Common Era, or Current Era, (CE) is a calendar era (year-numbering system) for the Julian and Gregorian calendars that refers to the years since the start of this era, i.e., since AD 1. The preceding era is referred to as before the Common (or Current) Era (BCE). The Current Era notation system can be used as a secular alternative to the Dionysian era system, which distinguishes eras as AD (anno Domini, "in the year of Our Lord") and BC ("before Christ"). The two notation systems are numerically equivalent; thus "2017 CE" corresponds to "AD 2017" and "400 BCE" corresponds to "400 BC", The year-numbering system for the Gregorian calendar is the most widespread civil calendar system used in the world today. For decades, it has been the global standard, recognized by international institutions such as the United Nations and the Universal Postal Union.
- Vulgar Era
- History of the use of the CE/BCE abbreviation
- Contemporary usage
- Conventions in style guides
- Similar conventions in other languages
The expression has been traced back to Latin usage to 1615, as vulgaris aerae, and to 1635 in English as "Vulgar Era". The term "Common Era" can be found in English as early as 1708, and became more widely used in the mid-19th century by Jewish academics. In the later 20th century, the use of CE and BCE was popularized in academic and scientific publications, and more generally by authors and publishers wishing to emphasize secularism or sensitivity to non-Christians, by not explicitly referencing Jesus as "Christ" and Dominus ("Lord"), shortened from anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi ("in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ").
The year numbering system used with Common Era notation was devised by the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 525 to replace the Era of Martyrs system, because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians. He attempted to number years from an initial reference date ("epoch"), an event he referred to as the Incarnation of Jesus. Dionysius labeled the column of the table in which he introduced the new era as "Anni Domini Nostri Jesu Christi".
Numbering years in this manner became more widespread in Europe with its usage by Bede in England in 731. Bede also introduced the practice of dating years before what he supposed was the year of birth of Jesus, and the practice of not using a year zero. In 1422, Portugal became the last Western European country to switch to the system begun by Dionysius.
The term "Common Era" is traced back in English to its appearance as "Vulgar Era" to distinguish dates on the Ecclesiastic calendar from those of the regnal year, the year of reign of a sovereign, typically used in national law.
The first use of the Latin term vulgaris aerae discovered so far was in a 1615 book by Johannes Kepler. Kepler uses it again in a 1616 table of ephemerides, and again in 1617. A 1635 English edition of that book has the title page in English – so far, the earliest-found usage of Vulgar Era in English. A 1701 book edited by John LeClerc includes "Before Christ according to the Vulgar Æra, 6". A 1716 book in English by Dean Humphrey Prideaux says, "before the beginning of the vulgar æra, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation." A 1796 book uses the term "vulgar era of the nativity".
The first so-far-discovered usage of "Christian Era" is as the Latin phrase aerae christianae on the title page of a 1584 theology book. In 1649, the Latin phrase æræ Christianæ appeared in the title of an English almanac. A 1652 ephemeris is the first instance so-far-found for English usage of "Christian Era".
The English phrase "common Era" appears at least as early as 1708, and in a 1715 book on astronomy is used interchangeably with "Christian Era" and "Vulgar Era". A 1759 history book uses common æra in a generic sense, to refer to the common era of the Jews. The first-so-far found usage of the phrase "before the common era" is in a 1770 work that also uses common era and vulgar era as synonyms, in a translation of a book originally written in German. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica uses the terms vulgar era and common era synonymously. 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", and also refers to the common era as a synonym for vulgar era with "the fact that our Lord was born on the 4th year before the vulgar era, called Anno Domini, thus making (for example) the 42d year from his birth to correspond with the 38th of the common era..." The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) in at least one article reports all three terms (Christian, Vulgar, Common Era) being commonly understood by the early 20th century.
The phrase "common era", in lower case, also appeared in the 19th century in a generic sense, not necessarily to refer to the Christian Era, but to any system of dates in common use throughout a civilization. Thus, "the common era of the Jews", "the common era of the Mahometans", "common era of the world", "the common era of the foundation of Rome". When it did refer to the Christian Era, it was sometimes qualified, e.g., "common era of the Incarnation", "common era of the Nativity", or "common era of the birth of Christ".
An adapted translation of Common Era into pseudo-Latin as Era Vulgaris (in Latin this means Common Mistress) was adopted in the 20th century by some followers of Aleister Crowley, and thus the abbreviation "e.v." or "EV" may sometimes be seen as a replacement for AD.
History of the use of the CE/BCE abbreviation
Although Jews have their own Hebrew calendar, they often use the Gregorian calendar.
As early as 1825, the abbreviation VE (for Vulgar Era) was in use among Jews to denote years in the Western calendar.
Common Era notation has also been in use for Hebrew lessons for "more than a century". Some Jewish academics were already using the CE and BCE abbreviations by the mid-19th century, such as in 1856, when Rabbi and historian Morris Jacob Raphall used the abbreviation in his book Post-Biblical History of The Jews.
The ratio of usage of BCE to BC, CE to AD, Common Era to Anno Domini, and Before Common Era to Before Christ in books has changed dramatically between the years 1800 and 2008, particularly since 1980, with the CE-related variants increasing in usage.
Some academics in the fields of theology, education and history have adopted CE and BCE notation, although there is some disagreement.
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. Furthermore, several style guides now prefer or mandate its usage. Even some style guides for Christian churches prefer its use: for example, the Episcopal Diocese Maryland Church News.
In the United States, the usage of the BCE/CE notation in textbooks is growing. Some publications have moved over to using it exclusively. For example, 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 notation. It is used by the College Board in its history tests, and by the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Others have taken a different approach. The US-based History Channel uses BCE/CE notation in articles on non-Christian religious topics such as Jerusalem and Judaism.
In 2002, England and Wales introduced the BCE/CE notation system into the official school curriculum.
In June 2006, in the United States, the Kentucky State School Board reversed its decision that would have included the designations BCE and CE as part of state law, leaving education of students about these concepts a matter of discretion at the local level.
Also in 2011, media reports suggested that the BC/AD notation in Australian school textbooks would be replaced by BCE/CE notation. The story became national news and drew opposition from some politicians and church leaders. Weeks after the story broke, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority denied the rumour and stated that the BC/AD notation would remain, with CE and BCE as an optional suggested learning activity.
The use of CE in Jewish scholarship was historically motivated by the desire to avoid the implicit "Our Lord" in the abbreviation AD. Although other aspects of dating systems are based in Christian origins, AD is a direct reference to Jesus as Lord.
Proponents of the Common Era notation assert that the use of BCE/CE shows sensitivity to those who use the same year numbering system as the one that originated with and is currently used by Christians, but who are not themselves Christian.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself a Protestant, has argued:
[T]he Christian calendar no longer belongs exclusively to Christians. People of all faiths have taken to using it simply as a matter of convenience. There is so much interaction between people of different faiths and cultures – different civilizations, if you like – that some shared way of reckoning time is a necessity. And so the Christian Era has become the Common Era.
Some oppose the Common Era notation for explicitly religious reasons. Because the BC/AD notation is based on the traditional year of the conception or birth of Jesus, removing reference to him in era notation is offensive to some Christians. The Southern Baptist Convention supports retaining the BC/AD abbreviations.
There are also secular concerns. English language expert Kenneth G. Wilson speculated in his style guide that "if we do end by casting aside the A.D./B.C. convention, almost certainly some will argue that we ought to cast aside as well the conventional numbering system [that is, the method of numbering years] itself, given its Christian basis." The short lived French Republican Calendar, for example, began with the first year of the French First Republic and rejected the seven-day week (with its connections to the Book of Genesis) for a ten-day week. Priest and writer on interfaith issues Raimon Panikkar contends that using the designation BCE/CE is a "return... to the most bigoted Christian colonialism" towards non-Christians, who do not necessarily consider the time period following the beginning of the calendar to be a "common era".
Ben Johnson of Hampden Academy prefers BC/AD because, among other reasons, the use of identifiers which have common spellings is more ambiguous than the use of identifiers with divergent spellings. Both CE and BCE have in common the letters "CE", which is more likely to cause confusion, they claim, than identifiers with clearly different spelling.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, it was a student's use of BCE/CE notation, inspired by its use within Wikipedia, which prompted the teacher and politician Andrew Schlafly to found Conservapedia, a cultural conservative wiki. One of its "Conservapedia Commandments" is that users must always apply BC/AD notation, since its sponsors perceive BCE/CE notation to "deny the historical basis" of the dating system.
Conventions in style guides
The abbreviation BCE, just as with BC, always follows the year number. Unlike AD, which traditionally precedes the year number, CE always follows the year number (if context requires that it be written at all). Thus, the current year is written as 2017 in both notations (or, if further clarity is needed, as 2017 CE, or as AD 2017), and the year that Socrates died is represented as 399 BCE (the same year that is represented by 399 BC in the BC/AD notation). The abbreviations are sometimes written with small capital letters, or with periods (e.g., "BCE" or "C.E."). Style guides for academic texts on religion generally prefer BCE/CE to BC/AD.
The terms "Common Era", "Anno Domini", "Before the Common Era", and "Before Christ" in contemporary English can be applied to dates that rely on either the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar. Modern dates are understood in the Western world to be in the Gregorian calendar, but for older dates writers can specify the calendar used. Dates in the Gregorian calendar in the Western world have always used the era designated in English as Anno Domini or Common Era.
Similar conventions in other languages
Several languages other than English also have both religious and non-religious ways of identifying the era used in dates. In some communist states during the Cold War period, usage of non-religious notation was mandated.