Quit Telling Kids A.D. means “After Death”: A History Teacher’s Plea

Photo by Europeana on Unsplash

I teach ancient world history to 6th graders. Every year we start with explaining the B.C./A.D. (or BCE/CE, which is catching on more) time split. Many kids know that BC stands for “Before Christ,” but it is the AD part that always gets them.

The most common answer is “After Death,” as in after Christ’s death. While that would be the obvious answer, that is not what it means. I then give the kids a brief Latin lesson. AD stands for Anno Domini, or “Year of Our Lord”.

We then usually move on to how the religious connotations of BC and AD have led historians to begin using BCE and CE (Before the Common Era and Common Era) to use the same timeline without the spiritual connection for non-Christian cultures.

But it is inevitable that as we move along the class and AD comes up; someone asks what it means. And inevitably, kids will still say “After Death,” which leads to re-explaining the whole lesson over gain. Given that, that is the teacher’s life (many kids forget what we learned the day before).

My sticking point comes when I have kids say, “Well, my Sunday School teacher said it meant “after death”. (God love them, I know that they are well-meaning people). Then I, of course, have to bring up, what do we call the thirty-three years the man was alive?

I know this will be a constant struggle that will not change soon, but adults, you can help!

Allow me to give you a brief history of the BC/AD split that will hopefully help those who have never thought the reasoning why time was split the way it was. Then you can pass that knowledge on to your kids and save history teachers a lot of headaches.

The idea of splitting time based on the birth of Christ arose during the reign of emperor Dionysus in 532 to mark the beginning of Easter that year. Up until then, as in many cultures, time was measured by the reigns of whoever was monarch at that time. For instance, during the reign of Diocletian might be counted as Anno Diocletian 290.

Diocletian was a ruthless persecutor of Christians, so part of Dionysus’s new system was to erase the legacy of the cruel ruler. He measured the approximate year of Christ’s birth and made that AD 1 (though most scholars believe Christ was born 4–6 years earlier). From there, the time split became a permanent fixture of European measurements of time.

An interesting tidbit is that there is no “Year Zero,” as it was believed that 0 represented nothingness. So you have 1 BC and then AD 1 at the time split. I always tell my kids to think of BC/BCE as a countdown and AD/CE as just adding another year.

Around the 16th century, people began to be sensitive to using the same number of years that originated with Christians with those that are non-Christian. Also, as mentioned above, the timeline that Dionysus used was off on the birth of Christ by a few years. Historians first began using the “Vulgar Era” (vulgar in this sense means anything that is non-religious), and later to the more modern Common Era.

So whether you use CE or AD, now you know that it has nothing to do with death. Luckily, BCE and CE are catching on more, so we won’t have to worry about that confusing Latin.

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Nick Howard

Nick Howard

I am an educator and a writer. My topics of interest include sports, movies, comics, history, professional wrestling, food, music, and hobbies.