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The trouble with Anno Domini

Posted on 28 September 2011, 14:17

AD and BC, even though they’re 2011 years in the past, still have power in the present to razz up the partisan press. According to the Daily Mail, a new ‘BBC diktat’ has consigned all mention of AD and BC to the trash, and programme producers must now use the politically correct CE (common era) and BCE (before common era).

Schools and universities in the UK have been using those terms for several years, of course, but that seems to be news to the Daily Mail. Christian leaders of the ‘new whine’ tendency happily supplied rentaquotes to the Mail for the article, and I guess ordinary believers are now supposed to see the retirement of AD and BC as an outrageous attack on the Christian faith itself and get terribly offended by it.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester who always reminds me of a tetchy car alarm that goes off for no good reason at 3.30am, said, ‘I think this amounts to the dumbing down of the Christian basis of our culture, language and history.’ Hmm. It sounds like it might have been a slow day at Nazir-Ali Towers.

I remember as a child puzzling over the mysterious meaning of AD and BC. I grasped they were about the way we count years and that BC meant ‘Before Christ’, but like many people my guess was that AD meant ‘After Death’ – although that didn’t seem quite right, as it put the 33 years of Jesus’s life into a sort of dead zone. But at least I didn’t make the same mistake as the school kid who wrote in an exam that AD stood for Anus Domini.

When my Dad finally told me it was the Latin Anno Domini, ‘the year of our Lord’, I was frankly a bit disappointed. I thought it sounded dodgy. It was a religious statement in a way that ‘Before Christ’ was not. BC is mostly factual, whereas AD is something like a confession of faith. As St Paul said, ‘no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’.

A couple of centuries ago, the phrase sounded even more elaborately religious: Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, ‘the year of our Lord Jesus Christ’, which makes explicit the rather huge faith claim hiding in AD’s seemingly modest abbreviation. The BBC’s religion and ethics department says AD and BC are religiously loaded, and I think they have a point.

I wouldn’t expect someone of another faith – or of no faith – to call Jesus ‘our Lord’, and for that reason I think it’s unreasonable for Christians to demand that AD continues past its natural retirement age. These little markers, like am and pm, or like N, S, E and W, should be neutral and descriptive, and the fact that over-sensitive Christians are fighting for AD is a clue about its religious value for them. It’s just bad religion and they need to give it up for the good of everyone, including themselves.

Personally, I’m much happier with BCE and CE. To me, they invite the question: when and why did we move from one to the other? It’s much better to be asked a question and be given the chance to tell your story of faith than to insist everyone tells it for you, whether they like it or not.

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Yes (just catching up here) but the interesting thing is that as with all the fuss about Christmas v Winterval, other faith groups don’t apparently have a problem with it.

Sue Barrow, Fri 14 Oct, 13:53

I do so agree. I’ve been using CE & BCE for years, even in a Christian ‘theological’ or historical context. It is simple common courtesy to those who don’t share our beliefs. And if some Christians get het up about it, they can take comfort from the fact that for everyday usage everybody in the world now counts years from the supposed birth year of Christ (which is years out anyway) as we can tell from the ‘millennium’ celebrations. This sort of fuss just makes Christians look ridiculous.

Anne Peat, Wed 28 Sep, 14:54

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