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Common Era

November 18, 2016

I’ve just finished marking a big pile of Open University essays on Cleopatra. All the students employ the new style of dating years, that is BCE and CE, instead of BC and AD. Thus Cleopatra was born in 69 BCE; and she was written about by Plutarch, who flourished between 50 CE and 120 CE. In this, students are simply following the course textbook, which uses this style throughout; the textbook was written in 2008 (CE), so this is not a new phenomenon, but I’ve only just got round to remarking on it.

Why the change? I’m hazarding a guess here, but I think it’s because the old terms both contained direct reference to Jesus Christ – Before Christ and Anno Domini (not sure why one term was in English and one in Latin, but there you go) – and something more culturally neutral was thought to be required. The new terms stand for Before Common Era and Common Era. I’m not sure why this was thought necessary, though. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a thoroughgoing secularist and I certainly think that laws and public policy should be religiously neutral. But I don’t see how in this case just referring to Jesus could be construed as exclusive, alienating or offensive; anyway the new formulation doesn’t even really get rid of reference to Jesus, does it? Because Common Era still dates from the year Jesus was born – there’s no other reason for dating our calendar from that particular year – and Before Common Era still refers to the years before he was born.

So all in all I don’t see the point of the change and it seems vaguely phoney to me. If anyone wants to weigh in and tell me why I’m wrong, feel free.

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8 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Hebrew scholars have been using CE/BCE since the mid 19th C and probably earlier. Both terms are presumably only of real use for academics, after all events in predating the birth of Christ aren’t prevalent in everyday conversation and it’s not necessary to specify CE or AD. The Gospels are vague on the actual month and year anyway so the Gregorian calendar could be out by several years.
    In the interest of inclusion should we anticipate the replacement of Christmas with Xmas?

  2. Well, it does not seem strange or phoney to me and I’m not very politically correct about anything. But in this case, why would we, all of us, including the scientific community, historians, teachers, move makers — use a time baseline based on any mythological ( legenday?) figure? What if that imagined date is changed? What if 80% of the worlds scientists and teaches and movie-makers would prefer to use BB ( Before Buddha) or BM ( Before Mohammed) with the added advantage that, being real, those figures presumably engender less uncertainty in the baseline. I’d enjoy knowing more of your rational in objecting to such a commonsense modernization.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    It’s an interesting point but I think Brandon is right. Any calendar requires a starting date and accepting that the Gregorian is based on the birth of Christ it seems abnegatory not to acknowledge the fact. If the date changed I imagine it would be like historians discovering a previously unknown World War; convention would dictate WW1 & WW2 would still be known as such.

  4. Well, I agree of course that if we changed our baseline, to be in line with the date of birth of some other religious figure, or indeed of some non-religious figure, then we’d have to change from BC/AD. Absolutely. But in this case we haven’t changed the baseline. It’s still Jesus. So why change the term?

  5. It might have something to do with scholars arguing about Christ’s actual birth date. I’ve seen suggestions for, if I recall correctly, 6BC, others suggesting he was closer to sixty when crucified, pushing his birth date even further back.
    Saying Christ was born 6 years Before Christ (was born) sounds rather silly, not?

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    That’s true but it’s still 2016 and Christmas is still on 25 December even though the actual year let alone month of the birth are unknown.
    Rather than change the naming convention I suggest an eight day week with a four day weekend; a split shift and job sharing. Shops and businesses would be open longer, jobs would be created and we’d all get more time off.

  7. I can’t quite see how this is an alternative to changing how we date our years; but I do agree that it’s a good idea.

  8. Simon Carter permalink

    Oh, it’s not an alternative just something vaguely calendar related that occurred to me ( and The Beatles in Eight Days a Week). I agree with you that changing BC/AD seems a little pointless. Would have thought America’s month/day dating convention would potentially cause more confusion.

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