April 26, 2005

B.C./A.D. Or B.C.E./C.E.

We got new textbooks at school last year. As I began to flip through them, I noticed that they used the traditional B.C./A.D. dating convention rather than the newer B.C.E./C.E. convention that has become more popular in recent years. Personally, I don’t have a problem with using either system, but it seems that folks on both sides of the debate are somewhat more worked up over it.

In certain precincts of a world encouraged to embrace differences, Christ is out.

The terms "B.C." and "A.D." increasingly are shunned by certain scholars.

Educators and historians say schools from North America to Australia have been changing the terms "Before Christ," or B.C., to "Before Common Era," or B.C.E., and "anno Domini" (Latin for "in the year of the Lord") to "Common Era." In short, they're referred to as B.C.E. and C.E.

The life of Christ still divides the epochs, but the change has stoked the ire of Christians and religious leaders who see it as an attack on a social and political order that has been in place for centuries.

For more than a century, Hebrew lessons have used B.C.E. and C.E., with C.E. sometimes referring to Christian Era.

This raises the question: Can old and new coexist in harmony, or must one give way to the other to reflect changing times and attitudes?

Now I don’t see why both sides cannot exist in harmony. The breaking point is still the same, and that is the life of Christ. But while I am generally accepting of the B.C.E./C.E., I was initially taught it as Before Christian Era and Christian Era. In my classes, I present both dating systems, and discuss the underlying reasons for using each. I also tell my students that they ultimately have to make a choice in what system to use, and that either one is acceptable – and then proceed to use B.C. and A.D myself for the rest of the year.

Now I am particularly shocked at this criticism that shows up in the article, indicating extreme ignorance or extreme bias.

Although most calendars are based on an epoch or person, B.C. and A.D. have always presented a particular problem for historians: There is no year zero; there's a 33-year gap, reflecting the life of Christ, dividing the epochs. Critics say that's additional reason to replace the Christian-based terms.

Hold on just one moment. There is no 33-year gap between the eras. The year 1 B.C. is followed by 1 A.D., marking the traditional year of the birth of Christ (who probably was born between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C.) – there are no years floating around in limbo, falling into neither category. And the lack of a Year 0 is a rather absurd idea as well. After all, when we start counting something, we do not begin by labeling the first one as zero. No, we count them out sequentially, beginning with the number one. The arguments the article makes are just plain stupid, and I cannot imagine any serious scholar offering them.

Now there is a legitimate argument to be made against using B.C. and A.D., and that is the fact that it makes every date into a statement about a religious figure who is rejected by about 75% of the people of the world – more, if one recognizes there are a lot of folks out there who call themselves Christian who have no particular faith in Christ. I certainly understand where making a religious profession every time one uses a calendar might trouble them.

"When Jews or Muslims have to put Christ in the middle of our calendar ... that's difficult for us," said Steven M. Brown, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

I accept that argument, which is why I’m not troubled by the usage of B.C.E. and C.E. as meaning Before Christian Era and Christian Era. It accurately acknowledges the reason for the reason for making a change in dating in the traditional Western calendar system, but avoids requiring anything that resembles a profession of faith. At the same time, it does not engage in religious cleansing, in that it acknowledges the historical centrality of Christianity in the Western world.

Not everyone agrees with me, though.

Candace de Russy, a national writer on education and Catholic issues and a trustee for the State University of New York, doesn't accept the notion of fence-straddling.

"The use of B.C.E. and C.E. is not mere verbal tweaking; rather it is integral to the leftist language police -- a concerted attack on the religious foundation of our social and political order," she said.

For centuries, B.C. and A.D. were used in public schools and universities, and in historical and most theological research. Some historians and college instructors started using the new forms as a less Christ-centric alternative.

"I think it's pretty common now," said Gary B. Nash, director of the National Center for History in the Schools. "Once you take a global approach, it makes sense not to make a dating system applicable only to a relative few."

Now I think de Russy overstates the case. The original use of the term in Hebrew schools was designed to be sensitive to both Christians and Jews, and I think that principle certainly extends beyond those two groups and into the world as a whole. But I think Nash carries the argument too far, given that the logical implication of his position is that we should develop a whole new calendar that begins with the year 1 B.W.S.S. (Because We Say So). And that ignores the fact that for some 15 centuries, dates in the West have been calculated according to the system set up by Dionysius Exiguus. It has become the de facto dating system of the world.

In the end, I find myself coming down on the same side as the Professional Association of Georgia Educators’ Tim Callahan.

"Is that some sort of the political correctness?" said Tim Callahan, of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, an independent group with 60,000 educator members. "It sounds pretty silly to me."

The entire debate is rather silly. There are much greater issues for us to look at. In the end, any of the usages should be considered acceptable. This is a battle that does not need to be fought by either side, and from which all should disengage with an understanding that all three dating conventions will be tolerated. Anyone who cannot do that does not deserve to be taken seriously.

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