(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
For previous posts in this series, see here.
For a long time, people were comfortable with the idea that the Earth and the universe might have been in existence for an infinite time and is undergoing repeated cycles of creation and destruction.
Things changed with the arrival of Christianity. That particular religion could not tolerate the idea of the universe occurring in cycles because that would mean that Jesus was dying over and over again for our sins, which seemed preposterous. (The discovery of sentient life on other planets is going to create problems for fundamentalist Christians as it is not clear how they would fit into the whole ‘original sin and Jesus sacrifice’ model.) So there had to be a chronology with a definite beginning and this acted as a spur to make calculations to fix the date of creation. Theophilus of Antioch (~115-183 CE), a convert to Christianity, provided an early estimate that the Earth had existed for 5,698 years until his time (Jackson, p. 13) and Julius Africanus (~200 CE) gave the creation date as 5500 BCE (Burchfield, p. 4).
These Christians based their calculations using an interpretation of the Bible (found in Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8) that held that the Genesis story of six ‘days’ of creation was a metaphor, where each ‘day’ represented 1,000 years. The total of six days of creation was interpreted as meaning that the universe would last a total of 6,000 years. The appearance of man on the sixth day of the Genesis story represented the arrival of Jesus sometime in the last 1000 years. These calculations, based as they were on metaphorical readings of the text, lacked a certain rigor.
It took until the 1600s for the age of the Earth to become really quantified, with scholars getting down to the nitty-gritty of calculating an actual age, with the Bible again being the main source of data, and the results obtained strongly influenced thinking in the Western world. I have written before of Bishop Ussher’s (1580-1656) calculation of October 22, 4004 BCE as the day of creation (see part 1 and part 2 ) but his was just one, and not even the first, of many precise calculations around that time that used various versions of the Bible and thus arrived at slightly different values that rarely differed by more than a thousand years.
Why there was such an explosion of so many calculations done in the early 1600s is a bit of a mystery. One suggestion is that people began to realize that if the Earth was only going to last exactly 6,000 years total, then the end of the world was quite near and hence calculating the exact age of the Earth was of practical importance. After all, if you knew for sure that the world would end in a specified year with the return of Jesus, then you could make appropriate plans, or so at least religious people think though I am at a loss as to what one might do. One finds the same kind of obsession amongst present day Rapturists. They work feverishly to look for signs of the end times because they think it is very near. People seem to be strangely drawn to the idea of an imminent apocalypse, as can be seen in the commercial success of films based on that theme.
The first Bible that had carried a chronological marginal creation date was published in 1679 but it was the insertion of the creation date of 4004 BCE and the dates of other significant biblical events next to the relevant sections of Genesis in the annotated versions of the authoritative King James Bibles in 1701 that cemented that date in the public consciousness. These marginal dates continued to be printed until the late 20th century. Ussher was not cited as the source of the dates and may not even have been the source since there were other chronologies, such as that of William Lloyd (1627-1717) who became the Bishop of Worcester in 1699, that also arrived at the date of creation as 4004 BCE. Since the latter was considered the foremost chronologer of his time, he may well have been the source of the date with which Ussher is now indelibly linked, although it is also possible that his calculations were strongly influenced by Ussher’s earlier work (Jackson, p. 30).
Whatever the original source of the date, the blame for leading present day fundamentalist Christians into an anti-science cul-de-sac from which they have never emerged surely must lie at the feet of John Fell (1625-1686), Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church College and the person who for some time controlled the operations of the Oxford University Press. It was he who in 1672 proposed putting the creation date in the King James Bible. If not for that, it is possible that the idea of a 6,000 year-old Earth may have remained a speculation, one among many, that could be interpreted away as science advanced, as has happened to so many other beliefs. But putting it in the hugely influential King James Bible raised it to the level of an infallible truth for many Christians because of their belief that if something is in the Bible, it must be literally true.
Western scientists at that time (or natural philosophers as they were then known) were mostly Christians and while they may not have been as convinced about the ideas of end of the world and Jesus coming again, they saw no reason to challenge the Bible-based calculations as to the date of creation. They took their cue from these biblical calculations and saw their purpose as trying to explain how life could have appeared and how geological forces could produce the features of the Earth, such as mountains and ravines, within that short time. This naturally led to biological theories of special creation and geological theories of catastrophism, a model in which sudden and violent upheavals produced major geological changes.
While some Christians then (and young Earth creationists now) may have seen Noah’s flood as the single major catastrophe that produced all the main features, other less Biblically-literal minded scientists such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) were willing to consider multiple catastrophes, with fire and water as the agents of these major changes, while still sticking with the biblical chronology (Burchfield, p. 5).
But with the Enlightenment, the desire for conformity with biblical estimates weakened, and people started devising theories of the formation of the Earth and the universe and doing calculations that were not explicitly linked to Biblical stories. These developments will be examined in the next post in the series.
(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)
POST SCRIPT: Book signing and reception
Tomorrow (Thursday, December 3, 2009) there will be a short talk by me on my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, followed by a book signing and reception. All are welcome.
Where: Flora Stone Mather room at the Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University
Time: 3:00-4:00 pm