There is a restaurant down the street from where I live, in the next town over, called “Zaftigs”. On the sign for this restaurant, so small beneath the “a” that one might not see it, there is noted the year in which it was established: “5757”.
This is not a joke. Zaftigs is in Brookline, which boasts a large Jewish population (there are three synagogues within a minute’s drive of it; it will thus come as no surprise that “Zaftig” is apparently Yiddish for “juicy”). “5757” is a dating convention using the Jewish calendar, which takes its beginnings not from an event within history, but from the alleged date for the creation of the world (“A.M.” or “Anno Mundi” is the Latin name for this calendar, meaning “Year of the World”). “5757” could be either 1996 or 1997 on the American public calendar, because the Jewish calendar does not begin on January 1st — even we in the English-speaking world only settled on January 1st relatively recently, transitioning the year’s beginning from the more traditional March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation (of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary).
So what is our public calendar? I grew on the North Shore of Boston, using the conventions “B.C.” (“Before Christ”) and “A.D.” (“Anno Domini” — Latin for “In the Year of Our Lord”), but these conventions have recently changed to “C.E.” (“Common Era”) and “B.C.E.” (“Before the Common Era”). The reason for the change in terminology is hardly surprising. Secular culture aims to be totally inclusive, to allow every group to participate — and one can see how non-inclusive it is to ask the Jews of Brookline to say “In the Year of Our Lord 1996, I established Zaftigs”, to say nothing of how it steamrolls over their identity with a not-so-subtle assertiveness, and brings up the less-than-hospitable reception Jews often received in Christendom.
It is an open question, however, as to whether the BCE/CE convention is really secular, inclusive, universal. It still takes its cue from the alleged year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, as it is merely the (late) Late Antique and Medieval West Roman BC/AD system papered over with non-Christian language. Even the East Roman/Byzantine and Slavic Christians had their own calendar, and did not employ the BC/AD system of dating, but a calendar similar in spirit to the Jewish one, based on the presumed age of the world (in light of this it is amusing ever to see a contemporary Orthodox Christian griping about the replacement of AD with CE). Can a Jew, who is accustomed to using a calendar that dates from the presumed creation of the world, or a Muslim, who is accustomed to using a calendar that dates from an event in the life of Muhammad, really be expected to encounter the BCE/CE calendar and believe it to be something other than a barely-stealthy exercise in Christian hegemony? Can they encounter it as something neutral and public and inclusive and universal? (It is for this reason that some academic friends of mine insist on using the BC/AD designation as opposed to BCE/CE, because they advance that it is honest, whereas the BCE/CE designation is dishonest.)
The secularized BC/AD calendar is officially adopted by the United Nations, and, for pragmatic reasons, is currently the de facto standard for most of the world. It is this pragmatically-motivated use of an older calendar for newer and more universal purposes that effectively requires the change of BC/AD to BCE/CE.
The only real option for something truly new and universal would be to come up with a new calendar — but what would be Year One? Who would decide? How would such a group of decision-making people even be convened? Who would convene them? Would there be dissenters? Would many people not feel excluded by the new calendar? The calendar of the French Revolution comes to mind as a pronounced failure even on a local level. Even the current calendar was only dreamed of in (what we now today think of as) A.D. 525 — long after the advent of Christianity, and only once the idea was firmly established that both Rome and the world were now in Tempora Christiana, “Christian Times”.
The Roman calendar used before the Anno Domini system was the Anno Diocletiani, which marked the years since the Emperor Diocletian. The changes to the Roman Empire inaugurated by Diocletian were pivotal. Before Diocletian, the Empire was a confederation of cities, “kept going not through intervention from on high by officials but, rather, as it were, ‘horizontally’ — through collaboration with an empire-wide upper class, drawn from the elites of the cities” [Peter Brown, 55]. Diocletian changed this, and conquered “distance” by setting up a coalition of co-emperors to be directly present to regions instead of the city elites, so that after him the Empire was a true empire, and “no longer a ‘commonwealth of cities.’ ” [Brown, Rise, 57]. The biblical writers already counted time by the years of an emperor’s reign (e.g., “in the days of Herod the king” [Matt 2.1]), and we Americans often do something similar in casual conversation (e.g., “during the Clinton administration…”). It thus makes sense that, in a world where Christianity and Romanity were fused, Diocletian would be a milestone by which to measure the years, since the Roman Empire became an empire as we know it with Diocletian. Unfortunately, Diocletian was responsible for the Great Persecution, and remembered by the Church as a great enemy of God. I have mentioned before how Christian discourse about Christ inclines strongly towards political metaphors. Given the fusion of Romanity and Christianity, it makes sense that the public calendar would take its cue from Jesus of Nazareth, hailed as victorious on the cross over evil, sin and death as emperors were over their enemies, and as having acceded to the throne of of the Father as the emperors acceded to the imperial throne.
None of these dating changes was arbitrary. It may be that dating conventions are like constellations — time, perhaps, can be cut up in numberless ways, just as one might connect the dots between stars in numberless ways to form numberless images. There are constraints, though, not only structural (one can only connect those stars which are there) but also historical (there needs to be a real and felt change in history for people to become aware of something new, something unprecedented; people need to feel that they live in the wake of some pivotal person or event that holds sway over their world). The widely-accepted idea that a sea-change in world history had occurred, and that people were living in a new era, was prerequisite for a new dating model. This is as true of the French Revolution as for Christianity.
The transition from the Diocletian to the Christian dating system should not be overestimated, but neither should it be underestimated: pagans saw their world as static, or rather cyclical: people lived under the fixed laws and customs of their ancestors, as the gods or stars had assigned them. The world was eternal. Christianity was a rupture in this, a radical freedom, a transcendence of Fate and the assignments of the stars. It was a divine exorcism of demonic imprisonment to Christians, and an impious and irreverent criminality to pagans — but both parties generally agreed that it was something new, only one party saw it as the restoration of the proper health of things, whereas the other party saw it as a degeneration and corruption of health already possessed. Paganism was eventually vanquished in the Roman Empire; God, the god of the Christians (and not the traditional Roman gods), was gradually seen as its protector in the wake of Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge, and increasing measures were taken against public sacrifices to the Roman gods. This sense of the progressive “visibilization” of Christ’s victory over the enslaving dark powers, especially through the erection of beautiful churches throughout the Empire atop pagan sites, helped secure the sense that history had gone through two new stages: one, the advent of Christ, and two, the exorcism of the gods and the conversion of the Empire.
Some similar sense of a real change in history would need to take hold for a secular equivalent of a calendar change, and that doesn’t seem likely to be on offer — not unless the aftermath of World War II ends up looking very cardinal 475 years from now.