Your RDA of Irony

The Unfortunate James Ussher

January 4, 1581: Happy Birthday Bishop Ussher

Imagine being remembered for the most stupid thing you ever said.  And I mean “remembered“:  three centuries later, people would still be mocking you.  That is the pathetic legacy of James Ussher (1581-1656).  He’s the one who said that the universe was created in October, 4004 B.C.  Now stop your sneering.  He was not a village idiot or a charlatan, but a highly respected scholar and Anglican clergyman.  However preposterous his calculation now seems, it was a painstaking interpolation of history and the Bible.

His chronology was the culmination of four years of research.  Ussher was so diligent that he would not trust the Greek or Latin translations of the Bible; he went back to the original Hebrew.  (You may question the quality of Hebrew taught in 16th century Dublin, and if he ever practiced it with any “Dutch” merchants in London.)  The polyglot Ussher was also using the works of Greek and Roman historians to weave the pagans’ chronology with the Bible’s.   Finished in 1654, “Annales Veteris et Nove Testamenti” was in fact an unprecedented work of scholarship.

Until Ussher, ancient history had no precise chronology.  Yes, theater goers knew that Julius Caesar died on March 15, but the exact year was a guess.   When did Alexander the Great live?  You’d think that scholars would know; they didn’t.  History since Anno Domini had a defined order; but “before Christ” was a vague progression.  Rameses comes before Cyrus, who comes before Hannibal.  Ussher changed that and with an impressive degree of accuracy.  He was the first true chronicler of ancient history.  The battle of Marathon–490 B.C.: correct.  Babylonians destroy Jerusalem–586 B.C.: give or take a year.  King David died–970 B.C.:  seems plausible.  Yes, you notice the diminishing precision.

Being a clergyman (an Anglican archbishop, no less) Ussher regarded the Bible as an infallible historical work.   So his chronological interpolation would extend to the beginning of history, and I do mean “The Beginning.”  If you take the Bible literally, then Ussher’s calculation cannot be faulted.  The universe was created in 4004 B.C.  But that is a matter of faith rather than history.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Ussher is best remembered for his worst assertion, not his genuine and lasting contributions to scholarship.  But history isn’t supposed to be fair–just accurate.


  1. Peg Pruitt says:

    I recall the reference to him in Inherit the Wind. When Brady is on the witness stand, he quotes Ussher’s date for the creation. This gives Drummond the opportunity to snarkily ask if it was standard or “daylight saving time.” This leads to a discussion about the sun and what constitutes a “day.” I really like that play!

  2. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    You’re right, Eugene! Same birthday as mine! And yes, I’d be happy for him to estimate MY age! 🙂 Thanks for your good wishes!

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