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Ussher chronology

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The Ussher chronology is a 17th-century chronology of the history of the world formulated from a literal reading of the Bible by James Ussher, the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh (in what is now Northern Ireland). The chronology is sometimes associated with Young Earth Creationism, which holds that the universe was created only a few millennia ago.

Ussher's work, more properly known as the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world), 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.

The chronology is sometimes called the Ussher-Lightfoot chronology because John Lightfoot published a similar chronology in 1642–1644. This, however, is a misnomer, as the chronology is based on Ussher's work alone and not that of Lightfoot. Ussher deduced that the first day of creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday October 23, 4004 BC, in the proleptic Julian calendar, near the autumnal equinox. Lightfoot similarly deduced that Creation began at nightfall near the autumnal equinox, but in the year 3929 BC.

Ussher's proposed date of 4004 BC differed somewhat from other Biblically-based estimates, such as those of Bede (3952 BC), Ussher's near-contemporary Scaliger (3949 BC), Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) or Sir Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC).[1] Ussher's specific choice of starting year may have been influenced by the then-widely-held belief that the Earth's potential duration was 6,000 years (4,000 before the birth of Christ and 2,000 after), corresponding to the six days of Creation, on the grounds that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8). This view had been almost completely abandoned by 1997, six thousand years after 4004 BC. Today some biblical scholars, as well as a number of literalist evangelical Christians, believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible calling for a 6000-year-old Earth.[2]

Ussher's methods

The chronologies of Ussher and other biblical scholars corresponded so closely because they used much the same methodology to calculate key events recorded in the Bible. Their task was complicated by the fact that the Bible was compiled from different sources over several centuries with differing versions and lengthy chronological gaps, making it impossible to do a simple totaling of Biblical ages and dates. In his article on Ussher's calendar, James Barr[3] has identified three distinct periods that Ussher had to tackle:

  • Early times (Creation to Solomon). Ostensibly the easiest period, as the Bible provides an unbroken male lineage from Adam through to Solomon complete with the ages of the individuals involved. However, not all of the versions of the Bible provide the same ages — the Septuagint gives much longer ages, adding about 1500 years to the date of Creation. Ussher resolved this problem by relying on the Hebrew Bible instead.
  • Early Age of Kings (Solomon to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity). The lineage breaks down at this point, with only the length of the kings' reigns being provided and a number of overlaps and ambiguities complicating the picture. Ussher had to cross-reference the Biblical records with known dates of other people and rulers to create an overall timeline.
  • Late Age of Kings (Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). No information at all is provided in the Bible. Ussher and his counterparts therefore had to try to link a known event from this period with a dateable event in another culture, such as the Chaldeans, Persians or Romans. For instance, the death of the Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar II (who conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC) could be correlated with the 37th year of the exile of Jehoiachin (in 2 Kings 25:27).

Using these methods, Ussher was able to establish an unadjusted Creation date of about 4000 BC. He moved it back to 4004 BC to take account of an error perpetrated by Dionysius Exiguus, the founder of the Anno Domini numbering system. Josephus indicated that the death of Herod the Great occurred in 4 BC; therefore, Jesus could not have been born after that date. Jesus was born some time between 37 BC (when Herod came to power) and 4 BC. In the event, Ussher calculated that Christ's birth year must have been 4 BC.

The season in which Creation occurred was the subject of considerable theological debate in Ussher's time. Many scholars proposed it had taken place in the spring, the start of the Babylonian, Chaldean and other cultures' chronologies. Others, including Ussher, thought it more likely that it had occurred in the autumn, largely because that season marked the beginning of the Jewish year.

Ussher further narrowed down the date by using the Jewish calendar to establish Creation as beginning on a Sunday near the autumnal equinox. The day of the week was a backward calculation from the six days of creation with God resting on the seventh, which in the Jewish tradition is Saturday — hence Creation began on a Sunday. The astronomical tables that Ussher probably used were Kepler's Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables, 1627). Using them, he would have concluded that the equinox occurred on Tuesday October 25, only one day earlier than the traditional day of its creation, on the fourth day of Creation week, Wednesday, along with the Sun, Moon, and stars (Genesis 1:16). Modern equations place the autumnal equinox of 4004 BC on Sunday October 23.

Ussher stated his time of Creation (nightfall preceding October 23) on the first page of Annales in Latin and on the first page of its English translation Annals of the World (1658). The following English quote is based on both, with a serious error in the 1658 English version corrected by referring to the Latin version (calendar → period).

In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth, Gen. 1, v. 1. Which beginning of time, according to our Chronologie, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er] in the year of the Julian [Period] 710. The year before Christ 4004. The Julian Period 710.

Ussher's history of the Earth

Ussher's chronology provides the following dates for key events in the Biblical history of the world[4]:

Ussher's chronology today

It may be an accident of history that Ussher's chronology remains so well known while those of Scaliger and Bede, amongst others, have slipped into obscurity. From about 1700 onwards, annotated editions of the immensely influential King James translation of the Bible began to include his chronology with their annotations and cross-references. The first page of Genesis was annotated with Ussher's date of Creation, 4004 BC, though in reality, Ussher's Annales is estimated to have relied on the Bible for only one sixth of its volume. It was included in the widely distributed Scofield Reference Bible. More modern translations of the Bible usually omit the chronology, but there are still many copies of the annotated King James in circulation.

By the end of the 18th 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.[5]

The similarly conservative theologian B. B. Warfield reached the same conclusion in "On The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race",[6] commenting that "it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables."

Nevertheless, Professor James Barr (then Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University) wrote in 1984:

…probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that… the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story…

Many young earth creationists have argued that Genesis 5 and 11 present strict chronogenealogies as Ussher thought, and argue that the text has no room for gaps.[7][not in citation given][8]

Archbishop Ussher's chronology has in recent years been much mocked, including in the play Inherit the Wind (about the struggle between science and religion, and loosely based on the Scopes Monkey Trial with significant distortions) and the fantasy novel Good Omens which ironically alleges that "he is off by a quarter of an hour." A different viewpoint comes from Stephen Jay Gould, who, while totally disagreeing with Ussher's chronology, nevertheless wrote.[9]:

I shall be defending Ussher's chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology…

Recent research has called Ussher's chronology into question in a new way. Gerald E. Aardsma proposed in the early 1990s that an ancient scribal copy error had caused traditional Biblical chronologies to overlook exactly 1000 years of Biblical history.[10] This moves the dates of Biblical events prior to about 1000 B.C., such as the exodus, the flood, and creation back 1,000 years relative to traditional Biblical chronologies.

Lightfoot's Creation

The precise time often cited as Lightfoot's moment of Creation, 9 a.m., and the erroneous belief that he placed his Creation on the same date as Ussher are both due to a partially fabricated 'quote' given by Andrew Dickson White in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896):[11]

[I]n the seventeenth century, in his great work, Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and one of the most eminent Hebrew scholars of his time, declared, as the result of his most profound and exhaustive study of the Scriptures, that "heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water," and that "this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine of the clock in the morning."[12]

The phrases "this work took place" and "on October 23, 4004 B.C." were added by White. Lightfoot's actual words are on the first and third pages of A few and new Observations upon the Book of Genesis (1642). All of the following quotes are from The Whole Works of the Rev. John Lightfoot, D. D. (13 vols., 1822-25).

Heaven and earth, center and circumference, were created together in the same instant; and clouds full of water … were created in the same instant with them, ver. 2 [of Genesis, chapter 1]. … Twelve hours did the heavens thus move in darkness; and then God commanded, and there appeared, light to this upper horizon,—namely, to that where Eden should be planted.[13]
Ver. 26 [of Genesis, chapter 1].—Man created by the Trinity about the third hour of the day, or nine of the clock in the morning.[14]

Thus Lightfoot's instant of Creation was nightfall, the beginning of the first twelve hours of darkness of the first day of Creation. His "nine of the clock in the morning" referred to the creation of man.

That Lightfoot's day of Creation occurred during 3929 BC can be deduced from the last page of the "Prolegomena" of The Harmony of the Four Evangelists, among themselves, and with the Old Testament (1644). The quoted year of 1644 must be subtracted from 5573, not 5572, to obtain 3929 BC, during which year 1 of the world began at the (autumnal) equinox.

And now, he that desireth to know the year of the world, which is now passing over us,—this year, 1644,—will find it to be 5572 years just finished since the creation; and the year 5573 of the world's age, now newly begun, this September, at equinox.[15]

The only date for the equinox given by Lightfoot was in a 'private' undated sermon entitled "The Sabbath Hallowed":

That the world was made at equinox, all grant,—but differ at which, whether about the eleventh of March, or twelfth of September; to me in September, without all doubt.[16]

September 12 in the Julian calendar is only applicable near 1644, not 3929 BC. Apparently Lightfoot did not realize that the excessive length of the average Julian year would substantially shift the date of the equinox in a year millennia earlier. If Lightfoot had attempted to calculate the autumnal equinox of 3929 BC, he, like Ussher, would have used the Rudolphine Tables, which placed the equinox on October 25, versus October 22 using modern equations.


  1. Archbishop’s achievement
  2. Museum Claims Earth is 6,000 Years Old
  3. James Barr, 1984–85.
  4. In the beginning, not too many years ago ...
  5. Primeval Chronology
  6. Princeton Theological Review, 1911
  7. Biblical chronogenealogies
  8. The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11
  9. Stephen Jay Gould, 1993. "Fall in the House of Ussher" in Eight Little Piggies (Penguin Books)
  10. G.E. Aardsma, "Evidence for a Lost Millennium in Biblical Chronology" Radiocarbon 37, No. 2 (1995): 267--273; Proceedings of the 15th International 14-C Conference, edited by G.T. Cook, D.D. Harkness, B.F. Miller and E.M. Scott.
  11. Dating Creation by Charles H. Leighton
  12. White, Andrew Dickson (1896). A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. pp. 9. 
  13. John Lightfoot, volume II, page 333.
  14. John Lightfoot, volume II, page 335.
  15. John Lightfoot, volume IV, page 112.
  16. John Lightfoot, volume VII, page 372.


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