Friday was the 23rd of October and the Internet sceptics had a field day mocking one of their favourite punching bags James Ussher (1581 – 1656) Archbishop of Armagh. Ussher is notorious for dating the creation of the world to 6 pm on the 22nd of October 4004 BCE (and not 9 am on 23rd October as Pharyngula falsely stated) a fact that the hordes of Pharyngula and other similar self appointed defenders of scientism love to brandish as a proof of the stupidity of Christians.
However Ussher has a right to be judged by the social and cultural standards of his own time and not those of the twenty first century. Who knows which things that we hold sacred will be ridiculed by sneering sceptics in three or four hundred years? “Can you believe it in the early 21st century they actually believed…?” How much and how fast social norms can change is illustrated by the fact that as I was growing up in Britain in the 50s and 60s, in what was then one of the most open and liberal societies in the world, sexism, racism and homophobia were all acceptable and widespread social attitudes, a thought that makes me shudder today. I, at least, had the good fortune to have parents who openly rejected and condemned such behaviour and so never had to go through the painful process of adjusting my own warped prejudices.
But back to Ussher, in reality he was a widely respected, highly intelligent, well-educated scholar who was also an excellent mathematician. When considering his Bible chronology one has to take the following facts into consideration, firstly almost all well educated Europeans of the period believed in the literal truth of the Bible. Secondly, a large number of them were chiliast or millenarianists, i.e. people who believed in the second coming of Christ when the earth would be six thousand years old; a belief based on a Biblical saying. Now the generally accepted interpretation of the Bible placed the creation of the earth somewhere between 3000 and 5000 BC so for a chiliast, in the middle of the 17th century, determining the correct date of the creation was very important. If the world had come into being 4500 BC then your whole theory was wrong but if it materialised in 4300 BC then you had better start preparing for the return of Christ. Ussher was by no means the only prominent Bible chronologist of the 16th and 17th centuries the most famous being the philologist and historian Joseph Justus Scaliger and of course Isaac Newton; others such as Johannes Kepler and Phillip Melanchthon also dabbled.
How did Ussher arrive at his strange date? He originally determined on theoretical theological grounds that the creation took place in 4000 BC and proceeded to fit the entire Old Testament history into those 4000 years but then corrected the birth of Christ to 4 BC, due to the calculation errors of Dionysius Exiguus when he first set up the AD/BC dating system, and so pushed creation back to 4004 BC. Ussher’s achievements in his analysis of Old Testament history are in fact a great feat of scholarship and earned him the accolades of his fellow chronologists. But why 6pm and the 22nd of October? Here we see a reflection of a belief commonly held by scientists in the early modern period, God is a Geometer i.e. Mathematician i.e. Astronomer, all three names being synonymous in this period. For many scientists in the early modern period the concept of a rational mathematical God whose creation was a logical scientific structure functioned as a fundamental heuristic principle, most notably for Galileo, Kepler, Boyle and Newton. Ussher shared this belief and like many chronologists he believed that the point of creation would be determined by some sort of logically reasonable astronomical event, i.e. God setting the great astronomical clock in motion. For various reasons Ussher chose the autumnal equinox and placed the moment of creation on the beginning of the Sunday preceding the 4004 BC equinox, 25th October, that he had determined using Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables. He chose the Sunday as the first day of creation because the Bible says that the creation took six days and God rested on the seventh, which is the Jewish Sabbath, the Saturday. The point of creation is 6pm on Saturday the 22nd October because in the Jewish calendar the new day starts at 6 pm. All of this is within the social and cultural norms of his times perfectly sensible and rational and only appears idiotic when viewed from our perspective. Ussher was not the fool that he is presented as being by the modern sceptics but a highly regarded scholar of his times.
Now I hear the thoughts of a potential reader who is thinking that this is all well and good but when Ussher wasted his time and intellectual energy on a subject that viewed from the modern perspective is pure rubbish why should we cut him some slack now? At first this attitude seems to be correct and Ussher and his ilk should probably be assigned to the dustbin of history only to be pulled out and dusted off for a bit of healthy mockery on the anniversaries of their inanities but appearances can be, and indeed in this instance are, deceptive. The popular presentation of the scientific revolution usually presents it as fundamentally a revolution in astronomy and physics with a bit of medicine tacked on to justify the wider concept science, however this view is highly restrictive and fundamentally wrong. In the 16th and 17th centuries the fundaments were laid for a very wide range of modern academic disciplines and amongst them history and archaeology. In antiquity and the Renaissance the understanding and function of history was very different to that of today and a factual reconstruction of the past was not the aim of historians. The original concept of history was to use historical figures to tell moral or political fables for educational purposes. This concept changed radically in the 16th and 17th centuries towards our modern conception of history, this change was to a large extent due to the work of the chronologists. In their attempts to accurately reconstruct the march of time they started to develop and utilize methods of philological analysis and dating that had not existed previously and in so doing laid the foundation of both modern history and archaeology. Although their motivation was one that seems totally ridiculous from a modern standpoint the results of their efforts still play a central role in our academic world. As so often in the history of the sciences rational results can and do emerge from irrational motivations.