According to Bishop James Ussher, the world was created at nightfall on Saturday, October 22, 4,004 BCE. This amazingly precise declaration was just one of the important dates, both biblical and historical, that appeared in his seminal work, The Annals of the World. The “cosmological age” for creation occurring around 4,000 BCE was a widely accepted date in the 17th century. Its acceptance was partly based on 2 Peter 3:8, which says: “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The application of the passage for the date of creation is that the six days of creation meant the earth would exist for 6,000 years—4,000 years until the time of Christ, and 2,000 years afterwards. If Ussher was correct, we are now living on borrowed time.
Ussher’s chronology was not the first to calculate that the creation of the world was around 4,000 BCE, but today it is the most well known. Others who had proposed similar biblically based estimates include: Bede (3952 BCE), the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BCE), Sir Isaac Newton (4000 BCE), and Rabbi Jose ben Halafta (3761 BCE). Ussher’s very specific date was based on a desire “to get it right.” He used astronomical and religious sources to estimate the season of the year, day of the week and time of day he thought creation had to be. He believed the time was in the autumn, since that was the beginning of the Jewish calendar year, and on a Saturday evening, because of the Sabbath.
The Annals full title in English is a mouthful: “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabees.” It was 1300 pages, with 14,000 footnotes. Ussher worked on it for 20 years before it was published. The original printing sold well. What gave Ussher’s chronology staying power was its use in the margins of an edition of the Bible published by London bookseller Thomas Guy in 1675. Beginning in 1701 several editions of the King James translation included Ussher’s dates in its marginal notes and cross-references. The widely circulated Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909 and revised in 1917, used Ussher’s dates and would become the main conduit of the chronology into modern times.
Ussher (1581-1656) was a careful and thoughtful man, well schooled in his faith and history. He was ordained in 1601 and was a professor at Trinity College in Dublin from 1607-1621. As early as 1624, he was invited to preach before King James I. He was made archbishop of Armagh in 1621 and primate of Ireland in 1634. When civil war broke out in 1642, he was in England. He never returned to Ireland. Ussher declined an invitation to join the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1643-49), who incidentally produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. He later preached against the legality of the Assembly.
He wrote on a wide variety of topics, mostly theological and historical, and was an expert in Semitic languages. “He was widely acknowledged for his thorough and impartial scholarship.” Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, said Ussher’s chronology was “an honorable effort for its time.” You can find more information about Ussher and his chronology here on Wikipedia, or in “James Ussher” in the Encyclopedia Britannica online. You can also listen to a 10-minute podcast on Ussher and his book, “Annals of the World, 1650,” for Documents that Changed the World.
Ussher’s chronology is the cornerstone for determining the age of the earth by young earth creationist organizations like Creation Magazine, the Institute for Creation Research, which was founded by Henry Morris, and Answers in Genesis, founded by Ken Ham. Here is a link to a timeline that appeared in Creation Magazine. It was based upon the details provided by Archbishop Ussher in his Annals of the World. Both the Institute for Creation Research (here) and Answers in Genesis (here) explicitly draw their declarations for the age of the earth from Ussher’s calculations. If you want, you can verify this claim by comparing their discussion of dates for creation to the timeline of Ussher’s chronology found in Creation Magazine. The organization Answers in Genesis also has a table listing 32 different individuals who calculated the date of the creation of the earth to be between 5501 and 3836 BCE.
But what if the assumptions made by Ussher and others about the biblical genealogies used to calculate the age of the earth were wrong? William Henry Green, an Old Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1800s, addressed this question in his 1890 article in the journal Bibliotheca Sacra, “Primeval Chronology.” Green said the accepted chronology of his time (Ussher’s chronology) was based upon an assumption that there were no gaps in the biblical genealogies, most notably those of Genesis 5 and 11. However, he examined the biblical genealogies and found: “There is an element of uncertainty in a computation of time which rests upon genealogies, as the sacred chronology so largely does.”
I here repeat, the discussion of the biblical genealogies above referred to, and add some further considerations which seem to me to justify the belief that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were not intended to be used, and cannot properly be used, for the construction of a chronology.
Green then went through an extensive examination of several different genealogies in the Bible to support his point that they regularly had gaps. He commented they are frequently abbreviated by omitting unimportant names. “In fact, abridgement is the general rule.” He thought the occurrence of an abridgement should not create surprise “and we are at liberty to suppose it whenever anything in the circumstances of the case favors that belief.” The analogy of Scriptural genealogies opposes the supposition that “the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are necessarily to be considered as complete, and embracing all the links in the line of descent from Adam to Noah and from Shem to Abraham.”
On these various grounds we conclude that the Scriptures furnish no data for a chronological computation prior to the life of Abraham; and that the Mosaic records do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the creation of the world.
Biblical evidence is then available to indicate Ussher’s chronology was based on faulty assumptions regarding the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. They were not intended to construct a chronology and are improperly utilized by individuals and organizations that do so.
For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”