Common Era

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The Common Era, also known as the Current Era, is the period of measured time beginning with the year 1 on the Gregorian calendar. "Common" or "Current Era" are alternative names for anno Domini, Latin for "in the year of (our) Lord",[1] also translated "of the Christian Era". All of these era names are chronologically equivalent, i.e. the number of any given year is the same no matter which of the names is used. When using the names "Common Era" or "Current Era", early years are described as "before the Common" or "before the Current Era". When using the names "anno Domini" or "Christian Era", early years are described as "before Christ" or "before the Christian Era". Neither of these systems includes a year zero, though however, the astronomical system and ISO 8601 do.

The short forms for "Common Era" and "before the Common Era" are "CE" and "BCE". The short form for "anno Domini" is "AD". The short forms for "Christian Era" are either "AD"[2] or "CE".[3] The short form for "before Christ" is "BC". These short forms are sometimes written with small capital letters, or with full stops (e.g., "C.E.").

The term "Common Era" is preferred by many, and especially by academic writers and publishers, as an alternative to the more overtly religious "AD" and "BC", since "Common Era" does not explicitly make use of religious titles for Jesus, such as "Christ" and "Lord", which are used in the AD/BC notation. Some criticise Common Era notation as a euphemism that does not alter the pivotal year 1 still centering on the life of Jesus. Others criticise the notation as an unnecessary attempt at political correctness.

The term "CE" is preferred by academics in some fields (e.g., by the American Anthropological Association).[4]

During the 1800s, the phrase "common era", in lower case, was frequently used in a generic sense, not necessarily to refer to the Christian Era, but to any system of dates in common use throughout a civilisation. Thus, "the common era of the Jews",[5][6] "the common era of the Mahometans",[7] "the common era of the foundation of Rome".[8] When it did refer to the Christian Era, it was sometimes qualified: e.g., "the common era of the Nativity of Our Lord".[9] or "the common era of the birth of our Saviour";[10]

Chronology and notation

The calendar practice prompting the coining of the term "Common Era" is the system of numbering years from the supposed beginning of the life of Jesus. This system was devised by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 525, who named it "anno Domini". Two centuries later, the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede used a Latin term – "ante incarnationis dominicae tempus" – that was roughly equivalent to the English term "before Christ" to identify years before the first year of this era.

Both abbreviations are written following the year; thus Aristotle was born in 384 BCE (or 384 BC), and Genghis Khan died in 1227 CE (or AD 1227). As with "anno Domini", the year zero is not used, except for astronomical uses: 1 CE is immediately preceded by 1 BCE.

On (rare) occasions, one may find the abbreviation "e.v." or "EV" instead of "CE";[11] this stands for "era vulgaris", a Latin translation of "Common Era". In the context of archeology, one also encounters the term "before present" (also known as "before physics") with the abbreviation "BP" to indicate dates in years before 1950.

Gregorian versus Julian calendar

The terms '"Common Era", "Anno Domini", "Before the Common Era", and "Before Christ" can be applied to dates that rely either on the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar. Modern dates are understood to be in the Gregorian calendar, but writers should specify the calendar for older dates. Dates in the Gregorian calendar have always used the Common Era, but a wide variety of eras have been used with the Julian calendar over the millennia.


The term "Common Era" has early antecedents. A 1716 book by the English Bishop John Prideaux includes a reference to: "The vulgar era, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation". In 1835, in his book Living Oracles, Alexander Campbell, wrote: "The vulgar Era, or Anno Domini; the fourth year of Jesus Christ, the first of which was but eight days." In its article on "General Chronology", the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia says: "Foremost among these (dating eras) is that which is now adopted by all civilized peoples and known as the Christian, Vulgar or Common Era, in the twentieth century of which we are now living".[12]

"Vulgar" comes from the Latin word vulgāris (from vulgus, the common people), meaning "of or belonging to the common people, everyday". By the late 1800s, however, "vulgar" had come to mean "crudely indecent", and the Latin word was replaced by its English equivalent, "common".

Some Jewish academics were using using the "BCE" abbreviation by the mid 1800s, such as in 1856, when Rabbi and historian Morris Jacob Raphall used the abbreviation in his book Post-Biblical History of the Jews.


Academics, especially in relevant fields such as classics, history, history of ideas, anthropology]], etc., have adopted the CE and BCE notation, and it has been in use for Hebrew lessons for "more than a century".[13] Jehovah's Witnesses exclusively use CE and BCE in their publications, generally explaining in footnotes that the terms stand for "Common Era" and "Before the Common Era".[14]

More visible uses of Common Era notation have recently surfaced at major museums in the English-speaking world: The Smithsonian Institution prefers Common Era usage, though individual museums are not required to use it.[15] Furthermore, several style guides now prefer or mandate its usage.[16] Even some style guides for Christian churches prefer its use: for example, the Episcopal Diocese Maryland Church News.[17]

The usage of the BCE/CE notation in textbooks is growing.[18] The 2007 World Almanac was the first edition to switch over to the BCE/CE usage, ending a 138-year usage of the traditional BC/AD dating system. It is used by the U.S. College Board in its history tests,[19] as well as by some National Geographic Society publications,[20] The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and the United States Naval Observatory.[21] The U.S.-based History Channel uses BCE/CE notation in articles on non-Christian religious topics such as Jerusalem and Judaism[22] and uses BC (but neither CE nor AD) in other cases.[23]

In June 2006, the Kentucky State School Board reversed its decision that would have included the designations BCE and CE in referring to dates.[24]

Support of and opposition to the use of CE/BCE over AD/BC

There is a range of arguments for and against the use of CE and BCE over AD and BC.


Supporters of Common Era notation promote it as a religiously-neutral notation suited for cross-cultural use. Arguments given for changing to Common Era notation include:

  • The calendar used by the West has become a global standard — one built into every computer's hardware. It should be religiously and culturally neutral out of consideration for those cultures compelled to use it out of necessity.[25]
  • It has been largely used by academic and scientific communities,[25] and is not a completely unfamiliar dating system.
  • It is simple to change BC/AD to BCE/CE notation, since the years are numbered exactly the same in both (e.g., 33 BC becomes 33 BCE), Documents with years that do not have AD designation do not need to be changed at all (e.g., 1066 remains 1066 in AD and in CE systems).[25]
  • The label Anno Domini is almost certainly inaccurate; the birth of Jesus of Nazareth probably occurred no later than 4 BC, the year of Herod the Great's death.[25]
  • "Anno Domini" (which means, literally, "in the year of the Lord") works well with specific dates – e.g., 655 AD – but its use with centuries (and other time units such as decades and millennia) presents grammatical difficulties: "the seventh century AD" means, literally: "In the year of the Lord, the seventh century". The CE notation avoids this problem.
  • "Forcing a Hindu, for example, to use AD and BC might be seen by some as coercing them to acknowledge the supremacy of the Christian god and of Jesus Christ."[26] The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance further state: "We use the terms CE and BCE throughout this web site because they are less hurtful to non-Christians."[26]
  • Although some claim that AD and BC have lost nearly all their religious significance, much of the opposition, some of it intense, to switching to usage of CE and BCE has been on religious grounds.[27][26][25]


Efforts to replace AD/BC notation with CE/BCE notation have given rise to opposition. Arguments against the Common Era designation include:

  • BC and AD have been used for such a length of time as to have become somewhat removed from their religious connotations.[25]
  • The newer BCE/CE system has not been used widely enough to have become commonly recognised.[25]
  • The Christocentricity of the AD epoch is not addressed by simply exchanging the labels with BCE/CE, since the epoch remains the same, based on a sixth-century estimate of the birth of Jesus. People concerned with the epoch's Christocentricity would need to switch to a different epoch-system altogether.[25]
  • BCE/CE fails to fix one of the problems with the Christian calendar, the lack of a year zero, which makes calculations involving years that span both sides of the central year one year too large, unless one remembers to subtract one.[25]
  • The BCE/CE promotion distracts from the adoption of the system already used by astronomers, i.e. 0 for 1 BC, -1 for 2 BC, etc., which does resolve this problem and does not use any of the contentious acronyms.[28]
  • As there is no equally forceful trend to remove other terms with origins in non-Christian religions (such as those days of the week which in English are named after Norse gods), many argue that movement to replace BC and AD is specifically anti-Christian. This argument is countered by the argument that "while the Roman and Norse Gods represent virtually extinct religions, Christianity is still massively influential and potentially culturally divisive."[25]

See also


  1. Blackburn, Bonnie; Leofranc Holford-Strevens (2003). The Oxford companion to the Year: An exploration of calendar customs and time reckoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214231-3 (reprinted and corrected, originally published 1999) p.782
  2. Oxford Pocket Dictionary and Thesaurus, (American ed.) (1997), New York: Oxford University Press, s.v. "A.D.".
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary s.v. "CE", accessed March 4, 2007.
  4. American Anthropological Society (January 2003). AAA Style Guide. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  5. (1884) The Popular Encyclopedia, volume V,p. 307: "the common era of the Jews places the creation in BC 3760"
  6. Rev. Bourchier Wrey Savile, MA (1858). The first and second Advent: or, The past and the future with reference to the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God. London: Wertheim, Macintosh and Hunt. , p. 176: "Hence the present year, 1858, in the common era of the Jews, is AM 5618-5619, a difference of more than 200 years from our commonly-received chronology."
  7. Johannes von Gumpach (1856). Practical tables for the reduction of Mahometan dates to the Christian calendar.  p. 2: "The common era of the Mahometans, as has already been stated, is that of the flight of Mahomet."
  8. Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1854). Universal History: From the Creation of the World to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century. Boston: Fetridge and Company. , p.284
  9. James Henthorn Todd (1864). St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, A Memoir of his Life and Mission. Dublin: Hodges, Smith & Co, Publishers to the University. , p.497: "It should be observed, however, that these years correspond to 492 and 493, a portion of the annals of Ulster being counted from the Incarnation, and being, therefore, one year before the common era of the Nativity of our Lord."
  10. William Smith (1870). A smaller Scripture history. London: John Albemarle. , p.216
  11. The Thelemic Calendar. Thelema Home Page. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  12. General Chronology. Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  13. Michael Gormley, (April 25, 2005), "P.C. scholars take Christ out of B.C.", Washington Times
  14. "In this publication, instead of the traditional "AD" and "BC," the more accurate "CE" (Common Era) and "BCE" (before the Common Era) are used." — The Bible — God’s Word or Man's?, p.16n, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
  15. Smithsonian Institute. World History Standards. Smithsonian Education. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  16. Egyptian Study Society. Submission Guidelines for The Ostracon. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.; Retrieved on September 9, 2006.;"Manuscript Submission Guidelines". American Journal of Philology.
    "Manuscript Submission Guidelines". Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha.
    Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies Style Guide (DOC). Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies (2004-08-14). Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  17. Maryland Church News Submission Guide & Style Manual (PDF). Maryland Church News (2005-04-01). Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  18. Michael Gormley (25 April 2005). "PC scholars take Christ out of BC" Washington Times. Accessed at
  19. AP: World History. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  20. National Geographic Search: BCE. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  21. Introduction to Calendars. U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department (2004-10-15). Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  22. Jerusalem Timeline. History Channel. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.;Jerusalem: Biographies. History Channel. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  23. History Channel Timeline. History Channel. Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  24. State School Board reverses itself on B.C./A.D. controversy. Family Foundation of Kentucky. Retrieved on October 4, 2006.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 25.6 25.7 25.8 25.9 The 'Common Era' - a Secular Term for Year Definition. BBC (2004-11-19). Retrieved on September 9, 2006.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Controversy over use of "CE" and "BCE" to identify dates in history. Retrieved on October 4, 2006.
  27. Southern Baptist Convention 2000, Resolution 9
  28. History Today, June 1999, p.60, Darian Hiles, letter: "Of Dates and Decimals"

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