BC, BCE, and the hypocrisy of academic dating

Fighting between dating systems

One indicator of changing attitudes to Christianity is the lessening degree of outrage over the evergreen argument about replacing BC/AD with BCE/CE in dates. Yesterday’s Telegraph had the latest iteration of this hardy perennial. It was a relatively restrained and educational account, despite a word from zombie archbishop George Carey.

A number of [school] authorities have already adopted the policy, while several more are reported to be considering making the switch from the traditional to the more politically-correct chronological form compulsory.

Compare this with the version in the Evening Standard some 15 years ago, and one can see that a choleric splutter is on its way to becoming a resigned shrug.

In what could be seen as their greatest victory to date, politically correct campaigners have succeeded in getting schools to scrap the Christian calendar.

The traditional Western system is not without its problems: not least that Jesus of Nazareth was probably born some 4 years before Christ. But the alternatives have their problems too.

For me, the biggest objection to replacing BC/AD with BCE/CE is that it is fundamentally dishonest. For better or worse, we have a global dating system because the world was pretty much conquered by Christian imperialist powers who could enforce European Christendom norms on the rest of the globe. Calling the time since the approximate date of Jesus’ birth “Common Era” as though this is a matter of mutual agreement, and nothing to do with a particular history of faith and conquest, is simply untrue.

In functional terms, the Christian system is no better or worse than the Muslim, Jewish or any other. We could even all decide to add 753 to all our dates and go back to the mythical AUC (from the foundation of the city – ab urbe condita) of the Roman Empire. However, we are where we are because of a very specific Christian history that indelibly stamped its mark on the globe.

Yes, it can be replaced, but replacing it with a somewhat fraudulent name, while keeping the same dating system seems to me to be simply an act of intellectual dishonesty. It is a refusal to acknowledge the imperialist and religious history which has brought us to this point.

There is no common dating system based on anything other than historical contingency, and surely it is better honestly to acknowledge the specific stories and circumstances which have shaped the world in which we live, like it or lump it, than to gloss the often bloody reality with this seemingly objective and thinly consensual patina of neutrality.

8 Replies to “BC, BCE, and the hypocrisy of academic dating”

    1. It’s one I could live with – but arguably the Christian Era doesn’t begin till around 313 AD / CE

      1. “Christian Era” doesn’t mean “Era of Christian dominance” (which in global terms wouldn’t begin until well over 1,000 years after 313 CE), but “Era deriving from Christian traditions”. Nothing hypocritical about it at all. I don’t use “AD” because I don’t regard Jesus as my lord, so apart from anythnig else, it would be hypocritical of me to do so. I have no objection at all to Christians continuing to use “AD” if they wish.

        1. As I say – I could live with (Before the) Christian Era. It is the use of the word “Common” I indict as hypocritical, in seeking to avoid the fact that this dating system is inextricably tied to the Christian faith, and is only common by virtue of historical accident and imperial conquest.

          1. But that’s not what the OP says. It objects to CE/BCE without distinguishing between the two possible interpretations of those abbreviations. Which rather gives the impression – given how easy it is to discover the “Christian Era” alternative and to understand what is meant by it (i.e., acknowledging the era’s origin in Christian traditions without assuming everyone agrees with the meaning of “AD”) – that, like the Telegraph, you’re just looking for something to complain about.

            1. That would be because in the last 20 years I have never heard anyone in the UK explain the acronym other than as “Common Era” – other English speaking countries may do other things.

            2. I live in the UK. The first known use of “Christian Era” in English <A href="https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A24778.0001.001?view=toc"dates from 1652, in a book printed in London (England, not Ontario).

              Incidentally, there’s no reason to think “Jesus was probably born some four years” BCE. He might have been. Or he might have been born in 10 BCE or 1 CE or 5 CE. The idea he was born around 4 BCE seems to derive from the fact that Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and gLuke claims he was born during Herod’s reign. But that’s pretty obviously nothing more than a retcon, like the incompatible birth narrative in gMatthew, to justify the claim that Jesus, a Galilean, was born in Bethlehem as the Messiah was supposed to be.

            3. Usage of the phrase “Christian Era” is irrelevant to my point: that I have seen no-one, writing in a broadly academic context in the UK over the last 20 years, explain BCE/CE as anything other than Before the Common Era / Common Era. It may happen, but it is in my experience vanishingly rare, and plenty of people who use the phrase “Christian Era” use it (or would have used it) in conjunction with AD and BC as a dating system, not least in 1652.

              And while there is no fully secure reason for dating Jesus’s birth to 4 BC(E), the only sources we have (however tendentious) Matthew and Luke, reference a birth in the rule of Herod. How useful that is depends whether one goes with the majority view among scholars that Matthew and Luke are independent, or the minority view that Luke knows Matthew. However, at least in the former case, since their accounts are incompatible on most details, the non-theological details on which they are compatible should at least be given a hearing. The birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod neither weakens nor strengthens any theologically motivated or reinforced claim for Bethlehem. That dating is, of course, entirely irrelevant to the point I was making.

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