It’s only been about 100 years!

There has been a lot of nonsense spouted in the last couple of days about the BBC’s decision to use the CE/BCE dating system instead of the AD/BC one, as usual the various commentators have trampled with both feet on the historical facts preferring brainless rhetoric to historical reality. So we have M. J. Robins on his Guardian blog claiming that the system has been in use for two thousand years in his tirade against the Daily Fail and Boris Johnson claiming 1500 years in his equally ridiculous tirade in the Daily Telegraph.

Let us look at the historical facts. The principle of counting years from the supposed birth of Christ was first introduced in 525 CE by Dionysius Exiguus in his efforts to determine the correct date for Easter. At the time it wasn’t used by anybody else. In the 8th century CE the English monk Bede used it in his work to determine the date of Easter. His pupil Alcuin of York introduced into the Court of Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne for the English) From here its use spread slowly throughout Europe. Even the Vatican didn’t use it preferring to date years in terms of the reigns of popes. You will notice we are only talking about AD. The use of BC was first introduced in the 17th century as history within Europe started to become a real academic discipline. The use of the AD/BC dating system was first adopted by the Orthodox churches in the 18th century. The usage of this dating system was restricted to Europe and its colonies and was ignored by the majority of the world, until at the very earliest the late 19th century and in most cases the 20th century.

Through international trade and industry in the 20th century there was a need for a unified dating system and because of the economic dominance of the USA and Europe for such purposes the Gregorian calendar was adopted as the world’s norm. Why the rest of the world should also adopt a Christian system of referring to dates when less than 30% of the world’s population is Christian, even by the wildly inflated methods used by the churches to claim adherence, in this at best 100 year old universal dating system is something that those doing the screaming need to explain. As an explanation, to claim that the system has been in use for 2000 or 1500 years is a straight forward historical lie and wont wash.

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14 Comments

Filed under History of science, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science

14 responses to “It’s only been about 100 years!

  1. Hans

    I can only say ouch. You got me there. Lucky I haven’t had the chance of advocating my (now under consideration) thoughts on the matter yet, or I would have been shaming myself.

  2. Is the CE/BCE dating system just a renaming and has no impact on the numbers? Also, when was this dating system introduced?

  3. @ Donal: CE/BCE is really just a renaming and began to be widely used among Jewish scholars and within Jewish studies since the second half of the nineteenth century. Mosshammer, in his recent book “The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era” (Oxford, 2008), names a book by R. Morris J. Raphall on “Post-Biblical History of the Jews” (Philadelphia, 1855) as the earliest known instance of this terminology. Until the 1970s, it was rarely used outside Jewish studies. There is some affinity, however, between CE/BCE and the German V.u.Z/N. u. Z (vor/nach unserer Zeitrechnung), which was popular (but not exclusive to) the communist GDR and its Western sympathizers.

    @ Thony: Great post and important subject. Needless to say, I agree with you, but would like to point out that the era of Dionysius Exiguus was known and used in Francia before Alcuin, as missionaries from the British Isles had already begun to import such Easter tables at the end of the seventh, beginning of the eighth century. Also, Bede is famous for having used AD (and even some BC-dates) for historiographical purposes (in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English people”). There are also several examples of BC being used before the seventeenth century (and in the Middle Ages), but you are right in the sense that it wasn’t until Dionysius Petavius (1583-1652) that chronologers began to use BC/AD as the gold standard of time reckoning.

  4. PS: If not for any other reason, defenders of BC/AD should chill out because Jesus most probably wasn’t born in 1 BC or AD 1 anyway.

  5. I like to think that I’m living in the year 2764 ab urbe condita.

    • Being a true blue Brit I of course live in the 59th year of the reign of ER II

      • If you’re a radical rationalist, you might pick 1670, the year Spinoza published his Tractatus Theologico-politicus, as year zero, making the present date 341 A.S. Jonathan Israel, the Princeton historian, has devoted a good three thousand pages (so far) to making the case that the appearance of this devastating little book really did mark an epoch.

  6. The BBC has not, unfortunately, decided to use the CE/BCE dating system; it has left the decision to individual production teams. The BBC does, however, insist that production teams do not use the phrase ‘the nation’ when referring to the UK, for fear of irking Scottish and Welsh nationalists, who have a habit of complaining in writing.

    My own particular gripe is when news programmes refer to the ‘England captain’ or ‘England [team]’, without explaining that they are referring to the English men’s soccer team. There are plenty of sports other than men’s soccer – most of them are far superior sports.

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  8. Chris

    There is a major difference between the modern version of CE and the vulgar era/anno domini count, it has a year 0.

    Obviously, year 0 is non-sensical (it isn’t a counting number) but I assume someone didn’t realise that the 1st year was year 1.
    Rather like showing the gradiant of a hill as a percentage made sense to some bureaucrat.

    Using common era, in its modern version, allowed the end of the millenium to be counted as the year turned from 2000 to 2001, so maybe it helps by reducing the need for understanding amongst politicians and advertisers :o)

    No matter, call it anno domini or Christian Era makes little difference

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