Help an Idiot: The Calendar Year

I’ve always wondered this.

The year now is 2006, so when did they decide to start? Obviously we have been on this planet a lot longer than 2,006 years and they (the powers that be) didn’t say one day ‘today is year 0’. And where does B.C. come in? I’ve tried to google it but I can’t think of any good key words besides Date and B.C. (which brings up way too many results).

Thanks in advance!

On the off chance you’re serious, B.C. stands for Before Christ, or Before (the birth of) Christ, except for the point that biblical scholars now believe that Christ was born in 4 BC. Look up the Julian calendar and Gregorian calendar for more info on what calendar we use and why.

Well they didn’t start year 1 in year 1. I’m not sure any calendars did except the French Revolutionary Calendar and perhaps the Islamic calendar. Most continusous numbering calendars were adopted after the fact then back-dated to some event’s supposed date. Calendars that counted the years of some king’s reign would have been started contemporaneously.

The common calendar now known as the Gregorian Calendar was started after the fact and year 1 is supposed to mark the year of Jesus’ birth. It was started in the sixth century as an aside in the calculation of Easter dates. Most scholars now say that the internal evidence from the stories indicates that Jesus could not have been born any later than about 4 B.C. (which I think is the year of Herod’s death.) I seem to recall that 6 B.C. might be the consensus.

The suffix A.D. you often see appended stands for Anno Domini, Latin for “Year of the Lord”. The B.C. suffix stands for Before Christ. You sometimes see these now as C.E. and B.C.E. standing for Common Era and Before the Common Era.

There is no year 0. 1 A.D. immediately follows 1 B.C. probably because when the B.C. suffix was first used, European mathemeticians still hadn’t adopted the notion of 0 and negative numbers.

Much more information can be found for example at

If you want to search further Gregorian Julian and calendar ar good key words.

I do have a serious question about this… obviously the whole cult of the Nazarene didn’t take over the world in year 1, there was some startup latency. So when did this become the default year numbering for everybody, and what would have been used prior to that? I guess the habit was to count the years of a particular imperial reign, with different empires using different system? I know Japan still preserves a system like this in parallel with the western-style system. I guess I could go look this up but I’m profoundly lazy today.

It never did. It’s not used by everybody, even today.

The Arab/Muslim countries use a different system, counting from a later year when the Phrophet did something.
Japan uses a system that counts the years of the current Emperors’ reign, and starts over with each new one.
Orthodox Jews use another system, which starts counting from a year long before Christ.
India has lots of different calendar systems in use throughout the country.
China uses a lunar calendar, which syncs with the Gregorian solar calendar only about every 19 years or so.

So it’s probably true that more people DON’T use the Gregorian calendar than do use it.
(Of course, given the volume of international trade, people & businesses in most countries are set up to easily convert between systems. If you are dealing with a supplier in China or Japan, for example, and ask for delivery by “October 1st”, they will have no problem understanding what you mean.)

OK. Then pretend I asked “when did it come into widespread use”.

In the Roman empire, you’d have said, for instance, 527 Ab Urbe Condita (meaning “since the City [Rome] was founded”).

Is that really true to a large extent? Do people in say Japan when talking amongst themselves in a local context really not use the Gregorian Calendar? My limited research seems to point to traditional holiday dates like new years and birthdays will use the older lunar calendars but almost all other things will use the Gregorian Calendar. This seems to be true throughout much of Asia. Am I mistaken?

Imperial years in Japan are not used in common speech. Mainly it’s for government and other “official” type uses. Everywhere else, they use the gregorian calendar. I can’t speak to the rest of Asia.

The Master responds to the question What year numbering system was used in the time of Christ? as well as the question Why is BC an English abbreviation while AD is a Latin one?

Any conceivable question you have about the development of the west’s modern calendar - and a good deal about the other calendars in use throughout the world - can be found in David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar: humanity’s epic struggle to determine a true and accurate year.

An excellent book that answers many of the questions posed here is Questioning the Millennium, by Stephen Jay Gould. I reccomend it, even tho the panic of the year 2000/2001 has subsided somewhat.

Thanks guys. I wasn’t sure if 0 (or in this case B.C. 1) was in fact B.C.

If Christ was actually born 4 B.C. (or around then), then technically shouldn’t it really be 2010? I mean, we did base our calendar year on his birth right?

It is only more probable that he was was born around 4 BC. So given that we don’t really know, 1 AD is good enough.

Nobody knows when the event took place. There have been reams and reams of speculations based on the vague and contradictory clues in the Gospels but a range of dates have been suggested even by serious scholars. And the less serious ones… :rolleyes:

So all we need is an anchor that everybody can agree on. If none can ever be known accurately, than no one is better than the rest.

And if we did agree that every calendar and date in history is wrong, then what?

I don’t think anybody’s addressed this question yet.

I’ve read that Dionysius’ sixth century system of BC/AD dating was popularized in the eighth century by the English historian Bede. Bede wrote what were, by the standards of the time, best-selling histories of England and the Church and used BC/AD dates.

There’s no year 0 because 0 is a single point, the dividing line between B.C. and A.D… It is neither B.C nor A.D… Similarly, in our numbering system 0 is a single point, neither positive nor negative, which is the dividing line between negative numbers.

Arrgh! Should be “…the dividing line between negative and positive numbers.”

Livy aside, Roman writers in general did not commonly date the year by the number of years that had occurred since the founding of the city. Typically, dating of a year was done by naming the two consuls for the year, e.g. “M. Messalla et M. Pupio Pisone consulibus” = “Messala and Piso being the consuls” = 61 B.C.

A (more or less) exact date for the founding of Rome was determined by Varro in the time of Augustus based on the consular lists, so I doubt AUC was much in vogue before then:).

Must have been some chauvinist Briton. His method of calculating Easter eventually gained acceptance, but he didn’t have much effect on his contemporaries. From Calendar: