Anno Domini or Common Era?

Anno Domini or Common Era?
Anno Domini or Common Era?

Since about 1975, a sign of revolution has crept into American life. It is a quiet revolution, done without fanfare. To many, it may appear to be trivial. They likely bought into it because it appears to be the way to get along.

It is the replacement of the abbreviations B.C. and A.D. with B.C.E. and C.E.

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B.C., as most know, means “Before Christ” and refers to events that occurred before the birth of Jesus. A.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Anno Domini”, which is usually translated into English as “in the year of Our Lord.”

This usage appears to have started with a sixth century monk named Dionysius. Until that time, the most common form of dating in Europe was to connect the year in question with the monarch of the time that the event happened. For instance, “the third year of the reign of Alexander,” would designate an event happening about three years after Alexander came to the throne.

That worked well enough for people who lived in small groups and stayed in the same place. However, it could be very difficult for those few who did business in various empires, countries, principalities, or duchies.

However, what motivated Dionysius was determining the correct date of Easter, an event celebrated throughout Christendom. To correctly create a table that would tell one when Easter would occur in the future, one could not base it upon the reign of some emperor, king, prince, or duke as yet unborn.

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To solve this problem, Dionysius decided to use the reign of the greatest king of all, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the system still in use was born. There is still some dispute as to whether Dionysius dated the actual birth of Christ as December 25, 1 B.C. or December 25, A.D. 1, but that is not important here.

This system of dating took hold unevenly across Christendom, but it eventually became the standard; the last holdout, Portugal, switching over in 1422.[1]Other terms to describe this era were used by various academics – common era being one of them, but there was no doubt as to the fact that the dating began with the birth of Christ.

At some point in the early nineteenth century, academics compared Dionysius’s dating with that in use during the Roman Empire. They found that King Herod, who slaughtered the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem would have died before the birth of Christ. This was obviously an impossibility, and out of that grew the idea that Jesus was probably born about the year 4 B.C., but the current system was too well established to be changed at that point.

There are debates as to when the terms B.C.E. and C.E. were first used with the intent to replace B.C. and A.D., but the trend has been up considerably since the mid-seventies. For those who have seen the deliberate attempt to remove any references to Christianity in modern society, the reason for the switch presents no real mystery.

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Of course, many people didn’t even notice the change. What little confusion it caused among readers and students would be cleared up by the context in which the date is used. Secularists and atheists support the change according to their understanding of the “separation of Church and State.” Others, including the publishers of books intended for Catholic audiences embraced it as a way of showing their desire to be inclusive. The casual will argue, “What’s the difference? It is only a matter of changing a couple of letters.”

Of course, there is a difference – and it goes to the centrality of the greatest event in human history – the birth, life, and death of Our Lord. Those who follow Christ should adamantly defend Him since He is more than the center of Christian lives, but the center of history as well.

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It would be foolish to cite such an argument to non-Christians, who would probably see such a change as a correction to an unfortunate situation. There is another argument against this change, and it argues that a child educated from the beginning to use the abbreviations B.C.E. and C.E. would actually know less than those trained in the use of B.C. and A.D. The numbers would stay the same, but the student would have no idea why those numbers are used.

However, Christians need not have no such qualms. They see the change for what it is – yet another attempt to excise Christ from the culture. As such, it must be resisted.



[1]Norman Roth (2013). Calendar. In Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia(page 190). Abingdon UK: Routledge. July 24, 2018.