Saturday, January 08, 2005

Thoughts on BCE/CE, BC/AD

Mark Goodacre mentions in this post (last paragraph) the non-use of the terms "BCE" and "CE" in the church and academy. This is an issue I have thought about quite a bit, since I have done a fair amount of public speaking to Christian, Jewish, and interfaith audiences of laypeople.

My general rule is that for Jewish audiences (of course) I use BCE/CE, for interfaith groups I use BCE/CE with a brief explanation, and for Christian audiences I use BC and AD. You might ask why I don't use BCE and CE with the Christians as well, after explaining what they are. I have to confess that in oral presentation I really prefer BC and AD because of their contrastive value -- audiences find it easy to mishear and confuse BCE and CE, and sometimes the speaker (me) also mixes them up. This problem is reduced with BC and AD, which sound sufficiently different not to be confused.

Nevertheless, I agree it would do no harm for Christian audiences to hear BCE and CE a bit more and get used to them. Sometimes in "interfaith" groups (which often turn out to be largely Christian) I've heard people scoff at the use of "BCE/CE" as an example of political correctness; and my response is usually, "No, it's just good manners. The majority group in a culture should not get to decide what terms minorities are allowed to find offensive or discomfiting." And then people are fine with it, as long as their speaker does not mix the terms up.

By the way, it is really amazing how many people don't know what "AD" means. Most know that "BC" means "before Christ" but fewer know that "AD" stands for anno Domini (in the year of the Lord). In fact, a lot of people I've talked to think it means "After Death," that is, the death of Christ!

On the other side of the coin, I once made the mistake of saying to a Jewish audience that "CE" stood for "Christian Era." You can imagine the fervor of the objections to that. They carefully explained that it meant "Common Era," and clearly didn't believe me when I protested that I had merely misspoken. And yet in Modern Hebrew, the equivalent of "CE" is li-s'firat ha-notzrim, "by the reckoning of the Christians" -- in other words, "Christian Era." But that's Hebrew, in a culture where Jews are the majority and can afford less semantic vigilance. In the USA and other English-speaking countries, it is, and will remain, "Common Era."

Finally, I have to share the worst explanation I've ever read for the use of "CE." According to PBS, it's used "because of new knowledge regarding the date of the Christ's birth"! Huh?

UPDATE: Michael Pahl and Helenann Hartley follow with apt comments. I should add that my post refers only to my practice with lay audiences; within the academy, I always use BCE/CE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The use of the nouvea terms B.C.E. and C.E. to replace the traditional usage of B.C. and A.D. is clerly an attack on Christianity and an attempt to remove any reference to Christ from our language. The evidence of this is the fact that we are still left with days of the week and months of the year named after ancient mythical Gods and Emporors ... but that is acceptable? If this was not a systematic attack on Christianity then we would have renamed the days of the week so aa not to honor an mythical gods Mercury, Saturn, Thor and Zues. In addition, the names of the months would be renamed so as not to glorify the Roman gods Janus, Februus, Mars, Maiesta, Juno, or the emporors Julius Ceasar and Augustus Ceasar. If you are going to eliminate all reference to Christianity then you must do it for ALL religions otherwise it is a clear and calculated attack on Christianity.