James Ussher (b. 4 January 1581, fl. 1625, d. 21 March 1656) was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He is best known for his massive compendium of ancient history, The Annals of the World, in which he attempted to calculate the number of years that had elapsed since creation.
Life and Career
He entered Dublin University at the age of 18, and at 20 achieved ordination as a deacon and priest. At 26, he became Professor and Chairman of the Department of Divinity at Dublin University, and held his professorship from 1609 to 1621. In 1625, he became Archbishop of Armagh, an office he apparently held until his death. In 1628, King James made him a Privy Councillor.
He was considered well-read and well-versed in history, a subject that soon became his primary focus. He wrote several histories of the doings of the Irish and English churches dating back to Roman times. He also made himself an expert in Semitic languages, an expertise that informed his argument in favor of the Masoretic Text of the Bible in preference to the Septuagint.
Ussher's Confessions appeared in 1643, followed in 1646 by his fifth work, Here I Stand. His most famous work, the dating of the creation as calculated from the Biblical record, appeared in writing in the 1650s.
He died in 1656. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell honored him with a state funeral and a burial in Westminster Abbey. His extensive library of manuscripts, many of them Middle Eastern originals, became part of the collection at Dublin University.
Arguments for Biblical Chronology
As mentioned, Ussher is best known for his chronology of events in the Bible and other events recorded outside it. Ussher assumed, first of all, that the Bible was the most reliable, if not the only reliable, source for the events that it records. This included the lengths of the lives of Abraham and his ancestors, and of Isaac, Jacob, and the line of Judah, including especially the Davidic dynasty of the Southern Kingdom of Israel.
In deciding how to synchronize the Christian or Anno Domini era with an era using Creation itself as its epoch, Ussher chose the death of Nebuchadnezzar II as the anchor point and worked backward from that date through the Bible. Thus he calculated the date of Creation as equivalent to the sunset that preceded 23 October, 4004 BC. So influential was Ussher that for centuries his chronology was included in every printed edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
Regardless, Ussher's calculations were somewhat accurate, and the roughly 6000 year age of the world has been built upon by more recent scholarship and backed up by recent scientific research in creation science.
The obvious objections that secular historians have against Ussher's chronology (or any similar chronology) follow from their notion that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and not merely six thousand or so years old. That, however, is a circular argument, as the notion of a 4.6-billion-year-old Earth is based on a prior rejection of the Biblical account.
The Biblical objections to Ussher's particular chronology are more serious, however. They turn on Ussher's interpretation of certain passages, such as Galatians 3:17 (NASB) and Ezekiel 4:5 (NASB), that separate certain key events in Hebrew history. Happily, Ussher left copious notes detailing his methods and his arguments. Today Larry Pierce, who undertook to translate the Annals into English from their original Latin, has prepared vigorous defenses of Ussher and his work. While not all of Ussher's calculations might be able to stand (see Biblical chronology dispute for details), his notes at least inform modern readers of the basis of his calculations and enable them to construct a Biblical corrective.
The Divided Kingdoms: How Long Was Their History?
Centuries after Ussher died, Edwin R. Thiele attempted a revision of the chronology of the Divided Kingdoms Northern and Southern to make them comport to generally accepted dates from Assyrian chronology. The effect of Thiele's proposed corrective is to shorten the history of the Divided Kingdoms by forty-five years--but that figure is actually closer than at least two other disputed figures in Ussher's calculations. Moreover, it suggests that the Exodus from Egypt took place in 1446 BC--the "Early Date"--and not 1290 BC, the "Late Date" in current widespread archaeological favor. Ussher calculates the Exodus as occurring in 1491 BC.
Pierce, since 2003, has led a counterattack against Thiele and has argued for the primacy of Scripture over any archaeological find, no matter how allegedly strong the evidence might appear to be. His primary--indeed only--quarrel with Thiele concerns the history of the Northern Kingdom and alleged synchronies between Kings Ahab and Jehu of that kingdom and King Sennacherib III of Assyria--synchronies that Ussher did not mention, because the Bible did not mention them.
- James Ussher in the Encylopedia Britannica online
- Pierce, Larry, "The Forgotten Archbishop," Appendix B of James Ussher, The Annals of the World, Larry and Marion Pierce, eds., Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003, pp. 891-2, ISBN 0890513600
- Thiele, Edwin R., The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings