Some prefer secular alternatives to B.C. and A.D.


In the beginning, there were B.C. and A.D.

Now, as the 20th century draws to a close, things are not so clear-cut.

Not only is there a question about when the 21st century actually begins -- on the first day of January 2000 or the following year -- but some historians and others also are replacing B.C. and A.D. with the designations C.E. and B.C.E.

The designation B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for In the Year of the Lord) date to 527 years after the birth of Christ and are still widely used. But some academics and religious scholars are using B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) to denote historical periods without reference to a date that may be significant only in the Christian world.

For example, a recent History Channel documentary on the Celtic people used the Common Era designations, and so did an A&E; series on "Mysteries of the Bible."

But in "The Encyclopedia of World Facts and Dates," Gorton Carruth uses the more traditional abbreviations, which he refers to as "the conventional chronology."

Carruth also delves into ancient history with the abbreviation "B.P." -- Before Present -- used by scientists and others to describe the period from the Big Bang, about 15 billion years B.P., to the time of the earliest known civilizations in Mesopotamia, around 5000 B.C.

It's difficult to tell how widely C.E. and B.C.E. are used, says Hugh Elton, visiting assistant professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Elton, who teaches ancient history, says those designations are not in wide use in history textbooks, particularly Roman history.

Elton uses B.C. and A.D., "partly because that's how I was trained. It's quite variable among students in papers. Many use C.E. and B.C.E., but some use the other ones."

The "common era" abbreviations, he says, change only the label for the date reference. "The dating system is still based on Christianity." (And he notes, "If you ask anyone what A.D. actually means, most people get a bit hazy on that one.")

Hugh Lee, a classics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, says he noticed C.E. and B.C.E. being used back in the 1980s.

He uses the traditional designations B.C. and A.D., but he imposes no preference on his students.

Lee, who is of Chinese ancestry, attended Catholic schools from third grade through college in Hawaii and California. He says he's never been troubled by the Christian roots of the time designations, but "I can see how some people can become emotional about it. ...I hope it's not going to become a divisive issue. It seems there are more important things to fight about. But you never know with these things."

For Jews, the A.D. designation is a sticking point.

"My guess is the problem with the A.D. comes to the core of the split between Judaism and Christianity," that is, the question of Christ being the divine savior, says Steven Fraade, professor of the history of Judaism and chairman of the religious studies department at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Christ is regarded as a prophet, teacher and holy man in the Jewish faith, but Jews do not view him as the Messiah.

Jewish scholars have used the B.C.E. and C.E. designations for a long time, but the abbreviations' meanings have changed over the years.

Fraade says he noticed in a copy of a standard English-Hebrew Bible, published in the 1930s in England, B.C.E. defined as "Before the Christian Era" and uses A.C.E. for "After the Christian Era."

"Common Era," however, is becoming more common.

Pub Date: 4/16/98

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