The Truth About Ussher's Chronology

James Ussher was an Irishman born near the end of the 16th century. Elizabeth was on Britain’s throne and remained there until Usher was 22. By that time, he had accomplished a great deal. He was very gifted with languages. Young James went off to Dublin to enter Trinity College when he was only 13. He was ordained a priest at the age of 20. He became a professor at Trinity when he was only 26. When he was 44, he became Archbishop of Armagh. That made him the head of the Anglo-Irish Church, a protestant leader in a predominantly Catholic land.

Ussher’s skills and his references were scholarly. He held an administrative position as Archbishop, but his heart laid elsewhere. In fact, he was criticized as an administrator because his inclination was to debate, not to simply deal with opposition by politics of intolerant decree.

It was during the final period of his life that he wrote the work for which he is now famous, the "Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world". This work appeared right at mid-century in 1650. It’s common to say that Ussher reached his famous date of 4004 B.C.E. by simply calculating back from the time of Jesus by adding up years involved in the lineages of Christ given in the Bible, and going all the way back to Adam. It was much more complicated than that.

There is complete information given in the Old Testament to make an accurate calculation up to the time of Solomon, but after that, ambiguities begin to creep in. For approximately the last 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Bible gives no help at all. What Ussher did was what to correlate information from this period with known dates from the histories of other cultures, specifically the Chaldean and Persian cultures. This required an incredible expertise in biblical history, secular history and language abilities. The bulk of the knowledge he applied was non-biblical. Ussher had one of the best minds of his time.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, noted paleontologist and Darwinian evolutionist, once wrote a wonderful explanation of how Ussher came to his conclusions (it is available here), including how he came to the precise date he gave for the creation: October 23, at noon.

Gould’s point in taking up the subject was to criticize those who dismiss Ussher’s work as the application of dogma to a scientific subject. They are not only ignorant, but they miss the point entirely. Gould said “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”.

He was delighted with Ussher’s explanation of how he determined his result. Not only by the plain use of Holy Scripture, by also by light of reason well directed. Because of his erudition, Ussher’s calculation became accepted in the Western Christian tradition for a long time.

King James commissioned a translation of the Bible in the first decade of the 17th century. It became the authorized version in English and continues to exist to this day. By a half-century after Ussher’s death, his calculation of 4004 B.C.E. for the date of creation was inserted into the column of annotations that stood between the double columns of text. It lasted there until the second half of the 20th century.

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