A defense of Bishop James Ussher

A defense of Bishop James Ussher October 23, 2019

Ussher famously dated the moment of creation to noon on October 23, 4004 BC.  Snooty people who imagine they are smarter than their ancestors because they watch the Discovery Channel–but who could not, if their lives depended on it, give a coherent explanation (other than an appeal to authority) for how we know the earth goes around the sun–love to laugh at this alleged Dark Age fool.

Here is a rather generous essay by Stephen Jay Gould that gives credit where credit is due to Bishop James Ussher and his stab at dating the age of the universe.

Of course Ussher could hardly have been more wrong about 4004 B.C., but his work was both honorable and interesting–therefore instructive for us today–for at least four reasons.

1. The excoriating textbook tradition depicts Ussher as a single misguided dose of darkness and dogma thrown into an otherwise more enlightened pot of knowledge–as if he alone, representing the church in an explicit rearguard action against science and scholarship, raised this issue to recapture lost ground. No idea about the state of chronological thinking in the seventeenth century could be more false.

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology–Ussher’s shared “house” if you will pardon my irresistible title pun. Today we rightly reject a cardinal premise of that methodology–belief in biblical inerrancy–and we recognize that this false assumption allowed such a great error in estimating the age of the earth. But what intellectual phenomenon can be older, or more oft repeated, than the story of a large research program that impaled itself upon a false central assumption accepted by all practitioners? Do we regard all people who worked within such traditions as dishonorable fools? What of the scientists who assumed that continents were stable, that the hereditary material was protein, or that all other galaxies lay within the Milky Way? These false and abandoned efforts were pursued with passion by brilliant and honorable scientists. How many current efforts, now commanding millions of research dollars and the full attention of many of our best scientists, will later be exposed as full failures based on false premises?

The textbook writers do not know that attempts to establish a full chronology for all human history (not only to date the creation as a starting point) represented a major effort in seventeenth-century thought. These studies did not slavishly use the Bible, but tried to coordinate the records of all peoples. Moreover, the assumption of biblical inerrancy doesn’t give you an immediate and dogmatic answer–for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and you must struggle to a basis for choice among them. As a primary example, different datings for key events are given in the Septuagint (or Greek Bible, first translated by the Jewish community of Egypt in the third to second centuries B.C. and still used by the Eastern churches) and in the standard Hebrew Bible favored by the Western churches.

Moreover, within assumptions of the methodology, this research tradition had considerable success. Even the extreme values were not very discordant–ranging from a minimum, for the creation of the earth, of 3761 B.C. in the Jewish calendar (still in use) to a maximum of just over 5500 B.C. for the Septuagint. Most calculators had reached a figure very close to Ussher’s 4004. The Venerable Bede had estimated 3952 B.C. several centuries before, while J. J. Scaliger, the greatest scholar of the generation just before Ussher, had placed creation at 3950 B.C. Thus, Ussher’s 4004 was neither idiosyncratic nor at all unusual; it was, in fact, a fairly conventional estimate developed within a large and active community of scholars. The textbook tradition of Ussher’s unique benightedness arises from ignorance of this world, for only Ussher’s name survived in the marginal annotations of modern Bibles.

2. The textbook detractors assume that Ussher’s effort involved little more than adding up ages and dates given directly in the Old Testament–thus implying that his work was only an accountant’s act of simple, thoughtless piety. Another textbook–we are now up to seven–states that Ussher’s 4004 was “a date reconstructed from adding up the ages of people named in the lineages of the scripture.” But even a cursory look at the Bible clearly shows that no such easy solution is available, even under the assumption of inerrancy. You can add the early times, from creation up to the reign of Solomon–for the requisite information is provided by an unbroken male lineage supplying the key datum of father’s age at the birth of a first son. But this easy route cannot be carried forward into the several hundred years of the kingdom, from Solomon’s reign to the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian captivity–for here we are only given the lengths of rule for kings, and several frustrating ambiguities (including overlaps or co-regencies of a king and his successor) were widely acknowledged but not easily resolved. Finally, how can you use the Old Testament to reach the crucial birthday of Christ and thus connect the older narrative to the present? For the Old Testament stops in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, the fifth century B.C. in Ussher’s chronology.

James Barr explains the problems and complexities in an excellent article, “Why the World Was Created in 4004 B.C.: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology,” (Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 67, pp. 575-608). He divides the chronological enterprise into three periods, each with characteristic problems, as mentioned above.

You can add up during the first period (creation to Solomon), but which text do you use? The ages in the Septuagint* are substantially longer and add more than 1,000 years to the date of creation. Ussher solved this dilemma by using the Hebrew Bible and ignoring the alternatives.

In the second period, you really have to struggle to establish a coherent time line through the period of the kings. You feint and shift, try to correlate the dates given for the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, then attempt to link in the few ages given for events other than beginnings and ends of reigns. The result, with luck and adjustment, is a coherent network of mutually supporting times.

For the third period of more than 400 years from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus you cannot use the Bible at all–for no information exists. Ussher and all other chronologists therefore tried to link a known event in the period of kings with a datable episode in another culture–and then to use the timetables of other peoples until another lateral feint could be made back into the New Testament. Ussher proceeded by correlating the death of the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II with the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin (as stated in 2 Kings 25:27). (Nebuchadnezzar was, of course, prominent in Jewish history for conquering Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and deporting its prominent citizens–the so-called Babylonian captivity.) Ussher could then calculate through the Chaldean and the subsequent Persian records, eventually reaching the period of Roman rule and the birth of Jesus.

3. But where did Ussher get October 23, 4004? Surely, neither the Bible nor any other source gives a specific date, even if you can estimate the year. Was this date, at least, a bow to dogma, even if the rest of the chronology has more scholarly roots?

No, not dogma, but a different style of interpretive argument–one based on symbol and eschatology rather than on listed chronology. (You cannot label this style as dogma, if only because each point became a subject of lively disagreement and fierce debate among scholars. No resolution was ever obtained, so the church obviously imposed no answer ex cathedra.)

First of all, the date 4004 rests comfortably with the most important of chronological metaphors–the common comparison of the six days of God’s creation with 6,000 years for the earth’s potential duration: “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Under this widely accepted scheme, the earth was created 4,000 years before the birth of Christ and could endure as much as 2,000 years thereafter (a proposition soon to be tested empirically and, we all hope, roundly disproved!).

But why 4004 and not an even 4000 B.C.? By Ussher’s time, chronologists had established an error in the B.C. to A.D. transition, for Herod died in 4 B.C.–and if he truly talked to the Magi, feared the star, and ordered the slaying of the innocents, then Jesus could not have been born after 4 B.C. (an oxymoronic statement, but acceptable as a testimony to increasing knowledge).

Thus, if Jesus was born in 4 B.C., eschatological tradition should fix the date of creation at 4004 B.C., without any need for complex, sequential calculation of genealogies. This situation must inspire a nasty suspicion that Ussher “knew” the necessity of 4004 B.C. right from the start and then jiggered the figures around to make everything come out right. Barr, of course, considers this possibility seriously but rejects it for two reasons.

First, Ussher’s chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading.

Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn’t establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C.–and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ’s crucifixion, not to his birth–thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod’s reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.

But what about October 23? Here, chronology cannot help. Many scholars, from the Venerable Bede to the great astronomer Johannes Kepler, argued for spring as an appropriate season for birth and the chosen time of Babylonian, Chaldean, and other ancient chronologies. Others, including Jerome, Josephus, and Ussher, favored fall, largely because the Jewish year began then, and Hebrew scriptures formed the basis of chronology.

Now an additional problem must be faced. The Jewish chronology is based on lunar months and therefore very hard to correlate with a standard solar calendar. Ussher, recognizing no basis for a firm calibration, therefore decided to establish creation as the first Sunday following the autumnal equinox. (Sunday was an obvious choice, for God created in six days and rested on the seventh, and the Jewish Sabbath comes on Saturday.)

But if creation occurred near the autumnal equinox, why October 23, more than a month from the current date? For this final piece of the puzzle, we need only recognize that Ussher was still using the old Julian (Roman) calendar. The Julian system was very similar to our own, but for one apparently tiny difference–it did not suppress leap years at the century boundaries. (Not everyone knows that our present system–which keeps more accurate time than the Julian–omits leap years at all century transitions not divisible by 400. Thus, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 1600 was and 2000 will be.) This difference seems tiny, but errors accumulate over millennia. By 1582, the discrepancy had become sufficiently serious that Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed a reform and established the system that we still live by–called, in his honor, the Gregorian calendar. He dropped the ten days that had accumulated from the “extra” leap years at century boundaries in the Julian system (this was done by the clever device of allowing Friday, October 15, to follow Thursday, October 4, in 1582).

We now enter the religious tensions of the time. Recall Ussher’s fulminations against popery, an attitude shared by his Anglican brethren in charge. The Gregorian reform smelled like a Romish plot, and Ussher’s contemporaries would be damned if they would accept it. (England and the American colonies finally succumbed to rationality and instituted the Gregorian reform in 1752. This delay, by the way, is responsible for the ambiguity in George Washington’s birth, sometimes given as February 11 and sometimes as February 22, 1732. He was born under the
Julian calendar, and eleven days, rather than ten, had to be dropped by this later time.) In any case, if the Julian discrepancy accounted for ten extra days in the 1,600 or so years between its institution and the Gregorian reform, Ussher realized that the disparity would amount to just over thirty days for the additional time from 4004 B.C.–thus fixing the creation at October 23, rather than about two-thirds through September, as by our present calendar.

One final point. Why high noon on the day of creation? The inception of Genesis reads:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light. . . .

Now you cannot have days without alternations of light and darkness, so Ussher began chronology with the creation of light, which he fixed, for no given reason, at high noon. He wrote, “In ipse primi diei medio creata est lux” (In the middle of the first day, light was created).

But what about the phrases in Genesis that precede the creation of light? Here is an old exegetical problem: does the text give an epitome of the whole process here, or does it say that God made matter before creating light? Ussher accepted the latter reading and argued that a creation of matter “without form and void” took place during the night before the creation of light. Thus, a precreation, a slipping of material into place, occurred on the night of October 22–yielding several “temporary hours” (Ussher’s words) before the overt creation of light on October 23.

4. Ussher’s chronology is a work within the generous and liberal tradition of humanistic scholarship, not a restrictive document written to impose authority. As Barr notes, Ussher’s Annales presents a chronology for all human history (meaning Western history, for he knew no other well enough), from the creation–and you must remember that humans were made five days thereafter, so earthly history is, essentially, human history–to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Barr writes:

It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are, an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.

Socrates told us to know ourselves, and no datum can be more important for humanism than an accurate chronology serving as a framework for the epic of our cultures, our strivings, our failures, and our hopes.

The figure of Ussher that begins this article comes from the only work of his that I own–a comprehensive catechism prepared for children and their families, entitled A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion. Catechisms may simplify, but they have the virtue of laying basic belief right on the line, without the hemming and hedging so intrinsic to academic texts.

I was delighted by Ussher’s defense of his chronology in this catechism–simple words that illustrate the basic humanism of his enterprise. How do we know about creation, he asks–and responds: “Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.” His main quarrel, we note, is not with other timings of the human epic, but with Aristotle’s a historical notion of eternity. “What say you then to Aristotle, accounted of so many the Prince of Philosophers; who laboreth to prove that the world is eternal.” Ussher answers his own question by defending God’s majesty against a mere unmoved mover of eternal matter, for Aristotle “spoileth God of the glory of his Creation, but also assigneth him to no higher office than is the moving of the spheres, whereunto he bindeth him more like to a servant than a lord.”

I close with a final plea for judging people by their own criteria, not by later standards that they couldn’t possibly know or assess. We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short–a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? “Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?” Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching–as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! “To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together.”

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