The Calgary Herald

BC-BCE Shuffle a Distinction of Note[1]

Recent editorials and op-ed pieces in the Herald have had a field day ridiculing the Royal Ontario Museum's use of the abbreviations BCE (Before the Common/Christian Era) and CE (Common/Christian Era) as replacements for the venerable BC and AD. The various authors lumped this phenomenon together, as instances of idiotic secularist Political Correctness, comparable to Toronto's attempt to divest the fir tree of its association with Christmas, or the Canadian Mint's seasonal adverting campaign about "the twelve days of giving."

I confess that, from my own perspectives as an academic scholar of religion and as a traditional Jew, what surprised me most about the whole BC-BCE affair was the assumption in the Alberta press that this terminology is a new development that could be equated with militant manifestations of anti-Christianity.

Just to be sure, I pulled out a random sampling of Canadian, British and American undergraduate textbooks from my shelves, works that were published over at least two decades, and darned if I was able to find a single volume that still employs the old BC-AD nomenclature! In fact, the Oxford Dictionary cites examples of BCE-CE going back to 1881. 

Admittedly, most people do not have frequent occasion to make such distinctions on their day-timers; nevertheless, it is very startling that the news has taken so long to reach Alberta.

In my own adult life, I don't think I have ever been called upon to use the BC-AD system, and I would certainly have put up stiff resistance to any such a move.

Take note that mine is not the stereotyped voice of the militant secularist Christian-baiter. I personally delight in the pious decorating of Christian trees in public squares, provided that similar opportunities are extended to the symbols of other religious communities. I am likewise offended by the Canadian Mint's ignorance in suggesting that Hanukkah (or, for that matter, Ramadan) can be characterized as "twelve days of giving."

But this is not the issue here.

While I rejoice in the right of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims to celebrate their observances in an authentic manner, I refuse (as have several generations of my coreligionists) to be coerced into using a dating system that requires me to proclaim somebody else's faith.

The BC-AD usage is by no means a theologically neutral or "civil" usage. Whether or not they are aware of the fact, all those who use that system are declaring themselves Christian believers. 

Although pious Victorian novelists are reported to have composed historical fictions about "the Christ family," the  fact is that "Christos" is not a proper name, but a profoundly theological title. It means "anointed" and is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mashiah. For Christians, the term has well-known connotations of a redeemer or divinity; and it is impossible to use the term accurately without buying into that alien doctrine.

Sorry, folks, but we Jews, along with the members of other religious communities that inhabit the Canadian multicultural mosaic, do not accept that particular article of Christian faith, and we refuse to use language that violates the sancta of our beliefs.

The problem becomes even more blatant with respect to the second abbreviation. AD stands for the Latin Anno Domini: in the year of the lord. Clearly, the "lord" in this expression is Jesus, and every time the expression is used, one is implicitly accepting Jesus as one's lord.

Again, with all due respect, we non-Christians must beg to remove ourselves from that archaic civic consensus, and we would prefer not to be branded as intolerant extremists when we choose to do so.

"Pedantic nitpicking," I can already here people retorting. "Who really pays attention to the literal meaning of every word and letter!"

Well, perhaps I am a mere fossil from an antiquated civilization that took its words seriously and equated bad grammar with sloppy thinking. I trust, however, that I am not alone in my conviction that inattention to the implications of our words is an important factor in our current social, moral and political malaise.

In this Sysiphian struggle for linguistic and conceptual precision, I believe that we are justified in expecting support, not mockery, from the esteemed members of the Fourth Estate.

Return to Index

My e-mail address is