If a school child asks, “Why is this year given the number 2009?,” the easy answer by a teacher or parent would be mathematical: “Because we add a 1 to last year’s 2,008.” As the pupil progresses in school, the pupil learns of other dates – the birth years of his or her siblings, of parents, of years in history such as Pearl Harbor of 1941, the Magna Carta of 1215, the Norman invasion of 1066. At some point, a perceptive pupil will make the discovery that this year’s designation depends on a year in the past being regarded as Year 1. Clearly, a “Number 1” in every field, not just sports, is highly coveted. The child will want to know what was so special about Year 1.
The answer any teacher or parent, even non-Christian teachers and parents, must give is: That was the year (or the approximate year) Jesus Christ was born. Even the non-Christian pupil will have heard about Jesus Christ in connection with the well-known holidays of Christmas and Easter. And, for the same reason that these holidays are well-known and widely celebrated in this country, the pupil will have some appreciation for the significance of the man named Jesus Christ.
But the perceptive student will note that we do not begin the computation of time based on the birth of other famous or infamous persons such as Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne, George Washington, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr. An older student may note that some dates are calculated based on events other than a person’s birth. For example, a Christian student may read from Matthew 3:1 “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign…” Or a student may read a presidential proclamation that refers to “the 200th year of the independence of the United States.” But we do not recalculate time beginning in 1776. 1776 is not the New Year 1. Or is it?
In his October 16 column about the Battle of Gettysburg and a party held by 200 private citizens who had donated money for a new visitors’ center, [“A Gift on Hallowed Ground” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/15/AR2008101503168.html] George Will declared: “The founding of the American nation was the hinge of world history.” Of course George Will was addressing his piece to a domestic, American, audience. Nonetheless, it is embarrassing for any person educated in Western civilization not to have added a caveat, “with the exception of the birth of Jesus Christ.”
The Founders, and the rest of the world, were aware, at the time, of their great and marvelous achievement -- a revolution against the great power Britain and the establishment of a government founded upon liberty. None of them, however, would have declared that they were greater than the birth of Jesus Christ – any more than we of our generation would accept the statement by one of the Beatles, published July 29, 1966, that they were more popular than Jesus Christ.
You may respond that it is only in hindsight that a recalculation is made, so that some day America, and indeed the world, may regard 1776 as a New Year 1. You would be correct that it was only after a long passage of time, more than two centuries after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, that the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ was reflected in the way we mark time.
It was in the year we designate as 525 that this system of calculating time, called the Anno Domini system (short for the Latin Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ) was devised by a monk in Rome named Dionysius Exiguus. Two historians soon used this system: an African named Victor of Tonnenna in the 6th century and Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published in 731. When Charlemagne (crowned Roman Emperor in 800) adopted this system, it was the catalyst for its spread throughout the West, but it was a slow process that was not accomplished until the 15th century. In this process, the Anno Domini system eclipsed the system used in Spain based on the commencement of Roman rule there (38 BC as Year 1), the system used by the Coptic Church based on the date Diocletian became emperor (284 AD), and systems like the Hebrew (Jewish) one that used as Year 1 the date thought to be when the world was created (such systems are called Anno Mundi (Latin for “year of the world”).
With European colonization, the Anno Domini system spread throughout the world, eclipsing the Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, and other systems. Attempts by political regimes to start new systems ended with the demise of those regimes, for example, the French First Republic (1793 as Year 1) and the Italian Fascists (1922 as Year 1). With the globalization of commerce and communications, additional systems, like the Islamic and Iranian calendars, will either end or be restricted in use.
There is a movement to adopt CE (for Common Era) in place of AD and to adopt BCE (for Before Common Era) in place of BC (Before Christ) as a religiously neutral notation in a pluralistic world that has, for the sake of convention, adopted the Anno Domini system of the West. In fact, of course, CE can mean Christian Era, so it is not religiously neutral. In any case, the basis for this Common Era system remains the Anno Domini system because Year 1 is the same in both systems. Nonetheless, the Common Era system has been adopted in history texts and museum exhibits. In every other context, neither the CE nor AD notations are used. Perhaps this is a prelude to the adoption of some other year, such as 1776, as the New Year 1.
The Southern Baptist Convention of 2000 passed a resolution, No. 9, urging the use of AD as “a reminder of the preeminence of Christ and His gospel in world history.” Although the Anno Domini system implicitly recognizes the importance of the birth of Jesus Christ, Christians (and I address Christian readers here) should add AD to the year to make explicit – for Christians – what is implicit. Christian publications, students in Christian schools, and Christian personal correspondence should use AD. Email and text systems should provide the user the option of automatically adding AD to the year.
This use will remind those of us who are Christians, as we read and write, that we believe in a person who lived in a specific place and time. Imprinting AD with every year will replicate the ritual of imprinting the year on the Easter candle. As that ritual indicates, Christians believe the person of Jesus Christ is not only an historical figure, but lives now in the current year, as stated by the late Pope John Paul II in his letter written to prepare for the jubilee year of 2000, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, para. 10 (1994). The birth of Jesus Christ was -- and is -- the watershed event, the “unparalleled event” (John Paul II, para. 15), the hinge, of human history.
Having once recognized the birth of Jesus Christ as an unparalleled event clearly worthy of being designated as Year 1, should we dare reject the Anno Domini system and adopt in its place a system in which time is marked by some lesser event? Should we live, move, and have our being (Acts of the Apostles 17:28) through time as though time were man-made rather than God-given? Should we mark our time on earth as though Jesus does not exist?
In this regard, it is instructive to read an excerpt from biblical scholar Raymond Brown’s slim volume “An Adult Christ at Christmas” (p. 18) (based on his major work, “The Birth of the Messiah”): “The Age of Augustus was propagandized as the glorious age of pastoral rule over a world made peaceful by virtue…[T]here was a erected a great altar to the peace brought about by Augustus, and this Ara Pacis Augustae still stands in Rome…The Greek cities of Asia Minor [now Turkey] adopted September 23rd, the birthday of Augustus, as the first day of the New Year. He was hailed…as the ‘saviour of the whole world’; and [one] inscription grandiosely proclaimed: ‘The birthday of the god [Augustus] marked the beginning of the good news for the world.’
Luke [in his Gospel] contradicts this propaganda by showing that paradoxically the edict of Augustus served to provide a setting [the census] for the birth of Jesus. Men built an altar to the pax Augustae, but a heavenly chorus proclaimed the pax Christi: ‘On earth peace to those favored by God’ [Luke] (2:14). The birthday that marked the true beginning of a new time took place not in Rome but in Bethlehem, and a counterclaim to man-made inscriptions was the heraldic cry of the angel of the Lord: ‘I announce to you the good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord’ [Luke] (2:10-11).”
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C., attorney. He is a former general counsel of Americans United for Life. His master's thesis was on marriage and his graduate studies included the subject of polygamy in America.