Ussher is best known for his work in biblical chronology and, more specifically, for his dating of creation to the 23rd October, 4004BC. Later writers refined his thesis and argued that creation occurred at 6.00pm on the 22nd of October, 4004 BC, but Ussher eschews giving specific times. His interest lay not in establishing a specific date but presenting a framework for the history of mankind. By using the Bible and complimentary historical sources he sought to provide an over-arching view of God’s intervention in history. For Ussher what lay in the past explained the present and pointed to the future Second Coming of Christ.
Ussher was not alone in his interest in biblical chronology. Contemporaries across Europe followed in the footsteps of Bede in trying to date the various sections of the Bible, usually suggesting some slight adaptation of Bede’s date of 3952 BC. This was by no means an easy task and required a knowledge of several languages and disciplines for the adept scholar to make any progress. Ussher’s seminal work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducta (1650), later translated as Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world (1658), quickly became a best-seller, providing as it did the most comprehensive framework then available.
It was not an easy task. The problem was that there were significant gaps in the biblical account. The Old Testament stops in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah – the 5 th century BC in Ussher’s chronology – so Ussher had to try and match up events in the Bible to other chronologies before he reached the safer territory of the New Testament. Even the famous succession lists present in the Bible were sometimes more like riddles than firm guides to the different generations. He also had to decide on which sources to use: the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek Septuagint. This wasn’t a matter of stylistics but of hard chronology since the Septuagint added almost 1000 years to the date-line. Likewise, he had to factor in leap years, co-regencies, and a host of other minor problems, all of which might effect his schema.
On the plus side, there were some important guidelines. The Book of Genesis stated that God had created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Since the Jewish Sabbath was on a Saturday, it therefore held that Creation had commenced on a Sunday, and, in the eyes of contemporaries the reference to the infamous apple was a clear sign that God created the world in Autumn (Ussher narrowed it down to the first Sunday following the autumnal equinox). The six days of creation had a heightened significance because they also provided a template for the ages of the world, and might also refer to the three persons of the Trinity. Since 2 Peter 3:8 had stated that ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day’ it was a small step to conclude that 6000 years was the sum total of Creation. The use of 1000 years as a building block in Ussher’s chronology received further impetus from the frequent references to millenia in the Book of Revelations.
Millenial markers gave Ussher’s account an added attraction. In his schema the completion of the Temple in 1004BC came exactly three thousand years after the creation of the world. This, in turn, was followed a thousand years later by the coming of Christ in 4BC (Herod’s death in that year meant that it was the latest possible date for the birth of Christ). By dating the birth of Jesus to 4BC Ussher could point to a neat symmetry, with 4000 years from Creation to Christ which in turn would be followed by 2000 years before the Second Coming. Ussher, while well aware of the polemical value of such a chronology, was not as interested in the dating of the Last Days as many of his readers might assume. His Annals stopped in 72AD and though he had investigated the issue of the loosing of Satan in his earliest work, the Gravissimae Quaestiones (1613) he never brought his chronology up to his own time let alone speculated on events at the end of his schema.
(c) Elizabethanne Boran.