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Calendar Systems Part 4 - Adoption of the BC-AD Dating System

In part 3, we explored the meaning and origin of our modern BC-AD (Anno Domini) dating system.  In part 4, we look at the historical events that led to its acceptance by Christendom, the church-state relationship between the papacy and the Roman political leaders, and the development of alternative naming conventions to the Anno Domini system.

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Adoption of BC-AD Dating System

Despite the development of the Dionysus dating system based on the Incarnation of Christ, the popes and other religious and political leaders continued to employ the existing practices of dating from the ascension of a Constantinople emperor or local ruler, an important event, or an assortment of other points of origin.  The Anno Domini system would finally start picking up traction in the eight century due primarily to the efforts of two individuals, the Anglo-Saxon historian Bebe (aka Beda or Baeda) and the Frankish King Charlemagne.

Bede (~673-735 AD) was an English monk and church historian who recorded the history of Christianity in England.  He also wrote about science, poetry and music, biographies of the saints, and commentaries on much of the Bible such as the Pentateuch (five books of Moses), the Kings, the gospels of Mark and Luke, Acts, many of the Epistles, the Apocalypse (Revelation) and several books of the Apocrapha.  He later became known as the Venerable Bede after he was declared “venerable”, the first stage of canonization (sainthood) by the Roman Church about 100 years after his death (he was later canonized to “Saint” in 1899).  Bede is often referred to as “The Father of English History”.  Without his writings that could be found in libraries all across Western Europe, the early period of English Christianity would have remained relatively unknown.

Bede was also familiar with the work of Dionysius, which undoubtedly had some influence on his own scientific works.  He wrote extensively of astronomy and the calendar, including methods of calculating the Easter holy day.  Moreover, with the completion of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) about 731 or 732 AD, Bede became the first author to date all the historical events using the Dionysius’ Anno Domini dating system.  It is also thought that Bede was the first to use the suffix “BC” to refer to the negative numbered years before Christ’s Incarnation.

While Bede’s writings introduced the English public to the Anno Domini dating system, Charlemagne (~742-814 AD) was the catalyst that introduced and accelerated its popularity onto the European mainland.  Charlemagne (aka Charles I and Charles the Great) became the ruler of the Franks about 770AD.  During his early reign, he launched many military campaigns in an attempt to merge the Germanic and other European groups into a united Christian kingdom.  These operations met with such success that, by the time of his death, his domain included much of Western Europe and he was later considered by some to be the founder of Europe.

The Holy Roman Empire and Church-State Power Struggles

It was an event in 800AD however, that would change the European religious and political landscape for centuries to come.  The previous year, Charlemagne, a fervent supporter of Christianity and the papacy, came to the aid of Pope Leo III during a rebellion.  As a result, the pope crowned Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD at St. Peter’s Basilica, effectively creating what became known as the Holy Roman Empire and beginning a fluid church-state relationship that would often be marked by power struggles between the papacy and the crown until Napoleon finally demolished the empire a thousand years later.

The Pope took the crowning as an implied assertion of the Church’s supremacy over the secular and political realm.  Charlemagne however, interpreted the act as receiving authority over religious affairs.  He often appointed bishops and other church officers, presided over synods and councils, and considered himself to be protector over the church.  His first official act was to condemn the pope’s attempted usurpers to death for treason.

Charlemagne was also very passionate about religious education.  In his attempt to wipe out illiteracy, particularly among the clergy, he established schools and monasteries throughout his kingdom.  His emphasis on the classic early works ushered in a new renaissance of learning.  Thus in contrast to many of their successors, the Charles and Leo affiliation was mostly amicable.

Charlemagne was also an enthusiastic proponent of the Anno Domini calendar dating system.  His familiarity with the works of Dionysius and Bede, combined with his passion for Christianity, education, and literature resulted in the system’s expanded usage throughout most of his kingdom.

After Charles’ death however, levels of cooperation between successive popes and emperors tended to fluctuate for more than two centuries.  The power shifted considerably to the Church in 1073 when Hildebrand became pope (as Gregory VII) and instituted a series of reforms.  With the rise of feudalism in the empire, the papacy maintained significant control into the early fourteenth century under strong leaders such as Innocent III and Gregory IX.  During this era, the popes generally controlled the political leaders by threatening them with excommunication from the Church or with invasion from another leader who was friendlier to the Church.  During both of these eras of fluctuation and papal dominance, the boundaries and numbers within Christendom greatly increased, with the Holy Roman Empire becoming practically synonymous with Western Christendom.  Likewise, the Anno Domini system continued to spread.

In the early 1300s AD, the Medieval Church began to decline due to the rise of nationalism, increasing immorality and secularization within the Church, and negative reactions against the Inquisition, Crusades and questionable fund-raising techniques by the Church.  Yet by this time, the Anno Domini system was firmly in place in most Roman Catholic controlled territory as well as many Eastern areas.

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Other Modern Dating System Naming Conventions

The winds of change that began in the early fourteenth century reached hurricane strength about 200 years later when several protestant reformations broke out in various European countries (the best known was the Lutheran Reformation in Germany).  It soon became clear that a resolution with the Roman Church could not be reached, so the Church split.

Rather than diminishing the popularity of the Anno Domini system however, the Reformation actually proved to be a great boon to the calendar dating method.  The new worldview of the Reformers soon impacted all spheres of life, including political, education, science and economics.  Even though the Anno Domini system was originally developed primarily for religious use, it soon came into common use outside the church.  In addition, coupled with the internal reforms put in place by the Roman Church at the Council of Trent (1545-63 AD) and the new competition in global evangelism, the dating system greatly spread to other geographical areas.

This global dominance of the Anno Domini system presented somewhat of a dilemma to many unbelievers in the late seventeenth century with the coming of the cultural movement that was later termed the Enlightenment.  Many secularists objected to using a Christian based calendar, but a new dating system made no sense either politically or economically.  Their solution was to continue using the Anno Domini dating system, but with different designations for “BC” and “AD”.  In what could be called the Common Era Calendar, “BC” (before Christ) was replaced with “BCE” (before common era) and “CE” (common era) was substituted for “AD” (Anno Domini – Year of our Lord).  With these conventions, persons who are under the delusion that Jesus is not the Messiah and the Son of God could use the same prevailing calendar dates, but with politically correct, religiously neutral terms.

Some scientists, particularly astronomers, prefer to use a slightly modified version of the dating system.  For ease of calculations, a zero and negative numbers are added so that 1 BCE becomes 0 CE, 2 BCE becomes -1 CE, 3 BCE becomes -2 CE etc, and all positive years from 1 CE on remain the same.  In this “astronomical dating system”, January 1, -10 CE to January 1, 10 CE spans 20 years rather than 19 years from the same date in 10 BCE to 10 CE on the common era calendar.

In our final installment Part 5 - Our Modern Calendar, we’ll focus on the historical events that led to the development and adoption of our modern Gregorian calendar system.  We also summarize the methods and process of converting dates between different calendar systems and add some final thoughts on the Anno Domini system as it relates to the Christian era.

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