Just what is the common era?

Just what is the common era? American scientist, Carl Sagan

Over recent decades readers of academic books on history and archaeology, and even some ordinary mass market trade books, will have noticed the increasing use of the term ‘Common Era’ (CE) rather than the older BC and AD for describing dates, the system familiar for centuries.

This new usage arose from the reluctance of some American and Jewish scholars (so I understand) to use the terms “Before Christ” or “Anno Domine” (Year of the Lord). It was thought, in the usual modern manner, to be offensive to others.

Naturally enough the strong-minded Evangelicals, who dominate so much of American social discourse, were indeed offended that Jesus was being removed from the calendar. But their actual offended feelings were accorded less respect than the notional potential distress of others. Though the references to Jesus might be removed, surely the date it itself, the actual number, ought to be seen, if this argument is a true, as just as “offensive”.

Their alarm feeds into the antagonism many people, such as President Trump’s supporters, feel for academics, for ‘know-it-alls’, for ‘those who tell us all what to do’. Thus rather than easing social tension the move merely exacerbates it.

But what is this notion of a Common Era? Surely this is a nonsense of another kind. There is no common era, except one which only American domination of the world can impose on other cultures.

Islamic countries may for the convenience of social and commercial intercourse with the West use the system, but in fact prefer to use their Islamic system in which this year, for instance is 1439AH (Anno Hegirae), ‘the year of the Hegira’.

This dates the Islamic era, separating it from the earlier ‘age of ignorance’, to the flight of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD to escape his enemies.

This system is used and respected in Islamic countries from Morocco to Indonesia, and wherever there are Muslim communities around the world, which makes it very much ‘the common era’ of Africa and a large part of Asia.

But then there is the densely populated Indian subcontinent. There the government of the Republic of India (the world largest democracy) in 1957 decide to impose a National Calendar, rather than proceed with the conflicting calendars of the country’s many social, racial, and religious groups. This is used in official documents, in such The Delhi Gazette, the government journal, and for news broadcasts. But wisely it is not used when it might interfere with business, at which modern Indians are so adept.


Of course, this is not a new game. The French at the time of the Revolution started from scratch with 1792 as Year 1 of the revolutionary calendar and even a set of new names for months of the year.

Perhaps we are lucky that the Americans are not putting forward 1776 as year one of the New World Order (as enunciated on the Great Seal of the Union).

The compilers of the Annals of the Four Masters adopted for much of the time the notation of Anno Mundi, the Year of the World. Many people, especially Protestants, but also some Catholics, take this to mean the year 4004BC calculated by Bishop Ussher [pictured] and inserted as a note in the King James Bible. But there were other Christian calculations of the date of creation, not to speak of Jewish ideas.

But the date of creation has been dated in other ways by other cultures. The American scientist Carl Sagan had proposed a ‘cosmic calendar’, based on the geological age of the universe, currently calculated at 13.8 billion years.

This dates the birth of Jesus to about December 31, 23:59:55. it may be ideal for the vast periods of cosmic time, but provides an inexact tool for the historian.

The idea of ‘a common era’ to be imposed, not by universal agreement, but through the power of American dominance is a lingering form of imperialism. One does not have to be a fanatic Muslim, Hindu or Jew, or indeed Christian, to feel that such an exercise in eminent domain should be resisted by the other cultures of the world if they value their own identities.