The Age of the World, the Universe, and Everything
Notes: Subsequent to the publication of this challenge, a web page created by a Tony Warren has been brought to my attention that claims to establish the year of creation as 11,013 BC, or some 13,000 years ago; based, of course, on a rigorous study of the Christian Bible. Rather than amend this particular document, we are going to let it stand as many of the questions posed are still not answered. I have added an addendum below the article to deal with the new information. Also, see Meditation 43 for a truly astounding implication arising out of a consideration of both Ussher's and Warren's calculations.
In the 1650s, James Ussher, (Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin) a noted churchman and as a scholar published his findings regarding the date of creation and other biblical events. He determined the date of creation was Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, and the date of many other events, such as that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC, and that the ark touched down on Mt. Ararat on Wednesday 5 May 1491 BC. About ten years earlier, exactly the same date of creation was established by John Lightfoot, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, the difference being that he was able to establish the 9:00 am as the exact time of creation. [He did not go so far as to mention which time zone was applicable nor whether god was still on daylight savings time that late in October.]
For years, Bishop Ussher's calculations have been an article of faith to those who take the bible literally, regardless of the scientific findings arrayed against it. And many fundamentalists still hold true to 4004 BC.
But recently, an increasing number of biblical literalists have switched to "about 10,000 years ago" or "less than 10,000 years ago" as the date of creation. And I wonder why? Is it because the archeological evidence is so clear that the existence of man predates 4004 BC? Or is it because someone has found errors in Bishop Ussher's calculations?
When we consider, that almost 4000 years are being added to the date of creation, and that when Bishop Ussher made his calculations, that date was 5650 years previously, this represents an 70% error. I'd like to know where this error came from. In Bishop Ussher and John Lightfoot's detailed study of the bible and the correlation they made between the bible and other historical texts, where did they make an 70% error? And who did the detailed study that came up with "about 10,000 years ago?" Where is this documented? Has it ever been confirmed? Or is it a number plucked out of thin air because Ussher's number is so patently indefensible - in spite of being based on the bible?
What were Ussher's specific mistakes that he made such a large error? Was it one big mistake (which means that specific error was far greater than 70%), was it a consistent 70% on every single calculation, or was it a number of mistakes, some greater and some smaller than 70%? And were all his mistakes on the low side? Or were they distributed high and low? [which would indicate that some of his low errors were horrendously greater than 70%]
And if by placing the date of creation about 10,000 years ago, biblical literalists accept an undocumented 70% error in Bishop Ussher's calculation, is it not possible the mistake may be larger? 700%? 7000%? 70000%? 70000000%? What is the upper limit of the range of error? On what documented evidence?
Here's a challenge to any student or professor at Bob Jones University (or similar Christian educational establishment) Provide a thesis containing fully documented answers to the above questions, and the International University of Nescience will award you a Doctorate of Creationist Studies. In addition, that thesis will be published (with your permission) in our Feedback section. When you are prepared to submit your thesis, let us know via the contact form, and we will let you know where to send it. This offer is not limited to the first submission. Indeed, we hope multiple submissions with answers as different from each other as they are from Bishop Ussher's.
What is the point here?
Some individuals have failed to grasp the points I am making here.
First, Bishop Ussher's calculation was based on a rigorous and exhaustive examination of the Bible.
Second, I am unaware of any equivalent studies being done of the Bible which have come up with major errors in Bishop Ussher's figures.
Third, there is clear evidence that human civilization significantly predates 4004 BC. That means we don't have to go to cavemen, nor dinosaurs, nor to measuring the decay of the universe's background radiation to push creation significantly prior to 4004 BC - we just have to look at the documented human record.
Fourth, it is my contention that "about 10,000 years ago" was selected as a date of creation solely to solve the problem of the age of civilization, and that this date has absolutely no biblical authority.
Fifth and in conclusion, those that use "about 10,000 years ago" are in effect denying the literal interpretation of the bible, and are thoroughly undercutting the use of any date of creation other than that determined by science.
When as a young teenager I first encountered Bishop Ussher's work, I found it a true revelation. If by careful and rigorous study of the bible, a result so obviously in error could be produced, then it seemed to me that there must be serious flaws in the source material. Simply, Bishop Ussher's work proved to me that the bible was not a document to be taken literally. My encounter with his findings was a significant step away from childhood Christian indoctrination and onto the road to agnosticism.
Addendum (April 2002)
On April 6, 2002 I received the following e-mail message from a Bruce Boekel:
I happened to stumble across your meditation on Bishop Ussher's calculation of the age of the earth (meditation # 20). Your question about the transition from 4004 BC to "about ten thousand years ago" is an interesting one.
I also stumbled across a site showing a date of creation well over 10,000 years ago, not just pulled out of the air, but based on biblical calculation (i. e., date of creation: 11,013 BC). Here is the address: What is the Age of the World
I don't believe the method of calculation here is workable. It is a strange combination of literalist zeal for number crunching plus a creative evasion of literalism where convenient. Specifically, the full lifespans of the antediluvian patriarchs are added together end to end, as if each name or "lifespan" represents a historical stretch, perhaps covering, in reality, several generations. (In fact, a footnote indicates that some "sons" in the list are direct descendants, others not.) Taken literally, however (And isn't that the point?), the text of Genesis insists that Methuselah was 187 years old at the birth of Lamech and that Methuselah lived 782 years thereafter, producing "other sons and daughter," to the age of 969. An anti-literalist reading, but one perhaps more anthropologically savvy, would suggest that Lamech actually stands at the END of this suggested group of descendants, not at the beginning.
This is a most interesting document, and while not submitted by the author, Tony Warren, and while it does not address many of the issues posed in the challenge, we have awarded a Doctorate in Creationist Studies to him. Extending the date of creation to about 13,000 years ago is indeed a remarkable achievement.
But we do have some criticisms, and these are certainly not all the criticisms possible.
As in any study of this nature, the validity of the conclusion depends largely on the assumptions, and if you are going to use the only the bible to determine the date of creation, you have to assume:
- the bible is inerrant
- the bible contains all the information necessary
We consider both assumptions are wrong. And it's futile to argue this point with believers. And Warren accepts, indeed insists upon those assumptions. (Ussher does not - he used other sources which he linked to biblical events.)
Why is the date determined by Warren so different from Ussher's? Unfortunately Warren does not directly address Ussher's work to point out the apparent flaws. While Ussher is mentioned in passing, it is questionable whether the author actually consulted Ussher's work, because he consistently cannot spell the name correctly. (Or is the problem an excessive faith in spell check?) But, he does make it clear that he uses the biblical word "begat" differently than Ussher did.
To most of us, the verb "to beget" means "to father, to be the father of a child." But Warren, while using this definition some of the time, seems to have extended it to mean "to be the paternal ancestor of someone who happens to be born in the year of your death." And this assumption accounts for a good part of the difference.
And perhaps this is why nearly all bible literalists who reject Ussher, have not picked up on Warren's study (which was first published in 1996,) and "10,000 years ago" has not been replaced with "13,000 years ago."
And the challenge of substantiating the 10,000 year claim is still open. Those who make such a claim do not seem to accept Warren.
- Interestingly, Plato estimated the age of the world as 10,000 years. Is it possible that the fundamentalists have just ripped off Plato's estimate without having the courtesy to credit him, nor the common sense to update it for the 2,500 years that have passed since he came up with the number?
- Outdated link corrected 6 November 2009 - same article, different location.
- Usher passes spell check, generally Ussher does not. However, subsequent to the publication of this article, Warren has introduced the correct spelling for Ussher and has addressed his calculations in generalities (not specifics, except for pointing out Ussher did not understand there was no year zero between 1BC and 1AD)