The Beginning of the World According to James Ussher
On the 21st of March 1656, the archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, James Ussher, died in Reigate, Surrey, England. He was one of the few scholars who attempted deciphering biblical chronology and placing it within historical context . As strange as it may all sound, he managed to calculate the beginning of the world, using the Hebrew Bible as a reference. He claimed that, “The 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.” (James Ussher, Annals of the World). What is more, according to him, Creation started precisely at 10 pm. Although, some of the other sources also mention 9 am, 9 pm or 6 pm. It is possible then that it was a sudden realisation of error in his calculations that prompted him to say his last words, O Lord forgive me, especially my sins of omission. Of course, we are laughing here, but in Ussher’s times, biblical chronology was not a laughing stock but a subject of serious, scientifically backed up research. In actual fact, it occupied some of the greatest minds in history, among them Martin Luther, Joseph Justus Scaliger and Isaac Newton. The latter estimated the beginning of the world for 4000 BC; out of many others, this is probably the closest estimation to that of Ussher’s.
Determining the beginning of the world was important not so much for the purpose of knowing when the world really started, or how long ago, but for the purpose of setting a reference point to all that happened afterwards. In order to do so, Ussher focused on three major periods: Early Times (from Creation to King Solomon), Early Age of Kings (from King Solomon to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity), and Late Age of Kings (from Ezra and Nahemiah to the birth of Jesus). The calculations were based on the analysis of unbroken male lineages, ages of certain historical figures, lengths of kings’ reigns, comparison of the events from the Bible with historical events from various cultures, or even records of astronomical or geographical phenomena. By application of all these methods, Usher estimated the Creation date of 4000 BC; then he calculated the date of 4 BC as the actual date of Jesus’ birth and added it to the previous number. As for the season in which Creation started, Ussher chose autumn, mostly because it marked the beginning of the Jewish year. And then he established that it all happened on a Sunday near the autumnal equinox, which fell on the 23rd of October.
Assuming that all of the other interpreters of biblical chronology used the same methods, one could expect the same or very close estimates. However, that is not the case and it is all due to three major problems. First of all, “Some biblical passages were not absolutely clear. The whole thing worked on the assumption that the Bible was without errors and its figures should in general be taken literally, but this tended to break down where the Bible had two references to the same event and these did not quite agree. … Second, the Bible existed in at least three textual traditions, which differed in the chronological figures, especially in the important ones at the beginning, from Adam down to Noah and from Noah down to Abraham. Thus for the period from Creation down to the Flood the traditional Hebrew text, as translated in our Bibles, gave a period of 1,656 years. But the Greek text or Septuagint, created in Egypt in Ptolemaic times, gave for the same period a figure of 2,242 years. In Christianity some authorities basically followed the Hebrew text, some the Greek; hence there can be big differences of six hundred years or so. … Third, and this is the most important problem, in a certain sense one cannot make a biblical chronology without going outside the Bible, not one by which one can reckon back from later times. The chronological scheme of the Hebrew Bible in the end fades away: it works fairly well from Creation down to the end of the Hebrew kingdoms, but after that it has only vague and scattered hints, and in the Persian Empire, though it mentions various Persian emperors, no one can tell from the Bible alone how many Persian kings there were or how long the Persian Empire existed. This is why the Jewish reckoning of today, implying a creation in 3761 B.C., has a lower figure than a chronology like Ussher’s: for Jewish sources estimated the total duration of the Persian Empire at fifty-two or even thirty-two years, when in fact it lasted about two hundred.” (James Barr, Pre-Scientific Chronology: The Bible and the Origin of the World).
Knowing the date of the beginning of the world was also important for the reason that it would allow calculation of its end. Therefore, looking at our modern-day fixation on apocalyptic visions and prophecies foretelling the ‘unavoidable’ end of the world we should not laugh at all at those seemingly funny estimations of its beginning. After all, we are no closer than Ussher to finding the answer.
Featured Image: James Tissot, The Creation, Jewish Museum, New York.