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21 Mar

Fall in the House of Ussher

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology–Ussher’s shared “house” if you will pardon my irresistible title pun. Today we rightly reject a cardinal premise of that methodology–belief in biblical inerrancy–and we recognize that this false assumption allowed such a great error in estimating the age of the earth. […]

The textbook writers do not know that attempts to establish a full chronology for all human history (not only to date the creation as a starting point) represented a major effort in seventeenth-century thought. These studies did not slavishly use the Bible, but tried to coordinate the records of all peoples. Moreover, the assumption of biblical inerrancy doesn’t give you an immediate and dogmatic answer–for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and you must struggle to a basis for choice among them. As a primary example, different datings for key events are given in the Septuagint (or Greek Bible, first translated by the Jewish community of Egypt in the third to second centuries B.C. and still used by the Eastern churches) and in the standard Hebrew Bible favored by the Western churches.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Fall in the House of Ussher.” Natural History 100 (November 1991): 12-21 (available online here)

Stephen Jay Gould explaining why textbooks that laugh at James Ussher’s chronology, which set the creation of the world as 4004BC, miss both the scholarly effort involved and the fact it was a standard “research programme” in the seventeenth century. Gould defends the chronology (though clearly wrong about the age of the universe) as “an honorable effort for its time, … our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Ussher’s chronology is the best known because it was included in editions of the King James Bible from 1701.

Not only was it a standard research programme but as pointed out by Renaissance Mathematicus (In Defence of the Indefensible) it was part of a movement away from history as a vehicle for moral tales and towards the discipline we know today. In the attempts of chronologists to map out historical events in order “they started to develop and utilize methods of philological analysis and dating that had not existed previously and in so doing laid the foundation of both modern history and archaeology.”

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  1. Pingback: “Too Gentle a Soul”: James Ussher | Irish Philosophy

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