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Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System



By Robert R. Cargill
Center for the Digital Humanities,

Qumran Visualization Project

UCLA

September 2009


I have heard every argument. I have read every justification. And I have spent far too much time on Wikipedia changing BCs and ADs back to BCEs and CEs. It is a centuries-old argument that some maintain is integral to one’s identity as a Christian. Despite the rise of science, Christians have used—and many times have insisted upon—the continued use of the labels “AD” and “BC” to designate calendrical years, and thereby portray human history as directly relative to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But in our modern world of scientific reason and religious plurality, the battle over whether or not to use the increasingly accepted international scientific standard of BCE (“Before Common Era”) and CE (“Common Era”) has not waned, but rather has intensified. However, it is time for this battle to end; Christians should leave behind the BC/AD labels and adopt the BCE/CE dating system for all calendrical references.


Christians have offered many reasons for maintaining the BC/AD system. Many Christians perceive the BCE/CE system to be an affront to Christianity. They see the system as an attempt to eliminate “Christ” from the calendar, just as many reject the expression “x-mas” for removing “Christ” from Christmas. Some simply appeal to arguments of tradition and familiarity with the system. Still many other Christians object to the “scientific” origin of this designation. For whatever reason, be it an aversion to natural selection and evolution, the debunking or explanation of many so-called “miracles,” or a bad grade in a freshman biology class, some Christians cling to the BC/AD system because of the symbolic superiority they feel it offers its adherents over science. Because when all else fails, one can always deny the facts and use different labels (i.e., “intelligent design”).


There are, however, several excellent reasons for Christians to leave behind the BC/AD dating system. In fact, the use of BC and AD causes more problems for Christians than it solves. For one, it perpetuates the stereotype that Christians are arrogant tyrants who insist on couching all of human history (including Jewish, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, etc.) as relative to the birth of Christ. Rather than living the lives of humble servants that their Bible calls them to do, many Christians maintain that all history should be subject to their own religious claims. Even the period of history that took place before Jesus supposedly came to earth is relegated to mere anticipatory events prior to the birth of Jesus.


However, this insistence upon subjecting all of human history to one’s own religious interpretation opens Christians up to accusations of sectarian fundamentalism. Every time Christians insist upon the BC/AD dating system, they open the door to claims by adherents to other faiths that wish to impose their own relative dating system upon society. Jews will claim that the year 2009 is actually year 5770 (based on the supposed date of the creation of the earth in the Jewish tradition), while Muslims will insist that we are in year 1430 (AH = Anno Hajiri, or the year of the pilgrimage (“hajj”) of the Prophet Muhammad). By adopting a BCE/CE system, we avoid any haggling over religious origins of calendrical dates.


Adopting the BCE/CE also allows us to avoid having to re-date significant periods in the world’s history. The “Common Era” dating system uses the same dates as the “Anno Domini” (“Year of our Lord”) system, which designates dates as either “Before Christ” (BC), or “Anno Domini” (AD). Because the BCE/CE system utilizes the same dates as the BC/AD system, no alteration of historical dates is necessary; only a change of the label is needed to convert BC/AD to BCE/CE.


But, the continued insistence upon the BC/AD system causes even bigger theological and historical problems for Christians, problems of which many Christians are not even aware. These theological and historical problems are accentuated by the continued use of the BC/AD system.


Our present calendar is based upon the Gregorian calendar of 1582 CE (named after Pope Gregory XIII), which was a reform of the earlier Julian calendar of 45 BCE (named after Julius Caesar). The labels BC and AD were added in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, who used them to compute the date of Easter. However, Dionysius miscalculated, and this error has been retained in the BC/AD system. While the Gregorian calendar accurately represents years of 365.25 days, Dionysius’ calculations skipped the year zero, jumping immediately from the year 1 BC to the year 1 AD. The result is a calendar that claims to be based upon the birth of Jesus, but which skips the first year of his life.


But besides the absence of the first year CE from our present calendar, an even greater problem exists with the BC/AD system: Jesus was not born in year zero. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!


Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.


An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. Was Jesus born about around 7 BCE under the reign of Herod the Great as Matthew states, or was Jesus born about 6 CE under the reign of Quirinius, long after Herod the Great had died as Luke contends?


Insisting that the world use a calendar based upon the birth of Jesus only exacerbates the internal biblical inconsistencies of dating the birth of Jesus. Therefore, it would be better for all people—Christians and non-Christians alike—to adopt the BCE/CE system of dating. While it was originally supposedly based upon the date of Jesus’ birth, it in fact was not, but is rather loosely tied to events in the Roman Empire during that time that we can arbitrarily refer to as the beginning of a modern, common era. The BC/AD system no more accurately reflects the reality of Jesus’ life than does Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.


Thus, it is time for Christians to let go of the inaccurate, and to many, offensive BC and AD calendar labels and adopt the BCE/CE system. If using BC and AD to designate calendrical dates is the central identifier of a person as a Christian, then that person has bigger problems than an insistence upon a calendar. Likewise, adopting the BCE/CE system allays the discrepancies of the chronologies of Jesus’ life, while the archaic BC/AD system only highlights them. The BCE/CE system is the de facto dating system for the scientific community, joining the metric system as a standard that peoples of all nations and faiths can accept. This dating system is also the most widely used system outside of the scientific community. The BCE/CE system requires no conversions and no re-dating of historical events; only the renaming of BC to BCE and AD to CE is needed. And, as has been demonstrated above, because the AD/BC system is not actually based upon the birth of Jesus, but is rather off by approximately 7 years, there is no concern from non-Christian peoples to be suspicious of being surreptitiously forced into adopting a dating system based upon the life of Christ.


In the end, it is better to allow the calendar to arbitrarily differentiate the Common Era from the period Before the Common Era, and let Christians demonstrate their faith in some more meaningful way than simply insisting upon a particular set of calendar labels.