The glaring difference between John Powell and James Ussher is in their perceived character and motives. Though there is an innate air of superiority behind Powell’s drive to champion some avenues of discovery and silence others (as the examination on his document in Cloudeaters shows at greater length), Ussher was driven by a Christ-centric heart. By no means am I suggesting Ussher was a perfect saint at all times from whose head emanated rays of glory when he prayed or any other such sensational claims, but I have read the biographical accounts of eyewitnesses who attested to his humility and his motives. Consistently, he is remembered as a man who tried at every turn to avoid the limelight while he retreated farther and farther into his studies in hopes that his work would act as a series of Christian apologetics, reaching the lost and strengthening the faith of believers. When offered positions of power, he refused on many occasions, choosing instead to steer clear of making the game of “religiopolitics” his own, because he believed it wasn’t what God wanted for him. When asked to speak at grand, opulent gatherings in front of men so powerful that the lay clergy would have swooned or stood in line for hours just to shake hands with him, he looked for any way out, only accepting invitations he perceived to useful in furthering the Kingdom of God. Ussher, as far as we can tell, couldn’t care less whether he was powerful. So long as he was preaching the Gospel, he was content to be as lowly as any other scholar whose modest work helped sincere seekers of God find what—and who—they were looking for. To Powell, “absolute truth” was whatever he wanted it to be as long as he kept the meddlers of the world from slowing down progress behind what was important to him at the time; to Ussher, “absolute truth” was the Word of God, and his greatest joy was revealing exactly how the Word showed true in his line of work.
In this particular aspect, these two men have nothing in common.
However, they do merit comparison in the clout their word carried among the masses, their related areas of cosmological research, and the enduring grip their conclusions had within their area of influence. Be it God or coincidental circumstances, Ussher’s authority on what the Bible says was similar to Powell’s authority on what science and discovery says, with one crucial difference: As hard as it is to imagine, Ussher’s authority fortress was actually far more powerful than Powell’s, as his audience wasn’t limited to just the chief executives of a dynamic organization like the Smithsonian. Ussher was the advisor to kings, the respected champion of the people, and the voice of not only England’s or Ireland’s responsible theology and apologetics, but of the world’s! His Young Earth sway was global, muting Powell’s scientific influence by unimaginable margins.
Intent and motive aside, when Ussher said Earth was a mere thousands of years old via his limited approach to biblical chronology, support flew in from all over the planet and his teachings were taken to be as true as the Gospel itself. His conclusions about Earth’s age were stamped in the minds and hearts of Christ’s followers sank their teeth into his principles of scriptural interpretation far beyond his death, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and forward to today.
Then, sometime after Ussher went to be with Jesus, a concerning habit formed: When the sweet, well-meaning Christians, ever loyal to their predecessor’s instructions, met opposition (scientific, logical, or otherwise), they and generations of believers after them adopted a response that hurt, rather than helped, their cause: They began saying “the Bible says so” when it doesn’t.
Today, a similar practice continues. The hugely influential Young Earth website, Answers in Genesis, states in one of its popular articles titled “The 10 Best Evidences from Science That Confirm a Young Earth”: “The earth is only a few thousand years old. That’s a fact, plainly revealed in God’s Word.”[i] Later in the article, as an added layer of clout and offset in a giant box with green letters (so it can’t be missed), we read: “When discussing the age of the earth, Christians must be ready to explain the importance of starting points. The Bible is the right starting point.”[ii] I agree with the latter statement, but not with its application to Young Earth as a “fact, plainly revealed” in the Bible.
It also didn’t help that, as briefly stated earlier, when English Bibles were printed, Ussher Chronology was added to the margin notes of many. Though this would not (or at least should not) have been viewed as indicating a level of “scriptural authority,” the fact that his deductions were published upon the same pages as Scripture made the “my Bible says so” phrase a reality, despite that it wasn’t God’s Word, but the teachings printed alongside it, claiming Earth was young.
Before long, the consensus for Christians and unbelievers alike was that it had been the Bible, itself, claiming Earth was merely thousands of years old. A proverbial “cover your ears” reaction manifested within Christian groups against any challenges of Ussher’s Annals, as if to suggest that anyone with another idea or theory about our planet’s age was a meddler, time-waster, disrespecter of God’s Word, or worse, a doubting Thomas. Rejection of Ussher Chronology (and other Young Earth teachings that developed from it) became itself a shocking taboo that must be trampled underfoot and silenced. What Ussher began in humility became a thing of Powell-like arrogance for his followers—so much so that, well after James Ussher’s name fell into obscurity among the commonfolk, his theories and ideas remained even while Christians had no idea who or what they were following. (This is my opinion of the Church’s historical and widespread reaction. I’m not by any stretch saying Answers in Genesis or any of its staff, volunteers, or affiliate ministries are “arrogant.” I don’t know them personally, but I grew up with many who showed egotistical contempt in their interactions with anyone whose cosmological beliefs weren’t in line with their own.) When asked which verses they got their information on Young Earth theories from, many couldn’t answer, because no verses answer that directly. (And when they did answer, they gave the age-old “Genesis says ‘day’” response we’ll address in the following pages.) Oftentimes, the somewhat panicked response (as I saw in my childhood) was to flip the question on “scholars,” generically, while most folks couldn’t offer the first answer as to where Young Earth Creationism got its start: “Ussher who? Chronology what? I don’t know, but scholars say…”
Long after his name had fallen out of discussion in many households, James Ussher’s Chronology continued to influence Christian culture, and not surprisingly, support continued to flow in from ministries everywhere in attempts to offer proof of what was largely one person’s calculations. For, without Ussher Chronology in the first place, it’s likely the Christian world would never have felt the pressure to defend Young Earth so staunchly.
Let me ask an important question: Would it be so bad if Earth really is older? For only a moment—and while maintaining that the authority of Scripture is not compromised—think about that question.
Other than offering a flimsy beam of backing behind evolutionary theory that no one is forced to accept anyway, what would the harm actually be in admitting Earth is very old? Would it be so terrible if God, in His infinite and creative wisdom and all-powerful omniscience over every force in the universe and beyond, really did allow the science He designed to play a part in the origin of Earth? (Remember: “Omniscience”—an attribute irrefutably tied to God’s nature—contains the very word “science”!)
Listen, readers… “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:1–3, niv). There is no fault in saying, “I’m not sure about Ussher Chronology or Earth being only thousands of years in age, but I know the universe was created by God.” This is faith—based on the Word and on the assurance that what the Word says remains far more powerful than inadequate theories from a bygone era of scholarship as the irrefutable answer to questions about origins.
This leads me to another point: Perhaps there is one more area where Powell and Ussher can be compared. The Powell Doctrine, despite being massively outdated, still holds a prominent place within respected institutions viewed as being dedicated to truth. Ussher Chronology, a sort of “doctrine” in itself, despite being massively outdated, still holds a prominent place in the Church’s teachings. This is true for both influential educational institutions (Christian universities, etc.) as well as for the lay-teaching in many local churches every Sunday morning. Yet, if we’re honest, some scientific progressions since the death of our prized scholar render Ussher Chronology unlikely—perhaps even impossible.
It is well beyond time to flush from our thinking not the priceless and groundbreaking work of James Ussher, nor the memory his passionate trailing after Christ, but the steadfast grip we have on his outdated conclusions.
Having said all I can in favor of the person Ussher was and the value of his research at the time he lived, it pains me now to point out his errors (respectfully, of course).
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
Chronology Based on Assumption
It is no secret that James Ussher’s biblical chronology was based entirely on assumption and basic calculations of the generations and biblical characters’ life spans. Ussher’s reputation among scholars is thus twofold: 1) He was an anointed man of God who gave his all to glorify his Maker; 2) he, tragically, drew many inaccurate conclusions related to biblical chronology.
Just to show a couple of examples that reflect the latter, let’s focus first on a mistake he made that’s unrelated to Genesis and the origins of Earth:
There has long been difficulty with the chronology of this period [the era of Zechariah]. Archbishop Ussher assumed [note this word] an interregnum of 11 years between the death of Jeroboam II and Zechariah’s accession…[but it] seems more likely that there is error in certain of the synchronisms. The year of Zechariah’s accession was probably 759 BC (some put it later), and the 6 months of his reign, with that given to Shallum, may be included in the 10 years of Menahem, who followed them (2 K 15:17).[iii]
I won’t spend time sorting out the discrepancy just noted; I’m simply sharing this quote to show that scholars commonly acknowledge Ussher’s errors. Without even having to rely only on what he said regarding the age of Earth, it’s clear that he rested on “assumption” (scholars’ word exactly) to calculate the eras between prophets and kings based on length of service or reign without allowing for any interim. More simply, he seamed the end of one man’s service to the beginning of the next, allowing little wiggle room for overlap or gaps in the tenures on the timeline. He believed he had the exact dating, when the Bible is often silent on what specific years rulers or prophets governed. This helps us understand the mistakes he made in his calculations about the age of Young Earth. For instance:
When Ussher dated Adam at 4004 BC he assumed [there’s that word again…] that the generations in this chapter were an unbroken chain: but the chapter neither adds its figures together nor gives the impression that the men it names overlapped each other’s lives to any unusual extent (e.g. that Adam lived almost to the birth of Noah).[iv]
Here, Ussher begins with the genealogy (family lineage) mentioned in Genesis (mostly chapter 5) filling in the generational years until he concludes that Adam was created by God in 4004 BC. His method was to add the twenty-one generations mentioned in the Hebrew Old Testament from Adam forward and then calculate backward to Creation. Determining the number of years in a “generation,” biblically speaking, is quite complicated. Some of the Old Testament people lived to be more than nine hundred years. (To those who believe living that long would be impossible, please note: This was before the Flood of Noah’s time completely altered Earth’s vegetation, oxygen, photosynthesis cycles, and every natural and “good” thing God originally designed to sustain life on this planet, as outlined in the first chapter of Genesis. It was also before God’s anger was riled in Genesis 6, where we read that He declared humans would never live that long again [see especially verse 3]. Add to this the fact that, even now, we’re aware of nonhuman species living hundreds of years—like many marine animals [some sharks, whales, fish, urchins, etc.]—and life’s sustainability under the ideal environmental circumstances [in this case, the protection of the ocean’s deep waters; in the case of ancient biblical people, the protection of perfect planetary conditions], and an extremely long life span is not inconceivable.) Despite the complications of calculating life span, Ussher stitched them together as he did in the Zechariah example, arriving at 4004 BC for Adam’s origin, without allowing the possibility that there could have been any gaps or overlaps in genealogy (even though “date of birth” isn’t identified in Scripture for either man).
But wouldn’t that make the Bible wrong? After all, it does list fathers and sons in order, doesn’t it? If there are gaps or overlaps, then the Word of God didn’t cover the genealogies dependably.
If we look at the text linguistically, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, the Hebrew ab (“father”) and ben (“son”) can also mean “ancestor” and “descendant,” which means there may be lengthy sections of bloodlines involving men not directly mentioned in Scripture. In fact, some assume Matthew “whoopsed” a few names from his New Testament Gospel genealogy, as it omits a couple of names from the family line listed in the Chronicles. Luke’s genealogy is also different from Matthew’s. The common Jewish writer’s purpose wasn’t to show every single person born into a family, but to list the relationships that were righteous and honorable. If someone—such as the wicked King Ahab—turned away from God and his life was an abandonment of all God required that line would be cut off. In 2 Kings 8:18, we see that Jorab married Ahab’s daughter. Ahab’s line was, in fact, cut off for four generations. Instead, Jehu’s sons would serve as king (2 Kings 10:30; cf. 2 Kings 10:35; 13:1, 10; 14:23; 15:8). Thus, Matthew, in his genealogy, was being obedient to Scripture and his culture by choosing not to mention names of people who had, by the time of the New Testament, become known as wicked, illustrating that the biblical authors emphasized the names most important to their narratives instead of centering their books on only who was born to whom and when. If that is true for Matthew, certainly there is room to consider that possibility for the genealogy in Genesis, challenging us to accept that fathers and sons whose names and life spans were not recorded may have been a part of Adam’s family tree.
In April of 1890, reverend and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, William Henry Green, wrote a strong response to Ussher Chronology, titled “Article VIII: Primeval Chronology,” which appeared in the theological journal Bibliotheca Sacra, volume 47. Green’s report is a lengthy revisiting of the aforementioned discrepancies and assumptions, and his conclusion is at the very least fascinating, and at the most, it’s proof the biblical writers were never personally invested in proving any particular dates of mankind’s birth and the Creation or the Flood. Early on, Green points out that the science-vs.-Bible tension was alive and well even as far back as 1890, long before Darwinism took the spotlight, yet he recognized even then the subject had been “long and earnestly debated”—and his “what then?” response captures my thoughts on the matter beautifully:
The question of the possible reconciliation of the results of scientific inquiry respecting the antiquity of man and the age of the world with the Scripture chronology has been long and earnestly debated. On the one hand, scientists, deeming them irreconcilable, have been led to distrust the divine authority of the Scriptures; and, on the other hand, believers in the divine word have been led to look upon the investigations of science with an un- friendly eye, as though they were antagonistic to religious faith.… But if these recently discovered indications of the antiquity of man, over which scientific circles are now so excited, shall, when carefully inspected and thoroughly weighed, demonstrate all that any have imagined they might demonstrate, what then? They will simply show that the popular chronology is based upon a wrong interpretation…[v]
Green’s succinct and well-constructed acknowledgment of the issue we’re still dealing with today—alongside his calm and rational rebuttal showing a complete lack of surprise, panic, or injury to his faith at the notion that his day’s leading chronology would ever be found wrong—is a good example for us to follow. If we did discover the Earth was quite old, as scientists say, what then? The Bible would still the infallible Word of God that breathes life into its readers, and its credibility, as well as that of its Author, is not threatened.
But Green’s report goes on to say something crucial: The Bible and its authors were never motivated to establish a solid chronology in the inflexible way we expect today:
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.…
[T]he genealogies of the Bible [are] frequently abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names. In fact, abridgment is the general rule, induced by the indisposition of the sacred writers to encumber their pages with more names than were necessary for their immediate purpose. This is so constantly the case, and the reason for it so obvious, that the occurrence of it need create no surprise anywhere….
The omissions in the genealogy of our Lord as given in Matthew 1 are familiar to all. Thus in verse 8 three names are dropped between Joram and Ozias (Uzziah), viz., Ahaziah (2 Kings 8:25), Joash (2 Kings 12:1), and Amaziah (2 Kings 14:1); and in verse 11 Jehoiakim is omitted after Josiah (2 Kings 23:34; 1 Chron. 3:16); and in verse 1 the entire genealogy is summed up in two steps, “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Other instances abound elsewhere; we mention only a few of the most striking.[vi]
Green goes on for pages addressing what he calls “only a few” discrepancies in the biblical record of important generations, including royal families. He compares Genesis 5 and 11 to 1 and 2 Chronicles, with notes from Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Kings, Exodus, Numbers, Judges, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and even little Ruth, among still others. Over and again, he concludes in powerful language that the biblical record absolutely can be trusted, though it must be trusted for the purposes God had in mind when He inspired the writers to show key links between Old Testament men and women whose roles were crucial to the continual development of Israel and their Redeemer—not to facilitate our ability to compute backward to the first man. As Green begins to wrap up his report, he summarizes:
The result of our investigations thus far is sufficient to show that it is precarious to assume that any biblical genealogy is designed to be strictly continuous…. The creation, the Flood, the call of Abraham, are great facts, which stand out distinctly in primeval sacred history. A few incidents respecting our first parents and their sons Cain and Abel are recorded. Then there is an almost total blank until the Flood, with nothing whatever to fill the gap, and nothing to suggest the length of time intervening but what is found in the genealogy stretching between these two points. And the case is substantially the same from the Flood to Abraham. So far as the biblical records go, we are left not only without adequate data, but without any data whatever, which can be brought into comparison with these genealogies for the sake of testing their continuity and completeness.[vii]
He points out that, had it been the Lord’s intention to construct a perfect genealogy, even omitting a single name would make the whole Book suspect. Then Green asks whether we should assume that intention in the first place and concludes with a resounding “no”:
But are we really justified in supposing that the author of these genealogies entertained such a purpose? It is a noticeable fact that he never puts them to such a use himself. He nowhere sums these numbers, nor suggests their summation. No chronological statement is deduced from these genealogies, either by him or by any inspired writer. There is no computation anywhere in Scripture of the time that elapsed from the creation or from the deluge, as there is from the descent into Egypt to the Exodus (Ex. xii. 40), or from the Exodus to the building of the temple (I Kings vi. 1).…
The calculation which leads to such a result, must proceed upon a wrong assumption.
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.[viii]
All things considered, Ussher’s math was extremely clever and progressive for a Bible study of his day. However, rather than viewing his work as a “conclusion,” it’s more accurate to consider the Ussher timeline as a great platform upon which to build additional data.
Hang on, though. We’re talking about the difference between thousands and billions of years. Surely, Donna, you’re not suggesting this massive discrepancy is resolved by simply allowing for more generations in an early family tree, are you?
No, that’s not the whole picture, either. Let me explain.
The Major Discrepancy: It’s Not About Adam!
Though I—alongside many scholars—insist Ussher’s timeline of the origin of man is only assumption and therefore cannot be viewed as the only possibility of who arrived and when, I also see the discrepancy between billions or thousands of years as a problem that can’t be settled by identifying gaps in genealogy. To state that Adam was created billions of years ago (Old-Earth dating) and that only a fraction of his family line was documented appears to make Genesis 5 at least irresponsible, if not impossible. At the very least, since the lengths of these lives, as well as of their offspring, are recorded, Genesis becomes “inaccurate” if billions of years elapsed between the days of Adam and Noah. No figuring can make this short list stretch long enough to account for what transpired from the formation of the first human to the Flood if, in fact, the Flood happened anytime within the last six thousand years. This is yet another reason Young Earthers typically cannot accept the idea that the Earth is old.
But what if I were to tell you that it’s not even about Adam?
Ussher made yet another assumption that overlooked perhaps the most vital piece of this giant puzzle: He linked Adam’s beginning to the Earth’s beginning, teaching that the two events could only have happened days apart. Therefore, if Adam originated in 4004 BC, then Earth did as well.
Yet, nowhere in any debate that I’m aware of (at least in the mainstream—and I’ve been investigating this research pool for the majority of my life) have studiers of God’s Word allowed for the possibility that Earth was created billions of years ago…and that Adam came into the picture far later.
Wait just a minute, Donna. You’re jumping off the deep end, here. Genesis is clear! God made the heavens and Earth, all the plants and animals upon it, and then formed man from the dust of the ground on the sixth day of Creation! That’s what the Bible says…
I’m aware. But the six-day Creation narrative doesn’t begin until the fifth verse, referring to the “first day.” Prior to that, we have four verses, one of which describes a planet “without form, and void” (Genesis 1:2) for, well, God only knows how long. (This is referred to as the “Gap theory.” We’ll discuss this more later on.)
By now, you get the idea, and it’s time to close the chapter on Ussher. This scholar was brilliant, but at this point we will respectfully leave his arguments—and his “authority fortress”—behind, to take a look at the list of relevant dating issues within the debate, starting with the popular discussion of whether “day” even means what we think it does, or if it could mean “age,” as in an indefinite period.
UP NEXT: The Bible Says…What?!
[i] “The 10 Best Evidences from Science That Confirm a Young Earth,” October 1, 2012, Answers in Genesis, as featured in Answers Magazine, last accessed January 6, 2023, https://answersingenesis.org/evidence-for-creation/10-best-evidences-young-earth/.
[iii] Caldecott, W. S. “Zechariah.” In J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia Volumes 1–5 (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company; 1915), 3136; emphasis added.
[iv] Kidner, D. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1967), 88; emphasis added.
[v] Green, William Henry, “Article VIII: Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra: Volume 47, 285–303. Viewable online here: https://biblicalelearning.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Green-PrimevalChron-BibSac.pdf.
[viii] Ibid.; emphasis added.