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The World Since 4004 BC

NPG D26756; James Ussher - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery
Archbishop James Ussher, the man who calculated the Biblical age of the earth.

We often hear religious Christians claim that the world is 6,000 years old (or 6,024 years old, plus six or seven weeks, to be exact).  I won’t weigh in on the veracity of that claim, but it does raise an interesting question: where do they get that number?  The Bible provides exactly zero dates, so how can anyone claim to figure it out?

The first man who claims to have figured it out was James Ussher, the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in the middle of the 17th century.  A scholar and influential churchman, Ussher studied the Bible and concluded that the famous creation of the world, in the Book of Genesis, must have taken place on October 22, 4004 BC, at around 6:00 PM, local time, according to the Julian calendar.

It seems arbitrary, doesn’t it?  But Ussher didn’t just throw a dart at a calendar.  It was based on a literal reading of the Old Testament, and incorporated a broad knowledge of ancient history and Biblical languages.  He gave his treatise the catchy title Annales Veteris Testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, una cum rerum Asiaticarum et Aegyptiacarum chronico, a temporis historici principio usque ad Maccabaicorum initia producto.  (In case your command of Latin isn’t quite up to snuff, that translates as Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabees.  (That’s still not very catchy, is it?))

Since the Bible doesn’t provide dates, Ussher had to work things out somehow.  The first part is the easiest.  From the creation of Adam to the death of Solomon, the Bible provides exact ages for all persons who appear in the book.  So, using these figures, the early part of the book is easily sorted out: it’s just a matter of addition.  Most versions of the Bible agree on how old these persons are, too—but not all.  From one version to another, the difference in ages of the lineage from Adam to Solomon could vary by about 1,500 years.  Ussher decided to deal with this by going right to the original source, and culled his information from a Hebrew Bible.  That covered about the first 3,100 years of the Biblical world, since Solomon’s death occurred in 930 BC.  The Bible doesn’t say this, of course, but since there is actual historical record of Solomon’s existence (as opposed to Adam and Noah and Methuselah and others from the Bible), that provided a nice, firm date to work with.

The lineage of Hebrews after Solomon isn’t recorded as well, so this is where other sources were called for.  The Biblical records of kings after Solomon is incomplete, which required some cross-referencing with historical records.  Ussher, being a religious man, favored the Bible when there were ambiguities, and there was enough scholarship of the ancient world by Ussher’s day to provide him with plenty of information to fill in the gaps.  This process filled in a few more centuries.

From about 500 BCE onward, the Bible names no kings at all.  It does mention some historical events, so Ussher had to rely on those in order to fill in the gaps.  Ussher figured that the birth of Jesus occurred at around 5 BC, due to a math error by 6th-century AD monk Dionysius Exiguus that had been well established by this time.  Ussher figured 5 BC made sense, because the Gospel of Matthew says that King Herod the Great was alive at the time of the birth of Jesus, and established records state that Herod died in 4 BC, so Jesus had to have been born, well, Before Christ, so to speak.  To complicate things, the Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of the province of Syria, and records show that Quirinius took office ten years after Herod’s death!  As to this inconsistency, Ussher says… nothing.  You have to draw the line somewhere, right?

Ussher figured the world was created in the fall because that would have put it in line with the Jewish new year.  According to the Julian calendar, Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC, would have been the first full day of Earth’s existence, when light was created, according to Genesis 1:1.  The light would have followed the previous evening, on October 22, starting around 6:00 PM.  October 23 was the autumnal equinox that year, according to the Julian calendar.  The Gregorian calendar was in use by this time, but it wouldn’t be adopted in Ireland until about a century after Ussher’s death.

Ussher’s chronology started to fall out of favor in the 19th century, even among serious theologians.  Modern Christians don’t put much emphasis on nailing down the exact dates of the Biblical chronology.  Even many “young Earth” Christians hold that the world is thousands of years old, as opposed to how scientists agree that it’s billions of years old, but even they don’t think of the world as having an exact age.  Ussher’s scholarship remains admired today, though his conclusions endure a certain amount of mockery.  In Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s comic fantasy novel Good Omens, Ussher gets a mention in the form of a kind of dis, where he is said to be “off by a quarter of an hour”.  Pratchett and Gaiman don’t say whether he was a quarter hour over, or a quarter hour short.  With the passing of Mr. Pratchett in 2016, we may never know.

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