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?
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-