In Praise of Bishop Ussher’s Gift

In the mid-1600s, Irish bishop James Ussher published his Annalium pars posterior, in which he famously calculated the date of Creation as 4004BC. Ussher’s work is often the target of ridicule today, especially from the New Atheists, mostly because of its association with Young Earth Creationism.

But such sneering attitudes shockingly underestimate the scholarship and value of Ussher’s work, which was in fact a towering intellectual achievement of its time. Certainly, Ussher was also inescapably limited by the constraints of his time. His critics however, are just as limited: blinded by the assumptions of their own time and circumstances, they fail to appreciate that Ussher was a rigorous scholar who proceeded by a truly scientific method.

As biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, Ussher’s chronology was “an honorable effort for its time …our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past”.

But, much more than that, Ussher’s achievement was a vital gift to the intellectual climate of the scientific revolution.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn argued that revolutions in thinking so dramatically alter the mental landscape that the pre and post-revolutionary thinkers inhabit completely separate conceptual worlds. From the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to appreciate just how radically different was the conceptual worldview of Europe in the 17th century. Not the least difference was the understanding of time and history itself.

Archaeologist Colin Renfrew emphasises that the very concept of “prehistory” didn’t exist until the mid-19th century. To talk of deep history, going back tens of thousands, let alone millions of years, just didn’t make sense. Written records were scarce, and barely stretched back a few thousand years. Archaeology as a discipline of study didn’t begin until at least the 18th century.

For a scholar like Ussher, the only evidence available was the Bible and handful of other texts from the ancient – yet, in terms of what we know now of human history, very recent – past.

Ussher proceeded with laudable scientific rigour: using Biblical references to known historical events, he cross-referenced those with Babylonian, Greek and Roman sources to fix accurate dates. Ussher also corrected dates such as Jesus’ birth (which he placed at 5BC), as well as fixing the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar with remarkable accuracy. Finally, Ussher referred to both Jewish calendars and Kepler’s astronomical tables to fix the ultimate date of Creation.

Thus, Ussher completed what was then regarded as an important task – one previously attempted (unsuccessfully) by no less an intellect that Isaac Newton.

But Ussher’s chronology also furthered an idea that was unique to the Judeo-Christian worldview: linear time. It seems just obvious to us that time proceeds from a beginning to, some time in the future, an end. It is hard to over-emphasise just how remarkable an innovation in human thinking this really is.

As Thomas Cahill observes in The Gifts of the Jews, prior to the Israelites, the near-universal cultural concept was of cyclical time, as evidenced by the ubiquity of such symbolism as wheels and spirals. To ancient human minds, time was the endless and unchanging turning of the great wheel.

The Concept of Time as a Wheel Dominates Human Culture. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

The Jews changed all that. They introduced a cosmology which had a definite beginning, and proceeded in a linear march to a foreseen ending. Still, the concept of time as a endless and unchanging persisted even in Christendom. Even at the dawn of the scientific era, Shakespeare pictured ancient Rome or Mediaeval Denmark as much the same as Elizabethan London, just with more sunshine and togas. As historian of science David Wootton puts it, “Shakespeare knew plenty of history, but…had no notion of irreversible historical change”.

Even though Heraclitus had declared that “all is flux” as early as 500BC, the idea that the universe was eternal and static was only gradually whittled away, still persisting in some forms until modern times. The new science of geology stretched time backwards by tens of thousands, then millions and billions of years and Darwin showed that nature was in a constant process of change and adaptation. But even by 1930, Einstein simply refused to accept Fr. Georges Lamaître’s Big Bang Theory, preferring to cling to the dogma of an eternal, “steady state” universe.

The idea that time has an arrow, that the universe had a distinct time of creation is a unique product of Western culture. Bishop Ussher’s chronology played no small part in that. It deserves to be recognised as a vital contribution to Western intellectualism and the scientific revolution.

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