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BCE and CE versus BC and AD

Scholars use Before the Common Era and the Common Era to refer to time periods previously called BC and AD.


Why might one scholar choose to describe a date as BCE rather than BC? Or CE rather than AD? What is the significance of this choice?

When dating historical events, scholars today generally use BCE and CE rather than BC and AD. BC stands for “before Christ” and AD for Anno Domini “the year of the lord.” BC and AD were predominant in Western discourse for centuries, but BCE “before the common era” and CE “common era” are now preferable.

Both BCE/CE and BC/AD place the year of Jesus’s birth as the first year on the positive side of the timeline. This model emerged in 525 CE, when papal functionaries asked Dionysius Exiguus to revise the Catholic calendar. Prior to Dionysius, events were dated from the accession of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 CE), whose later persecution of Christians became known as “the Era of the Martyrs.” Rather than referring to the martyrs in his dating system, Dionysus instead forged a new reference point and produced a calendar that dated all events as before or after the supposed birth of Jesus. Dionysus’s dating system was adopted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the eighth century CE and the chronology became dominant throughout Europe by the fourteenth century.

Christians are not unique in formulating a chronology for world history. In Judaism, years are counted from a proposed date for the creation of the world. According to the Jewish calendar, then, the year 2000 CE was the year 5761. In Islam, historical events are dated as occurring either before or after the Hijrah, the Prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE; thus, 2000 CE was year 1378 according to Muslim chronology. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each base their dating systems on events deemed religiously significant. The Christian chronology became dominant in the modern era due to European colonialism.

By using the abbreviations BCE and CE to replace BC and AD, scholars subtly subvert a dating system that places a Christian event at the center of all human history. BCE and CE allow scholars to reference historical dates without necessarily acknowledging the historical significance of Jesus’s birth. The erasure of Christ-centered terminology, however, does not completely eliminate Christian bias in this widely accepted chronology. The center of the dating system, whether one should choose BCE/CE or BC/AD, remains the purported date of Jesus’s birth.

  • cook-sarah

    Sarah Cook is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. Her research interests include prophecy in the E-source, the redaction of the Torah, and translation in the ancient world with a specific focus on the Septuagint translation of the Torah.