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By L. Dean Webb


One day, I received these questions in my inbox:

...I was explaining to my students the new BCE/CE designation that is gradually replacing BC/AD. I explained what it means and why the switch. One student really objected to it because she identifies strongly as Christian and said that she would still use the old system if it was OK with me. I told her that, as far as I was concerned, in my class she could use the old system but that she may want to consider using the new designations for the World History AP exam itself or at least write an explanation at the top of any essay that might be affected. Will it count against her to use BC/AD?- sure don't want to mislead her. Does anyone have the full story on the switch- who or what entity initiated it? I'd like to have the full story. For instance- what does the word "common" refer to in Common Era?

Rather than give a straight answer, I just had to go off on a tangent. Here's my reply. If you ever wanted to know about dating systems, here's the lowdown:

Send 'em here: Lots of fun, eh? There are lots of dating systems in use, so it only matters that you're on the same page as the test. Given that Jesus was likely born around 4-6 BC, even the BC/AD system could use a tad of revision.

The BC/AD system wasn't even used until after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and then not even by all Christians. One of the most popular dating systems was AM, or anno martyri, year of the martyrs, dating from the beginning of the persecutions under Diocletian. This year is 1720 AM.

Although AD can be controversial, the alternative CE is not universally used except on the World History AP exam. has some neato information on dating systems of the early Mediterranean, and would make some good reading, I tell you what! Rome kept dates on the AUC system, measuring time from the founding of Rome in 753 BCE. Or BC. Whatever. In Medieval times, documents were dated in several parallel systems, allowing historians to figure out when various systems start.

Another AM system popular among early Christians was anno mundi, years since the world was created. Of course, those basing their reckonings on modern science would lump everything at 4.5 billion years since the earth formed, give or take a million. That would make everything in the WHAP course essentially simultaneous. While that would relieve kids of the pressure of learning exact dates, it would devastate their answers on the change-over-time and era comparison questions. Best to use St. Jerome's calculations for this one if you want your kids to do well on the free response questions.

AD itself didn't catch on until Charlemagne and his court started using it. The rest, as they say, is history. So if your student has some connections with the Carolingians (and who doesn't? Charlemagne's 44 generations in the past - everyone should have him in their family tree somewhere!), I can understand a sentimental attachment to her ancestor's preferred dating system. But by no means was it the dominant system used by Christians throughout their history.

Now, should she suddenly convert to Islam, she might want to say it's the year 1381, because that's how many years ago Muhammad fled to Medina. Conversely, she could renounce Jesus Christ and instead choose the Law of Moses for herself and claim it's on or about the year 5764, according to the Hebrew calendar. It'll be a bit more mental gymnastics for her to convert to Confucianism and Chinese traditions, but if so, I'm happy to tell you I'm writing this in the Hour of the Metal Horse of the Day of the Earth Snake in the Month of the Water Ox of the Year of the Water Ram. (phew!)

Ironically, nobody uses the most correct of distinctions: GC, for Gregorian Calendar. It starts when it starts, 1, and has so far gotten up to 2003, where you are now. Not even the Catholic Church says it starts with the birth of Jesus. It just sort of... starts. Before that would be, I presume, BGC, but I guess folks don't use it because it might be too easily confused with a famous New York City night club.

So there you go. Lots of alternatives available, and I'm sure the graders wouldn't mind to take a few moments from their Nebraskan reading frenzy to mosey on over to an encyclopedia to see if the unusual dating system she's chosen translates accurately to "CE" dates. Remember, they grade holistically, so they must add up what's right rather than take off for what's wrong. As long as you steer her away from opening up with, "About 4.5 billion years after the earth cooled and solidified...", she should come out fine on the tests.

And hey, look on the bright side... she could be insisting this is AF LXXXI, or "year of the fascist" 81...