“Debatable” is a recurring feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community. Due to a lack of interesting current debates, this edition will focus on a debate between a 17th-century Anglican bishop and a 19th century Presbyterian scholar.
The Issue: Does the Bible provide clues that can help us determine the age of the earth? For hundreds of years Christians have believed that the Biblical genealogies provide a clue. Can the genealogies found in Genesis help us establish such a date?
Position #1: – Bishop James Ussher
Having completed scholarly works on such diverse subjects as the calendar and Christian creeds, the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher combined his interest and in 1650 published a work in which he determined the exact date of Creation: 23 October, 4004 BC.
Ussher’s method was to add up three distinct periods of history mentioned in the Bible: Early times (Creation to Solomon); Early Age of Kings (Solomon to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity); Late Age of Kings (Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). According to Wikipedia, by using these methods Ussher was able to establish an unadjusted Creation date of about 4000 BC. (See update at the bottom for more.)
(Bishop Ussher did derive his conclusion simply by adding up the “begats.” To determine the date he also referred to Chaldean history and the Astronomical Canon.)
Other scholars, most notably the Cambridge academic John Lightfoot, had completed similar calculations, but Ussher’s work captured the popular imagination. The date was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701 and, until the 1970s, could be found in the Bibles placed in hotel rooms by the Gideons Society.
Over the centuries Ussher’s date of the creation became, for many Christians, an obvious deduction from Scripture itself. Even today many biblical Christians who subscribe to young earth creationism hold to a date very similar to the one calculated by the Irish bishop.
Position #2: Dr. William Henry Green
One of the most interesting rebuttals to Ussher’s theory can be found in a dusty old theological journal from the late 1800s. Dr. William Henry Green, a Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, published in Bibliotheca Sacra:
In 1863, I had occasion to examine the method and structure of the biblical genealogies, and incidentally ventured to remark that herein lay the solution of the whole matter. I said: “There is an element of uncertainty in a computation of time which rests upon genealogies, as the sacred chronology so largely does. Who is to certify us that the antediluvian and ante-Abrahamic genealogies have not been condensed in the same manner as the post-Abrahamic? . . . Our current chronology is based upon the prima facie impression of these genealogies. . . . the popular chronology is based upon a wrong interpretation, and that a select and partial register of ante-Abrahamic names has been mistaken for a complete one….
It can scarcely be necessary to adduce proof to one who has even a superficial acquaintance with the genealogies of the Bible, that they 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, and we are at liberty to suppose it whenever anything in the circumstances of the case favors that belief.
Green provides a representative list of Biblical genealogies in which omissions are made (Matthew 1; Numbers 3:19, 27, 28; 1 Chronicles 26; Ezra 7:1-5; and Ezra 8:1-2). Indeed, his entire article on “Primeval Chronology” should be read in its entirety by anyone interested in the subject. But the gist of Green’s argument, which can be used to show why the genealogies should not be used to date the earth, can be gleaned in the following five points:
1. Comparison to other Biblical genealogies—Abridgement and omission is found in numerous genealogical lists throughout the Bible. Unless there is outside evidence presented to show that Genesis 5 and 11 are intended to be continuous, there is no reason to assume that it is different that other genealogies.
2. Making unwarranted assumptions—The author of Genesis provides the age of each patriarch at the birth of his son. Why would this information be included if the purpose was not to produce a chronology? While we may think this is a fair presumption to make, Green points out that the author never uses these numbers for that purpose. Not only does the writer not suggest their summation, but no other inspired writer of the Bible does so either. “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 (Exod. 12:40), or from the Exodus to the building of the temple (1 Kings 6:1). And if the numbers in these genealogies are for the sake of constructing a chronology, why are numbers introduced which have no possible relation to such a purpose?”
3. It doesn’t match parallel texts—If we assume that the author of Genesis was also the author of Exodus, then we can reasonably conclude that genealogies that are similarly constructed would be intended to have a similar design. Exod. 6:16-26, for example, records the genealogy extending from Levi to Moses and Aaron and includes the length of each man’s life in the principal line of descent, viz., Levi (v. 16), Kohath (v. 18), Amram (v. 20). Green notes that the correspondence between this list and the ones in Genesis is “certainly remarkable”: “the numbers given in this genealogy exhibit the longevity of the patriarchs named, but cannot be so concatenated as to sum up the entire period; thus suggesting the inference that the numbers in the other genealogies, with which we are now concerned, were given with a like design, and not with the view of enabling the reader to construct the chronology.”
4. Different texts used different numbers—The texts of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures) and of the Samaritan Pentateuch vary systematically from the Hebrew in both the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. For example, according to the chronologies based on these texts, the interval between the Flood and the birth of Abraham was 292 (Hebrew), 942 (Samaritan), or 1172 years (Septuagint). Ussher favored the Hebrew version yet doesn’t seem to grasp that the changes in the latter version were made in order to be more symmetrical; the redactors appear not to consider that that the ages are intended to produce a chronology.
5. The structure appears to define the purpose—The structure of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, argues Green, seem to indicate intentional arrangement: Each genealogy includes ten names, Noah being the tenth from Adam, and Terah the tenth from Noah. And each ends with a father having three sons, as is likewise the case with the Cainite genealogy (4:17-22). This structure is similar to Matthew 1, which breaks out into three periods of fourteen generations. “It is much more likely,” says Green, “that this definite number of names fitting into a regular scheme has been selected as sufficiently representing the periods to which they belong, than that all these striking numerical coincidences should have happened to occur in these successive instances.”
Scoring the Debate: Dr. Green’s article cast considerable doubt on the supposition that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were ever intended to be a direct chronology, much less one from which the age of the earth could be deduced.
While it doesn’t settle the debate, Green’s argument undercuts a key piece of evidence used by the Young Earth side. Like Ussher, if we want to determine the age of our planet, we may need to look at evidence outside the Biblical text.
Update: Mitchell Powell points out that Ussher doesn’t base his conclusion on the date of Jesus’s birth:
To put it simply, the two dates—the date of creation and Jesus’s birth—were independent in his system, because the Bible does not (in Ussher’s judgment) provide enough information to work out a timeframe from Creation to Jesus. So he would place the creation in 4004 BC regardless of when Jesus was really born, whether it was 4 BC, or 5 BC, or 1 AD, or 6 AD. His date for the creation is worked out without any reference to Jesus. His date for Jesus’ birth is worked out without any reference to the date of creation.
Instead, what Ussher did was work out both dates independently. So Ussher held to a creation in 4004 BC for various reasons, and a birth of Jesus in 5/4 BC for other reasons. In fact, in the preface to his Annals, Ussher seems to imply that Jesus was born in 4 BC. But in the Annals themselves, he sounds like he’s saying Jesus is born in 5 BC. He’s a little wobbly on when Jesus was born, but he’s not at all wobbly on when the creation was. His creation date doesn’t depend on a 4000-year span; the 4000-year span just happens to work out (according to his preface) or almost work out (according to the Annals themselves).
Here’s how he gets the date of creation (I’ll simplify so that I don’t write 2000 pages getting there like he did). He starts with creation as 0 Anno Mundi (“year of the world”). Then he starts adding up chronological information in the Bible: Adam has a kid at 130, Seth has a kid at 105, etc. etc. He makes it as far as the accession of Amel-Marduk (aka Evil-Merodach) to the Babylonian throne (2 Kings 25:27). As Ussher sees it, Amel-Marduk takes the throne 3441 years after creation, and all this can be worked out from the Bible. But getting from Amel-Marduk to Jesus can’t be done based on biblical information because the information just doesn’t seem to be there.
Then, Ussher leaves the Bible and starts working with Berossus. Berossus gives him various chronological data up to Alexander the Great. Then Ussher uses Greek history to work further along, and finally he uses Roman history to move him along to a date that has a known AD date on it. From this, Ussher works out a creation in 4004 BCE. Notice that nowhere in this process do we need to find out the real birthdate of Jesus at all.
Next, by Ussher’s time all the smart people know (thanks to a scholar named Scaliger writing almost a century earlier) that Herod died in 4 BC. So Ussher says, okay, let’s say Jesus is born in 4 BC (that’s what Ussher says in his preface to the Annals). This gives us a 4000-year span from Jesus to creation. Later, while Ussher is writing the annals themselves, Ussher flip-flops a little and puts Jesus’ birth more uncertainly in 5/4 BC to give a little time for the wisemen and the slaughter of the infants. Now we’ve got a 3999-4000 year span. It doesn’t matter.
If Ussher felt like it, he could have noticed the reference to “two years” in Matthew 2:16, and decided that Jesus had to have been born two years before Herod died. Then he’d move Jesus’ birth to 6 BC. But the creation would stay firmly locked in at 4004 BC, because he reached the two dates independently.
If Ussher had followed some historians’ views about Quirinius, governor of Syria, he could have gone another route and placed Jesus birth at 6 AD. (Not that he should have; it’s a hypothetical). If he did this, he’d still hold to a creation in 4004 BC. The 4004 BC date is arrived at on its own terms, and does not depend on when Jesus was born.