6.3.3. James Ussher and the new age of the world

6.3.3. James Ussher and the new age of the world

The initial Anno Mundi chronologies, conceived by the early Christian exegetes, came to be seen as obsolete and obviously faulty by Newton and his compatriots. The main defect of the early chronological attempts consisted in the fact that they were more mystical than historical, being dictated by the millennial week theory and the fate of the Roman Empire. Naturally, mysticism was still very active in the 17th century, but the Renaissance demanded a more precise chronology in order to integrate the events in an adequate historical frame. Thus, Hebraism drove the English scholars toward the study of the original texts of the Old Testament to create new and original works of chronology.

The champion in this matter was James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh. After he had studied the Semitic languages and an impressive volume of ancient texts, Ussher concluded that the Bible is a precise portrait of history. The work Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducta... is a complete history of the world in Latin, with all the major events dated from the Creation until 70 AD, the year of the destruction of the Temple. The date that made Ussher famous appears in the first paragraph: “1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. {Ge 1:1} The beginning of time, according to our chronology, happened at the start of the evening preceding the 23rd day of October (on the Julian calendar), 4004 BC or 710 JP.”699 Noah’s Flood, for example, was placed 1,657 years after the fall of Adam and 2,348 years before the birth of Christ:

1657a AM, 2366 JP, 2348 BC 40. When Noah was six hundred and one years old, on the first day of the first month (Friday, October 23), and the first day of the new post-flood world, the surface of the earth was now all dry. Noah removed the covering of the ark. {Ge 8:13}. 41. On the 27th day of the second month (Thursday, December 18), the earth was entirely dry. By the command of God, Noah left the ark with all that were with him in the ark. {Ge 8:14-19}700

Ussher brought his own contribution to the universal chronology, but at the same time he invigorated the rusty belief of the millennial week. But Ussher’s interest was not only to set a specific date for the Creation, but also to present the fluent intervention of God in history as well. For Ussher, as for many of his contemporaries, the past explains the present and points toward the future return of Jesus Christ.

The calculation of the age of the world remained an extremely laborious matter, which required knowledge in several languages and disciplines. Yet, unlike predecessors such as Eusebius or Bede, the exegetes of the Renaissance and Enlightenment had access to a wider spectrum of information and sources. For Newton, the chronology of the world was meant to prove that both human history and nature are orchestrated according to a divine plan. In The original of monarchies from 1701 and The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended from 1728 he offered a detailed image regarding the birth, the evolution and the fall of different ancient kingdoms, especially the Israelite one. He used Joseph Mede’s work and astronomical calculations to position a vast volume of ancient literature in a historical sequence. This allowed him to extrapolate a unitary chronology from sources from different cultures and to conclude that the Bible is the oldest text in the world and it is more precise than the Greek, Babylonian or Egyptian texts.701

Using, more or less, the same methods of calculation, most of the scholars of the period offered close dates for the Creation: Joseph Justus Scaliger set the Creation for 3949 BC, Isaac Newton for around 4000 BC, John Lightfoot for 3928 BC and James Ussher for 4004 BC. In William Shakespeare’s As you like it Rosalind says that the world is 6,000 years old (IV:1). So, unlike the chronological tendencies of the first Christian millennium, in the 17th century the date of the Creation was very close to the Jewish estimates. But, while Jewish culture provided the holy texts, the astronomical calculations necessary to correlate the Jewish chronologies with non-Jewish ones were imported from German astrology.

Ussher was inspired by Johannes Kepler’s work. Kepler is famous today for his achievements in astronomy and physics. But he was also fond of chronology and astrology; he focused on dating the events surrounding Christ’s life and on confuting catastrophic prophecies such as the one of Helisaeus Röslin.702 Although Kepler offered his own date of the Creation for 3992 BC, his chronological work was mediocre and largely based on the efforts of the Polish contemporary Laurentius Suslyga.

Unlike Kepler or Ussher, Suslyga was a Jesuit. In his dissertation, presented in 1605 at the University of Graz, Suslyga concluded that Jesus Christ was born in ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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