For Christians, December 25th by tradition marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore the start of a new year in their calendar.
[sidebar: that the Western new year actually begins a week after Christmas goes back to Julius Caesar and, by necessity of length, will be fodder for another post]
From where, then, do we get ‘BC’ (‘Before Christ’), ‘BCE/CE’ (‘Before/Common Era’), and ‘AD’ (Anno Domini, or ‘In The Year Of Our Lord’)? That’s not as simple a question as it may seem; no one in what would later come to be known as, say, 10 AD called the year thus, since Jesus was by then merely an unknown pre-adolescent in Judea.
The Christian calendar got off to a rocky start as the society from which it sprang, that of the Romans, measured the passage of time from pagan emperors and events. There were two competing Roman calendars, that of Anno Mundi (‘In The Year Of The World’) which counted from the founding of Rome (753 BC), and later that of Anno Diocletiani, created by its namesake (244-311 AD), which narcissistically measured time from his ascension to the purple robe.
Diocletian fomented numerous persecutions of Christians. He particularly enjoyed Damnatio ad Bestias, what the Romans called the amusement of throwing Jesus’ followers to the wild animals. Little wonder, then, that those potentially facing the lions didn’t want to measure the passage of their lives in reference to the man who so hated them.
Fast forward several centuries. Christians, along with everyone else, had been forced by lack of reasonable alternative to use the calendar of Diocletian. For a while, some tried to employ an Anno Adami system (‘In The Year Of Adam’), but it was confusing, impossible to accurately measure, and never caught on. In 525 AD, though, a monk, Dionysius of Scythia Minor (Romania), was tasked with creating a liturgical table to determine on what dates Easter was to occur in subsequent years.
[sidebar: recall that Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is why it changes every year]
Dionysius decided to be rid of all association with the Christian-hating Diocletian once and for all. He is the first author of whom we know whose extant work measured time from Jesus’ birth. He listed the first year of his table as 532 Anno Domini; why he didn’t use 525 AD is unclear, but as modern scholars believe that Jesus was actually born sometime between 6 BC and 4BC, not in 1 AD, Dionysius wasn’t actually far off.
But the Anno Domini system didn’t catch fire until after the Venerable Bede authored The Ecclesiastical History Of The English Peoples (731 AD), and used it throughout his discourse. Bede’s writings were also notable for introducing the concept of ‘BC’ (what he called Ante Incarnationis Dominicae, or ‘Before The Time Of The Lord’s Incarnation’) and setting 1 BC to have been the year immediately prior to 1 AD, ignoring any potential Year Zero.
After Bede’s landmark tome, both Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 AD) and the Holy See (11th century AD) officially adopted the Anno Domini system to measure the passage of time. From that point forth, it quickly became widespread in Christendom.
[sidebar: for some odd reason, in English, ‘Before Christ’ didn’t appear in writing until the late 17th century – ‘Before The Lord’s Incarnation’ was used instead – and one doesn’t see the published abbreviation ‘BC’ until the early 19th century]
So that explains BC and AD, but what of BCE and CE? Are they strictly used by non-believers, just as Christians eschewed the use of Diocletian’s calendar? Not entirely (and to no small degree because the modern conservative political prism and the so-called War on Christmas were still years in the future!)
While BCE/CE have been popular amongst Jewish authors since at least the mid-19th century (when Rabbi Morris Raphall published his widely read Post Biblical History Of The Jews), the nomenclatures’ uses far predate the middle of that century.
The German astronomer Johannes Kepler adopted his own terminology, Vulgaris Aerae (‘Vulgar Era’), freely interchangeably with Anno Domini in his scientific treatises of the early 17th century. This was in part because, in Kepler’s time, the Latin root of ‘vulgar’ was closer in meaning to ‘ubiquitous’ – that is, Kepler was merely employing a Christo-centric view of the civilized world. Later in that century, though, when ‘vulgar’ came to mean ‘uncouth’ in the non-academic English vernacular, many Western authors, staying true to Kepler’s intent but desiring to apply terminology that was not potentially pejorative, employed ‘Common Era’ in lieu of ‘Vulgar Era,’ both interchangeably with Anno Domini.
So despite what modern Christian apologists maintain – that ‘CE’ is short for ‘Christian Era’ – that is not borne by the historic record. And over the very years it was designed to measure, reference to the Common Era has gained much traction in modern scholarly circles in an attempt to sever the documentation of time from its semantically parochial roots.
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