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Monday, 26 March 2007

Ussher's Chronology explained and defended

Any work setting out to be a defence of Ussher's Chronology will inevitably be greeted with scorn. For some reason, any mention of Ussher tends to bring out the wild-eyed fanatic in his opponents. Yet Ussher's name continues to be dragged into a wide variety of scientific discussions, and almost always in a way that sets at defiance the actual facts of history. Thus in defending and explaining Ussher, I am defending and explaining the facts of history--nothing more.

During his lifetime, Usshur was outstanding as a theologian, textual critic, linguist, and historian. But he is known today as a historian--and only for one of his works, though he actually wrote three compendious histories in all. The one for which he became so infamous was his final one, a universal history written in retirement during the final years of his life; it wasn't actually released in his native language until after his death.

To start out with, I'll allow a hostile witness to explain the facts concerning how Annals was compiled:

"James Ussher (1581-1656) was the Anglican archbishop of Armagh Ireland, and "Primate of All Ireland", meaning the head of the Anglican church in Ireland. He was one of the most respected scholars and theologians of his time, and traveled widely in search of original documents, or at least the oldest versions of them he could find. The many books and documents he collected through his life were to form the nucleus of the great library at Trinity College in Armagh.
"Ussher is primarily known today for his chronological work, in particular for the precise date he fixed for the Creation of the world. This date is so often misquoted, usually to get a cheap chuckle from the reader or a lecture audience, that I think it is worth not only putting Ussher's work in its proper historical perspective, but also to make his words on the matter available for people to read for themselves.
"Contrary to popular misconception, Ussher did not simply count up years by following who begat whom in the Book of Genesis. Rather, he undertook a careful, critical synthesis of historical documents including Biblical, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sources, knowledge of the calendrical systems of antiquity, Roman history, and any ancient documentary sources he could get acquire and verify (then as now the lucrative traffic in antiquities lead to numerous counterfeits in circulation). His scholarship was impeccable, and the end of that scholarship was not so much to fix the date of Creation (although that was the one result we remember), but rather to compile as complete and historically correct a chronology of human history as the documentary evidence would allow. It is well to remember that in the 17th century this was a topic of great scholarly interest, as it is now. Ussher was instrumental in putting this endeavor on a sound scholarly basis, as well as for exposing numerous counterfeit documents. "

Now, as one who has actually read the entire section of Annals which corresponds to the Old Testament, I grant that not all will find his scholarship impeccable. It does seem to come out just a little bit too neat and tidy that his date for Creation was exactly 4000 years prior to the birth of the Messiah. Neat, I say, because he had to make several assumptions to make it come out this exactly, and he always assumed in the direction of so doing. Tidy, I say, because it follows a long line of chronologers who likewise came out with dates that dovetailed nicely with their own theological presuppositions. So what may not have been all so impeccable about his scholarship was his failure to make full disclosure of his theologically-based propensity to schematize. In so failing to do, alas, he was no worse than any other chronologer that comes to mind, even though his final results differed from most of theirs.

Now when I say that Ussher made assumptions, I mean the sort that could have thrown off his chronology by a year or two here, and a decade or two there. At only one juncture is there so much leeway as a century or two, and that is the date of the Exodus, and that is just as much a textual problem as it is a historical one. Regardless of what scheme one follows, the evidence simply does not allow for the leeway of multiple millennia favored by those who scornfully reject Ussher's scholarship.

Without further ado, here is a list (from Batten, quoting Young, quoting Hales) of multiple chronologies compiled and interpreted by multiple scholars. Note that Ussher was both preceded and followed by ecclesiastical chronologers whose dates mostly differ from his by less than the 215-year slippage allowed by the variant texts of Exodus 12:41, to say nothing of the two-millenia discrepancy between the Hebrew, Samaritan, and Greek recensions of Genesis.

The Original Historian is given first, often followed by some identifying information such as (date). Any name which follows it is that of the scholar that compiled a chronology based on information in the History. If only one name is given, such as Ussher, a modern historian himself compiled a chronology. Lastly the derived BCE year of Creation is given. Note that Ussher's date is virtually the only one for which any two historians could find agreement, in keeping with the level of scholarship he championed. Some of the dates in the margin of the Scofield Reference Bible don't even line up exactly with Ussher's, following instead those of Bishop Lloyd.

Alfonso X (Spain, 1200s) Muller 6984
Alfonso X (Spain, 1200s) Strauchius 6484
India Gentil 6204
India Arab records 6174
Babylonia Bailly, John Silvain (French astronomer, 1736–1793) 6158
China Bailly 6157
Diogenes Laertius (Greece 3rd Cent.) Playfair 6138
Egypt Bailly 6081
Septuagint (LXX) Albufaragi 5586
Josephus (1st Century Jew) Playfair 5555
Septuagint Scaliger, Joseph (Fr. classical scholar, 1540–1609) 5508
Persia Bailly 5507
Chronicle of Axum, Abyssinian Bruce (1700s) 5500
Jews per Julius Africanus Bruce 5500
Josephus Jackson 5481
Jackson 5426
Hales 5411
Josephus Hales 5402
India Megasthenes Greek historian (c. 340–282 bc) 5369
Talmudists Petrus Alliacens 5344
Septuagint, Vatican 5270
Bede (673–735) Strauchius 5199
Josephus Univ. Hist. 4698
Samaritan computation Scaliger 4427
Samaritan text Univ. Hist. 4305
Hebrew (Masoretic) text 4161
Playfair and Walker 4008
Ussher, Spanheim, Calmet, Blair, etc. 4004
Kepler (Astronomer, 1571–1630) Playfair 3993
Petavius (France, 1583–1652) 3984
Melanchthon (Reformer, 1500s) Playfair 3964
Luther (Reformer, 1500s) 3961
Lightfoot 3960
Cornelius a Lapide Univ. Hist. 3951
Scaliger, Isaacson 3950
Strauchius 3949
Vulgar Jewish computation Strauchius 3760
Rabbi Lipman (1579–1654) Univ. Hist. 3616

Now, astronomer Richard Pogge, the author I first cited as a hostile witness, is unable to account for this. "Why," he asks, "do they all get a date of around 4000BC? One possible explanation is that this date is within a millennium of the invention of writing, and thus within a millennium of the earliest historical records. "
This explanation stands in opposition to the oft-repeated objection of Clarence Darrow--that numerous human civilizations go back past the 4000 BCE date--which isn't mentioned by our hostile witness. No matter, Darrow himself was as hostile as they come, and he made it a central piece of his defense of Scopes:
* * *
Darrow confronts Bryan with a series of questions suggesting that Ussher’s and Bryan’s date for Creation could not be reconciled with archaeological knowledge. “Don’t you know that the ancient civilizations of China are 6,000 or 7,000 years old, at the very least?” Darrow asks. “No, but they would not run back beyond the creation, according to the Bible, 6,000 years,” Bryan insists. “Have you any idea how old the Egyptian civilization is?” Darrow asks. “No,” the exasperated witness replies. Darrow continues, asking questions he knows Bryan could not answer. How old is Buddhism? Zorosterism? “How many people were on this earth 3,000 years ago?” Bryan fumbles his answers. Darrow scolds: “Did you ever try to find out?” Bryan begs, “When you display my ignorance, could you give the fact so I would not be ignorant any longer? Can you tell me how many people there were when Christ was born?” Darrow replies, meanly, “You know, some of us might get the facts and still be ignorant.”
Asked once again, whether he “ever tried to find out” an answer to one of Darrow’s many questions about the ancient world, Bryan tries a different tact: humor. “You are the first person I ever heard of who has been interested in it.” Darrow snaps back, “Where have you lived all your life?” “Not near you,” replies Bryan, to laughter and applause. “Nor near anybody of learning?” Darrow rejoins. Bryan, having had enough, replies: “Oh, don’t assume you know it all.”
Turning from the ages of civilization to the ages of the earth, Darrow asks Bryan if he could tell him “how old the earth is.” Bryan, somewhat surprisingly, replies, “No sir, I couldn’t.” He adds that he “could possibly come as near as the scientists do” to guessing the date, but declines the attempt. Then he offers, helpfully, that a scientist at Oberlin College figured that “man has appeared since the last ice age.” Darrow asks Bryan, “When was the last ice age?” Bryan does not know, but guesses: “It was more than 6,000 years ago.” This remark prompts Darrow to return to Ussher’s date for Creation, 4004 B.C. But Bryan now distances himself from Ussher’s chronology. He insists that “the Bible itself” doesn’t say Creation occurred in 4004 B.C.—rather, “that is Bishop Ussher’s calculation.”
Then Bryan makes a concession that delights the defense and would trouble many of his fundamentalist supporters. Darrow asks, “Do you think the earth was made in six days?” “Not six days of twenty-four hours,” answers Bryan. When fellow prosecutor Thomas Stewart rises and demands that the judge stop this examination “in the name of all that is legal,” defense lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays argues that Bryan’s concession on the length of creation was vital to the defense: “Mr. Bryan has already stated that the world is not merely 6,000 years old and that is very helpful to us.”
* * *

James Ussher's library consisted of over 10,000 volumes, all published before the first printing press ever found its way to what later became the great centers of publishing: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. Imagine a library of that size and vintage in anyone's possession today! He pored through them all, seeking to compile every known ancient history into one coherent whole, tying together dates from the various dynasties of many ancient civilizations to the one document that gives a coherent history of all ancient time, from the marriage of the very first human couple right down to the days of the great ancient historians. It was truly a spectacular accomplishment, and one that has never been bettered. Ussher's dates have remained in continuous use ever since, and his book is even now back in print, while those of many who preceded or followed him have long been lost in oblivion.

Yes, much data has emerged since the 1650's that would aid in compiling a replacement for Ussher's--the Mayan Long Count to give one example in particular. But at the same time, some of the ancient works Ussher cited have since been lost forever--the Irish history Cin Droma Snechta in particular, which would be of special value to secularists because it was officially compiled prior to the Christianization of Ireland. Or would it? Before it was lost forever, it was found to give a Creation Date that corresponds to 5208 BCE.

So, let those who deride Ussher do the research he did, interpret even more historical dates than he had access to, and make sense of them all better than he could. Then, and only then, do they deserve a hearing.

Should anyone quibble with Ussher on any particular date, claiming him to be off by a few years, that is nothing new or newsworthy. Just look at the above list--even it is far from exhaustive--and you will see that many authors have gone out of print over the centuries having put their hand to just that. Join them if you will.

Considering that Ussher had been dead over 250 years when I wrote this over 4 years ago, it's amazing that this post continues to draw way more hits than a lot of my more recent posts. So I should probably add here that Joseph Scaliger, referred to above, was a generation older than Ussher and preceded him in a lot of the research that culminated in Annals of the World. It was Scaliger, for instance, who discovered the Julian Period which was central to Ussher's chronology. Chronology was a huge interest at that time because of the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the first major calendar change in 1600 years. Scaliger also preceded Ussher's text-critical studies, being the father of modern textual criticism.  But for whatever reasons, it has been Ussher, not Scaliger, who has received the brunt of modern scorn for his scholarship. Sic semper ignoramus.


  1. Ussher was a highly intellegent scholar and his book a considerable achievement. He was of course working on the available scientific and historical knowledge available to him at the time.

    As an honest scholar and seeker of the truth he would have nothing in commont with the uneducated and ignorant people of this age, who in spite of all the evidence available, continue to believe the world was created in 6 days a mere 6.000 + years ago

    1. Sounds like you have not done your homework concerning evidences contrary to your own assumptions! ---- a bit biased are we? Many are they who accept blindly what they are told without examining the evidences ----those who do so honestly can not with a straight face speak as you do. Check out and for starters ...

  2. What historical evidence has been unearthed to give an earlier date for creation than the ones available to Ussher? Of course, some of the historical knowledge available to him at that time has since been lost forever.

  3. 1a AM, 710 JP, 4004 BC
    1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. {#Ge 1:1} This beginning of time, according to our chronology, happened at the start of the evening preceding the 23rd day of October (on the Julian calendar), 4004 BC or 710 JP.

    4000a AM, 4709 JP, 5 BC
    The Seventh Age of the World
    6059. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born of the most blessed virgin Mary at Bethlehem in the fullness of time. {#Mt 1:25 2:1,5 Ga 4:4} Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. {#Lu 2:7}

    Is the year of the world ‘4000’ a significant date for the most significant event in the history of the universe?

    When I first saw the year 4000 in James Ussher’s Annals of the World, I thought, how did Ussher do it.

    Did he juggle the numbers? Or is 4000 really significant?

    Would God work in round numbers like this? Why not?

    Would an anchor date secure our past and our future?

    ** Seems like 4000 helps us focus on the center and purpose of history and God's Creation. Christ the Lord. **


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