In Praise of Sacred Cows


The dating system invented by Tiny Dennis

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

2023. Every calendar now gives us this number. Few would think twice about what it means, but a sorry — and stupid — situation has emerged. It is now frowned upon, in the great majority of our educational and political institutions to give this year its due. Talk of “AD 2023” will furrow brows; the proper behaviour is to intone the sanitised nonsense of “CE”. And whatever academics feel on the issue, their university and publication “style guides” will impose the nouveau régime.

Of those who have noticed the rapid erosion of AD, and in turn BC, across the Anglophone world in the last two decades many suppose the change to be simply an “inclusive” practice, or just a natural consequence of our ever more secular age. But the reality is that this top-down rebranding is much more offensive than the system it seeks to remedy.

So, whence came the BC/AD system? Well, the Roman Empire had an unwieldy dating system, of naming the two consuls annually elected: that is bewildering when trying to talk about events from generations or centuries prior; and as for the unknown future, forget about it. 

When agreement was reached about when Rome was founded, it became possible to date events ab Vrbe condita (753 BC), but that practice was never popular. Instead, the dawn of the Principate made it more practical to date events by the beginning of each emperor’s rule — regnal dating being, in fact, history’s most common practice cross-culturally.

The idea for reform occurred, in Rome, to a Romanian (from Scythia Minor). In what we now call AD 525 the monk Dionysius Exiguus (Tiny Dennis in the vernacular) was producing new Easter Tables, from which the mind-bendingly difficult date of that holy day could be computed. The contemporary benchmark for dating was the accession of Emperor Diocletian, which had endured for centuries after his 21-year rule (284–305). Yet, given Diocletian’s record for active persecution of Christians, the system’s optics were sub-optimal.

Instead, Dionysius determined that the proper mode for dating should be Jesus Christ’s incarnation. He made his mysterious calculations and determined that anno Diocletiani 247 should be followed by anno Domini 532. In the beginning, there was Year Zero. Or rather there wasn’t, because the Europeans were then unaware of this numerical concept, so the Age of Christ began in AD 1 even if the small print requires the Nativity to fall a week before, on 25 December 1 BC (and the Incarnation at conception nine months earlier).

Two centuries later, this system was not just adopted, but extended, by the Venerable Bede, who felt able to date events ante Incarnationis Dominicae tempus (“before the time of the Lord’s Incarnation”) — equivalent in practice to the English B(efore) C(hrist). Dionysius’ dating spread: at the instance of another Northumbrian, Alcuin of York, Charlemagne made anno Domini regular, and by the eleventh century the Roman Church did too. At last, in 1582, Gregory XIII reformed the creaking Julian Calendar by shaving the official year down by 10 minutes and 48 seconds. This new Gregorian Calendar was gradually accepted in Europe and far beyond over the next four centuries.

But, there was a problem! No-one knew exactly when Jesus was born, and almost no-one thinks that it was just before AD 1. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that he was born by at least 6 BC; that of Luke, most improbably, points to AD 6. Already by the sixteenth century the system was known to be inaccurate, but it was too well embedded to be dismissed. So if we can’t pin down the annus Domini, are we to abandon a world calendar based upon it? 

Since the share-price of anno mundi (“year of the world”, or Adami “of Adam”) — 5509 BC for the Byzantines — has dropped in recent centuries, should we instead reach for new Year Zeros? 

In one of the great absurdities of the modern era, the French Revolutionary Calendar backdated the origin of its fledgling Republic by starting Année I on 21 September 1792 – or, as they billed it, Primidi, décade 1, Vendémiaire: the day of the grape. Even more arbitrarily, computer programmers decided in 1971 that “Unix Epoch” began on 1 Jan 1970. But, in 2023, there is no new date that could now be agreed upon: the fixed grid of time now binds the world tight. The numerical system far transcends the misdated but unknown birth of Christ. 

So, does the problem lie in the words anno Domini? This expression does not preach Christian redemption, as found in the old alternatives anno nostrae salutis (in the year of salvation) or anno salutis humanae (in the year of human salvation). Yet it may be objected that Christ is named as “Lord”. But Dominus is the standard Latin title for Jesus, just as Christos (lurking in BC) was in Greek. To secularise the name, someone would have to make a principled case for Before Jesus and anno Iesu (in the year of Jesus) — and grin and bear the acronyms.

Instead, the ethical, fashionable alternative is “BCE” and “CE”. You see, it is the “Common Era” we are in; and people who came before it were not. So just what ushered in this “era”? And what is “common” about it — other than the circular fact that it’s commonly called common? 

But its false religious neutrality is as hollow as its universalising claim: dating years by Christ’s notional birthdate is “common” because the world has adopted the system that does precisely that. At this point some will mumble that the abbreviation could instead stand for the “Current Era”, or we could adopt the self-satisfied “Our Era” expressions of German Unsere Zeit and French notre ère

Meanwhile, the wider world continues to use the dating system for convenience, while rejecting the offensive “commonality” of the “era”. Buddhists still choose to mark the years since the Buddha’s death in 544/3 BC, and Muslims count the Islamic Calendar from the year of the Hijri (AD 622). As the Imam Ibrahim Mogra said of BC/AD a few years ago, “I don’t believe it causes Muslims offence.” Even the avowedly anti-religious communists in China saw the advantages of taking the system up. 

What, then, is the pressing problem? That the system’s Christian origin is OK, but preserving that in in name is not? 

If religious hangovers are the issue, ought we not rename the months of July and August because the polytheistic Julius Caesar and Augustus believed themselves to be descended from Venus? What of the Norse gods behind Tuesday through Friday, and the Roman Saturn of Saturday? 

It is all distraction. BC/AD pins time to a moment that — whatever one’s personal beliefs — is of great historic importance. And it has the intellectual honesty to name that moment for what it was, and not affront those to whom the event is sacred. 

In fact, the system gains in strength from the combination of its historic cultural significance and its factual inaccuracy. No-one now really lives in the 2023rd year of Jesus’ birth. Since the correct number anno Domini can never be known, the system’s precise dating has become an appropriately arbitrary convention. And as the most successful frame for the world’s calendar, it deserves to have some years in it yet.

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