By Dave Foda | Guest Writer
If you’ve heard of the date of October 23, 4004 B.C. as the date of God’s creation of the world, you’re not alone. Young-Earth Creationists – those who believe the world is only about six thousand years old – depend on this date: It gives to them a certain sense of “conclusion” in that there is nothing unexpected about the end of worldly experience.
James Ussher (4 January 1581 – 21 March 1656) was the Church of Ireland’s (part of the Anglican Communion) “Archbishop of Armagh,” and “Primate of All Ireland,” from 1625 to 1656. During his time, the perceived need to accurately establish the date of Creation was of foremost concern for Christian theologians, and Ussher provided his “expertise” in helping to establish the date. (For the record, even Stephen Jay Gould, while dismissing the idea of a god, nevertheless had some respect for Ussher, saying that he “represented the best of scholarship of his time.” With that, I can’t necessarily say that I disagree.)
In 1650, Ussher published his Annals of the Old Testament, more commonly referred to as “Annals of the World.” In it, Ussher fixed the date of God’s creation of the world to nightfall on October 23, 4004 (J). Why the “J” in parentheses? Because at the time, though Ussher himself was well-aware of the Gregorian calendar, his audience still used the Julian calendar. (The Gregorian calendar was adopted in stages across Europe, and even in the Americas.) Doing a simple Julian-to-Gregorian conversion, the Gregorian date equivalent to Ussher’s estimation is November 20, 4004 B.C., a difference of four weeks, or, the length of February. This estimation bore little difference to other Biblically-based estimations, including those of the Venerable Bede (3952 B.C.), Johannes Kepler (3992 B.C.), and Sir Isaac Newton (4000 B.C.), and was widely accepted.
Ussher’s methodology has long been oversimplified, and because of that, it’s also been misunderstood. Ussher did not simply count the lifespans of the patriarchs. Instead, he reckoned those ages, compared them against events mentioned extra-Biblically, and further compared them with leap years, solar and lunar eclipses, and various other criteria. Also, Ussher realized that there was a discrepancy between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible, so while the Septuagint would have been his natural go-to for Old Testament understanding, Ussher instead chose to break with familiarity and use the Hebrew Bible, in an attempt that he felt would give him the most clarity and authenticity for his work. It is for this reason that Young-Earth Creationism (including fundamentalist Christianity; and in some cases, fundamentalist Islam) tends to rely on Ussher’s work as sacrosanct. However, many theologians criticized Ussher’s work, including Princeton professor William Henry Green, who said in 1890 in the essay “Primeval Chronology” that Ussher was wrong because the Old Testament provides no enumeration to provide for a figure for either Earth’s creation (or the timespan of Noah’s Great Deluge).
In Ussher’s work, there is an interesting tangent, though: In Ussher’s mind (and in what was a fairly common view in his day), the six-thousand year figure held symbolic meaning for the general population, as well. You may have heard that “a day is like a thousand years,” right? Well, you can credit that – originally – to St. Paul, but Ussher helped to drive it home. In II Peter 3:8, Paul wrote that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” It was popularly felt that the “one day equals one thousand years” was applicable to the expected lifespan of the Earth, and since the Creation event lasted six days, the theologically appropriate lifespan of the Earth should be six thousand years (four thousand years before Christ, and two thousand years since). This results in the date of the Earth’s destruction – on the Gregorian calendar – as November 20, 2004. (Yes, Harold Camping was wrong, too.)
Obviously, we’re almost a decade past that date, but based on that six-thousand-year mark, it’s really no wonder to me that so many fundamentalist Christians keep screaming about “the end of the world is near!”
I doubt that Ussher really expected that his estimations would receive worldwide attention in the ranks of the religious, but ultimately, it is here that he gets his “eternal life.”
Well played, sir. Well played, indeed.
Dave Foda is an atheist, a writer, and a researcher, and sometimes-activist. He has a background in risk management, information security, and protective services; has some formal training in law, law enforcement, and linguistics; and is an IT systems engineer by trade. He has interests in physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, archaeology, anthropology, history, languages, law and legal systems, and politics. His library shelves are stocked mostly with non-fiction.
Having been raised Lutheran; he forayed into evangelical Christianity in his teens, but was soon cognizant of the inconsistencies of faith, generally. He understands the nature of the perceived religious need of many individuals, but also understands that religious belief as a form of governance is damaging to the whole of society.
Dave lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/dave.foda, or follow him on Twitter @DaveFoda.