Common Era

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search

The Common Era (CE), also known as the Christian Era and sometimes the Current Era, is the period beginning with the year 1 onwards. The term is used for a system of reckoning years that is chronologically equivalent to the anno Domini (AD) (Latin for "in the year of [our] Lord") system, but with less overt religious implications. Although common era was a term first used by some Christians in an age when Christianity was the common religion of the West, it is now a term preferred by some as a religiously neutral alternative. It has its equivalents in other languages. For example, Chinese uses its literal translation, gōngyuán (公元), for date notation.


Chronology and notation

The calendar practice prompting the coining of the term common era is the system of numbering and naming years using the presumed (although incorrect) birth year of Jesus as a starting point. This system was devised by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 525, and used the label anno Domini to identify the year. Two centuries later the monk Bede introduced a Latin term that is roughly equivalent to the English term before Christ to identify years in the era preceding anno Domini. Both Dionysius and Bede regarded anno Domini as beginning at the incarnation or conception of Jesus, not his birth nine months later. Anno Domini was in widespread use by the ninth century, but the Latin equivalent of before Christ did not become widespread until the late fifteenth century (neither was abbreviated in Latin). The term "common era" refers to the time period since the year 1 in either the Julian or Gregorian calendars. By convention, for most purposes except astronomical use, year zero is not used. Instead, 1 BCE (or 1 BC) immediately precedes 1 CE (or AD 1).

The Gregorian calendar is the de facto standard calendar system. Thus, according to this calendar, the French Revolution occurred in the year 1789, and human beings first walked on the Moon in the year 1969. Users of common era nomenclature consider these events to have occurred in years "of the common era".

When used as a replacement for BC/AD notation, the common era is abbreviated as CE and is the direct chronological equivalent of AD. Similarly, the time before the common era is written as BCE and is the direct chronological equivalent of BC. 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).

On (rare) occasions, one may find the abbreviation "e.v." or "EV" instead of "CE"; this stands for "Era Vulgaris", the Latin translation of "Common Era".

See also: Anno Domini


According to Peter Daniels (a Cornell University and University of Chicago trained linguist):

CE and BCE came into use in the last few decades, perhaps originally in Ancient Near Eastern studies, where (a) there are many Jewish scholars and (b) dating according to a Christian era is irrelevant. It is indeed a question of sensitivity.

However, the term "common era" has earlier antecedents. A 1716 book by English Bishop John Prideaux says, "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 Chronology, the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia uses the sentence: "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."

"Vulgar" comes from the Latin word vulgāris (from vulgus, the common people), meant "of or belonging to the common people, everyday," and acknowledges that the date was commonly used, even by people who did not believe that Jesus was divine. By the late 1800s, however, vulgar had come to mean "crudely indecent" and the Latin word was replaced by its English equivalent, "common".

The first known Jewish use of this practice is from an inscription on a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery in Plymouth, England:

Here is buried his honour Judah ben his honour Joseph, a prince and honoured amongst philanthropists, who executed good deeds, died in his house in the City of Bath, Tuesday, and was buried here on Sunday, 19 Sivan in the year 5585. In memory of Lyon Joseph Esq (merchant of Falmouth, Cornwall). who died at Bath June AM 5585/VE 1825. Beloved and respected.

This inscription, like most, uses the Jewish calendar (5585), but ends by providing the common year (1825); presumably the "VE" means "Vulgar Era", and presumably VE was used instead of AD in order to avoid the Christian implications.


Jewish and Christian scholars have developed the BCE/CE terms for the benefit of cross-cultural dialogue.[1]. Some Islamic scholars and others outside the Judeo-Christian religious traditions have used the system. Some Christians have used the term CE to mean 'Christian era'. Many non-religious academics in the fields of history, theology, archaeology and anthropology have also in recent decades begun using the system.

More visible uses of common era notation have recently surfaced at major museums in the English-speaking world: Canada's Royal Ontario Museum adopted BCE/CE in 2002 [2], and the Smithsonian Institution also prefers common era usage, though individual museums are not required to use it.[3] As well, many style guides now prefer or mandate its usage. [4][5][6][7][8] Some style guides for Christian churches even mandate its use; for example, that of Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.(pdf)


Changing dates expressed in BC terminology to BCE has given rise to some opposition. Examples of this opposition include:

  • When BC was changed to BCE in one examination question in New South Wales, Australia in early 2005, it prompted questions and protestations of offence in both chambers of the State Parliament, and the State Education Minister stated in Parliament that the change should not have been made.
  • When the teaching of what BCE/CE meant was introduced into the English National Curriculum in 2002, it prompted confused letters to national newspapers.
  • When the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada changed from using BC to using BCE, it was subjected to derision as well as complaints expressed in the national Canadian press.

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.
  • The newer BCE/CE system has not been used widely enough so as to have become commonly understood.
  • "BCE" and "CE" are so similar that they may confuse readers.
  • The names for the months and days of the week derive respectively from Roman and Nordic religious traditions, so naming eras based on the Christian tradition should not be seen as objectionable.
  • It downplays the prominence of Jesus in societies that have a Christian heritage.
  • Some object to the common era's retention of the year 1 as its epoch because it preserves a Christocentric worldview at the expense of a religiously neutral timekeeping system.


Supporters of common era notation promote it as a religiously neutral notation suited for cross-cultural use.

Arguments given for standardizing 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. [9]
  • It has been largely used by academic and scientific communities for over a century now, and is not a completely unfamiliar dating system. [10]
  • Dating years according to Christian theology has the potential to be culturally divisive in worldwide use. Dating months and days based on Roman and Norse gods, however, is of little concern because the Roman and Norse religions are virtually extinct, and because the names can just as easily be seen as coming from the names of the planets and other celestial objects. People in other cultures are free to name the months and days of the week as they wish in their own language, but years are just numbers and it is quite easy to make them less overtly culturally specific. [11]
  • It promotes ecumenical standards and Christian Era is an interchangeable meaning for the acronym CE.
  • It is simple to change BC/AD to BCE/CE terminology, since the years are exactly equal, regardless of which terminology is used. No conversion of the numbers is required. Documents with years that do not have AD designation do not need to be changed. (example: 1066 remains 1066 in AD and in CE systems)
  • Even in a religious context, the traditional dating of Christ's birth to 1 BC is likely inaccurate.

Other calendars in use

Several major calendar systems exist in addition to the Western calendar.

  • The Hebrew calendar dates from the Creation (according to which the year beginning in the northern autumn of 2000 was 5761 AM);
  • the Islamic calendar dates from the Hijra in 622 using a lunar year of about 354 days (so the Western year 2000 contains parts of 1420 AH and 1421 AH);
  • the Buddhist calendar dates from the birth of the Buddha (making 2000, 2543 under this calendar, but only in Thailand);
  • Most Chinese do not assign numbers to the years of the Chinese calendar, but the few that do (expatriate Chinese and Westerners) date from the Yellow Emperor (three different systems are in use, which caused the Chinese years 4637, 4697, or 4698 to begin in early 2000).

External links



Controversy over use in schools

United Kingdom


Personal tools