Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Archbishop James Ussher

When I encounter the same misused fact three times in a month, I conclude it is time to spread the word about it. Ussher gets mentioned with a sneer in college introductory texts, science writing, and popular anti-religious works. It is Ussher, a 17thC cleric, who set the year of creation at 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact. This provides grounds for general hilarity and mirth, of course.

As a mere curiosity, it would still be an unfair characterization, because Ussher did not merely try to count up all the ages and years of The Begats in Genesis and just whip out an answer. He was not quite the first to try and harmonize the biblical years with other known historical texts, but he was the best of the first. His goal was not to set the day of creation - that was a byproduct - but to try and set the biblical events as exactly as possible among the chronologies recorded elsewhere. Sciences of archaeology, geology, and biology as we know them did not exist then. For all anyone knew then, there was only history to study from. Written history goes back to about 3500BC. There were some earlier markings with meaning, but nothing that recorded history as we think of it. He worked with what he had, and did a darn fine job of correlating Persian, Egyptian, and other historical documents with biblical accounts. Other cultures with writing actually tended to agree with the general time of 4000 BC. Archbishop Ussher's chronology for Abraham or Saul is still considered pretty good.

But there is a further unfairness beyond the usual chronocentrism common to our era, which regards all who came before us as fools. Modern references to Ussher usually imply that the Christian churches embraced this accounting wholeheartedly and taught it as scientific fact up until oh, last Tuesday. While you can certainly still find Christians who believe in a 6000 year-old earth, you don't find many. Ussher's exact dates stopped being entered marginally in the AV around 1800, and the 4000 BC idea was abandoned shortly after. Well before Darwin, or theories of geological eras, in fact.

I am certainly no six-day creationist, but for those intimidated by all the National Geographic articles and science textbooks which refer lightly to human beings existing 2.5 million years ago, remember that it matters greatly what you use as your definition of "human being." Language doesn't show up until around 100,000 years ago - that's the last 4% of 2.5 mil - art about 50,000 years ago, and agriculture less than 10,000 years ago. Something interesting and unusual did start happening about six or seven thousand years ago. Which is why writing, cities, animal domestication, irrigation and a bunch of other hey-that's-like-us behaviors started shortly after.

So everyone stop picking on Jimmy Ussher.


Jerub-Baal said...

Somewhere in my pile of old magazines (kept only for reference, I'm not a compulsive hoarder. Really, I'm not!) is a Smithsonian with an article on Eden. A historian coordinated the many different Middle Eastern traditions and creation stories, along with tying together place names with modern mapping techniques and landsat photos et cetera, and decided he had found the Pishon and Gihon (two of the four rivers that watered the Garden in Genesis chapter 2, the other two being the Tigris and the Euphrates). The Landsat photos showed two ancient riverbeds that come into the Tigris and Euphrates at right angles just before the head of the Persian Gulf. One is a series of seasonal wadis, and the other is completely gone as a river, but it shows up clearly from space. This part of the puzzle being solved, he declared that the Garden of Eden was probably the ancient river valley that was inundated when the Ice Age ended (and so became the Persian Gulf). Fossil evidence shows that the area would have been very bountiful for hunter gatherers, a real and true Eden. He then theorized that the story of "the Fall" was an ancestral memory-story of the loss of this bountiful place, and the change in humanity forced by the need to become scrabbling farmers after having it so easy for so many generations.

As someone who has been accused of being a "Bible banging fundamentalist" on a number of occasions, and being someone who does take the Bible seriously as the word of God, this theory doesn't bother me at all. It strikes me as pretty good logic actually.

Despite the secularist's stereotypes of Christians as people who have checked their rationality at the door, all of the people I know who truely believe in God think pretty hard about history and man's very small place in it. I don't think I know a single 'six-dayer' amongst all the Christians I know.

Most of the time when any accusation amounting to being 'closeminded' is dropped about religion, the likelyhood is that the accuser is the one with the closed mind, not the accused.

terri said...

very interesting....Genesis is so strange and mysterious in is first chapters. Life doesn't begin to resemble something familiar until we get to life after the Flood. From that point on the narrative becomes much more resonant with life as we know it, albeit in an ancient way.

I am still on the fence about how to teach my children about Creation in the face of evolution. Its mythology has so seeped into the culture that it can be found even in things as innocuous as children's programming.

I am not a six-dayer, but I definitely am not an evolutionist. I usually just land somewhere in the I-don't-know-how-He-did-it-but-I-know-that-He-did-do-it camp. Of course, if God wanted to do it in six twenty four hour days I suppose that He could. After all, if all matter could be collapsed into the size of a period-ala Big Bang-then how hard could a few measly(measley?) planets be to create? :-)

Anonymous said...


We finally agree on something.


(Okay, I am actually a six-dayer, and I agree with Terri that six days is as easily believable as a big bang. I believe that the word of God is infallible, and the Hebrew words used in Genesis were absolutely precise. A "day" wasn't a "time period" - it was a "day", thus "morning and evening became the first day." What do "morning" and "evening" correspond to in a "big bang-universe formed from nothing" time frame?)