Gould, Fall in the House of Ussher

Julian calendar, and eleven days, rather than ten, had to be dropped by this later time.) In any case, if the Julian discrepancy accounted for ten extra days in the 1,600 or so years between its institution and the Gregorian reform, Ussher realized that the disparity would amount to just over thirty days for the additional time from 4004 B.C.--thus fixing the creation at October 23, rather than about two-thirds through September, as by our present calendar.

One final point. Why high noon on the day of creation? The inception of Genesis reads:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light. . . .

Now you cannot have days without alternations of light and darkness, so Ussher began chronology with the creation of light, which he fixed, for no given reason, at high noon. He wrote, "In ipse primi diei medio creata est lux" (In the middle of the first day, light was created).

But what about the phrases in Genesis that precede the creation of light? Here is an old exegetical problem: does the text give an epitome of the whole process here, or does it say that God made matter before creating light? Ussher accepted the latter reading and argued that a creation of matter "without form and void" took place during the night before the creation of light. Thus, a precreation, a slipping of material into place, occurred on the night of October 22--yielding several "temporary hours" (Ussher's words) before the overt creation of light on October 23.

4. Ussher's chronology is a work within the generous and liberal tradition of humanistic scholarship, not a restrictive document written to impose authority. As Barr notes, Ussher's Annales presents a chronology for all human history (meaning Western history, for he knew no other well enough), from the creation--and you must remember that humans were made five days thereafter, so earthly history is, essentially, human history--to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Barr writes:

It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are, an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.

Socrates told us to know ourselves, and no datum can be more important for humanism than an accurate chronology serving as a framework for the epic of our cultures, our strivings, our failures, and our hopes.

The figure of Ussher that begins this article comes from the only work of his that I own--a comprehensive catechism prepared for children and their families, entitled A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion. Catechisms may simplify, but they have the virtue of laying basic belief right on the line, without the hemming and hedging so intrinsic to academic texts.

I was delighted by Ussher's defense of his chronology in this catechism--simple words that illustrate the basic humanism of his enterprise. How do we know about creation, he asks--and responds: "Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed." His main quarrel, we note, is not with other timings of the human epic, but with Aristotle's a historical notion of eternity. "What say you then to Aristotle, accounted of so many the Prince of Philosophers; who laboreth to prove that the world is eternal." Ussher answers his own question by defending God's majesty against a mere unmoved mover of eternal matter, for Aristotle "spoileth God of the glory of his Creation, but also assigneth him to no higher office than is the moving of the spheres, whereunto he bindeth him more like to a servant than a lord."

I close with a final plea for judging people by their own criteria, not by later standards that they couldn't possibly know or assess. We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short--a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? "Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?" Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching--as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! "To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together."

Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.