The Gregorian calendar is the worldwide standard for measuring dates. Despite originating from the Western Christian tradition, its use has spread throughout the world and now transcends religious, cultural, and linguistic boundaries.
As most people know, the Gregorian calendar is based on the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ. subsequent years count from this event and are accompanied by ad or ce, while previous years count backwards and are accompanied by bc or bce.
but what is the difference between ad and ce, or bc and bce? do they mean the same thing, and if so, which one should we use? this article provides an overview of these competing systems.
bc and announcement
The idea of counting the years since the birth of Jesus Christ was first proposed in the year 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, a Christian monk. Standardized under the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the system spread throughout Europe and the Christian world during the following centuries. ad means anno domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”, while bc means “before Christ”.
bce and ce
ce means “common (or current) era”, while bce means “before common (or current) era”. these abbreviations have a shorter history than bc and ad, although they still date from at least the early eighteenth century. They have been used frequently by Jewish scholars for over 100 years, but became more widespread in the late 20th century, replacing bc/ad in various fields, especially science and academia.
why have some people adopted bce/ce?
an important reason for adopting bce/ce is religious neutrality. Since the Gregorian calendar has replaced other calendars to become the international standard, members of non-Christian groups may object to the explicitly Christian origins of AC and AD. Particularly problematic is ad (“in the year of the Lord”), and its unavoidable implication that the Lord in question is Jesus Christ.
Religious neutrality was the main reason behind the adoption of the ECB/EC by Jewish scholars more than a century ago, and remains its most cited justification. however, others oppose the bc/ad system on the grounds that it is factually inaccurate. It is widely accepted that the actual birth of Jesus occurred at least two years before AD 1, so some argue that explicitly linking the years to an erroneous birth date of Jesus is arbitrary or even misleading. bce/ce avoids this inaccuracy by not explicitly referring to the birth of Jesus, it removes some of the baggage associated with our dating system while also recognizing that the starting point for 1 ce is essentially a convention.
The move to bce/ce has not been universally accepted, and bc/ad is still more widely used, although bce/ce has been in the mainstream since the 1980s. There has been backlash to the adoption of the new system in defense of bc/ad, especially in 2002 when the uk national curriculum transitioned. In 2011, Australian education authorities were forced to deny that such a change had been planned for national school textbooks amid similar controversy sparked by media reports.
Passions are often highest among those who see the adoption of a new system as an attempt to erase Jesus Christ from history. they argue that the entire Gregorian calendar is Christian in nature anyway, so why should we try to hide that fact? others ask why such a well-established and functional system should be replaced, arguing that the existence of two competing abbreviations is likely to cause confusion.
It has also been argued that bce/ce is, in fact, less religiously inclusive than bc/ad. according to some, bce/ce elevates the importance of the birth of christ at the beginning of an entirely new “common era”, while bc/ad is simply a reference to the event.
current status and recommendations
Most style guides do not express a preference for a system, although bc/ad is still prevalent in most journalistic contexts. on the contrary, academic and scientific texts tend to use bce/ce. Since there are compelling arguments for each system and both are used regularly, we do not recommend one over the other. Given the choice, writers are free to apply their own or their audience’s preference, though they must use the chosen system consistently, meaning that bc and ce must not be used together, or vice versa. There are also some typographical conventions to keep in mind:
bc must appear after the numeric year, while ad must appear before it.
1100 BC, 1066 AD
bce and ce must appear after the numeric year.
1100 BC, 1066 AD
As is the case with most initials, periods can be used after each letter.
1100 BC, AD 1066, 1100 BC, 1066 AD
some style guides recommend writing bc, ad, bce, and ce in lowercase.
Of course, writers often don’t need to make any decisions. the bce/ce (or bc/ad) distinction is often unnecessary outside historical contexts, and it is generally understood that when not specified, the year in question is ce (or ad). as a result, dates that occurred in the last few centuries are rarely marked with ce (or ad).