Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Resurrecting NT Wrong on BCE and CE vs. BC and AD

Bob Cargill's latest In My View over on Bible and Interpretation is an excellent piece on the BC / AD vs. BCE / CE usage, strongly arguing that the former should be abandoned and the latter adopted by all:

Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System

On occasions like this, I like to turn to NT Wrong. He wrote the following post on 4 January, in what is effectively an interesting counter to elements in Bob's article. I am not saying that I agree with everything NT says, but it's worth hearing again:
Use A.D. and B.C.! (Out with C.E. and B.C.E.!!)

The abbreviations C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before Common Era) are commonly used in modern biblical scholarship to refer to the eras which were formerly known as A.D. (Anno Domini - The Year of The Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ). The usual rationale for the change is sensitivity to other religious and non-religious users of the Gregorian calendar. That is, given the number of worldwide users of the Gregorian calendar who don’t believe Jesus of Galilee is ‘The Lord’, a more neutral term is thought to be provided by ‘Common Era’.

However, what is ‘common’ about the Gregorian calendar? To the contrary, however the dating system is named, it refers to a specific tradition of the Christian West. The calendar has a very specific origin in the Christian tradition, and is calculated with respect to the estimated year of birth of the person central to the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ. (In actual fact, Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated the year of Jesus’ birth when he developed the calendar’s antecedent in AD 525, but that’s another story…)

By using ‘C.E.’ and B.C.E.’, we universalize a peculiar tradition. We make it out to be ‘common’ or ‘natural’, not requiring any special marking or qualification. As a consequence of the fact of Western power, the Gregorian calendar has been adopted as the most-used calendar in the world, and so does have some degree of ‘commonality’ in day-to-day use. But the change from A.D. to C.E. (and from B.C. to B.C.E.) obscures the particular Christian basis of this ‘common’ calendar, misrepresenting it as ‘normal’ - as somehow transcending historical particularities. By contrast, the other calendars are made out to be the only ‘localized’ and ‘particular’ calendars. While the Christian calendar is ‘naturalized’ by its designation as ‘common’, other calendars (Jewish, Persian, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Ethiopian, Thai, etc) are ‘artificial’ and ‘contingent’.

Stop this neo-colonialism! Use A.D. and B.C. again!! The specific marking of these older terms, which refers to the Christian concept of ‘Christ’, may well be offensive to some people. But this offence is substantial and systemic, not removeable by changing the name of the year which is dated from the birth of Christ. The hegemony of the Western calendar is a fact, and just one of the many effects of Western power in the world today — a minor but not insignificant fact, given the universal importance of local calendars in shaping culture. To obscure the Western calendar’s particularity by making it into a false universal is a double injustice – both the initial violence of changing local calendars, and then its covering up with the misleading term “common”. This is ideology at work.

Scholarship should be on the side of pointing out where injustices arise, not in covering them up.


Christopher Heard said...

Mark, I have noticed that Richard Dawkins uses BC and AD in his books. Is it typical in Britain for ordinary usage to favor BC/AD? In other words, is BCE/CE chiefly an academic phenomenon?

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, me too; in fact, I was planning to mention that in my next post on the topic. Yes, I think you are right -- BCE/CE is essentially an academic / Biblical scholarship phenomenon.

Robert R. Cargill said...

actually, chris, people in britain would more likely favour bc/ad.

and mark, i read a comment on another site today that echoed the entry by nt wrong, but didn't cite him.

it makes me wonder...... ;- )

to the argument, i say, yes, the zero point at the transition of bce to ce is arbitrary, and yes, it was an attempt to link history to the birth of jesus.

my thought is to use the most widely used calendar (western or not) with the least offensive terms.

likewise, we make talk post-colonial and counter post-colonial arguments, but my argument is a counter to those xns who revile bce/ce because it is not 'xn.' bc/ad causes even more problems for xns.

Mark Goodacre said...

Good thoughts, Bob. The objection to Xmas always makes me smile because presumably the X stands for XRISTOS anyway? Perhaps not. I have a few extra comments on my own, which I'll get to later, but I wanted to let NT Wrong speak first. Thanks again for a great piece.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Mark. This piece has been mentioned by others, but no one had access to it. It highlights the most common academic objection to the proliferation of BCE/CE. I think it makes a rather interesting assumption, though.

The primary point is that using BCE/CE fails to entirely overcome the religio-centrism of BC/AD, since it is still based entirely off that system. It's a superficial or not-entirely-sincere solution, according to that perspective. This presumes that the intention was to entirely overcome the issue, though, and I don't think anyone was ever under that misapprehension. That religio-centrism can't be changed without entirely overhauling the calendar system, and that's not going to happen. We don't have to just leave it as it is, though, since many people aren't happy with it, Christian and non-Christian alike.

What it does do is, at the very least, make it so Jewish, Muslim, non-believing, and other scholars don't have to refer to "our Lord" in writing and speaking. Yeah, it's just an abbreviation, and yeah, the numbering is still based off of the Christian tradition, but at least they don't have to explicitly mention it. Some may be reminded of the issue every time they hear BCE or CE, but many, like me, have grown so accustomed to it that it doesn't conjure up anything.

Others are happy to see it as a sign the traditionally Christian-heavy academy is recognizing a more globalized community of scholars. It's an olive branch, so to speak. Even if it's just a small step, it's in their direction. I spoke with a Muslim scholar about this at a conference last year and this was his perspective.

It may not make the conflict entirely disappear, but all the non-Christian scholars I know with whom I've discussed the issue are happy with at least that small display of consideration. I also don't know any who have concluded that it doesn't do enough, and so it isn't worth doing at all. The last thing I think it is is a secular campaign against Christianity. I don't think that argument is particularly salient.

That's my perspective. I know others have different feelings, and I do not reject or belittle them in any way, but I think a lot of the arguments are based off of assumptions concerning what the other side is trying to say. I wanted to be as explicit as possible in my thoughts on the matter. Thanks for the forum, Mark, and sorry to be so long-winded.

Steve Wiggins said...

IMHO BCE/CE is a first step to move chronology into a somewhat more neutral place. Dealing with the Hebrew Bible, this issue is often a pretty sharp one. No one can change the fact that people started counting the years from the alleged time of Jesus' birth, but we can admit that it was considered appropriate at that time and is less so at this time. It is the elephant in the room, but maybe we can make it less threatening to others. Call it offering an olive branch.