Monday, March 7, 2011

Whatever Happened To BC and AD?

From: Pajamas Media

If I write a date as 44 BC or 476 AD, you immediately know to what years I am referring.

I would guess that just about anyone junior high age or older in the U.S., Canada, or anywhere in Europe would also immediately recognize that one of those dates is 2055 years ago, and the other is 1535 years ago. (Okay, some of you had to pull out a calculator first.) You all know that BC means “Before Christ,” and many of you may even remember that AD is an abbreviation for the Latin Anno Domini: in the year of our Lord.

Pajamas Media readers being, on average, pretty well educated, you probably even know what happened in 44 BC or 476 AD. (If it has been too many years since you took Western civilization: the first year saw the assassination of Julius Caesar; the second, the fall of Rome to the Germanic barbarians.)

Okay, now: what happens if you see the date 1115 CE? Or 927 BCE? Again, Pajamas Media readers are pretty smart. Even if you haven’t seen these abbreviations for “Before Common Era” and “Common Era,” you can probably guess that BCE and CE are indeed replacements for BC and AD.

But why replace them?

When I was growing up, about the only place you saw BCE or CE was in writings aimed at a Jewish or Jehovah’s Witness audience. In both cases, the goal was to avoid any statement that might imply that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Christos, the anointed one, in Greek). American Jews writing for a general audience generally did not use the BCE/CE notation, nor, near as I can tell, did American atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, or whatever. Why? Because BC/AD was just a dating system used for communicating with other educated people. No one would have seen the use of it as a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, here’s the question: how many high school graduates today would immediately know what BCE/CE means?

When I last taught Western civilization, we used Jackson J. Spielvogel’s Western Civilization, 7th ed. Spielvogel’s book used BC/AD for a simple reason: “keeping with current usage by many historians of Western civilization.” Ditto, I would add, for students of Western civilization.

But our college recently switched to a new textbook. In some ways, I like the new textbook a bit more than Spielvogel’s book: more chapters on Rome, fewer on Mesopotamia and Egypt. But there is one aspect of the new book that just makes me roll my eyes: they insist on using BCE/CE — and devote two pages to a discussion justifying the use of them. (I am not identifying the book for two reasons: it’s not alone in the move among textbooks to BCE/CE, and I don’t want any unhinged sorts sending nasty emails to the textbook’s authors. If you work at it a bit, I’m sure that you can find the textbook — but why make it easy for some unhinged person to be nasty?)
Among the justifications the textbook offers for using BCE/CE is that “BC and AD were not used regularly until the end of the eighteenth century. BCE and CE became common in the late twentieth century.” Hmmm. When I searched for “Anno Domini” in books published before 1700, I found 51,700 results. Considering the number of books published before 1700, that’s pretty amazing. (The Latin equivalent of BC, ante Christum natum, is, admittedly, far less common.) More importantly, when precisely did BCE become “common” in the late twentieth century? I suppose if you were writing for a history journal, or for an audience that included large numbers of people who do not regularly use BC/AD, then using politically correct terminology such as BCE/CE makes sense — but in a freshman college text intended for the North American market? No.

It’s not even as if the new abbreviations are really more inclusive. BCE and CE are exactly the same years as BC and AD. They are still putting a stake in the ground around the guessed year of birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and measuring time relative to that same year. The only way in which this qualifies as “multicultural” is that it will not offend any prickly Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, or others upset that you are “privileging” Christianity by saying AD instead of some freshly minted abbreviation capable of doing nothing more than signaling one’s sensitivities. (The prickly forms of most of these groups seem to exist more in the fever swamp imaginations of academics than anywhere that I have ever been.)

Yet, the conscious decision to change over will offend the still-large majority of Americans who culturally or religiously identify themselves as Christians.

Admittedly, we are not going to cut off the heads of any professors, or even any hands, so perhaps offending us doesn’t much matter.

But there’s another group that should be offended: those who consider communication important. If I were living in a country where BC and AD were not commonly used, and I wanted to write something that ordinary people would understand, I would take care to put dates in the local system. If were I living in Britain, I would spell appropriately for my audience: colour or italicise, and I would “go to hospital” not “go to the hospital” because my goal is to communicate with minimum distraction. In a textbook aimed at college freshmen, using the less common abbreviations is a form of distraction from the point of the book: to teach history.

Or is it a form of culture war?

1 comment:

  1. Not positive, but don't we think now that Christ was born in 2 BCE, or is in 4 BCE? At any rate, it seems odd for Christ to be born in a year before Christ.

    Is there more to it than that, or is that the main objection?


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