James Ussher and His Chronology
by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.
Archbishop James Ussher was one of the most important biblical scholars of the 17th century. His research and scholarly work have even earned high praise from some who are opposed to his conclusions. Called “the greatest luminary of the church of Ireland” and “one of the greatest scholars of his day in the Christian Church,” his work has influenced generations of Christian thinkers with a force still felt today.
An expert on the writings of the early church fathers, Ussher majorly impacted Reformation theology. The 18-volume set titled The Whole Works of James Ussher contains his most important writings. Today, he is best known for his chronology research that concluded Adam was created in 4004 B.C. Consequently, anti-creationists heavily criticise him, often picturing him as naive, ignorant, anti-science, and someone whose research was superficial and based solely on the biblical record. Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that Ussher “is known to us today almost entirely in ridicule—as the man who fixed the time of creation at 4004 B.C.”
In reality, Ussher was a first-class scholar very involved in scholarly research. He regularly interacted with “the most learned men of the day” to intellectually savour their ideas. He was also “a real connoisseur of books,” and there was scarcely a book in any British library that he was unfamiliar with.
In the West, our knowledge of the ancient world has historically been determined largely “by a straightforward reading of the Old Testament” plus a study of history. This practice conflicted with many “Eastern religions [that] allowed for a far older universe than was common in Judaism. And the Greeks, Aristotle for example, thought that the world was eternal. Early Christian theologians like Augustine dismissed pagan estimates that ran into the hundreds of thousands of years as myths.”
According to the Jewish calendar, the creation event occurred in 3761 B.C. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, known today as the Septuagint, put the date at 5500 B.C., and “by the time of the Renaissance, an age of the Earth somewhere around 5000 to 6000 years appeared perfectly reasonable.” Furthermore, it was widely accepted that the narrative “given in the book of Genesis, which parallels to some extent creation narratives from other cultures of the Middle East, accounts for the origin of the physical world as the deliberate act of an almighty Creator.”
In the 17th century, “Archbishop James Ussher turned his outstanding scholarly expertise” to the problem of the date of creation. This project meshed very well with his strong interest in history, astronomy, math, and geometry.
Ordained as a priest at the young age of 20, James Ussher became a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1607 when he was only 26. In 1625, he was appointed as Archbishop of Armagh, which made him “head of the Anglo-Irish church, the Protestant leader in a predominantly Catholic land.”
Ussher wrote his famous Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origins of the World, in which he arrived at the 4004 B.C. date, during the latter period of his life. The monumental work contains over 12,000 footnotes from secular sources and another 2,000 references from the Bible and the Apocrypha.
The common claim is that “Ussher reached his famous date of 4004 B.C.E. by simply calculating back from the time of Jesus by adding up years involved in the lineages of Christ given in the Bible and going all the way back to Adam.” One problem was that the Old Testament contains the required information to achieve an accurate chronology only up to Solomon’s time. After that, ambiguities exist and no straightforward data were available. And for about 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Bible’s book of Matthew gives the genealogy leading up to Christ, but not the chronology.
To arrive at the date of creation, Ussher replicated the methods that others had used before him; namely, he attempted to correlate information from around 400 B.C. to Jesus’ birth “with known dates from the histories of other cultures, specifically the Chaldeans and Persians. This all required…an incredible expertise in biblical knowledge, in secular history, and in language abilities.” In fact, the majority of the evidence Ussher used to arrive at the 4004 B.C. date was non-biblical. Historians acknowledge that “Ussher had one of the best minds of his time and he applied it unrelentingly to synthesize information from disparate sources” to achieve as accurate a chronology as possible.
To deal with the many major contradictions in secular records, Ussher’s calculation required an intensive study of both history and languages. For example, King Herod, who attempted to kill Christ, died in 4 B.C., and the Julian calendar had undergone major revisions at the end of the 16th century. In order to produce his chronology, Ussher was forced to deal with these and other problems. After many years of labor, in 1640 he published the first part of his Annals of the Old Testament. Four years later, the second part of the work was available to the public. He then began a third part, carrying on the chronology to the beginning of the fourth century A.D., but did not live long enough to complete it.
Many skeptics have dismissed Ussher’s work, claiming he merely used dogma to solve a scientific problem. The late Stephen Jay Gould disagreed. Seeking to understand how Ussher arrived at his deductions, after detailed investigation Gould concluded that the archbishop’s critics were not only ignorant but that they also entirely misunderstood his work. Gould addressed this with an entreaty: “I close with a final plea for judging people by their own criteria, not by later standards that they couldn’t possibly know or assess.” He was delighted with Ussher’s declaration that his (Ussher’s) results were determined “not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.”
For these reasons, Gould determined that Ussher’s chronology was an “honourable effort for its time” and argued that the common ridicule only reflects a “lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.”
The reality is that the relevance of Ussher’s work “may be seen in the fact that his Chronology has been accepted by nearly all the Reformed Churches.”