Nov 02 2009

Bishop Ussher’s calculations

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Long time readers of this blog may recall a series that I did that dealt with the Bible as history. I argued that there was little or no evidence to support any of the major events described in the Bible. While Biblical literalists believe that everything in the Bible is true as both history and science, other Christians and Jews are willing to concede that the story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and Noah’s flood are fictional, merely creation myths generated by the authors of the Bible who were trying to make sense of the world without the insights and knowledge that modern science provides.

But what even the latter group of Christians and Jews may not realize is that the later stories in the Bible of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the slavery of the Jews in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the kings David and Solomon, and so on are completely fictitious also, or at best legends woven around minor events that became part of the folklore.

The most likely emergence of the Jewish people in the region is not by a dramatic escape from Egypt but that they emerged from a small polytheistic indigenous grouping that lived in the region we now call the Middle East that separated itself from the others because of dietary and other restrictions that prevented intermingling. They stumbled upon their monotheistic religion because one of their leaders (King Josiah, who ruled from 641-609 BCE) found it useful as a political strategy to eliminate rival kings and their supporters by claiming that they deserved to die because there was only one true god (his, of course) and they were worshipping the false ones.

There seems to be little controversy about these facts amongst archeologists and Biblical scholars other than those religiously committed to supporting the historical accuracy of the Bible. I have no doubt that many religious leaders and theologians know all this too but do not publicize it for obvious reasons. It is to the advantage of institutionalized religions to preserve the fiction that their religious texts like the Bible actually are records of ancient history although anything written in it that refers to events prior to 600 BCE is best considered as fiction.

Support for the view that the history in the Bible is almost entirely spurious comes, oddly enough, from Bishop James Ussher of Ireland. Almost everyone has heard of his famous calculations for the age of the Earth that fixed the date of creation as the night before October 23, 4004 BCE. Annotated editions of the King James Bible once included this date and as a result Biblical literalists take it very seriously since they believe that anything in the Bible must be true. But if you look at how Ussher did his calculations, it becomes clear that this date has no objective basis and that no rational person should take it seriously.

Because the idea that the world was created in 4004 BCE is now considered patently absurd, people not familiar with how Ussher did his work may be tempted to dismiss him as some kind of religious nut who used some weird form of numerology for arriving at his date of creation. But Ussher (1581-1656) was by no means just another religious believer simply making things up to support his beliefs. He was a serious scholar indulging in what was, at the time, considered a reasonable scholarly activity. He was trying to do an honest-to-goodness calculation of the age of creation using what information he had. Other eminent scholars such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were doing similar calculations around that time, all arriving at dates of creation that differed from his by less than 100 years, lending credibility to his work.

The date of creation that Ussher arrived at was not obviously preposterous given the state of knowledge at the time. After all, the idea of the heliocentric universe began gaining ground only around 1543 with the publication of Copernicus’ work. The idea of the universe being a small and young place was commonplace and not unreasonable. The immensity of space and the immensity of time that the universe has been around are ideas that boggle the mind even now, so one can imagine that they would have been inconceivable to people then.

Like almost all the people of Ussher’s time who lived in Christian countries, scientists and non-scientists alike, they believed the Bible to be literally true and saw the purpose of other fields of scholarship as serving, among other things, to flesh out the Biblical narrative and filling in the details so as to achieve consistency between the Bible and other new emerging sources of knowledge that we now call science. The idea that they could contradict each other was not seriously considered.

Next: So how did Ussher, like the others, arrive at so precise an estimate for the age of the Earth?

POST SCRIPT: Secularism on the upswing?

Christopher Hitches on what he has learned debating religious believers around the world:

Thanks to the foolishness of the “intelligent design” faction, which has tried with ignominious un-success to smuggle the teaching of creationism into our schools under a name that is plainly stupid rather than intelligent, and thanks to the ceaseless preaching of hatred and violence against our society by the fanatics of another faith, as well as other related behavior, such as the mad attempt by messianic Jews to steal the land of other people, the secular movement in the United States is acquiring a confidence that it has not known in years, while many of those who put their faith in revelation and prophecy and prayer are feeling the need to give an account of themselves. This is a wholly good development, and it is part of the pluralism and polycentrism that distinguish the sort of society that we have to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.


Skip to comment form

  1. 1


    There is some warrant for notion that Abrahamic monotheism derives from the revised tradition of one-god or one-supreme-god worship established by the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten aka Amenhotep IV around 1350 BCE. While Akhenaten’s tradition is said to have died with him, the founders of the latter Abrahamic traditions may have continued this cult.

  2. 2

    You know what this all means. If the universe was created on October 23, that makes it a Capricorn.

  3. 3
    Libby Davis

    I confess I have neither heard of the date that you mentioned that the world was created in 4004 BCE or of how the Jews came into being. This was an interesting read and I look forward to finding your book and reading more

  4. 4
    learn german

    keep quoting these dead white guys for a reason. We seem to be repeating some particularly nasty history, right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>