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 whether to use AD and BC (or A.D. and B.C.) or CE and BCE (C.E., B.C.E.) when referring to dates burns less brightly today than it did in the late 1990s, when the divide was fresh. With some rather heated debate, authors, pundits, scholars, and literary style masters took one side over the other. Decades later, they remain split, but the consensus seems to be that the decision to use one or the other is a personal or organizational preference. The same applies to the use of periods: use or don't use them, based on personal or organizational preference.

The material controversy surrounded the implied religious connotations: CE and BCE are often used by those of faiths and backgrounds who don't worship Jesus, or in contexts where it makes no sense to refer to Christianity—such as in historical research.

AD and CE: the Birth of Jesus

 AD, the abbreviation for the Latin Anno Domini and first used in the 16th century, means "in the year of Our Lord," referring to the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth. CE stands for "Common Era" or, rarely "Christian Era." The word "common" simply means that it is based on the most frequently used calendar system: the Gregorian Calendar. Both take as their starting point the year when 4th century Christian scholars believed Jesus Christ was born, designated as AD 1 or 1 CE.

By the same token, BCE stands for "Before the Common Era," (or Christian Era) and BC means "Before Christ." Both measure the number of years before the approximate birthday of Jesus. The designation of a particular year in either set have identical values. In other words, today Jesus is believed to have been born some where between 4 and 7 BCE, which is equivalent to 4 and 7 BC.

In usage, AD precedes the date, while CE follows the date, whereas both BC and BCE follow the date—so, AD 1492 but 1492 CE, and 1500 BC or 1500 BCE.

William Safire at the Dawn of the Controversy

At the height of the controversy in the late 1990s, the American journalist William Safire (1929–2009), longtime author of "On Language" in The New York Times Magazine, polled his readers 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.

American Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom (born 1930) said: ''Every scholar I know uses B.C.E. and shuns A.D.'' American lawyer and founder of Kol HaNeshamah: The Center for Jewish Life and Enrichment, 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. By nearly 2 to 1, other scholars and some members of the clergy who responded to Safire agreed with Bloom and Berkowitz.

As to everyday citizens, opinions were sharply divided. David Steinberg of Alexandria, Va., said he found BCE ''a strained innovation requiring explanation in most of America.'' 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.''

Safire himself decided to stick with BC; "because Christ, in American usage, refers directly to Jesus of Nazareth as if it were his last name and not a title conferring Messiah-hood," but he chose to not use A.D. Dropping any notation at all for years in the common era, Safire said: "Dominus means 'lord,' and when the lord referred to is Jesus, not God, a religious statement is made. Thus, 'the year of Our Lord'' invites the query 'Whose lord?' and we're in an argument we don't need."

Style Guides on Religious Neutrality

The choice may be up to you and your style guide. The 17th edition of the "Chicago Manual of Style (published in 2017) suggests that the choice is up to the writer and should be flagged only if the customs of a specific field or community are being violated:

"Many authors use BC and AD because they are familiar and conventionally understood. Those who want to avoid reference to Christianity are free to do so." 

In terms of secular journalism, the 2019 version of the Associated Press Stylebook uses B.C. and A.D. (using the periods); as does the fourth edition of the UPI Style Guide, published in 2004. The use of BC and BCE is commonly found in articles concerning academic and lay historical research—including ThoughtCo.com—but not exclusively.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the entire BBC has not dropped the use of AD/BC, but its Religion & Ethics department, which prides itself on providing religion-neutral stories, has: 

"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, B.C.E./C.E. (Before Common Era/Common Era) are used as a religiously neutral alternative to B.C./A.D."

-Edited by Carly Silver

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