Christ versus the Common Era

This semester at uni I’m taking two Classics & Ancient History units and, a few lectures in, I noticed something odd: one of my lecturers uses the traditional ‘BC – AD’ dating system while the other uses the modern, secularized ‘BCE – CE’. Nobody’s actually mentioned this, and I can only assume the faculty doesn’t have an official stance, but it led me to wondering which system I think I should be using. BC – AD is the one I learnt  in junior school, and I can recall thinking at the time that it was a bit odd to count the years from the birth of one individual, when the year didn’t even start on his birthday. Later in high school I heard about the secular system and automatically decided it was much better. Why, after all, did we need to have religion getting up in our history study? So I switched over. But it was difficult to remember, especially when all my history books and the documentaries on TV still used the old system. What’s more, now that it was outdated I found myself becoming rather fond of it. Talking about how many years something was ‘before common era’ just didn’t have the same ring to it as saying that it happened in the year 44 ‘before Christ’. And so, inadvertently, I reverted. Then I didn’t think about it until the problem confronted me again at uni. It was better to use one system consistently in my assignments, but which one? Should I go traditional and outdated or modern and slightly awkward? I sat down and had a think about which made more logical sense.

On the face of it, it seemed that in this secular era, historians and history students should get with the times and start using a secular system of dating. After all, it wasn’t particularly important how long something happened before or after the birth of Christ (except in Biblical history, obviously) – it was just a way of understanding things relative to other events. But then again, if we all started using BCE and CE, it wouldn’t change the fact that we were dating things from the advent of Jesus. After all, this being the year 2015 is not as universally agreed upon as we would like to think. The Jewish calendar holds it to be 5774 while the Muslim one has it at 1436 AH (Anno Hegirae). During the French revolution, the Republic redesigned its time-keeping system entirely, and started over with our 1792 as their year I of Liberty. I realised that keeping time relative to Christ’s birth is actually important, in a socio-cultural sense. If we really wanted history to be secular, we should keep count from the earliest datable record, or something like that. So having followed this dilemma to its logical conclusion, I’ve decided that I’ll stick to using BC and AD. I think it’s better to be clear that we are, in fact, dating history from the birth of Jesus, than to keep the Christian system in place and call it secular.

On a side note, I’m now wondering why we use BC (Before Christ) in conjunction with AD (Anno Domini). Is there any reason that one part is in English and the other in Latin? Come to think of it, what do they use in other languages? Some investigation is in order.

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One thought on “Christ versus the Common Era

  1. An interesting debate and obliquly reminiscent of the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. When the switch was made, necessitating a loss of days for the adjustment, peasants were reportedly up in arms crying ‘give us back our days you thieves!’. In relation to the present argument, I can envisage die-hard Christians crying out ‘give us back our Christ you thieves!’. Understandings, prejudices, cultural imperatives and global secularisation will all have an impact on preferred nomenclature. For me personally, the bigger question that transcends nomenclature is why this man Christ? What was so special about him that caused time to be measured from his birth (although true, inaccurately calibrated) forward? How was this man able to bring about ‘the beginning of time’?

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