James Ussher's Date of the Creation

James Ussher (1581-1656) was the Anglican archbishop of Armagh Ireland, and "Primate of All Ireland", meaning the head of the Anglican church in Ireland. He was one of the most respected scholars and theologians of his time, and traveled widely in search of original documents, or at least the oldest versions of them he could find. The many books and documents he collected through his life were to form the nucleus of the great library at Trinity College in Armagh.

Ussher is primarily known today for his chronological work, in particular for the precise date he fixed for the Creation of the world. This date is so often mis-quoted, usually to get a cheap chuckle from the reader or a lecture audience, that I think it is worth not only putting Ussher's work in its proper historical perspective, but also to make his words on the matter available for people to read for themselves.

Contrary to popular misconception, Ussher did not simply count up years by following who begat whom in the Book of Genesis. Rather, he undertook a careful, critical synthesis of historical documents including Biblical, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sources, knowledge of the calendrical systems of antiquity, Roman history, and any ancient documentary sources he could get acquire and verify (then as now the lucrative traffic in antiquities lead to numerous counterfeits in circulation). His scholarship was impeccible, and the end of that scholarship was not so much to fix the date of Creation (although that was the one result we remember), but rather to compile as complete and historically correct a chronology of human history as the documentary evidence would allow. It is well to remember that in the 17th century this was a topic of great scholarly interest, as it is now. Ussher was instrumental in putting this endeavor on a sound scholarly basis, as well as for exposing numerous counterfeit documents.

The following is a quote from Ussher's compendium of his chronological researches, The Annals of the World of 1658. This was a posthumous edition of the 1650 original entitled Annales veteris testamenti a prima mundi origine deducti (The Annals of the Old Testament, Deduced from the First Origin of the World). Ussher's original spellings have been faithfully retained in quoting this excerpt.

For as much as our Christian epoch falls many ages after the beginning of the world, and the number of years before that backward is not only more troublesome, but (unless greater care be taken) more lyable to errour; also it hath pleased our modern chronologers, to adde to that generally received hypothesis (which asserted the Julian years, with their three cycles by a certain mathematical prolepsis, to have run down to the very beginning of the world) an artificial epoch, framed out of three cycles multiplied in themselves; for the Solar Cicle being multiplied by the Lunar, or the number of 28 by 19, produces the great Paschal Cycle of 532 years, and that again multiplied by fifteen, the number of the indiction, there arises the period of 7980 years, which was first (if I mistake not) observed by Robert Lotharing, Bishop of Hereford, in our island of Britain, and 500 years after by Joseph Scaliger fitted for chronological uses, and called by the name of the Julian Period, because it conteined a cycle of so many Julian years. Now if the series of the three minor cicles be from this present year extended backward unto precedent times, the 4713 years before the beginning of our Christian account will be found to be that year into which the first year of the indiction, the first of the Lunar Cicle, and the first of the Solar will fall. Having placed there fore the heads of this period in the kalends of January in that proleptick year, the first of our Christian vulgar account must be reckoned the 4714 of the Julian Period, which, being divided by 15. 19. 28. will present us with the 4 Roman indiction, the 2 Lunar Cycle, and the 10 Solar, which are the principal characters of that year.

We find moreover that the year of our fore-fathers, and the years of the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews were of the same quantity with the Julian, consisting of twelve equal moneths, every of them conteining 30 days, (for it cannot be proved that the Hebrews did use lunary moneths before the Babylonian Captivity) adjoying to the end of the twelfth moneth, the addition of five dayes, and every four year six. And I have observed by the continued succession of these years, as they are delivered in holy writ, that the end of the great Nebuchadnezars and the beginning of Evilmerodachs (his sons) reign, fell out in the 3442 year of the world, but by collation of Chaldean history and the astronomical cannon, it fell out in the 186 year c Nabonasar, and, as by certain connexion, it must follow in the 562 year before the Christian account, and of the Julian Period, the 4152. and from thence I gathered the creation of the world did fall out upon the 710 year of the Julian Period, by placing its beginning in autumn: but for as much as the first day of the world began with the evening of the first day of the week, I have observed that the Sunday, which in the year 710 aforesaid came nearest the Autumnal Aequinox, by astronomical tables (notwithstanding the stay of the sun in the dayes of Joshua, and the going back of it in the dayes c Ezekiah) happened upon the 23 day of the Julian October; from thence concluded that from the evening preceding that first day of the Julian year, both the first day of the creation and the first motion of time are to be deduced.

The difficulties of the Chronologers, perplexed by that love of contention, so termed by Basil, being at last overpassed, I incline to this opinion, that from the evening ushering in the first day of the World, to that midnight which began the first day of the Christian era, there was 4003 years, seventy days, and six temporarie hours; and that the true Nativity of our Saviour was full four years before the beginning of the vulgar Christian era, as is demonstrable by the time of Herods death. For according to our account, the building of Solomons Temple was finished in the 3000 year of the World, and in the 4000 year of the World, the days being fulfilled, in which the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, was to bring forth Christ himself...

James Ussher, The Annals of the World, iv (1658)

The above excerpt makes no mention of the precise time of day of the Creation, except to say that it preceded "from the evening" of the 23rd day of October. Ussher does not say 4004BC outright above, but rather 710 of the Julian Era, which is, after a little math, 4004 BC. Similarly, in the third paragraph says "4003 years", and remembering that there is no year zero also gives you 4004 B.C. The B.C. notation we are familiar with was introduced in 1627 by the French astronomer Denis Petau, but nowhere does Ussher use this notation (it did not catch on until much later). Why is his Autumnal Equinox on the 23rd of October? Remember from our lecture on the calendar that the Julian Calendar was only aligned with the seasons as we know them in 45 BC, and Ussher knew how to make the correction for the slippage, which amounted to 30 days in 4004 BC. (Ussher was working in British Ireland, and Britain did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar reform until 1752).

The oft-cited time of day for the Creation of 9am is due to Sir John Lightfoot who computed the date of the Creation in 1644 (before Ussher). Later writers have tended to conflate these two, ascribing Lightfoot's extrapolation to Ussher. The precise date was a subject of considerable debate in Anglican theological circles during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many astronomy and geology textbooks are not immune to repeating this common error of mistakently ascribing the 9am time of the Creation to Bishop Ussher.

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Updated: 2006 October 28
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.