What is the Difference Between BCE/CE and BC/AD, and Who Came Up with These Systems?

Lynda D. asks: Who first came up with BCE, CE, BC and AD and what is the difference between them?

calendarBCE (Before Common Era) and BC (Before Christ) mean the same thing- previous to year 1 CE (Common Era). This is the same as the year AD 1  (Anno Domini); the latter means “in the year of the lord,” often translated as “in the year of our lord.” (It was thought when the AD dating system was created that its year 1 was the year Jesus of Nazareth was born.)

Anno Domini was the first of these to appear. Prior to the 6th century AD, many Christians who didn’t use an Anno Mundi (in the year of the world) type system relied on Roman dating, either marking dates from the year legend had it that Romulus and Remus founded Rome (753 BC) or by relying on the date system established under the Roman emperor Diocletian (244-311), based on the accession of Diocletian.

The_Christian_MartyrsHowever, most Christians weren’t too fond of Diocletian, since he brutally persecuted them in the latter part of his reign in the late third / early fourth century. This was supposedly in part a response to advice Diocletian received at the oracle of Apollo at Didyma. Previous to this, he had purportedly only advocated banning Christians from such things as the military and ruling body in hopes that would appease the gods. Afterward, he switched to an escalating policy of persecution to try to get Christians to worship the Roman gods. This began simply via seizing Christian’s property, destroying their homes, burning all Christian texts, etc. When this sort of thing was ineffective, they progressed to arresting and torturing Christians, starting with the leaders. When that didn’t work, Christians began to be killed in various brutal ways including occasionally being torn apart by animals for the amusement of the masses (Damnatio ad bestias).

This method of convincing people to worship the Roman gods ended up being an amazing failure and the persecution appears to have only continued after AD 305 in the Eastern half of the empire under Galerius and Maximinus. Finally, in April of AD 311, by imperial decree, the Great persecution was put to an end even in the East. A few years later, Constantine the Great (reigning from AD 306 to 337) publicly declared himself a Christian and Christianity began to transition into the dominate religion in the Roman Empire.

In any event, Easter was/is the most important holy day of the Christian tradition, and it was decided at the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) that it should occur each year on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. In order to forecast when exactly the holiday fell each year, Easter tables were created.

In AD 525, the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor was working on his table to determine when Easter fell when he decided to eliminate reference to Diocletian by listing his table’s first year as Anno Domini 532, explicitly stating this was referring to the year directly following the last year of the old Diocletian-based table, Anno Diocletiani 247.  How Dionysius came up with 525 years since Jesus was born at the time he was calculating his table (532 years from when the table’s dates began) isn’t clear, but he wasn’t far off the range most biblical scholars today think, with the more modern estimates tending to ring in somewhere between 6 to 4 BC for the actual birth of Christ.

The Anno Domini system, sometimes called the Dionysian Era or Christian Era, began to catch on among the clergy in Italy relatively soon after and, though not terribly popular, did spread somewhat among the clergy in other parts of Europe. Most notably, in the 8th century, the English monk Bede (now known as the Venerable Bede) used the dating system in his wildly popular Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731). This is often credited with not only popularizing the calendar reference, but also introducing the concept of BC, notably setting 1 BC to be the year prior to AD 1, ignoring any potential zero year. (This is no surprise as Bede, like Dionysius, didn’t have a numeral zero to work with, see: The Story of Zero. However, they both did at various times reference the Latin nihil, “nothing”, in certain places in calculating their tables where the number zero should have gone had they had such a numeral.)

It should also be noted that Bede didn’t actually use any such “BC” abbreviation, but rather in just one instance mentioned a year based on ante incarnationis dominicae tempus (“before the time of the lord’s incarnation”).  While there would be rare sporadic mentions of years “before the time of the lord’s incarnation” from here on out, it wouldn’t be until Werner Rolevinck’s 1474 work Fasciculus Temporum that it would be used repeatedly in a work. The English, “Before Christ” didn’t appear until the latter half of the 17th century and it wouldn’t be until the 19th century that it would be abbreviated.

Shortly after the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Anno Domini was used officially under the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814) and in the 11th century, it was adopted for official use by the Roman Catholic Church.

CE and BCE are much more recent inventions. This started in the 17th century, with the advent of the term Vulgar Era; this wasn’t because people considered it to be an age when everyone was coarse or rude, but because “vulgar” more or less meant “ordinary” or “common”, thus reflecting that the era was “of or belonging to the common people” (from the Latin vulgaris).

The first documented instance of the Vulgaris Aerae (Vulgar Era, meaning “Common Era”) being used interchangeably with Anno Domini was featured in Latin works by Johannes Kepler in 1615, 1616, and 1617. The English version of phrase later appeared in 1635 in an English translation of Kepler’s 1615 work. (In the mid-seventeenth century the English “vulgar” took on a new definition of “coarse,” but it wouldn’t be until this “coarse/unrefined” definition would become more common in the 20th century that referring to the Vulgar Era would cease.)

The Latin phrase Aerae Christianae (Christian Era) and the associated English “Christian Era” was also used by some in the 17th century, such as when Robert Sliter employed it in his A Celestiall Glass or Ephemeris for the Year of the Christian Era 1 (1652).

Shortly thereafter, another “CE” came about with Common Era used interchangeably with Vulgar Era, first appearing in the 1708 edition of The History of the Works of the Learned and again in David Gregory’s The Elements of Astronomy (1715).

As for the actual abbreviation, CE (Common Era) has been claimed to have been used as early as 1831, though I couldn’t find specifically in what work it is supposed to have appeared in. Whatever the case, both it and BCE (Before the Common Era) definitely appeared in Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall’s Post-Biblical History of the Jews in 1856. The use of BCE and CE was particularly popular in the Jewish community where they were keen to avoid using any nomenclature explicitly referring to Christ as “the lord.” Today, BCE and CE instead of BC and AD has become fairly common among other groups for similar reasons.

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Bonus Facts:

  • As mentioned, there is no year zero with this particular calendar going from 1 BC (or BCE) to AD 1 (or CE). For the last few centuries, this has caused some trouble over when some people think a new century actually begins. One of the first known instances of this being argued over appeared in the December 26, 1799 edition of The Times of London where it stated,  “The present century will not terminate till January 1, 1801 … We shall not pursue this question further…. It is a silly, childish discussion, and only exposes the want of brains of those who maintain a contrary opinion to that we have stated.” A similar battle was noted by the media at the end of the 19th century and then again at the end of the 20th.
  • Concurrently with Anno Domini, Anno Salutis (in the year of salvation), Anno Nostrae Salutis (in the year of our salvation), Anno Reparatae Salutis (in the year of accomplished salvation) and Anno Salutis Humanae (in the year of the salvation of men) were all used interchangeably.
  • Another common system based on the Bible, which for whatever reason wasn’t particularly popular among Western Christians helping to give rise to BC/AD, was Anno Mundi (“in the year of the world” / “year after creation”) or Anno Adami (“in the year of Adam”)- essentially dating things from what was thought to be year 1 of the world. Bede himself used this system in The Reckoning of Time written in 725, six years before Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
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  • LOVEPAREEK

    WOW! EXCELLENT. THIS WAS INFO MUCH SOUGHT…..AND PROVIDED WITH THE EXCELLENCE AND STANDARDS ONLY POSSIBLE AT TIFO….TIFO AND MELISSA, U ROCK BUDDIES…..KEEP GOIN…TNX

  • LOVEPAREEK

    IN MY LITERATURE COLLECTION, I HAVE A FOLDER NAMED TIFO….N THIS ONE WENT STRAIGHT INTO THAT….TNX

  • J. F. Gecik

    Although there is a lot of factual information in this article, some of it can easily be misleading to young readers here — folks who have seen only (or mainly) “C.E.” and “B.C.E.” in their textbooks, in museums, etc.. The article fails to make clear to the generations of current students and young adults — and to generations of the future — that the FREQUENT use of “C.E.” and “B.C.E.” is a VERY RECENT phenomenon.

    I was born in 1951, and I can honestly say that I NEVER came across “C.E.” or “B.C.E.” until the 1990s! When I first saw them and learned what they meant, I was shocked and disgusted, because this appeared to me to be an action that was blatantly anti-Christian and/or that showed a disrespectful lack of consideration for tradition and for Christianity. I also realized that, if these abbreviations were to become widespread, there would be vast numbers of young people who would not know the meanings of “A.D.” and “B.C.” in published books, etc..

    During the last fifteen or twenty years, a more and more frequent use of C.E./B.C.E. has been forced upon a predominantly undesirous and offended public. Why has this happened?

    1. In the last two decades, there has been a slight, but noticeable, growth in the number of non-Christian (but religion-practicing) people in the U.S. — especially Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems, but not Jews (who are down from 3% to about 1.5% of the population, due to widespread abortion, contraception, and conversion).

    2. Also during this time period, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Americans who claim to be atheists or agnostics — and many of these people are vehement anti-Christians.

    3. The increases in the percentages of the aforementioned groups (non-Christian religious people, non-religious people, and anti-religious people) have been even more dramatic in Canada and Great Britain, two countries that have a surprisingly large [and, I would say, too often damaging] influence upon certain powerful people within the U.S..

    Nowadays, there are many politically ultra-liberal Christians, religious non-Christians, and anti-religious people in influential positions (media, academia, law, publishing, etc.) who have chosen to bend over backwards to avoid offending non-Christians. It is these people who, for about two decades, have been widely spreading the C.E./B.C.E. abbreviations. Ironically, these people have NOT cared about the offense (or at least annoyance) that they have caused the [I would estimate] 90% of Americans who desire to continue using “B.C.” and “A.D.” It is more important for these “elites” to be seen as super-tolerant and/or to “punish” Christianity (which some of them hate so much).

    I will continue to use “B.C.” and “A.D.” (only) for the rest of my life, and I encourage ALL readers here to do the same, ignoring the inconsiderate people who have been trying to force something undesired upon 90% of us.

    • Nik

      @J.F. Gecik – Nailed it. What really aggravates me is the number of Christian resources I have come across (i.e. commentaries, Study Bibles, Bible Dictionaries, etc.) that are using BCE/CE as opposed to BC/AD.

    • Maru

      And why would they? They’re too busy spreading lies and indoctrinating our children with this ridiculous banter. I’ve never seen in all my 50 years (save the last 10) the eroding of morality in our world. I feel like I stepped off the planet Earth into another realm whereby things are upside down. I too will be using (and I’ve had points off on college papers because of it and I don’t care) it as long as I live. I might even have it put on my gravestone! 😉 I’m not kidding…

    • If it’s true that the first use of BCE is in “Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall’s Post-Biblical History of the Jews in 1856” then the now common use of BCE by historians is actually a 160-year old form of political correctness. It’s like how the salutation Merry Christmas has been eradicated in place of Happy Holidays. In America, saying “One Million Years B.C.E.” would be like talking the metric system (blank stares), and wasn’t used to title the blockbuster starring Raquel Welch in 1966 – for good reason! But any reader of modern history (or listener, in the case of Dan Carlin’s excellent podcast Hardcore History) has to put up with this modern muck.

  • LOVEPAREEK

    @J. F. Gecik: I FULLY AGREE ON SOME POINTS U RAISED,PRIMARILY BEING THAT THE USE OF CE & BCE SINCE I MYSELF, GROWIN UP, NEVER SAW THESE TERMS IN TEXT BOOKS BUT ONLY BC/AD. SECONDLY, I M SURE THAT AS RAISED BY U, THERE IS SOME CONSPIRACY THEORY HERE IN THE HIDING. BUT YOUR EXHORTATION IS CONDEMNABLE. U WANT TO PROPAGATE YOUR RELIGION WORLDWISE, AND ON UNSUSPECTING MASSES, THRU THE USE OF SOCIAL AND EDUCATIONAL MEANS…….AND JUST AS IT SERVES YOUR OWN SELF-FULFILLING GOALS (U BEING A CHRISTIAN), I FULLY REPUDIATE THIS (JUST AS IT SERVES MY OWN SELF-FULFILLING GOALS ,ME BEING A NON-CHRISTIAN)……..CHRISTIANITY’S HEYDAYS WERE PAST….CHRISTIANITY IS NOW HISTORY. IN ANY CASE, UNFORTUNATELY, NOW NOBODY CAN STOP THE WAVE OF ISLAM RAPIDLY BLAZING ACROSS, AND WHAT TO TALK OF CHRISTIANITY, THIS ISLAMIC WAVE WILL SWEEP AWAY AND ANNIHILATE ALL THE OTHER RELIGIONS TOO (INCLUDING MY OWN TOO)…..AND THE SAD THING IS………THERE IS NOTHING THAT WE CAN DO….SINCE THERE IS A GLOBAL CONSPIRACY AIDING IT…..AV U EVER GIVEN THIS A THOUGHT ???

    • Tom

      You will find out soon when the Lord, CHRIST HIMSELF, comes a second time in full power and authority to cleanse the earth of wickedness. Then you will know for sure just what Christianity is ALL ABOUT. Maybe you’ll find yourself on knees asking for forgiveness.

      May HE grant you that before that Great and Dreadful day.

      • PretBurg

        you are sick in the head, brainwashed beyond thinking for yourself, grow up!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Pam

      Regardless anyone’s thinking. We were all created. And breathe the breath of life. Only BC we were given a spirit within us. For a child can be born – but without the spirit of Life in it. It remains a Still born – Physically dead. We can no more Create. Anything from Nothing. We are the created. Not the Creator. Who gives life to the physical existence we know. And as the Author of Life. It is His Story. Not our own. As much as we choose on our own to so call believe what we choose. Only HE knows All. Since HE Created it. And Regardless of All of this. Only HE Determines what Happens to Any of US. My Bet is On Him. His name. The Great. I Am. God – Father of All Life. Creator of All existence. And Since He IS who HE IS. He is the Only One who can determine what IS Truth. And What to Follow. And Warns us all so. But as in All things. BC HE iS So Loving. He does let us all have free will. What would any love truly be – IF we were Forced to love Him. And yet HE even came to Die for our Immorality a brutal death – Taking on that Sin of us all. Simply BC He IS a Righteous Judge – Law giver. So when HE made man. He also gave Us All. What is to be stayed away from. Simply BC it damages US. And at the Same time. Separates us from Him. HE is the One. Who didn’t want to have this Seperation. And BC HE is Righteous. Not a Crooked. Judge. He stepped down. To take on the Punishment set forth. He Died. BC only HE is The Perfect Sacrifice to take on the sin’s therefore Giving Us that chance to accept it. (The Sacrifice of sins commuted). All so we could be with Him. Provided we choose that. So even His Death. He Never Forces Himself on Us. Yet Loves His Creation SO Much. To Give us a Way Out of spiritual Death. Even When HE knew. Many would not be Grateful. And still choose to Stay away from Him. His Great Love. There is NO other god / religion of Any One Person / god coming to Save their Ppl. No One. Only the Creator of Life. Choose to not believe that Is your choice. But as far as me and my household. We choose to Follow and Trust in the Only True God. Of the Bible. The Word of God. And the only book that Claims. To be the Word of God. We are by far from perfect. And can not judge anyone but I do have a Healthy Respect. For Him who Does. Judge. Using His Word. To be that Measurement for All of Life. If I take a test in college / school. Do I not first Study. To be sure to Pass the Test? Of course I would as any good student would know to do. Well, How Much More Important. To Know the Word. That will Judge My Spiritual Life – So As to Have Spiritual Life after my physical existence is no more. Best to know what IS going to be on the Test.

  • amir ali

    what is mankind life beginning date. When life began on the earth. In other words what is beginning date of mankind on the earth or when man came on earth.

  • SlowBro

    So even though the name “Before Common Era/Common Era” gets away from the concept of Christ, you still have to ask, what happened at year one? Why did the Common Era begin at that particular time?

    Answer: Jesus was born. You can’t escape the Man who split history with His birth 😀

  • Maru

    It doesn’t mean a hill of beans in Alaska what BCE stands for because I will NEVER use it nor will I teach it to my children or grandchildren. It IS an AFFRONT to Holy God just like a lot of other insane “New Age” ideology. You all stick with your BCE and I’ll stick with my God who deserves ALL the credit.

    That stated; God isn’t a God of confusion. He never was and he never will be. All of this flim flam around this ridiculous is crazy talk and sets to divide us regarding the truth of who Christ was and who he IS. And of course it shows a “blatant disregard” for the CREATOR who made all of us. It’s not a surprise because his word tells us that during the “end times” (and I do believe we are in the end times…don’t know how long because God’s timing is a bit different than ours in certain situations) but what I do know is that we are and that a lot of hanky panky has been going on for a number of years and I can tell you this; God the Father is LETTING it happen for a reason. So…for all you adherence BCE and CE lovers and all the rest of the immoral ridiculousness you are embracing; know this…the time is coming my friends…God will NOT be mocked and he ALWAYS gets the last word.

    • Pam

      Amen!

    • PretBurg

      Oh my, another christian idiot! Forcing your view onto others for centuries, yet refuse to accept anything else. grow up, there is no god!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Robert Pahls

    The purpose in switching from BC/AD to BCE/CE was for modern-day secularism to be sensitive to those who do not share in the Christian faith. The recent shift (in just the last 15-25 years) in the United States culture is, in general: To be tolerant of differing views, beliefs, and opinions as all are correct and equally valid; that everyone is entitled simply on the basis of being human, regardless of their actions, behavior, and attitudes towards others; and that truth is what you believe in, rather than what is actually correct.

    Citizens from the cities of Ninevah, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Corinth would all find comfort and familiarity in our modern culture as it is not a far cry from the day-to-day idolism, paganism, and immorality they were accustomed. Oddly secularism is tolerant of all views, beliefs, and values, except Christianity. If we were to live in a different country where we saw, for example Allah referenced in a book, should we be offended? No. If we pick up a book from a country where Islam is the major religion, should we be offended if we see references to the beliefs, values, views, and opinions of that religion? No. The whole idea behind secularism in separating religion from state is completely backwards. The purpose for separate between church and state was so that the CHURCH would be protected from the corruptable beliefs and precepts that can worm it’s way into legislation, not the other way around.

    As has been stated by many before this post, the truth of the Bible will remain when all else falls. If one who authors printed material is a Christian, the freedom of religion coupled with the freedom of the press should prevail in allowing the use of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) in their printed material, never to be removed or altered in any way without the consent of the author. To suggest otherwise is as inappropriate as taking the pledge of allegiance out of schools that enjoy the benefits, support, and protection by these United States.

    • Truthbetold

      There is nothing tolerant of “modern secularism”. Curiously they dare not show intolerance for Islam. They are only intolerant of Christians, pro-life baby lovers, and those who are conservative in nature. They are tolerant of homosexuals, pedophiles, black killers of policemen, Islamic terrorists, gang murderers, looting rioters, communists, thieves at high levels of government office, etc.

  • Truthbetold

    Since Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, it would seem the Jewish calendar should prevail.

    • Barnaby Cricklespiff.

      Jesus certainly a jew. But those hooked nosed Edomites squatting on Palestinian lands are about as jewish as a slab of camel shit.

  • Barnaby Cricklespiff.

    It was the dirty jew that decided that BCE should be used. As Christ was wise to those dirty, hook nosed [email protected]

  • A. K.

    Wow. There are a lot of hateful fucks on this website…

  • tansysmom

    BCE/CE may be more politically correct, but it is also nonspecific. Common Era is a relative term that refers to nothing in particular, whereas BC/AD allows us to more or less pinpoint chronological periods with reference to what most people consider to be an actual event. It doesn’t matter whether the event really occurred, or whether one believes in Christ. It is (or should be) merely a starting point for measuring time.