Gould, Fall in the House of Ussher

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), 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 writers 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 say that Ussher used the Julian calendar and 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 cri-