CE or not CE? Rethinking the Way We Number Years

As we turn the year from Dragon to Snake in the Chinese calendar, it might be a good time to reflect on how we name years.  Specifically, Western academic types might want to revisit the practice of using the designators CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era).  There are other calendars in common use across the globe.  Currently it is 169 BE (Bahá’í), 1375 ME (Burmese), 1935 SS (Indian national), 5114 KY (Krishnic), etc.  These numbers are just conventions, and they are all relative to a particular culture.  But with the rapid succession of colonialism, imperialism, and globalism in the last half millennium, the world has largely come to adopt the Christian calendar as normative.  The increasing usage of “CE” and “BCE” in the place of “AD” and “BC” among the culturally sensitive reflects a recognition that the Christian reckoning is not the only one available.  Still, by using these softer terms, I have to wonder if a Christian delineation of time is stealthily entrenching itself, and if there is another alternative available to those who want year numbers to reflect a common trans-cultural humanity.  If not, it finally might be time to call a spade a spade and refer to the “Common Era” as what it really is – Anno Domini.

“CE” (which can be traced back to 17th century descriptions of a “vulgar” or common period following the incarnation of Christ) is a contentious term.  The “C” is sometimes taken as representing “Christian” or “current,” though historically and officially it stands for “common.”  But there is a significant problem with this – most other calendars also refer to the current age as the common era as distinct from a historical or pre-historical epoch which preceded year 0 (or 1).  So when we use “CE,” we really mean “CCE,” the Christian Common Era.

There have been a number of attempts to distance year designations from specific references to the Christ event.  “CE / BCE” is the most prominent, but computer-savvy readers might know 2013 better as year 43 of the Unix calendar.  However, this simply refers to the number of years since January 1, 1970, itself a reference to the supposed date of the Christ event (use of the “Holocene” or “human” dating system has the same problem, as does the “International Fixed Calendar”).  Others might want to point out that the “CE” designation does not refer to the Julian dating system in place during the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but the current Gregorian calendar is simply Pope Gregory XIII’s revision of the older calendar named after Julius Cæsar.  Some may prefer to use the Hebrew calendar (it is now year 5773), but there are two problems with this.  First, since the year refers to the number of years since the creation of the world, there is no real concept of negative numbers, which precludes reference to geological time or even dating such events as the last ice age, the migration of people to North America, and the developments of agriculture and writing (all between 8,000 and 16,000 years ago).  Second, the dating itself is not originally Jewish but Christian.  The influential rabbi Moses Maimonides codified the current Jewish calendar in 1187, but based it on traditional anno mundi (years since creation) dating developed centuries earlier by Christians.

So why not just use AD and BC?  If that’s what we mean, why can’t that be what we say?  Can’t there just be standard conversion tables for finding dates in other traditional calendars?  There are a few problems here as well.  First, some calendars are not linear but circular (Chinese and Mayan).  Converting between linear and cyclical time is difficult, and privileging the former over the latter already displays a cultural bias.  Second, some calendars are not based on solar years but lunar – an Islamic year is only about 97% the length of a Gregorian year, and the Islamic leap days do not correct for the sliding solar position of the Islamic calendar.  Third, the terms AD and BC have a problematic history.  They originated in the sixth century with a Balkan monk named Dennis the Dwarf who wanted Christians to move away from a calendar based on the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the last major persecutor of Christians.  Dennis’s system was popularized by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, but the dating of the birth of Christ was largely unchallenged.  Modern scholars date Jesus’ birth between 6 BC and 4 AD, typically prior to 2 BC (to say nothing of tying Christmas to the winter solstice instead of the common new year).  If Jesus was not born in the first year “of our Lord,” the last year after the “before Christ” era, then AD and BC are historically problematic.  But the problems with the Christian dating system are compounded when one considers that time is not merely divided into solar years.

The names of days and months are also culturally relative.  For example, all seven days in the English are named after Norse or Roman gods, as are the months of January (Janus), March (Mars), May (Maia), and June (Juno).  The number of days in a week is derived from the Genesis narrative and thus relative to Judeo-Christianity.  It is true that there are approximately four seven-day periods in a lunar month, but seven is by no means an obvious number of days for a week to include (as the Igbo, Ancient Egyptian, French Revolutionary, and Stalinist weeks show).  Further, even if days, weeks, and months are ignored, there is still no consensus on when in a solar cycle to begin a year.  For the Eastern Orthodox the new year begins on September 1; in Western Christian liturgy the year starts on the first Sunday in Advent; the Jewish Rosh HaShana is the first day of Tishrei (typically in September); the Iranian new year begins at the vernal equinox.  But the problem of days, weeks, and months collapses into the problem of years since most civilizations – with the notable exception of Islam – have developed lunisolar calendars.  In other words, while most civilizations take the period of the moon’s rotation around the earth as the basis for a “month,” they adjust their months through the intercalation of leap days, leap months, calendar corrections, or adding days to certain months to make a “year” correspond roughly to a solar year.  The important question, therefore, is how to number solar years, and this returns us to the CE-BCE global consensus.

Even the Jewish and Christian bibles use a different calendar style: regnal years.  Biblical years do not use the absolute linear continuum of the Gregorian calendar, but rather refer to the reigns of local monarchs.  The Assyrian siege of Samaria is dated to “the fourth year of King Hezekiah [of Judah], which was the seventh year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel” (2 Kings 18:9).  John the Baptist began preaching “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee” (Luke 3:1).  Regnal years are still in place today: it is currently year 61 of Elizabeth II in the British regnal calendar and 25 Heisei in the Japanese imperial calendar.  The US Constitution is dated with both Christian and pseudo-regnal dating systems: “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth.”

So what is the best way to count years?  Lunar, solar, or lunisolar?  The latter makes the most sense as seasons are dictated by the sun and tides are dictated by the moon.  Regnal, cyclical, or linear?  The third allows for a universal mapping of history which avoids the relativism of the first and the chronological ambiguity of the second.  Absolute (time is traced back to its beginning) or “pivot” (time is measured in years before or after a specific event)?  Since astrophysicists allow a 59 million year margin of uncertainty in their dating of the age of the universe, a pivot system is probably better.  Thus, the CE-BCE system (which is functionally lunisolar, linear, and pivoting) seems to be on the right track.  But it is arbitrary, tied to Dennis the Dwarf’s calculation of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Christian Trinity.  Would another “year 1” be more universally relevant?  It is currently the 1933rd year since the destruction of Pompeii following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  It is also the 785th year since the death of Genghis Khan, the 563rd year since Gutenberg developed the printing press, and the 109th year since the Wright brothers’ first flight.  A number of existing calendars pivot around prominent events: in the Bengali calendar it is the 1419th year since Shashanka unified Gauda; in the Juche calendar it is the 102nd year since the birth of Kim Il Sung; in the Tranquility calendar it is the 44th year since humans landed on the moon.  So what year is it?  2013?  1419?  785?  109?  All pivot calendars are going to have an arbitrary year 1.  Those who want to switch language from AD-BC to CE-BCE are trying to avoid the Christocentrism of the Gregorian calendar and be sensitive to the histories of non-Christian cultures.  But their pivot is still Dennis the Dwarf’s dating of the Incarnation of Christ.  Saying that the birth of Jesus marks the “common” era is just as confessional as saying that it marks the first year “of our Lord,” yet it hides under a pretense to objectivity, sensitivity, or universality.  When we ignore hegemonies they do not go away; they just go underground where they can live forever.  If we really want to decouple the human reckoning of time from the history of Christianity, perhaps we should pick a different calendar.  And if not, perhaps we should be honest and simply use the terms AD and BC.

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3 thoughts on “CE or not CE? Rethinking the Way We Number Years

  1. This using BCE and CE has always seemed rather silly to me for the very reason you state. It’s still based on Jesus.
    We really do need to find a new calendar or just relax and go back to AD and BC. But then, maybe I’m just showing my advanced age and what I’m used to.

  2. I agree with your well argued point, that CE, and BCE are still “based on Jesus” and to that effect are not doing anything different, are still “confessional.” It demonstrates to what degree Western culture is shaped by western Christianity and ancient traditions. I still find using CE and BCE helpful in keeping me mindful of shared history. I think it is more sensitive to recognizing Christianities complicity in superceding aspects of Judaism.
    Perhaps picking a different calender is a way of naming the hegemony, but I question the practicality of it, nor the possibility of other more “neutral” calendars to choose from. I have observed that my Muslim and Jewish and Orthodox christian colleagues are capable of navigating their schedules through multiple calendars simultaneously, as well as friends in Iran who navigate Islamic, western and Persian calendars. The Ontario Multifaith Council has published a calendar that similarly attempts to integrate the multiple religious calendars in a way that visibly keeps one mindful of what persons of the other religions are doing/celebrating/mourning on a given day. Having this multifaith calendar in front of me daily helps sensitize me to the fact that while the government of my country may have made provisions for me to take time off of work on my religious holidays, for my neighbors of other faiths, their holidays are going on without wider cultural/workplace/government recognition. Instead of adopting a different calendar I have thought advocacy for either a broader public recognition and accommodation of other religious calendars is in order, or, to de-privilege the accommodation of western Christian religious holidays in the public sphere is in order.

  3. I really appreciate your insistence that the current terminology for dating is just as contentious as the old standard AD/BC. However, I wish you had included a more detailed plan to rectify this disparity. How do we find a new calendar system conducive to all? In the midst of very good information, the practical application is missing.

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