Gould, Fall in the House of Ussher

tique 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 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

* The name Septuagint derives from the legend that seventy-two translators (close to the Latin septuaginta, or "seventy")--six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel--worked in separate rooms and made their own translations. When they compared their results, all were identical. If the linguistic mishmash seems odd--Jews translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek in Egypt--remember that Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and established the Ptolemies as a Greek ruling family.