. The prevailing dogma was that Indo-Aryan language spread because the “superior” Aryans exterminated other races, making their language dominant because few that spoke other languages remained alive.

    In this case, academia is attempting to downplay something their more secular members don’t like, the significant role that Christianity has played in world history. It’s yet another attempt to shape events to fit academic dogmas.

    Where I had fun with those college professors was in pointing out that the rest of our English-language calendar remained heavily religious. The days of the week come from Nordic gods, i.e. Thursday being Thors’ Day. And months are named after deified Roman emperors, August coming from Augustus Caesar.

    The point I was getting out was contrasting a tolerant Christianity that was perfectly willing to let language remain language and not dogmatize calendars and an academia that wanted to purge the past of anything not fitting with contemporary fashion. Like all dogmatists, however, academia was doing it stupidly, leaving in the Nordic and Roman religious terms but removing the far less visible Christian ones. Bigotry, I noticed long ago, has trouble being consistent.

    In my efforts to get through to these rather thick-headed professors I called them on their “we don’t want to offend” silliness. I feigned being upset at the use of those other religious terms for months and days of the week and offered a bizarre, non-religious solution based on mere numbers. I forget exactly what it was, but it was something like January 2 would become Firstly the Secondish. Don’t laugh just yet.

    I thought the idea was ridiculous, but dogmatist rarely have a sense of humor. I actually had one professor tell me that he’d be willing to start using my “Firstly the Secondish” to describe test days.

    I shook my head in amazement. Bigotry against Christianity creates BCE/CE, and yet many adopters, nice but clueless, can’t see that. They fail to note the inconsistency of their changes and insist they merely don’t intend to offend. They will then go to any extreme to be consistent with the latter and bogus argument, apparently even to adopting that silly “Firstly the Secondish” in their classes.

    Rather than adopt BCE and CE, I suggest sticking with BC and AD in your writings and offering as a rationale the same justification that retains the use of Nordic gods and deified Roman emperors on our calendar.

    To do otherwise is to open the linguist gates to a thousand other Orwellian alternations that make no practical sense. And as you may note, we have more than enough of that going on.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan

  • Lisa McLean

    This was a fair and lovely post. I’m a devout Christian, and I think, with you, that we need to be culturally sensitive. Thank you for the time you took to deal with this so thoroughly.

  • Joe

    I don’t know what the kerfluffle is all about. “CE” has been used by Jewish writers for a long time. For us, “the year of our lord” refers to somebody else’s lord. I prefer “CE” (Christian Era) because it acknowledges the use of the Christian calendar without endorsing (or internalizing) it.

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