There it is. The politically correct police strike again except this time in the world of history, or better stated, the demarcation of historical periods. For as long as I can remember, the terms “B.C.” and “A.D.” have been used in classrooms as well as in reference books, textbooks, and scholarly journals. The letters denoted a break in the historical timeline in the second half of the Roman Empire (and its decline) as well as the more tacit observation that the world had left its stone age past behind and entered a new period of growth, advancement, and discovery.
However, over the last decade or so, the terms B.C.E. and C.E. have made an appearance and are charging hard at the old guard of B.C. and A.D. like the proverbial barbarians at the gate. In this case, the barbarians have swarmed over the gate and have taken control, relegating the age-old terms to the almost trash heap of history. I say almost because there are those, like me, that refuse to use new politically correct terms B.C.E. and C.E. I can hear them now, the speech police preparing their warrants for my arrest, arguing for me to be drummed out of the history classroom that I have for so long been a part. No matter. The battle has been joined and I will do my best to defend what had been a staple for many centuries of history writing, discussion, and study.
Yes, it is true that the denoting of history in the form of A.D. and B.C. have a decidedly Christian bent. So what? History, while being recorded in the native languages of wherever history was recorded always reflected the bias of the writer. Whether the ancient Egyptians were referring to their recorded heritage by referencing the “Third Year of Amon Re” or the Hebrews referencing historical eras as being “in the chronicle of the king”, history has always echoed their biases. There were other ways to denote the break in time as well. Anno Salutis (in the year of our salvation), and even the vulgar era (with ‘vulgar’ meaning common person). In the case of B.C. and A.D., Christian writers used them both to separate eras of time in a decidedly Christian way. In fact, Dionysius Exiguus reputedly use the terms around 525 A.D. to identify the years on the Easter tables he prepared.
B.C. means Before the birth of Christ, while A.D. is short for the Latin Anno Domini, literally translated to In The Year of Our Lord or the birth of Christ. Essentially, that means year zero, the stopping point of the B.C.’s. Now, Europeans would begin counting the years upwards from zero or the birth of Christ. For the historical record, the years before that would be the B.C.’s, with the years counting down to the birth of Christ which is year zero. Get it? Maybe. Seems a little confusing. Toss in the idea that historians believe that the birth of Christ occurred between 5 B.C.-2 B.C., and it would seem that the term A.D. is inaccurate anyway. Why would historians, teachers, or anyone else for that matter want to use a date for the start of the second half of world history, the upward years if you will, that was inaccurate?
There is really only one reason—to delineate the “present” from the “past”, meaning that the usage of the term A.D. was simply meant to create a fictional line or breakpoint in the historical record that would separate the ancient past from the emerging present. What better break point for the historians of the Middle Ages than the birth of Christ? If one takes into account the importance of Christianity in the world of the Middle Ages, it makes complete sense. Christ was the center of their world. Making Christ the center of time, the delineation between the ancient past and the emerging present makes even more sense.
Now, some people will argue that both terms are not usable since A.D. may be incorrect historically. I say, not true, not true at all. The break point was not meant to be accurate from a historical point of view, it was just meant to be a division, a line in the sand, a Berlin Wall without Eastern European Communism on the other side. I am quite sure that the scholars of the Middle Ages were not sitting at their desks, candle wax running all over their work tables, fretting over the accuracy of where the A.D. was going to be used. They may have been thinking that they would leave that drivel to the politically correct, anal retentive quasi-historians of the future who would eventually find a way to muck up even these rather pristine waters of separation. Overthink. That seems to be the mantra of our era, and one that we are quite good at.
Another argument that I’ve heard is that the two terms are confusing. Many teachers have taught A.D. as After Death, an error that student still make after all of these eons. I have to correct them at the beginning of each school year. It requires, the critics say, too much explaining as to how to properly use both terms. B.C.E. and C.E. are much cleaner, more accurate, and denote a clear distinction without religious bias or Christian privilege.
To that last part, I say that I have yet to come across a student that, when confronted with the term A.D. suddenly pops out of their chair, light bulb glowing overhead, and screams for all to hear, “Oh! My! God! I cannot believe you are using the terms B.C. and A.D.! You are foisting your inherent Christian bias upon my brow, and forcing me to adopt the mantras of all of the Saints throughout history, unless you are a Lutheran, in which case you are foisting the heretical teachings of Luther upon my brow, assuming that I am a Catholic, which I may or may not be, or even a member of the Muslim community which has an almost completely different set of beliefs, although founded and based, at least initially on Judaism, which, again, I may or may not be. In fact, I can’t believe that you are even mentioning religion at all as the separation of Church and state clearly is intended to remove all mention of religion and religious instruction in the public-school setting. I am appalled and quite honestly, think I need a puppy.”
Listen, I get the arguments, I really do. I also get that the use of B.C. and A.D. are considered old, out of step, and out of date. However…
There is such a thing as overreach, and in this case, I think the tacit rejection of these two classic terms is nothing more than academic oversensitivity and overreach. No one is being influenced unduly because of their use, of covertly being Christianized. If they say that they are, they are not being honest intellectually or realistically. No students are being secretly coerced into becoming Christian due to their use either. If that were the case, we would not see the shrinking of Christianity throughout the world that is currently happening. Maybe the use of B.C.E. and C.E. is contributing to the shrinking of the Christian religion. See how silly that sounds?
The fact is this—I do not want to see the use of B.C. and A.D. disappear from our lexicon. They are as much a part of human recorded history as the hieroglyphics are a part of Egypt. They represent tradition, formerly accepted practice, and, to be honest, maybe even a connection to the past’s past. If the best reason to discontinue their use is because of some overthought, overwrought politically correct gobbledygook, then we are making a big mistake, one that I will not take part in. I will take time in my classes to teach both, explain both, but use the old school, if nothing else, because its use itself is history.