Gould, Fall in the House of Ussher

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 masons. 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 comes 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