Archbishop Ussher and the age of the Earth

Posted by admin | October 24, 2013 1

According to Archbishop Ussher the world was 6017 years old yesterday which is as good an introduction as any to my townsman who was one of the 17th Century’s most influential churchmen and intellectuals.

James Ussher (1581-1656) was a Dubliner, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin who was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorised version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, by reference to the Books of Genesis, Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC, and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday’.usherpostoffice-2

While his date of creation was disproved by the finds in Egypt when the hieroglyphs were decrypted which showed the Egyptian Civilization was over 7,000 years old he did in the process succeed in establishing much of the accepted chronology of our history. His calculation of how many angels could fit on a pinhead (I jest not!) has not endured as much. Such was the respect he was held in when he died as an Anglican Primate the puritan Oliver Cromwell insisted he be buried will full ceremony in the Paul Chapel of Westminster Cathedral.

Apropos nothing in particular Usher’s Quay and Island in Dublin is named after him and in a house there James Joyce set his long short story “The Dead” UssherDivinity

Ushers Quay, Dublin

Ushers Quay, Dublin

Back to my townsman James Ussher and his Chronology. The Ussher chronology is a 17th-century chronology of the history of the world formulated from a literal reading of the Bible. The chronology is sometimes associated with young Earth creationism, which holds that the universe was created only a few millennia ago by God as described in the first two chapters of the Biblical book of Genesis.

The full title of Ussher’s work is “Annales Veteris Testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, una cum rerum Asiaticarum et Aegyptiacarum chronico, a temporis historici principio usque ad Maccabaicorum initia producto.”  (“Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabes”) 

Ussher’s work was his contribution to the long-running theological debate on the age of the Earth. This was a major concern of many Christian scholars over the centuries.uusher

By the end of the 19th century, Ussher’s chronology came under increasing attack from supporters of uniformitarianism, who argued that Ussher’s “young Earth” was incompatible with the increasingly accepted view of an Earth much more ancient than Ussher’s. It became generally accepted that the Earth was tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of years old. Ussher fell into disrepute among theologians as well; in 1890, Princeton professor William Henry Green wrote a highly influential article in Bibliotheca Sacra entitled “Primeval Chronology” in which he strongly criticised Ussher. He concluded:

“We conclude that the Scriptures furnish no data for a chronological computation prior to the life of Abraham; and that the Mosaic records do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the creation of the world.”

Archbishop Ussher

Archbishop Ussher

Ussher’s life reflected the turbulent years in Ireland and he had to flee during the rebellion of 1641 which saw Kilkenny becoming the capital of Ireland under the Catholic Confederation which allied itself with Charles II and the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. For eight years until the Cromwellian invasion of 1649 Ireland was effectively independent of England. Ussher spent his years in exile first in London and then Oxford where he died living with his daughter who married Dr. Luke Challoner.

“In pious memory of JAMES USSHER who was born in Dublin in 1581, entered among the first students of Trinity College, promoted to the archiepiscopal see of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, the hundredth heir of St Patrick the apostle of Ireland, historian, critic, theologian, most learned among the holy, most holy among the learned, exiled from his own in this city of Westminster, he fell asleep in Christ in 1656. He was expelled from his sacred see and country by those same seditions which went on to grant him burial in this church among the most honoured. This stone was placed by George Salmon, Provost of the same college, 1904”

Such was the regard he was held in when he died in 1656 it was Oliver Cromwell who ordered his burial in the chapel of St Paul in Westminster Abbey and paid the funeral expenses. It is thought that this was the only occasion at which the Anglican funeral service was read in the Abbey during the Commonwealth period. The present Irish marble gravestone, with brass lettering, was not put in place until 1904 and the Latin inscription was written by Dr Gwynn (Regius Professor at Trinity College) and others. It can be translated:

Ussher’s basic error was to treat the Bible as a literal work whereas it is a transcription by many writers of the oral history of the Jewish people over many years. He also tried to use the genealogy in the Bible to extrapolate dates in history back to the “Great Flood” which amplified his error. However, the great irony is that by addressing the core question of Biblical Scholarship, The Creation, he also stimulated others to ask how old is the Earth, a quest which laid the intellectual basis for the Theory of Evolution. He was undoubtedly a great scholar and a great Dubliner who due to the vagaries of history ended up being a prophet not without honour, save in his own country.

For more about James Joyce and “The Dead” house on Usher’s Island (today’s spelling) in Dublin see;

Diagram showing the Age of the Earth

Diagram showing the Age of the Earth


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