Seven Myths about Ussher

James Ussher, 1641 portrait by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose, with my taste for gobbets of recherché historical trivia, that “Seven Myths about Ussher” is as close as I can come to composing a headline with a lot of clickbait appeal. But at least because today is October 23, 2014—marking the beginning of the 6018th year since the creation of the world, according to James Ussher’s estimate in his Annales Veteris Testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, una cum rerum Asiaticarum et Aegyptiacarum chronico, a temporis historici principio usque ad Maccabaicorum initia producto (1650)—it’s a timely occasion to discuss seven myths about the chronology offered by Ussher (1591–1656; seen above).

Myth 1: Ussher thought that the world was created on October 23, 4004 BCE. Not quite. On the first page of Annales, Ussher writes, “In PRINCIPIO creavit DEUS Coelum & Terram. [Genes.I.i] quod temporis principium (juxta nostram Chronologiam) incidit in noctis illius initium, quae XXIII. diem Octobtris praecessit, in anno Periodi Julianae 710.” That is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Which beginning of time (according to our chronology) began on the start of that night preceding October 23, in year 710 of the Julian Period.” The Julian Period counts days from January 1, 4713 BCE—year 1—so creation began on the night of October 22, 4004 BCE.

Myth 2: Ussher thought that the world was created at 9:00 a.m. On the contrary, as noted above, Ussher thought that creation began at night—at the time at which sunset would have come if there had been any sun to set. (According to Ussher, “In ipse primi deie medio creata est lux”: in the middle of the first day itself, light was created.) It was a later scholar, John Lightfoot (1602–1675), who mentioned the 9:00 a.m. time, and—according to Patrick Wyse Jackson’s The Chronologers’ Quest (2006)—he was talking about the creation of humans, not about the creation of the world: “Man created by the Trinity about the third houre of the day, or nine of the clocke in the morning.”

Myth 3: Ussher’s estimate was idiosyncratic. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for a scholar of Ussher’s day to attempt to estimate the age of the world. Speaking to the Geological Society of London in 1861, Leonard Horner cited two counts of attempted chronologies, one listing more than 200, and one listing “upwards of 120 different opinions, and the list might be swelled to 300.” And 4004 BCE was about in the ballpark for a 16th-through-18th-century chronology: John Lightfoot estimated 3928 BCE; Joseph Justus Scaliger estimated 3985 BCE; Isaac Newton estimated 3988 BCE. It’s not a coincidence that these estimates cluster, since these scholars had similar assumptions, methods, and sources.

Myth 4: Ussher’s estimate relied only on Biblical genealogies. In fact, if you try to add the ages and dates in the Bible, you’ll be stymied at various turns. Not only are different ages and dates given in different texts, but also there are gaps in the data (from the reign of Solomon to the Babylonian captivity; from the fifth century BCE to the birth of Jesus). Accordingly, Ussher consulted ancient records beyond the Bible; in fact, according to Martin Rudwick’s excellent new book Earth’s Deep History (2014), “[b]y far the greater part of Ussher’s evidence, like that of other chronologists, came not from the Bible but from ancient secular records” (emphasis in original).

Myth 5: Ussher’s chronology was antiscientific. On the contrary, while Ussher—who rejoiced in the ecclesiastical titles of Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland—certainly accepted the truth of the Bible, his purpose was to provide a scholarly, evidence-based, detailed history of the world. Stephen Jay Gould remarked in his “Fall in the House of Ussher” (1991) that “Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time,” and Rudwick argues, “what 17th-century historians such as Ussher [or Newton!] were doing is connected without a break with what Earth scientists are doing in the modern world.” The fact that he lacked the tools available to today’s chronologists is not to his discredit.

Myth 6: It was Ussher’s estimate that was enshrined in the Bible. Chronological data began to be incorporated in the margins of English Bibles in the late seventeenth century, and the 4004 BCE date appeared first in a Bible published in 1701. But as J. G. C. M. Fuller argued in a paper in Earth Sciences History in 2005, it was probably taken not from Ussher’s Annales. Rather, the date was selected with the advice of the then leading chronologer William Lloyd (1627–1717), whose own chronology was published not until later, in his nephew Benjamin Marshall’s Chronological Tables (1713). There Lloyd cited Ussher’s Annales but didn’t rely on him for the 4004 BCE date.

Myth 7: Ussher’s chronology should be trusted now. In fact, we know—from multiple, independently checkable, and converging methods in both cases—that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Estimates in the thousands or tens of thousands of years are not remotely tenable for either. And yet as Josh Rosenau argued here on the Science League of America blog, poll data suggest that perhaps 10% of Americans—about 31 million people—think that both the universe and Earth are on the order of 10,000 years old. Probably fewer explicitly think that Ussher’s chronology in particular is reliable. Still, that’s too many.