BCE Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It?

Confused about the meaning of BCE? This article will cover its definition, history, origins, and proper usage — read on to learn more!

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If you were to browse the wide variety of dictionaries — like Collins Dictionary or Cambridge Dictionary — you would find the term BCE with a few definitions. For example, “Before common Era,” “Before Christian Era,” or “Before Current Era” all refer to a year before the birth of Jesus Christ on the Christian Calendar. But what’s the best-known definition of BCE? Read on to find out!

What Does BCE Mean?

Simply put, BCE means “before common era.” If you are reading a publication including BCE, you’ll probably see its counterpart CE. These are both the secular version of the more commonly known abbreviations of AD and BC.

The abbreviation AD stands for anno domini (defined as “year of our lord” in Latin), whereas BC simply stands for “before Christ.” 

Although both abbreviations refer to the same dates, there are times when it’s better to use one over the latter. For example, a non-religious individual might prefer the abbreviation BCE.

The BCE format has been found in many manuscripts and other historical texts dating all the way back to 1708. Jewish academics more than 100 years ago adopted this format for the Jewish Calendar as well. 

BC vs. BCE

During the first few decades of this century, the use of BCE in most science, educational and non-Christian texts has been on the rise; however, many media sites on the internet still adhere to the AP Stylebook. 

As such, the AP Stylebook uses the term BC over BCE due to AP’s belief that A.D and B.C. are more understandable and common abbreviations.

Where Does BCE Come From?

The abbreviation BCE and its counterpart CE are tied to BC and AD, but they’re not explicitly tied to Christianity. Various English language dictionaries and writers have been using these abbreviations since the early 1700s.

It should be noted that the movement towards BCE has not been universally accepted. Even though it has been in the mainstream media since the 1980s, BC is still more widely used as its counterpart has received pushback.

While there have been many backlashes to this newer system over the years, one of the more notable occasions happened when the U.K. National Curricululm (2002) made the transition. 

Another controversy — triggered by media reports back in January of 2011 — was when the education authorities in Australia were forced to deny that transition had even been planned for their national school textbooks. 

In today’s publications, both digitally and on paper, you may have stumbled across a date in the CE or BCE format; this is a prime example of the evolution of human time-tracking.

The Evolution of Human Time-Tracking and Calendars

Just like all things human, calendars as well evolve. Our calendrical roots begin with the old Roman calendar, following down the line to the somewhat newer Julian calendar (brought to fruition by a ruler of ancient Rome, Julius Caesar). 

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar (named after himself), which is still the calendar of choice to date. In the sixth century, many people in power strived for a consistent to keep track of the year — namely, the Christian leaders who first and foremost wanted an agreed-upon date for Easter.

The Importance of Two Monks and a European Ruler 

In 525 AD, a Christian monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus started a movement to define time as “before christ” in lieu of the widely known and accepted numerical system based on the years when a Roman emperor ruled.

Dionysius’s movement set the standard for “the year of our lord” rather than the year of the emperor; it truly didn’t hurt Dionysius’s efforts that the Roman emperor of his time, Diocletian, persecuted early Christians.

The Advent of “Before Christ”

It wasn’t until 731 when an English monk who went by the name of Bede came up with the idea of “Before Christ.” At the time, there was no universal name for the hundreds of years that preceded the date of Jesus’ birth.

Just like that, there was a name or label to the years prior to the year Dionysius declared as the birthdate of Jesus. Rather than traditionally counting forward, it counted backward.

While it was never truly recorded how Dionysius decided on the date of the birth of Jesus Christ, some believe he based his pronouncement on the Bible. Other scholars believe it was based on astrological signs.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born when Herod the Great was in power, who had died in 4 BCE. However, the Gospel of Luke states this date be around 6 CE, citing that Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time of the birth.

Between the lack of historical evidence and varying testimonies, the starting date to which Dionysus had chosen is questionable at best to some– which has led to many debates and the start of the beginning to the public acceptance and usage of the term BCE.

It must be noted that the spread of the usage of BC (and later BCE) is due predominantly to Charlemagne, the ruler of the majority of Western Europe in the late 700s.

In Conclusion

The usage of BCE — as well as CE — lets you keep the dates as we all know them, while not tieing yourself down to any one religion. The bottom line here is that BCE and BC, mean the same thing. In other words, they are synonyms.  


  1. BCE definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary
  2. BCE | definition in the |  Cambridge English Dictionary
  3. Education Act 2002 | Legislation.gov