In defence of the indefensible.

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 (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.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

24 responses to “In defence of the indefensible.

  1. Pingback: Defending Ussher « a simple prop

  2. Mike from Ottawa

    “… defenders of scientism love to brandish as a proof of the stupidity of Christians.”

    Some may do so, but I used the occasion to point out that Biblical literalists _today_ espouse essentially the same view, without any of the genuine excuse that having died in 1656 gives the good bishop.

    • It’s also a question of how far forwards we can see. For example, Laura Smoller’s contribution “The Alfonsine Tables and the End of the World” to Jeffrey B Russell’s festschrift demonstrates how a number of astrologers in the fourteenth and fifteenth century did identical calculations in times of great stress, principally in the Black Death and the resurgence of plague at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, and the destruction of much of the French nobility at Agincourt. The circles concerned went on to restructure the Papacy and thereby spark the Renaissance.
      Similarly, Ussher’s Europe had just ended the Thirty Years War (over religion) and was starting on the Enlightenment and rise of scientific thinking, which his work was a religious expression of.
      Yet even today we’re concerned about global warming, pollution and heaven knows what, which is little better than a sublimation of the Dance of Death: for example, research Abbot Malachy for modern statistical significance and realise that we face the same symptoms they did in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and feel the same way about it. Here’s hoping that as those uncertain times saw great rebirths, so ours will live up to the tradition.

  3. JakeR

    Poor Bishop Ussher could have asked himself why the Hebrew calendar assumes a world 5771 years old as of the past 26 March.

  4. jeb

    I am still recovering from P.Z’s use of the Book of Kells and R. Dawkins highly imaginative reconstruction of the popular devotion of medevial peasantry.

    It seems the medevial world in general is considered a backwater of stupidity and unrelenting ignorance; it is a very popular view.

    But the concern of biologists is with scientific illiteracy, historical illiteracy would seem to be a usefull tool.

  5. A fresh top-level comment here: you comment that the viewpoint was that God is synthetically geometer, mathematician, and astronomer, yet you miss the fourth leg of the quadrivium which is the leg used by Hooke and Boyle to lay the foundations completed by Newton, namely that he is also a musician: the key used was the pythagorean harmonics of equal temperament, which astonishingly mapped onto real space.
    The ball I throw out to you is, therefore, given that European equal temperament is an arbitrary scale (for example, consider the alternatives of true temperament in the European tradition and the many other scales around the world, from the Scottish bagpipes to Arabic temperaments to Chinese to Native American), then where did equal temperament come from and is it possible that it itself was simply an expression of an earlier synthesis of astronomy and music. A possible approach may lie in Craig Wrght’s The Maze and The Warrior, but other thoughts are welcome. Another base line bearing more detailed examination is the work on musical theory undertaken by Kircher, Puteanus and Vincenzo Galileo in the later years of the sixteenth century, but there are also indications of much earlier syllogisms in the followers of Pierre d’Ailly in the early fifteenth century, and maybe even earlier.

  6. Great post, I never knew the background of the date. And I agree whole-heartedly with the critique of ahistorical thinking when it comes to the evolution debate. There were plenty of bright naturalists (Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen, etc) who had issues with evolution that could not be reduced to blinkered Biblical literalism. I think much of this come from evolution advocates trying to map the Biblical literalism of today on to earlier eras. As you point out with Kepler (and even Copernicus), the organization of the univer still had to conform to a vision of God as geometer…didn’t Einstein also do something of this – giving as evidence of Special Relativity ‘It has to be true, its just too beautiful’ Or perhaps I’m making this up.

    ps. glad someone saw the polar documentary last night – I haven’t. How do I sound in German?

  7. Jeb

    With regard to context the most important lesson I think Ive learned from a historical text was the Poppleton manuscript or “The chronicle of the Kings of Alba.” It has a very involved textual history.

    Re-worked by scribes in various periods, it is a nightmare to deal with when first approached as the initial thing you learn is that increasing expertise simply means you have an increasing awarness of youre own ignorance. As the text requires expertise in a large number of diffrent historical periods and each one must be understood fully in it’s individual context.

    Should be compulsary reading for history undergrads as it provides a very rude awakening
    with regard to the complexity and displine of working with historical texts.

    It is a deceptively short and on the surface simple little document. Can be found at the bottom of the page here should anyone wish to glance at it’s full horror.

    Highly usefull to tackle before writting anything on the early med. period.

    But for the early modern all you have to do is imagine you have Thony sitting on youre shoulder as you write.

  8. Pingback: Investigations of a Dog » Carnivalesque 56

  9. As with my past comment:

    I’ve got to get my trackbacks working. Until I do, I thought I’d simply leave a comment here with a link to the post where I’ve cited this post:

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  16. Pingback: James Ussher: Academic Modernity | Irish Philosophy

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  18. Should anyone be interested in Biblical Chronology in general, the best starting place is Jack Finegan’s “Handbook of Bibilical Chronology”. First published in 1964 by Princeton University Press, he wrote a revised edition in 1998 (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA) and this is now available in paperback (ISBN 978-1-61970-641-5).

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