Your RDA of Irony

My Willard Scott Imitation

I can tell you the date of the battle of Manzikert but I have yet to memorize my cell phone number.  So how would I remember that today is the birthday of Joan Stewart Smith?  Of course, the name Stewart would trigger my mnemonic synapses.  And I would be just as cognizant if she were Joan Hohenzollern Smith, Joan Romanov Smith or Joan Qing/Manchu Smith.  However it really helped that she publicly announced that today is her birthday.  (She is in public relations but I am still willing to believe her.)

Happy Birthday Joan.  I hope that you don’t mind sharing it with Bishop Ussher.  He could use you as a publicist.

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 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.  People knew that Rameses came before Cyrus, who came before Hannibal, but the specific dates were unknown.  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 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.

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