Boris Johnson on BC v. BCE on the BBC

The Mayor has a really good rant on the subject in the Telegraph … here’s the meat of the piece:

[…] So this is not some trivial bureaucratic thing: it is a change with subtle but extensive cultural ramifications. I object, first, because no one is asking for this change. I once did a few history programmes for the Beeb, and we referred endlessly to BC/AD, and we didn’t get a single letter of complaint.

I object because no one is offended by these terms. We talked to loads of Muslim and Jewish scholars, and none batted an eye at my usage; and it is particularly mad to think that Muslims might be offended by a reference to Jesus, when he is an important figure in Islam, and when many Muslims are baffled by this country’s peculiar desire to exterminate cultural references to its Christian history. I should stress at this point that I do not object because I want to vindicate the literal truth of the Christian religion – since I am afraid my faith is like a very wonky aerial, and I sometimes find the signal pretty scratchy. I object because it is all so darned nonsensical. There was no Mr Common Era preaching a ministry in Galilee in the 1st century AD. There is no Eran religion, and no followers of Common.

There was Christ, and if the BBC doesn’t want to date events from the birth of Christ then it should abandon the Western dating system. Perhaps it should use the Buddhist calendar, which says that it is the 2,555th year since the nirvana of Lord Buddha. Perhaps it should have a version of the old Roman calendar, and declare that this is the fourth year of the fourth consulship of Silvio Berlusconi. It could say that this year was 13,400,000 or whatever since the Big Bang, or maybe the BBC should switch to the Mayan calendar and announce that 2011 is the year 1 BC – before the catastrophe that is meant to engulf the planet.

But if the BBC is going to continue to put MMXI at the end of its programmes – as I think it does – then it should have the intellectual honesty to admit that this figure was not plucked from nowhere. We don’t call it 2011 because it is 2011 years since the Chinese emperor Ai was succeeded by the Chinese emperor Ping (though it is); nor because it is 2011 years since Ovid wrote the Ars Amatoria. It is 2011 years since the (presumed) birth of Christ. I object to this change because it reflects a pathetic, hand-wringing, Lefty embarrassment about thousands of years of cultural dominance by the West.

The simple fact is that the Roman empire was programmatic of most of our modern global civilisation, and the decision by Constantine in 330 AD to make Christianity the official religion was one of the most important moments in the history of that empire. That is why we have used this system for 1,500 years and more, and that is why it is accepted in China, Japan and just about anywhere you care to mention that this is the year 2011. The BBC needs to stop spending time and money on this sort of footling political correctness. Someone needs to get out down the corridor and find the individual who passed this edict and give him or her a figurative kick in the pants. I know it sounds like a trivial thing to get worked up about, but one trivial thing leads to another. I urge all readers to get out their Basildon Bond and hit the emails – to Mark Thompson and Lord Patten. Let’s fight this Beeb drivel now.

… on a related note: if someone can tell me why the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops chose to use BCE in their Grade Seven Believe in Me textbook (for Catholic schools), I’d be a little demystified …

Addendum (a few days later): Tony Keen on the Classics list pointed us to a somewhat different spin on the ‘edict’ by the Guardian (although the headline is a bit sensationalistic): How the BBC’s dark forces of political correctness threaten the Christian era

13 thoughts on “Boris Johnson on BC v. BCE on the BBC

  1. As to the bishops, the only answer, the simplest answer, which creates not one unnecessary substantia, is this:
    they are stupid.
    But that might be over-stating the obvious.

  2. What if we dated things to the start of the Augustan Principate? That would shift things 27 years to the left, and would presumably not bother any current religion (who prays these days to the Genius of Augustus?)

    1. who prays these days to the Genius of Augustus?

      Christians do, together with the Clementia Caesaris. They only call it “holy spirit”. 🙂

      Alternative: instead of the “presumed” birthdate of Christ (Johnson), let’s use the known birthdate of Caesar—known at least for the majority of scholars, which is exactly 100 years earlier. So we simply need to turn 2011 into 2111 etc. Easy calculation. Caesar was important to Christians… after all, the start of the first historical Paschal cycle—at least to my knowledge it was the first one—was back-dated to the year of Caesar’s first consulship. Now, now… We can then even retain BC and AD, with BC read as “before Caesar”, and AD as “anno Domini”, because that’s who Caesar was: dominus.

      Who prays these days to dominus Caesar? Ah, right, well… 😉

  3. Such a non-issue.

    Also, “the decision by Constantine in 330 AD to make Christianity the official religion” is fiction.

  4. While I love a good rant as much as anybody ;-), I would like to note
    that the man that we base our dates on was not born as “Mr. Christ”
    (i.e. Messias) or “Mr. Dominus.” Both of these are specifically
    christian titles and, seen as the theological terms that they are, do
    in fact bother some Jews and possibly other non-Christians.

    If we called it “Before/After Jesus” that would be as neutral as we
    can get it without moving the actual date and still keep the man’s
    name in there. But than that wouldn’t gain us anything as opposed to
    “(Before) Common Era”.

    1. You’re forgetting that God is eternal, and Christ was God incarnate, ergo dominus: before birth, at birth, during his life as a man (whom we call “Jesus” today), and after his death… and therefore BC/AD—or more correctly: AC/AD—are in fact correct.

  5. A perfectly good reason to ditch the whole BC/AD thing is not for any bogus political correctness, but because Dionysius Exiguus in 525 got the date of Christ’s birth wrong, somewhere between 2 and 7 years wrong. Christ being born 4 Before Christ is not one of the ineffable mysteries that The Church hands down to us, but a matter of bad math and difficulty in synchronizing the three calendars that Denny the Skinny had to work with.

  6. Colin Wells tackles this unapologetically in:

    A Brief History of History: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past

    – Kindle Highlight Loc. 2949-53 (

    * Or as the more politically correct but intellectually shabby recent locution would have it, the “Common Era,” as if calling the very same numerals “common” should somehow lessen their inappropriateness for Jews, Muslims, and others. In fact, this no doubt well-intentioned procedure does the reverse, by implying that Christian should equal “common.” A truly “common era” would find some other starting point than the supposed year of Christ’s birth-perhaps a mathematical average of the years in which Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, and Sam Harris were born. The reader of this book may already have noted the traditional BC and AD designations, which may be “Christocentric,” but at least are honestly so.

  7. I had hoped that this rant would be less riddled with logical fallacy.

    Only Canadian priests would be polite enough to use a non-sectarian dating system.

  8. I’m actually pleased to see that the Beeb is changing the wording.

    The problem with BC/AD as a dating system is that language is powerful–as anyone who writes hopes it is.
    Using BC/AD as the primary dating system (which is is throughout a supermajority of public communication) makes Christianity normative. This, by reflection, makes all other religions non-normative.

    Or, if we wish to be blunt about it, it implies that non-Christians, and their histories and dating systems, are “wierd,” “freaks” and “wrong.”

    Changing BC/AD to BCE/CE does Christianity no harm. People may feel it is taking away the privilege of being The Dating System from Christianity and somehow that act makes a religion lesser. But that was only ever a privilege, not a right, and Christianity is one amongst a family of faiths.

    If we can indicate that via language, the better for us.

    1. BC/AD is no longer the Christian system, but the Western System. As the Mayor stated, he never received any complaints from people of other faiths. I quote from a friend of an old schoolmaster of mine “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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