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Nov 04 2009

Why Ussher’s calculations undermine the credibility of the Bible

(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.)

Bishop James Ussher actually did quite an impressive feat of calculation, careful and thorough, to arrive at his creation date of 4004 BCE. Once he had got the year of creation fixed, Ussher was able to provide precise dates for other key events in the Bible:

2348 BC – Noah’s Flood
1921 BC – God’s call to Abraham
1491 BC – The Exodus from Egypt
1012 BC – Founding of the Temple in Jerusalem
586 BC – Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity

Although creationists take Ussher’s work as correct, this causes problems for them. For example, since Noah’s flood in 2348 BCE supposedly wiped out everything (except those living things that could swim or float or were saved in the Ark), according to Biblical literalists, all history must be compressed within the last 4,500 years, even less time than the commonly used figure of 6,000 years.

Since there is convincing evidence that agriculture began around 10,000 years ago and that Egyptians have records of kings dating back to around 3,000 BCE, that already contradicts Ussher’s chronology. There is also evidence that Egyptian cultures (and even the pyramids) existed further back than 4,500 years ago, before the flood. There are even trees whose root systems date back to nearly 10,000 years. But if you are determined to believe that the Bible is literally true, you can always make up something to overcome any problem.

More sophisticated religious believers tend to treat as myth the pre-Abraham story and thus discount the idea of a 6,000 year old Earth. They are quite comfortable with a 4.7 billion year old Earth and the evolution of life. But they tend to think that the post-Abrahamic story is largely true, just embellished with some miracles that can be explained away.

But we should only take seriously those things for which there is independent evidence, such as alternative source material establishing dates and events and people, or archeological discoveries of artifacts that can be scientifically dated that can provide corroborating evidence. Almost none of these things exist for almost everything in the Old Testament. In fact, the more science uncovers things, the less credible ancient Bible history gets.

The fact that we now know that Ussher’s result has no relationship to reality should not take away from his accomplishment. So why did I state earlier that Ussher’s calculations, which are taken as strictly true by so many Christians now, is actually evidence in favor of treating the Bible as fiction?

The point is that even for someone like Ussher who undoubtedly believed that the Bible was literally true, the earliest event that he could historically verify and date from other sources was the death of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BCE. This means that even a true believer could not independently verify the historicity of any earlier event. The events in the Bible pretty much end around 425 BCE, which is when the last book of the Old Testament was written by the minor prophet Malachi. So the whole text is pretty much useless except as fiction, except for the interval of about 150 years from about 575 BCE to 425 BCE, when it might have been recording contemporaneous events.

It is easy to overlook how quickly events fade into myth if not recorded contemporaneously by multiple independent sources. I recently read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlin, which recount the story of Camelot, with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, the Holy Grail, the works. The books were fun to read. I had always assumed that the Camelot story was entirely fiction but discovered that scholars still debate its historicity, with some thinking that elements of this story are true and that someone like King Arthur actually existed around the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Other scholars think that the Arthur legend was created as a romantic and fanciful tale centuries later.

You would think that we would know with some confidence who the kings of England were during that period and could say definitively whether King Arthur existed or not. But we can’t. What we know is mixture of fact and legend, which are hard to disentangle.

Historical fact fades into myth as we go back in time, much more rapidly than we imagine, except for those rare civilizations that kept careful records which were not destroyed by wars and other calamities. By even as late as 1,000 CE, things start to get highly murky. So to take the events in the Old Testament, which occurred about 1,000 BCE and earlier and are uncorroborated, as actual history is to stretch credulity. This is why we need the kinds of corroborating evidence that only modern science can provide, using multiple sources, archeology, and all the tools of radiometry that are now available.

The Old Testament should be treated as literature composed by many authors over a long period and designed to serve varying purposes over time. It is definitely not history. If we cannot believe the stories that a mighty and famous king like Arthur ever existed, why should we believe stories of kings David and Solomon who existed 1500 years before Arthur and for whom there is little or no supporting evidence?

POST SCRIPT: Radio interview about my book

UPDATE: I have been bumped to accommodate the big serial killer story so will not be on the radio tomorrow after all. Will let you know the rescheduled date.

On Thursday, November 5, I will be interviewed on the Cleveland NPR affiliate station WCPN 90.3 from 9:00-10:00 am on its program The Sound of Ideas. The topic will be my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom. You can listen online live on its webcast or listen to the podcast after the show.

You can all in during the program: Local 216-578-0903 or toll-free 866-578-0903.

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