The Origin and History of the BCE/CE Dating System

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published on 27 March 2017

In recent years, a persistent criticism has been leveled against the use of the BCE/CE system (Before the Common or Current Era/Common or Current Era) , rather than BC/AD (Before Christ/Anno Domini or 'Year of Our Lord'), in dating historical events. This designation, it is claimed, is nothing more than an attempt to "remove Christ from the calendar" in keeping with the "subversive" effects of political correctness. The use of BCE/CE, opponents claim, is offensive to Christians who recognize time as dated up to, and away from, the birth of Jesus. Further, it is claimed that BCE/CE makes no sense because it refers to exactly the same event as BC/AD. Those who oppose the use of the "common era" designation also seem to feel that the use of BC/AD is actually stipulated by the Bible or in some way carries biblical authority.

There is no biblical authority for BC/AD; it was created over 500 years after the events described in the Christian New Testament and was not accepted usage until after another 500 years had passed. The use of BCE/CE certainly has become more common in recent years but it is not a new invention of the "politically correct" nor is it even all that new; the use of "common era" in place of A.D.  first appears in German in the 17th century CE and in English in the 18th. The use of this designation in dating has nothing to do with "removing Christ from the calendar" and everything to do with accuracy when dealing with historical events.  

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History of BC/AD

The Hebrew calendar, still in use, is based on a concept known as Anno Mundi ("in the year of the world") which dates events from the beginning of the creation of the earth as calculated through scripture. Ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt based their calendars on the reigns of kings or the cycles of the seasons as set by the gods. In Mesopotamia, for example, one might date an event as "five years from the reign of King Shulgi" and, in Egypt, as "three years after the last Opet Festival of Ramesses who was the second of that name" or, otherwise, "In the 10th year of the reign of Ramesses who triumphed at Kadesh".   This method of dating was continued by the Romans who counted their years according to three different systems in different eras: from the founding of Rome, by which consuls were in power, and by which emperors ruled at a given time.

The use of BCE/CE has nothing to do with "removing Christ from the calendar" & everything to do with historical accuracy.

Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) reformed the calendar and renamed the months during his reign (49-44 BCE). This calendar remained in use, with periodic revisions, until 1582 CE when Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian Calendar still in use in the present day. Christians used the Anno Mundi calendar and the Roman calendar in the early years of the faith. In c. 525 CE, however, a new concept in dating was introduced by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (c. 470-544 CE) which provided the groundwork for the later dating system of BC/AD.

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Dionysius invented the concept of Anno Domini ("in the year of our Lord") in an attempt to stabilize the date of the celebration of Easter. At the time he was working on this problem, Christians of the influential church of Alexandria were dating events from the beginning of the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 CE) who persecuted members of the new faith. Dionysius was seeking to bring the eastern and western churches into agreement on a single day on which all Christians would celebrate Easter.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

This goal had been decided upon by Constantine the Great at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE but had not yet been met. Toward this end, Dionysius changed the system of dating years from the Roman system and the Alexandrian system to his own in which his present era dated from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. His choice also eliminated another problem he found troubling: dating events from the reign of an emperor who had killed so many Christians.

BC/AD & the Bible: Jesus' Birth

The only problem with this dating system was that no one knew when Jesus of Nazareth was born. Dionysius himself did not know when Jesus was born and his system makes no claims at dating that event definitively. He seems to have arrived at his calculations through a reliance on scripture and known history of the time to create a calendar which would be acceptable to both the western and eastern churches of the time in harmonizing the celebration of Easter.

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There is no biblical authority for BC/AD; it was created over 500 years after the events described in the Christian New Testament.

Dionysius never makes the claim that he knew the date of Jesus' birth and no later writer makes that claim for him. He did not begin his efforts at reforming the calendar to accurately date the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; he did it in accordance with the wishes of the pope of the time who wanted Constantine's vision realized. The Easter celebration of the resurrection was considered the most important of the church and Constantine, and those in power who followed him, wanted the event observed by all churches on the same day. It was Dionysius' job to help make this happen and he tried to do so by reforming the calendar; calculating the date of Jesus' birth was a means to this end, not an end in itself.

Using the four gospels to determine Jesus' birth, however, is problematic since the Gospel of John does not agree with the other three and Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not always agree with each other regarding significant events. Scholar Robert R. Cargill explains:

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!

Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.

An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)

The Gospels

Biblical inconsistency was not on Dionysius' mind when he was engaged in his computations, however. He never explains anywhere how he came to his conclusions regarding the date of Jesus' birth and never claims to have dated it accurately. He needed to make the calendar work in accordance with the pope's wishes and he succeeded in doing that.

'The BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years', R.R. Cargill. 

The Common Era

Dionysius is not responsible for the BC/AD designations, however. He was only interested in dating events from the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and this was another aspect of the problem he faced: was one to date Jesus' incarnation from his nativity or from the annunciation? Dionysius also never explains how he resolved this issue. The actual date of Jesus of Nazareth's birth remains unknown.

In Dionysius' work, events after Jesus' incarnation occur in the "year of the Lord" and events prior are not considered. The use of BC/AD to distinguish time periods came later following the publication of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 CE by Bede. The designations of BC/AD appeared in earlier works but Bede's book popularized them and, afterwards, other writers followed suit.  

This was hardly a universally accepted designation, however, and would not become widespread until the reign of Charlemagne (800-814 CE) who instituted the system to standardize dating throughout Europe. Even after Charlemagne's efforts, however, the use of the Anno Domini calendar system was not accepted by every European nation and certainly was not recognized in other parts of the world. It was not until the 15th century CE that Europe adopted the Anno Domini calendar which would then enable Pope Gregory XIII to reform it in the latter part of the next century in 1582 CE.

In the 17th century the term "vulgar era" first appears as a replacement for Anno Domini in the writings of the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630 CE). At this time "vulgar" did not mean "uncouth" but "common" or "ordinary" and was used to designate events previously noted as "in the year of the Lord" or, simply, the present era. The phrase "vulgar era" was then used by writers interchangeably with "after the time of Christ" or "in the common era" which eventually came to be written simply as "common era" and then CE which gave rise to BCE in defining events prior to the common era. The first use of "common era" in English dates to the 1708 publication of The History of the Works of the Learned or An Impartial Account of Books Lately Printed in all Parts of Europe with a Particular Relation of the State of Learning in Each Country printed for one H. Rhodes in London. The phrase appears in a sentence from page 513 which mentions "the fourth century of the common era".

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. 

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries "common era" was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as "the common era of Christ" or "the common era of the Incarnation" until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply "common era".

BCE/CE in the Present Day

The use of BCE/CE in the present day, then, is not an attempt by the "politically correct" to remove Jesus of Nazareth from the calendar but has precedent in history. The usage began when people were questioning received knowledge and forming their own educated opinions about how the world worked and what constituted reliable sources. Kepler uses "vulgar era" at a time when many institutions and understandings were being questioned and among these would have been how Dionysius arrived at his conclusions regarding the date of the birth of Jesus.

BCE/CE continues to be used because it is more accurate than BC/AD. Dionysius had no understanding of the concept of zero and neither did Bede. The calendar they dated events from, therefore, is inaccurate. The year 1 AD would follow 1 BC without a starting point for the new chronology of events. The BC/AD system, from Dionysius onward, was informed by Christian theology which took for granted that someone (Dionysius) actually knew the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth.  In order to date a present event from a past event one must know when that past event occurred. One may say that one is twenty years old only if one knows for certain that one was born twenty years ago on a certain date. Dating events from an uncertain point is inaccurate because one is making an untrue statement based on a false assumption.

By the time people began questioning how Dionysius arrived at the date of Jesus' birth, or whether he was correct, over 1000 years had passed and a great deal of history had been recorded. Since there was no way to undo Dionysius' dating system, the claim that events were dated from Jesus' birth was changed to claim an event happening a certain number of years after Christian tradition supposed  Jesus of Nazareth to have been born. This is more accurate in that one is not making a claim one cannot possibly support. While this dating system does refer to the same event, it does so simply out of necessity because Dionysius' system had been accepted and used for so long in written works. This dating system, like BC/AD, also has no year zero but does not need one because it is not claiming to date history from a specific event.

Aside from being more accurate, BCE/CE is inclusive. The use of BC/AD relegates every event prior to, and since, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth subordinate to the Christian understanding of who he was. For Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the annointed of God, the messiah. The calendar "counts down" to the birth of Jesus and then proceeds to count away from it. To a Christian this may seem like simple common sense and the way the world works but not so to someone outside of that tradition. People of different cultures and belief systems should be able to access and discuss history without having to date it according to the Christian belief in Jesus as the son of God and the messiah.

It is for these reasons that Ancient History Encyclopedia, following standard scholarly guidelines in the 21st century, uses the designation BCE/CE instead of BC/AD. The encyclopedia has an international audience of readers who embrace multiple faiths and recognize many different belief systems. Therefore, Ancient History Encyclopedia has adopted the BCE/CE designation in an effort to be accurate, adhere to scholarly principles, and be inclusive and welcoming to all.


About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2017, March 27). The Origin and History of the BCE/CE Dating System. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/article/1041/

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "The Origin and History of the BCE/CE Dating System." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 27, 2017. http://www.ancient.eu/article/1041/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "The Origin and History of the BCE/CE Dating System." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 27 Mar 2017. Web. 28 May 2017.

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