Usshering in creation

Scientists’ estimate for the age of the universe is 14 billion years if you don’t quibble over the odd hundred million. Despite impressively accumulated evidence for that figure, however, a 2012 Gallup survey found that 46% of Americans are sure that things got underway a tad later than that, to wit, 14 billion years later (six to ten millennia being less than a respectable rounding error in the awesomely longer span)! These Christian fundamentalists claim the relevant evidence, i.e., the Bible (sort of a single-source, no bid vendor for such information), proves the universe began 6,018 years ago on my next birthday. To help my faith along, Bibles in my youth authoritatively posted the approximate year on each page of text—4004BC being at the top of the page containing Genesis 1. It only occurred to me far later to wonder where that calculation came from.

Problem solved! A prominent Irish bishop named James Ussher figured it out meticulously then published his calculations in a 900+ page book in 1658. He showed the world that creation began in the evening of October 22 as that date would have been in the proleptic (cool word; worth looking up) Julian calendar. (Actually, Ussher said October 23, but see my note below.) Apparently the Julian calendar and the 19th Century international consensus on midnight as the beginning of a 24 hour day had yet to be included in God’s plan. Ussher did have competition, however. A guy named Lightfoot figured the year to be 3929BC and there were other calculators. But Ussher won out and, anyway, thank you very much, Ussher is getting the hero treatment here; write your own blog.

(I may be mistaken, but since the Hebrew concept is that a day begins at sundown, Ussher’s October 23 date would be October 22 to us if we were still Julians. I’ll skip over the obvious issue of Pope Gregory’s calendar. It was confusing enough to figure how Russia’s October Revolution happened in November. Someone even more obsessive than I can worry about the difference.)

The short title of Ussher’s book is The Annals of the World. (Surely you don’t want to know the full title; but if you must be fussy about it, here it is: The Annals of the World Deduced from the Origin of Time, and Continued to the Beginning of the Emperour Vespasian’s Reign and the Total Destruction and Abolition of the Temple and Common-wealth of the Jews. Sorry you asked?) In the Library of Congress last month I held that precious 355 year-old tome in my hands with near-religious reverence as any red-blooded bibliophile would do.

At any rate, we are left to rely not only on Ussher’s having done his sums well, but on a bronze-age account of unknown provenance that later, in a burst of creative titling, was named “Genesis.” (Authorship by the vaunted Moses or, for that matter, any single author appears to be a myth.) This sort of “evidence” is too weak to get a jaywalking fine. But it’s considered iron-clad by the pious folks called “young earthers” (to distinguish them from more liberal literalists who figure literalism shouldn’t be so, well, literal). I don’t think much of young earthers’ intellect, but I have to admire their sticking to principle.

My childlike wonder in having the good bishop’s words in my hands did not inspire me to check his math; I was too suffused with awe in the presence of antiquity. I was happy enough to read for myself the origin of the number so confidently announced in my childhood Bible. Anything else would have seemed in bad taste.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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