Bob Cargill on BCE/CE vs. BC/AD

Bob Cargill has an article up on Bible and Interpretation discussing the need to abandon the BC/AD designations in favor of the more handy BCE/CE. I, for one, am in perfect agreement, but I’d like to add a couple things Bob does not discuss.

First, most people don’t even use the AD designation correctly to begin with, so it seems odd to me to be dogmatically opposed to abandoning it. The year is supposed to follow AD, not the other way around. It’s AD 1314, not 1314 AD (didn’t you see Braveheart?).

Second, the designation is not an anti-Christian or atheist propaganda campaign. It was not invented by scientists, the Chinese, the Russians, or the Jews. It was invented by Christians in 17th and 18th century Europe. In Latin it is Vulgaris Aerae, and it was used to distinguish the calendar of the common folk from the regnal calendars of royalty. It has been in use for centuries by Christians and others. It is completely harmless, and its use helps to foment a little more unity and respect in a very globalized academic and ecclesiastical community (an ideal with which no one should be at odds). I agree with Bob that it’s irrational to oppose it.


13 responses to “Bob Cargill on BCE/CE vs. BC/AD

  • Nick Norelli

    A long long time ago N. T. Wrong wrote a post on why BCE/CE are nonsense and I agreed with him (whether or not he was serious I don’t know). Unfortunately the post cannot be accessed anymore. I’d ask what exactly is ‘common’ about the era that CE describes? BC/AD are equally as harmless and they actually make sense. I’m sticking with BC/AD.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    That’s certainly your prerogative to stick with BC/AD. I would be interested to see what N. T. Wrong had to say. If you happen across that post please let me know.

    As far as “common” is concerned, it refers to the statistical majority (or popularity) of those not using the aristocratic designation. The royalty, in the minority, used one system, while everyone else, in the majority, used the common designation. It makes no reference whatsoever to the quality or uniqueness of the era, but rather to the proliferation of the designation. Popular Era would be almost identical, semantically. It’s the same reasoning behind the word “Vulgate,” which is the common (or popular) translation.

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  • exemplar

    N.T. Wrong made a post-colonial argument against BCE/CE. The original post isn’t available but this post includes a quote from N.T. Wrong’s argument and provides some commentary.

    First, the origin of the nomenclature is irrelevant. Even if BCE and CE were invented in the 17th century, it was not widely used in scholarship until historians and archaeologists [relatively] recently adopted it to accomodate, as you said, “a very globalized academic and ecclesiastical community.” Therefore, secularists (or as they would probably prefer to be called, “pluralists”) are indeed responsible for the change, whether or not they actually came up with the system.

    The dating of the calendar is likewise irrelevant. Cargill highlights the historical problems with using Jesus’ birth as the end of BC and the beginning of AD, presumably to deflate zealous Christians who think they are somehow dishonoring Christ by taking his name out of the calendar. Nevertheless, the convention remains a Christian tradition whether or not the dating of Christ’s birth is correct.

    So on the basis of those two irrelevancies, traditionalists’ arguments are rightly oriented against academics and non-Christians who wish to remove Christian tradition out of the calendar which has become a world standard.

    But it is the calendar itself, and not merely the BC/AD designations, which denote Christianity. Therefore keeping of the calendar but not its notation is merely a superficial fix to the challenge of religious pluralism. If we must use a system which satisfies the sensitivities of everyone, let us come up with a new calendar and a new system of dating entirely which is centered on a new agreed-upon starting point.

    Admittedly, this kind of overhaul would be inconvenient at best, if not impossible. And yet to say that switching to BCE/CE is the next best thing sounds to me like saying, “We regret the imposition that Christian traditions have made on global culture and scholarship. In sincerest empathy, we offer this graham cracker as compensation.”

    In other words, if the sensitivities of our pluralistic society are as keen as is commonly asserted, a change in notation only shouldn’t be satisfactory. Methinks its apoogists call for the abandonment of BC/AD more for a show of empathy than for the real thing.

    It may be argued that since many non-Christian cultures have already universally adopted the BCE/CE to their satisfaction, unity can be successfully fomented without rejecting the standard calendar altogether. Yet the contrast between the acceptance of the tradition and the rejection of the tradition’s name is obviously inconsistent. If keeping the Christian calendar is ok, it may rightly be asked, what’s the big deal with changing its designations? It’s like Obama changing the name of the “War on Terror” to the “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

    So in short, Common Era notation is a band-aid fix. If the pluralism of today’s scholarly world really requires a neutral dating system, let’s pay it the respect of a real solution: a new calendar. Until then, let’s keep using BC/AD.

  • Daniel O. McClellan


    Regarding your first point, many of those interested in being more accommodating were not secularists at all. The history of BCE/CE is multifarious and hardly the sole work of non-Christians. In addition, the proximate cause of the contemporary use of BCE/CE is irrelevant to the question of whether Christians are intellectually justified in opposing its use. The term is Christian in origin and therefore has no intrinsically anti-Christian qualities. It’s not particularly anti-Christian to propose a more inclusive paradigm that incorporates a term of Christian origin, no matter whence it comes. In addition, I don’t believe it’s a good position to refuse to be inclusive just because. I stand by my first point that conservative Christians need not feel threatened.

    Regarding your second point, many of those interested in abandoning BC/AD were and are operating under the assertion that it’s inaccurate anyway (Bob Cargill, for example). This undermines the idea that secularists are at the wheel, and also shows that it’s not irrelevant for everyone. It’s important for many.

    Thirdly, those two “irrelevancies” in no way, shape, or form, justify opposition to a more inclusive designation. The argument does not default simply because you arbitrarily declare two points irrelevant.

    I also find it more than a little petty to insist that BCE/CE should by default be abandoned simply because it’s a “band-aid fix” that doesn’t entirely remedy the situation. Of course it doesn’t strike at the root, but to do so would be quite literally humanly impossible. Arguing that we should then, by default, stick to BC/AD is just being patronizing. This isn’t an all or nothing high school debate challenge where the other guy wins because you went over time. It’s not like failure to completely overhaul the system results with, “Oh, well, I guess we just have to leave it like we found it.” That’s just a way to take a weak jab at the opposing perspective.

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  • bobcargill

    daniel, thanx for your comments and thoughts on the issue. you’ve added much to this debate.

    i put together some responses to some of the comments here:

    thanx again!! -bc

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the kind words Bob. I was thinking about putting together a little consolidation of this discussion, but you beat me to it. I think this is an important issue, and it’s good to air it out. Thanks for bringing it up.

  • Lucien Syme

    So Daniel one quick question…

    Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Lucien, I’m not interested in this tangent. This is an academic blog, and I’d like to keep the discussions academic.

  • Tom

    “I agree with Bob that it’s irrational to oppose it.”

    I think that’s a bit of a weird statement. To call an argument irrational is rational, but to call an opposition irrational regardless of the arguments is propaganda.

    I don’t believe the push for a switch to BCE/CE is out of consideration and kindness to non-Christians, but more a statement against Christianity: The system of measurement doesn’t change, the dates don’t change and it’s still all based on the birth of Christ, so what real good does removing His name do?

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