Should We Use A.D. or C.E.?

A.D., Anno Domini, refers to the birth of Christ; C.E. means 'Common Era'

Here's a Roman calendar...they probably didn't use A.D. or C.E. Calendar of Numa/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The controversy over A.D. versus C.E. and its kindred B.C. versus B.C.E. burns less brightly today than it did in the late 1990s, when the divide was fresh. With some ado, authors, pundits, scholars and literary style masters took one side over the other. After 20 years, they remain split, but the consensus seems to be that this point comes down to personal or organizational preference. 

The only "should" is your own conscience or your organization's stated preference.

A.D., the abbreviation for the Latin anno Domini first used in 1512, means "in the year of the Lord," referring to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. C.E. stands for "Common Era." Both take as their starting point the year when Jesus Christ was born. In writing these forms, A.D. precedes the date, while C.E. follows the date, while both B.C. and B.C.E. follow the date. C.E./B.C.E. are often used in deference to those of different faiths and backgrounds who don't worship Jesus. 

Year 0 for both A.D. and C.E.: the Birth of Jesus

Both [A.D. and C.E.] measure the number of years since the approximate birthday of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) a little over two millennia ago, says the website ReligiousTolerance.org. C.E. and A.D. have the same value. That is 1 C.E. is the same as 1 A.D., and 2017 C.E. equals 2017 A.D. The word "common" simply means that it is based on the most frequently used calendar system: the Gregorian Calendar.

By the same token, says the same website, B.C.E stands for "Before the Common Era," and B.C. means "Before Christ." Both measure the number of years before the approximate birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. The designation of a particular year in either B.C. and B.C.E. also have identical values. For example, Jesus is believed to have been born circa 4 to 7 B.C.E., which is equivalent to 4 to 7 B.C.

The "Abbreviations Dictionary" presents a third option. It interprets the letter "C" in C.E. and B.C.E. as "Christian" or "Christ's," in place of "Common." "C.E." then becomes "Christian Era," and "B.C.E." becomes "Before the Christian Era."

William Safire at the Dawn of the Controversy

The great William Safire, longtime author of "On Language" in the "New York Times Magazine," polled his readers at the onset of the controversy in the late 1990s about their preference: Should it be B.C./A.D. or B.C.E/C.E., in deference to Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians? "Disagreement was sharp," he said.

Yale professor Harold Bloom boomed: ''Every scholar I know uses B.C.E. and shuns A.D.'' Lawyer Adena K. Berkowitz, who , in her application to practice before the Supreme Court was asked if she preferred "in the year of our Lord" on the certificate's date, chose to omit it. ''Given the multicultural society that we live in, the traditional Jewish designations—B.C.E. and C.E.—cast a wider net of inclusion, if I may be so politically correct,'' she told Safire.

David Steinberg of Alexandria, Va., said he found B.C.E. ''a strained innovation requiring explanation in most of America.'' And, "with the Muslim view," Khosrow Foroughi of Cranbury, N.J., spoke of calendars: ''Jews and Muslims have their own calendars.

Muslims have a lunar calendar reckoned from A.D. 622, the day after the Hegira, or flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. The Jewish calendar is also a lunar one and is the official calendar of the State of Israel....The Christian or Gregorian calendar has become the second calendar in most non-Christian countries, and as this is the Christian calendar, I cannot see why 'before Christ' and 'in the year of our Lord' would be objectionable.'' To the contrary, said John Esposito of Georgetown, a leading student of Islam: " 'Before the Common Era' is always more acceptable.''

Style Guides on Religious Neutrality

The choice may be up to you and your style guide. The latest "Chicago Manual of Style" says, "The choice...is up to the writer and should be flagged only if the customs of a specific field or community seem to be in danger of being (unwittingly) violated.

"Many authors use B.C. and A.D. because they are familiar and conventionally understood. Those who want to avoid reference to Christianity are free to do so." 

In contrast, though, the BBC clearly came down on the side of C.E.: "As the BBC is committed to impartiality, it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians. In line with modern practice, BCD/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era) are used as a religiously neutral alternative to BC/AD."

-Edited by Carly Silver