Sunday, October 22, 2017

October 22: Happy Birthday, Earth!


First off, I do not believe that the Earth was created on October 22, 4004 BCE. I accept, with no notion that my Christian faith is thereby threatened, the prevailing scientific model that holds the universe began in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago and that after a series of stellar explosions, the stuff making up our current solar system coalesced into our Sun and the planets orbiting it.

But in this post I will explore the methodology with which Archbishop James Ussher believed he determined the above specific date to be the beginning of Creation.

James Ussher was the Anglican Archbishop of  Armagh and Primate of All (Protestant) Ireland from 1625 to 1656. A scholar of note in his day, he took upon himself the task of calculating the age of the Earth, primarily following the Bible, but with reference to secular historical texts as well.

Ancient Chronologies

The ancient Babylonians had ancient king lists that claimed to describe history dating back 470,000 years, a notion that Cicero thought was ludicrous (De Divinatione 1.19). Modern Archaeology would favor Cicero's opinion on this point. Diogenes Laertius records that the Egyptians believed the first philosopher, Hephaestus, Son of the Nile, lived 48.863 years before Alexander the Great (born 356 BCE), putting that mythical man intriguingly close in time to what Archaeology asserts as the emergence of Modern Homo Sapiens in Africa.

James Ussher, however, would base all of his findings only on what he could find in Scripture, ideally corroborated by other historical records.

Previous Theories

Many before Ussher had performed similar calculations. Early Christian writers tended to date Creation to the 5000's BCE, for instance Clement of Alexandria who calculated the date as 5592 BCE (Stromata 1.21). The Byzantine Calendar similarly places it at 5509 BCE.

The Hebrew Calendar, following early Jewish scholar Jose ben Halafta, places the Creation much later--at 3761 BCE. This is all owing to the fact that the Early Christians were following the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, for their numbers. The Septuagint consistently has the ancient Patriarchs a hundred years older at the time of their sons' births. For instance, in the Hebrew Bible, Adam is 130 years old when Seth is born (Genesis 5:3); in the Septuagint he is 230. When you add up all of these differences, your chronology comes out nearly 2000 years more ancient.

Arriving at 4004 BCE

Ussher arrived at his proposed year of Creation by following a long-standing tradition that believed the world was only slated to last a total of 6000 years. This is expressed, for instance, in the Talmud, which describes the Tanna debe Eliyyahu as stating, "The world is to exist 6000 years. The first 2000 years are to be void; the next 2000 years are the period of the Torah; the following 2000 years are the period of the Messiah" (Abodah Zara 9a).

While Ussher believed that Creation was exactly 4000 years before the birth of Jesus, he worked out for himself how the events recorded in the Hebrew worked out to that exact number. Recall from above that the Hebrew chronology comes out much into the 3000's, while the Septuagint tradition followed by earlier Christians has been in the 5000's. Ussher's interpretation of the various sequences of time got him to his blessed number. The 6th century CE monk Dionysius Exiguus, who created the concept of Anno Domini (AD) had determined Jesus' birth to be year 1 of that chronological unit. But Ussher accepted the belief of scholars in his day (and today) that King Herod the Great had died in 4 BCE. Since the Gospel of Matthew (2:1) clearly states that Jesus was born while Herod was king, Ussher placed the birth of Jesus in the last year of Herod's reign, 4 BCE.

But What Day?

But Archbishop Ussher was not done. He believed it was possible to go one step further. He believed, following the Jewish tradition of New Year in the Fall (Rosh Ha-Shanah), that creation happened in the Autumn. Since, of course, Creation happened on a Sunday (the First Day), he determined that the Sunday after the Autumnal Equinox in 4004 BCE was October 23. Furthermore, he understood the creation of Light on that First Day to have followed what happened in Genesis 1:1, "In the Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth." Therefore, the actual Creation, according to Ussher was at the beginning of the Evening preceding that First Day. And so, Ussher arrived at his conclusion:

The Earth was created at approximately 6 PM on October 22, 4004 BCE.

In the final analysis, the Earth was not actually "born" on any single day, rather the material that makes up the Earth was generated, ultimately, at the Big Bang. Subsequent stellar explosions have more directly generated the specific material that makes up our dear planet. One wonders, as our cosmological knowledge is refined, might it be possible to calculate the Big Bang with ever greater precision and eventually arrive at something as specific as an actual year, or even a month and day? At any rate, as I look at NASA's Blue Marble, the best picture our planet ever sat for, I am no less in awe of a Marvelous God who could create through billions of years than Ussher was of the God he sincerely believed created the world on this day, 6021 years ago.

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