A Christmas Trinity I: Isaac was one too.

In recent years it has become common practice for Gnu Atheists and other hard-core sceptics to wish the Earth happy birthday on the 23rd of October at the same time making snide comments and pouring scorn and derision on the head of the erstwhile Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland James Ussher (1625 – 1656) whose Bible chronology determined this as the date of creation in 4004 BCE. As I have commented elsewhere Ussher was in fact a learned scholar, esteemed academic and respected mathematician and within the context of his own times and culture his chronology was a perfectly rational piece of academic scholarship and that he doesn’t deserve the treatment that he receives at the hands of the self-appointed guardians of scientific purity. Because his date for creation in the modified version of John Lightfoot (it was Lightfoot who added the time of day to the calculations!) was printed in the annotated version of the King James Bible Ussher has become the most well known, not to say notorious, of the Bible chronologists but he was far from being alone, many leading scholars in the 17th century were actively involved in Bible chronology. Although Bible chronology predates the early modern period and includes such well known figures as The Venerable Bede (c.673 – 735), the leading mathematician of the Early Middle Ages, Dionysius Exiguus (c.470 – c.544), the founder of the AD/BC dating system and Maimonides (1135 – 1204), one of the most influential philosophers of the High Middle Ages, it became a whole new discipline in the 17th century under the influence of Joseph Justus Scagiler (1540 – 1609) historian and universally recognised as one of the greatest scholars of the age. Amongst the notable scientists who were also 17th century Bible chronologists were Kepler, Robert Hooke, Jacob Bernoulli and the most renowned British chronologist after Ussher, Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) whose birthday we are celebrating today.

I have yet to come across a Gnu Atheist or other hard-core sceptic mocking the good Sir Isaac for his Bible chronology although he invested far more time, energy and money in its study than he ever did in physics or mathematics. It’s OK to attack Ussher who was after all a pitiful cleric but the sainted Sir Isaac is the founder of modern science so he should be venerated, OK he did have a couple of quirks but in the interest of the great god science we can sweep those under the carpet.

Newton’s interest in chronology, like that of many others, originates in the fact that he was a millenarianist that is he believed in an imminent second coming of the Christ. This was based on the commonly held belief that the Earth would exist for exactly 6000 years after the creation, so determining the exact date of creation would lead to a knowledge of the second coming. A substantial part of Newton’s private library consisted of volumes bought to pursue his chronological interests and he even went to the extent of learning Hebrew in order to be able to read relevant text in the original, he could already read Greek and Latin. His activities as a chronologist were known throughout the European academic community and other chronologists were interested in learning the details of his work as they knew that he was utilising his knowledge of astronomy to more accurately date events in early history and thus to construct a more accurate and reliable chronology. It should be remembered that in the first quarter of the 18th century Newton was regarded as the greatest living European scientist, as with all of his intellectual pursuits Newton was however very reluctant to reveal his researches. In the 1720s he relented and circulated a manuscript containing the results of his investigation, which was then, to Newton’s great displeasure, published against his wishes in Paris. The generally judgement of other historians and chronologists was very negative and Newton’s chronology was torn to shreds by his critics.

Now our hard-core sceptics would probably say that it is well known that old Isaac as well as being the greatest mathematical scientist of all times was more than a bit of a fruit cake and his being a Bible chronologist doesn’t make this any less of a moronic activity but to do so would be a mistake. Bible chronology played a very important role in academic history, in fact in the discipline of history itself. Before the 17th century history was about telling stories. Stories about great men to illustrate whatever virtue or virtues they were supposed to possess as role models for the readers or listeners. Foundation legends or myths for nation, peoples or cultures, good examples of which are still propagated in the world’s classroom today. Accuracy, truth or reliability were not very high on the agenda. This all changed in the 17th century, this change was largely driven by Bible chronology.  In their search forever greater accuracy in their dating the chronologists began to critically examine and question their sources. Documents were examined for their authenticity; information from differing sources was cross-correlated and checked against each other. New dating methods for sources were developed and in general the whole apparatus of modern historical research was brought into being. Newton’s astronomical methods are in use today. With accurate astronomical model it is possible to calculate the occurrence of all astronomical/astrological phenomena such as solar and lunar eclipses or planetary conjunctions in history with this information it is possible to accurately date such occurrences when described in history chronicles or other sources. In order to correlate and compare dates from differing calendar systems Scaliger, the first of the ‘modern’ chronologists developed the so-called Julian day count in which all dates are recorded as a number of days since 12 noon January 1st 4713 BC (Julian calendar), which is 24th November 4714 (Georgian calendar) a system that is now the standard system of dating in astronomy.

As has often been the case in history a seemingly irrational activity, in this case Bible chronology, contributed significantly to the modern form of a discipline, in this case historical methodology.

I hope my reader(s) had a good Newtonmas, Sol Invictus or which ever excuse they use to get drunk and stuff themselves with good food at this time of year.


Filed under Newton

13 responses to “A Christmas Trinity I: Isaac was one too.

  1. Laszlo

    Wow. Your connection between Bible chronology and the desire for, as you put it, “accuracy, truth or reliability” is interesting. My instincts tell me that it’s a bit of a stretch, but I would love to read more about it. I wonder if what you’re talking about was part of a wider social phenomenon just before or around Newton’s time.

    Still, I agree that it would be wrong to call Bible cronology bad, or even laughable, scholarship. If anything, people who say those things need to reconsider their assumptions. Please write more about this subject. I’d like to learn more.

    By the way, I just thought of why I found what you were saying to be a stretch. I feel like movable type would have played a much stronger role in peoples’ desire to cross-check and verify things. What do you think?

  2. Chris

    Wouldn’t many of the ‘historical study’ techniques you describe near the end have been developed during the 15th/16th century humanist study of Greek manuscripts?

    • thonyc

      Yes! The Bible chronology movement of the 17th century is very much an extension of the humanist search for authenticity. Scaliger who very much set it in motion was a leading humanist scholar. What distiguishes it is already clear from the name, it’s about dating. The humanist were concerned with the accuracy of the contents of the manuscripts, the chronologists with their accurate dating. However it is part and parcel of the same intellectual deveopments.

  3. Soren

    Which of the Gnu Atheists mock Ussher rather than people today believing in the chronology of Ussher?

    The mocking of Ussher I’ve seen seems more like collateral damage when ridiculing AIG og the Worldnutdaily for believing that genesis is a history book and Usshers chronology is to be taken serious.

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