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B.C. and A.D. or B.C.E. and C.E.? The Battle Over History

The Kentucky State School Board has placed itself at the center of an expanding controversy as it has debated replacing references to B.C. and A.D. with B.C.E. and C.E. in social studies materials.

Of course, B.C. refers to “Before Christ” and A.D. to Anno Domini, or “In the Year of Our Lord.” The system for dating years is venerable and easy to understand — and it is increasingly considered to be politically incorrect.

The issue, of course, is the clear and unavoidable reference to Jesus Christ in the B.C. and A.D. date reference system. After all, the system takes its structure from the assumption that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central event of all history. The invention of B.C.E. for “Before Common Era” and C.E. for “Common Era” is nothing more than an attempt to avoid any reference to Christ.

Here is how Religion News Service and Christianity Today report the Kentucky story:

Earlier this year, staff at the Kentucky Department of Education proposed substituting C.E. (Common Era) for A.D. and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) for B.C. in draft curriculum guidelines for high school and middle school social studies classes.

The common B.C./A.D. system is based on the supposed year of Christ’s birth — a date posited by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 525. Years after Christ’s birth go up; those before it are counted backwards.

The proposal quickly came under attack from a conservative group, the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which accused state officials of trying to strip religious references from the state’s public schools.

In April, the statewide education board restored A.D. and B.C. to the guidelines, but only after including both systems — B.C./B.C.E. and A.D./C.E. The school board is expected to take final action in June on the voluntary guidelines, which spell out key concepts students are expected to master in all grades and subjects.

The nonsensical nature of this proposal comes down to this — there is no way to get around the fact that the hinge year is assumed by tradition to be the year of Christ’s birth. One can try to avoid any reference to Christ by using B.C.E. and C.E., but the numbers of the years still tell the story. If advocates of this change are really serious about avoiding all references to Christ, they will have to come up with a whole new numbering system for the years.

Here is the most interesting part of the RNS release:

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said schools should teach students the meaning of C.E. and B.C.E. “simply because it increasingly is the language and the abbreviation used in the secular world and in academic circles, and our young people need to be acquainted with that.”

But branding such instruction an assault on Christianity “is to my mind absurd,” said Kemper, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Let’s get this straight. The only motivation for replacing B.C. and A.D. with B.C.E. and C.E. is to avoid any reference to Jesus Christ. This system of dating has been in place for more than a millennium and a half, and its meaning has been almost universally understood. But, the head of the Kentucky Council of Churches thinks it is “absurd” to suggest that this is an assault on Christianity.

The word “assault” may not be the right word to use here, but “insult” is just about right. Changing the references without changing the dating is nonsense. Denying the obvious is just not a winning intellectual strategy.

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