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.
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.