Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar

The Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar was a chronology published in 1650 by Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh which attempted to deduce the date of creation from biblical references and proposed that it had occurred on October 23, 4004 BC at noon.

Ussher's work, more properly known as the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti ("Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world"), was his contribution to the long-running theological debate on the age of the Earth. This was a major concern of many Christian scholars over the centuries. His proposed date of 4004 BC was not greatly different from the estimates of the Venerable Bede (3952 BC) or Ussher's near-contemporary, Scaliger (3950 BC). It was widely believed that the Earth's potential duration was 6,000 years - 4,000 before the birth of Christ and 2,000 after - corresponding to the six days of creation , on the grounds that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8).

Although Ussher's estimate of 4004 BC seems startling to modern eyes, it was thus very much in a range already accepted by contemporary scholars. Indeed, John Lightfoot of Cambridge University had already published a very similar set of calculations in 1644, producing a nearly identical result to that of Ussher. The names of the two men are thus commonly bracketed in recognition of their shared "discovery" of the date of creation.

Table of contents
1 Ussher's Methodology
2 Ussher's Chronology Today
3 External Links and References

Ussher's Methodology

The close range of dates estimated by scholars such as Ussher was principally due to a common methodology being used to calculate the date of creation. This, as might be expected, relied on the Bible as the primary source. However, because the Bible was compiled from different sources over several centuries with differing versions and lengthy chronological gaps, it was not possible to do a simple totalling of Biblical ages and dates. In his article on Ussher's calendar, John Barr (see references at the foot of this article) has identified three distinct periods that Ussher had to tackle:

Using this methodology, Ussher was able to establish an unadjusted creation date of about 4000 BC. He moved it back to 4004 BC to take account of an error perpetrated by Dionysius Exiguus, the founder of the Christian year numbering system. The death of Herod was determined to have occurred in 4 BC, so therefore Jesus could not have been born after that date. Jesus was thus born some time between 37 BC (when Herod came to power) and 4 BC. In the event, Ussher calculated that Christ's birth year must have been 4 BC.

The season in which creation occurred was the subject of considerable theological debate in Ussher's time. Many scholars proposed it had taken place in the spring, the start of the Babylonian, Chaldean and other cultures' chronologies. Others, including Ussher, thought it more likely that it had occurred in the autumn (fall), largely because that season marked the beginning of the Jewish year.

Ussher further narrowed down the date by using the Jewish calendar to establish creation as beginning on the first Sunday following the autumnal equinox. The day of the week was a backward calculation from the six days of creation with God resting on the seventh, which in the Jewish tradition is Saturday - hence Creation began on a Sunday. The modern date of the equinox is, however, much earlier than Ussher's date; this was simply due to the inaccuracies introduced by the Julian calendar, which Ussher calculated would add about thirty days to the date of the equinox.

The final element was the establishment of noon as the time of creation. Ussher wrote, "In ipse primi diei medio create est lux" ("In the middle of the first day, light was created"). It is not clear why he chose this particular time, as he gave no reason for doing so.

Ussher's Chronology Today

It is entirely an accident of history that Ussher's chronology remains so well known while those of Scaliger and Bede, amongst others, have slipped into obscurity. Starting about fifty years after his death, many annotated editions of the immensely influential King James translation of the Bible began to include his chronology with their annotations and cross-references. The first page of Genesis was annotated with Ussher's date of creation, 4004 BC, establishing it as the canonical Biblical estimate (although in reality, Ussher's Annales is estimated to have relied on the Bible for only one sixth of its volume). It was included in the widely distributed Scofield Reference Bible. More modern translations of the Bible omit the chronology, but there are still plenty of copies of the annotated King James still in circulation.

Ussher's work has thus become a famous - or notorious - symbol of biblical literalism. Geologists in particular have castigated his improbably short timescale, which is completely incompatible with the billions of years posited by modern geological theory. However, Young Earth Creationists (a faction of the wider creationist movement) still reference Ussher's Annales in relation to their belief that the world is approximately 6,000 years old.

See also: Estimates of the date of Creation, Young Earth Creationism.

External Links and References