Happy 6027th Birthday, Universe!

On this day in 4004 BC at Noon (presumably Greenwich Mean Time), the universe was created, according to Bishop James Ussher of Armagh, Ireland.

Snooty moderns like to make fun of Bishop Ussher, but in fact he was doing the best science he could with the data available to him, which is what all good scientists try to do. That he did not have great data is no fault of his. And the people who mock him are, I reckon, probably less competent in the sciences than he, given that they do not think critically at all, but simply regurgitate the opinions of their peers in mocking him without a single movement of the grey matter.

Here is a defense of the good bishop written by Stephen Jay Gould, called “Fall in the House of Ussher”:


I AM UNCOMFORTABLE ENOUGH in a standard four-in-hand tie; pity the poor seventeenth-century businessmen and divines, so often depicted in their constraining neck ruffs. The formidable gentleman in the accompanying engraving commands the Latin title Jacobus Usserius, Archiepiscopus Armachanus, Totius Hiberniae Primas, or James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of All Ireland. He is known to us today almost entirely in ridicule—as the man who fixed the time of creation at 4004 B.C., and even had the audacity to name the date and hour: October 23 at midday.

Let me begin with a personal gloss on the caption to this engraving, for my misreading embodies, in microcosm, the entire theme of this essay. I confess that I have always been greatly amused by the term primate, used in its ecclesiastical sense as “an archbishop…holding the first place among the bishops of a province.” My merriment must be shared by all zoologists, for primates, to us, are monkeys and apes— members of the order Primates. Thus, when I see a man described as a “primate,” I can’t help thinking of a big gorilla. (Humans, of course, are also members of the order Primates, but zoologists, in using the term, almost always refer to nearly 200 other species of the group—that is, to lemurs, monkeys, and apes.)

But my amusement must be labeled as silly, parochial, and misguided. The title comes from the Latin primas, meaning “chief” or “first.” In the mid-eighteenth century, Linnaeus introduced the word to zoology as a designation for the “highest” order of mammals—the group including humans. But the ecclesiastical usage has an equally obvious claim to proper etymology and substantial precedence in usage (the Oxford English Dictionary traces this meaning to 1205). Thus, we zoologists are the usurpers, not the guardians of a standard. (I wonder if preachers laugh when they see the term in a zoological book and think of a baboon running about in a neck ruff.) In any case, the archbishop of Armagh is titular head, hence primate, of the Anglo-Irish church, just as the archbishop of Canterbury is primate of all England.

This little tale mimics the forthcoming essay in miniature for two reasons:

1. I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honorable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past—just as our current amusement in picturing a primate of the church as a garbed ape inverts the history of usage, for the zoological definition is derivative and the ecclesiastical primary.

2. The mental picture of a prelate as a garbed ape reinforces the worst parochialism that scientists often invoke in interpreting their history—the notion that progress in knowledge arises from victory in battle between science and religion, with religion defined as unthinking allegiance to dogma and obedience to authority, and science as objective searching for truth.

James Ussher (1581–1656) lived through the most turbulent of English centuries. He was born in the midst of Elizabeth’s reign and died under Cromwell (who gave him a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, despite Ussher’s royalist sentiments and his previous support for the executed Charles I). As a precocious scholar with a special aptitude for languages, Ussher entered Trinity College, Dublin, at its founding in 1594, when he was only thirteen years old. He was ordained a priest in 1601 and became a professor at Trinity (1607) and then vice chancellor on two occasions in 1614 and 1617. With his appointment as Archbishop of Armagh in 1625, he became head (or primate) of the Anglo-Irish church—a tough row to hoe in this preeminently Catholic land (“Romish” or “papist” as Ussher always said in the standard deprecations of his day). Ussher was vehement and unrelenting in his verbal assaults on Roman Catholicism (he wasn’t too keen on Jews and other “infidels” either, but the issue rarely came up). His 1626 “Judgement of the Arch-Bishops and Bishops of Ireland” begins, for example:

The religion of the papists is superstitious and idolatrous; their faith and doctrine erroneous and heretical; their church…apostatical; to give them therefore a toleration, or to consent that they may freely exercise their religion…is a grievous sin.

One may cringe at the words (and no one can take Ussher as a model of toleration), but he was, in fact, regarded as a force for moderation and compromise at a time of fierce invective (read Milton’s anti-Catholic pamphlets sometime if you want to get a feel for the rhetoric of those troubled years). Despite his opinions, Ussher continued to espouse debate, discussion, and negotiation. He preached to Catholics and delighted in meeting their champions in formal disputations. His own words were harsh, but he believed in triumph by force of argument, not by banishment, fines, imprisonment, and executions. In fact, even the hagiographical biographies, written soon after Ussher’s death, criticize him for lack of enthusiasm in the daily politics of ecclesiastical affairs and for general unwillingness to carry out policies of intolerance. He was a scholar by temperament and, at best, a desultory administrator. He was in England at the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 and never returned again to Ireland. He spent most of his last decade engaged in study and publication—including, in 1650, the source of his current infamy: Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origin of the world.”

Ussher became the symbol of ancient and benighted authoritarianism for a reason quite beyond his own intention. Starting about fifty years after his death, most editions of the “authorized,” or King James, translation of the Bible began to carry his chronology in the thin column of annotations and cross-references usually placed between the two columns of text on each page. (The Gideon Society persisted in placing this edition in nearly every hotel room in America until about fifteen years ago; they now use a more modern translation and have omitted the column of annotations, including the chronology.) There, emblazoned on the first page of Genesis, stands the telltale date: 4004 B.C. Ussher’s chronology therefore acquired an almost canonical status in English Bibles—hence his current infamy as a symbol of fundamentalism.

To this day, one can scarcely find a textbook in introductory geology that does not take a swipe at Ussher’s date as the opening comment in an obligatory page or two on older concepts of the earth’s age (before radioactive dating allowed us to get it right). Other worthies are praised for good tries in a scientific spirit (even if their ages are way off—see previous essay on Halley), but Ussher is excoriated for biblical idolatry and just plain foolishness. How could anyone look at a hill, a lake, or a rock pile and not know that the earth must be ancient?

One text discusses Ussher under the heading “Rule of Authority” and later proposals under “Advent of the Scientific Method.” We learn—although the statement is absolute nonsense—that Ussher’s “date of 4004 B.C. came to be venerated as much as the sacred text itself.” Another text places Ussher under “Early Speculation” and later writes under “Scientific Approach.” These authors tell us that Ussher’s date of 4004 B.C. “thus was incorporated into the dogma of the Christian Church” (an odd comment, given the tradition of Catholics, and of many Protestants as well, for allegorical interpretation of the “days” of Genesis). They continue: “For more than a century thereafter it was considered heretical to assume more than 6,000 years for the formation of the earth.”

Even the verbs used to describe Ussher’s efforts reek with disdain. In one text, Ussher “pronounced” his date; in a second, he “decreed” it; in a third, he “announced with great certainty that…the world had been created in the year 4004 B.C. on the 26th of October at nine o’clock in the morning!” (Ussher actually said October 23 at noon—but I found three texts with the same error of October 26 at nine, so they must be copying from each other.) This third text then continues: “Ussher’s judgment of the age of the earth was gospel for fully 200 years.”

Many statements drip with satire. Yet another textbook— and this makes six, so I am not merely taking potshots at rare silliness—regards Ussher’s work as a direct “reaction against the scientific explorations of the Renaissance.” We then hear about “the pronouncement by Archbishop Ussher of Ireland in 1664 that the Earth was created at 9:00 A.M., October 26, 4004 B.C. (presumably Greenwich mean time!)” Well, Ussher was then eight years dead, and his date for the earth’s origin is again misreported. (I’ll pass on the feeble joke about Greenwich time, except to note that such issues hardly arose in an age before rapid travel made the times of different places a matter of importance.)

Needless to say, in combating the illiberality of this textbook tradition, I will not defend the substance of Ussher’s conclusion —for one claim of the standard critique is undeniably justified: A 6,000-year-old earth did make a scientific geology impossible because any attempt to cram the empirical record of miles of strata and life’s elaborate fossil history into such a moment requires a belief in miracles as causal agents.

Fair enough, but what sense can be made of blaming one age for impeding a much later system that worked by entirely different principles? To accuse Ussher of delaying the establishment of an empirical geology is much like blaming dinosaurs for holding back the later success of mammals. The proper criterion must be worthiness by honorable standards of one’s own time. By this correct judgment, Ussher wins our respect just as dinosaurs now seem admirable and interesting in their own right (and not as imperfect harbingers of superior mammals in the inexorable progress of life). Models of inevitable progress, whether for the panorama of life or the history of ideas, are the enemy of sympathetic understanding, for they excoriate the past merely for being old (and therefore both primitive and benighted).

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 the issue of the earth’s age to recapture lost ground. No idea about the state of chronological thinking in the seventeenth century could be more false.

Ussher represented a major style of scholarship in his time (see previous essay on Halley for discussion of another contemporary style—one more congenial to our current views, but no more popular than Ussher’s mode in a seventeenth- century context). Ussher worked within a substantial tradition of research, a large community of intellectuals striving 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 provide an immediate and dogmatic answer—for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and scholars 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 shared 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.

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” (see bibliography). 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.

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 listed chronology. (This style cannot be labeled 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 coordinates 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 falls 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 we encounter an old exegetical problem: Does the text present an epitome of the whole process in these lines, 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 ahistorical notion of eternity (see previous essay for discussion of Halley’s similar primary concern). “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.”


2 Responses

  1. I used to read Stephen Jay Gould’s essays back in the 80s. They were always accessible and thoughtful. This brought them back to me, and I appreciate it!

  2. So much easier to laugh at someone than to try to understand them, it seems. Very interesting explanation.

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