One of the more famous estimates of the age of the earth was given by James Ussher in 1656, who, based on a literal biblical interpretation, concluded that the world began on Sunday evening, October 23, 4004 B.C.

Incidentally, I know that John Lightfoot, a decade earlier, had determined that the world began on the morning of September 17, 3928 B.C.

Could somebody provide some details as to how Ussher (or Lightfoot) was able to conclude such a precise date?


1 Answer 1


How Did Ussher Determine That the World Began on “Sunday Evening, October 23, 4004 B.C.”?

There is probably no name more indelibly linked with rigid church fundamentalism than that of Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), who today is almost exclusively known as “the man who fixed the time of Creation at midday on October 23, 4004 BC”.

Ussher's methods

The chronologies of Ussher and other biblical scholars corresponded so closely because they used much the same method to calculate key events recorded in the Bible. Establishing the chronologies is complicated by the fact that the Bible was compiled by different authors over several centuries with lengthy chronological gaps, making it difficult to do a simple totaling of Biblical ages and dates. In his article on Ussher's calendar, James Barr has identified three distinct periods that Ussher and others had to tackle:

  1. "Creation to Abraham's migration." This section is fairly easy to calculate, using the chronological data in Genesis 5 and 11, which gives an unbroken male lineage, with numbers of years, from the creation to Abraham being called out of Ur of the Chaldeans. Ussher used the chronology found in the Masoretic text instead of the alternative chronologies found in the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch. Ussher fixed this period as 2082 years, from 4004 to 1922 BC.

  2. "Abraham's migration to Solomon's temple." Ussher wrote that the time from Abraham leaving Haran to the Exodus was 430 years (based on Abraham's descendants suffering a period of 400 years of persecution, commencing 30 years after Abraham left Haran)[5] 1 Kings 6 states that 480 years elapsed from the Exodus to the beginning of construction of Solomon's temple in the fourth year of Solomon's reign. Thus the temple foundations were laid 910 years after Abraham left Haran; these 910 years spanned from 1922 to 1012 BC.

  3. "Period of the temple laid to the Babylonian captivity." This period is the most difficult to calculate, due to repeated difficulties in correlating the regnal years of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The simple addition of the reigns of Judah's kings results in a total of 430 years, but by positing a few overlapping reigns, Ussher shortened this to 424 years: 1012 to 588 BC.

After reckoning the years from creation to the last kings of Judah, Ussher used 2 Kings 25:27 to establish the length of time from the creation to the accession of Babylonian king Amel-Marduk (also known as Evil-Merodach). He then used information from Babylonian, Greek, and Roman sources to fix the date of Amel-Marduk's enthronement at 562 BC (after Nebuchadnezzar's death), from which he was able to deduce a creation in 4004 BC.

In fixing the date of Jesus' birth, Ussher took account of an error perpetrated by Dionysius Exiguus, the founder of the Anno Domini numbering system. Ussher chose 5 BC as Christ's birth year[7] because Josephus indicated that the death of Herod the Great occurred in 4 BC.[8] Thus, for the Gospel of Matthew to be correct, Jesus could not have been born after that date.

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 the "first day" of creation as falling 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 calendar 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 (by the Julian calendar).

Ussher's understanding of creation placed the "first day" referred to in Genesis 1:5 on October 23, but with a "pre-creation" event, which he identified as the "beginning of time" occurring the previous night. Ussher referred to his dating of creation on the first page of Annales in Latin and on the first page of its English translation Annals of the World (1658). In the following extract from the English translation, the phrase "in the year of the Julian Calendar" refers to the Julian Period, of which year 1 is 4713 BC, and therefore year 710 is 4004 BC.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Ge. 1:1 This beginning of time, according to our chronology, happened at the start of the evening preceding the 23rd day of October in the year of the Julian Calendar, 710.

Ussher provides a slightly different time in his "Epistle to the Reader" in his Latin and English works: "I deduce that the time from the creation until midnight, January 1, 1 AD was 4003 years, seventy days and six hours." Six hours before midnight would be 6 pm.

Others may agree with Usshers chronology, but many do not.

Modern geologists can use complex dating techniques to assess the age of a piece of rock. But transport them back to 1650 and they'd find that the only way to calculate an age for Earth was to follow Ussher's technique, treating the Bible, "God's truth", as an accurate historical record.

Ussher chose October 23rd for his moment of Creation as, under the old calendar, it was the autumn equinox, a traditional start to the year. He believed the 23rd would have been a Sunday, as time would surely have begun on the first day of the week, and he specified the previous evening, as traditionally this was when each day began. Many scholars agreed with Ussher that Earth was about 5,650 years old.

The Venerable Bede, for example, believed the Creation had happened in 3952 BC; Isaac Newton plumped for 3998 BC. The date was still hotly disputed, however; John Lightfoot, an eminent Hebrew scholar at Cambridge, believed the Creation took place at 9 a.m. on the day of the equinox and not, as Ussher suggested, the previous evening.

When it came to printing English Bibles, however, and adding a chronology in the margins, Ussher's calculation was the one chosen, and in time his work was accorded the same respect as the scriptures themselves.

The work was still widely accepted in the late 19th century, but by then scientists were exploring other ways of calculating Earth's age, based on the amount of salt that had accumulated in the oceans, for example, or the time Earth took to cool from a molten mass to a solid planet. - How an archbishop calculated the Creation

  • Thank you for this very comprehensive answer.
    – I. Chekhov
    Nov 2, 2020 at 16:02

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