BC and AD, BCE and CE: What’s the Difference?
The Gregorian calendar is the global standard for the measurement of dates. Despite originating in the Western Christian tradition, its use has spread throughout the world and now transcends religious, cultural and linguistic boundaries.
As most people are aware, the Gregorian calendar is based on the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ. Subsequent years count up from this event and are accompanied by either AD or CE, while preceding years count down from it and are accompanied by either BC or BCE.
But what is the difference between AD and CE, or BC and BCE? Do they mean the same thing, and, if so, which should we use? This article provides an overview of these competing systems.
BC and AD
The idea to count years from the birth of Jesus Christ was first proposed in the year 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, a Christian monk. Standardized under the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the system spread throughout Europe and the Christian world during the centuries that followed. AD stands for Anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”, while BC stands for “before Christ”.
BCE and CE
CE stands for “common (or current) era”, while BCE stands for “before the common (or current) era”. These abbreviations have a shorter history than BC and AD, although they still date from at least the early 1700s. They have been in frequent use by Jewish academics for more than 100 years, but became more widespread in the later part of the 20th century, replacing BC/AD in a number of fields, notably science and academia.
Why Have Some People Adopted BCE/CE?
An important reason for adopting BCE/CE is religious neutrality. Since the Gregorian calendar has superseded other calendars to become the international standard, members of non-Christian groups may object to the explicitly Christian origins of BC and AD. Particularly problematic is AD (“in the year of the Lord”), and its unavoidable implication that the Lord in question is Jesus Christ.
Religious neutrality was the main rationale behind Jewish academics’ adoption of BCE/CE over a century ago, and continues to be its most widely cited justification. However, others object to the BC/AD system on the basis that it is objectively inaccurate. It is widely accepted that the actual birth of Jesus occurred at least two years before AD 1, and so some argue that explicitly linking years to an erroneous birthdate for Jesus is arbitrary or even misleading. BCE/CE avoids this inaccuracy since it does not explicitly refer to the birth of Jesus, removing some of the baggage associated with our dating system while also acknowledging that the starting point for 1 CE is essentially a convention.
The movement towards BCE/CE has not been universally accepted, and BC/AD is still more widely used, even though BCE/CE has been in the mainstream since the 1980s. There have been backlashes to the adoption of the new system in defence of BC/AD, notably in 2002 when the UK National Curriculum made the transition. In 2011, education authorities in Australia were forced to deny that such a change had been planned for national school textbooks amid a similar controversy triggered by media reports.
Passions are usually highest among those who see the adoption of a new system as an attempt to write Jesus Christ out of history. They argue that the entire Gregorian Calendar is Christian in nature anyway, so why should we attempt to obscure that fact? Others ask why such a well-established and functional system should be replaced, arguing that the existence of two competing abbreviations is likely to cause confusion.
It has also been argued that BCE/CE is, in fact, less religiously inclusive than BC/AD. According to some, BCE/CE elevates the importance of Christ’s birth to the start of an entirely new “common era”, while BC/AD is a simple reference to the event.
Current Status and Recommendations
Most style guides do not express a preference for one system, although BC/AD still prevails in most journalistic contexts. Conversely, academic and scientific texts tend to use BCE/CE. Since there are compelling arguments for each system and both are in regular use, we do not recommend one over the other. Given the choice, writers are free to apply their own preference or that of their audience, although they should use their chosen system consistently, meaning BC and CE should not be used together, or vice versa. There are also some typographical conventions to consider:
BC should appear after the numerical year, while AD should appear before it.
1100 BC, AD 1066
BCE and CE should both appear after the numerical year.
1100 BCE, 1066 CE
As is the case with most initialisms, periods may be used after each letter.
1100 B.C., A.D. 1066, 1100 B.C.E., 1066 C.E.
Some style guides recommend writing BC, AD, BCE and CE in small caps.
Of course, writers often don’t need to make the choice at all. The BCE/CE (or BC/AD) distinction is usually unnecessary outside of historical contexts, and it is generally understood that when unspecified, the year in question is CE (or AD). As a result, dates that occurred within the last few centuries are rarely marked with CE (or AD).