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From Ussher to Slusher, from Archbish to Gish:
or, not in a million years....

Dr Colin Groves

The following paper is reproduced with the permission of the author and the journal. It was originally published in 1996 as: Groves, C. 1996 From Ussher to Slusher, from Archbish to Gish: or, not in a million years... Archaeology in Oceania 31(1996) 145-151.


Attempts to construct Biblical-based chronologies of the earth, life and humanity are reviewed. There are both pre-evolutionary attempts, such as that by Archbishop Ussher, and modern ones, by the 'creation science' movement, led by Dr Gish. The models constructed by the Archbishop and his contemporaries were excusable; the present-day ones are constructed not in ignorance of modern advances in geology, palaeontology and archaeology but despite them, and involve contrived arguments intended to refute them. Resulting world-views can be richly comic, but their purpose in overturning accepted ways of gaining knowledge is to control science, the arts and humanities, and so to exert control over politics and human minds. As such they should be taken seriously and strenuously combated by the archaeological profession, rather than ignored as is the usual practice.

The earth is 4.5 billion years old. The Cambrian explosion began 590 million years ago. About 65 million years ago, an asteroid may have crashed into the earth off Yucatan, and blotted out the sun for a while and the dinosaurs for ever. Meanwhile living organisms were changing and diversifying over the long eons, culminating in the appearance of animals we might designate as 'human' about 2 million years ago, and of people indistinguishable from ourselves something over 100,000 years ago. As for Australia, people burst upon this unsuspecting continent a few tens of thousands of years ago.

This much we know from the accumulated efforts of about 200 years of modern scientific endeavour; cosmology, geology, geophysics, palaeontology, biology, anthropology and archaeology all tell the same story. Because essentially it is part of a package, we can lump it all together under the heading of the Theory of Evolution. (One can of course accept the concept of 'deep time' without accepting biological change, but this so-called 'progressive creation' is a rare belief, and I will ignore it here). It has been built up in the way all scientific advances are made, namely hypothesis testing: observations are made, inductive inferences are drawn, hypotheses are proposed, predictions are made from the hypotheses, and if the predictions are found not to accord with reality the hypotheses are rejected. In the same way as an apple fell on Newton's head, he made an inductive leap, and he and his successors tested his conclusions, so Hutton proposed the concept of 'deep time' and Lamarck the concept of biological evolution, and the resultant Theory of Evolution too has been tested and, in the absence of any falsification, has achieved that enviable status, a Robust (or Highly Corroborated) Theory. And, make no mistake, it is very easily tested: a single out-of-place fossil - say, a human skeleton in Mesozoic deposits (under unimpeachable geological conditions) - would throw the whole package into disarray.

Well, that's what we think, anyway, and I cannot name a single professional scientist who disagrees. Yet a vast proportion of the world's population - among them a few, a very few, who really do possess advanced scientific credentials (and many more who claim to, but do not) - does disagree. These people will, when pressed, admit to an untroubled acceptance of a whole slew of Robust Theories in science: they avoid stepping over cliffs for fear of the Theory of Gravitation; they don rubber gloves in the presence of a naked wire, in acknowledgment of the Theory of Electromagnetism; they douse their fish and chips in vinegar rather than nitric acid, in deference to the Theory of Valency. The Theory of Evolution is no more, no less, robust than other scientific theories, so why is there such an outcry in places like Alabama when it is mentioned in school textbooks? Why does just this Theory, and no other, generate such hostility?

The answer is, of course, that it flatly contradicts the story told in Genesis, the first book of the Torah (or Pentateuch), the scripture which stands at the base of the three great monotheistic religions. While it may be true that Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians seem to have no problems with this, many of their followers have a desperate need to affirm the very letter of the sacred writings. In response to this, a most peculiar pseudo-intellectual school has arisen, called 'Creation Science'. The name is an oxymoron in the same way as Floating-free-in-the-air Science',   'Infinite-divisibility-of-the-elements Science' or 'Phlogiston Science' would be, but the leaders of the school, the 'creation scientists', are easily able to persuade their followers, the ordinary creationists, hungry for certainty in a world of change, that it really is a valid science, that when properly interpreted the geological column speaks not of millions of years but of 6000 to 10,000, and that the fossil record cries out not 'evolution' but 'Noah's flood'.

These are the main tenets of modern creationism, but I suppose it all really started nearly 350 years ago with the ingenuity of one man, the only one really who had any excuse: the Archbish Ussher.

 Ussher's chronology

There is a considerable amount of misinformation circulating about the dicta of James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, and his contemporary the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, John Lightfoot (1602-1675); despite the enlightening literary research of Brice (1982), the misconceptions persist, copied from one source to the next.

Lightfoot, not Ussher, came first. In 1644 Lightfoot wrote that 'Man was created by the Trinity about the third hour of the day, or nine of the clock in the morning'; two years later he added that this was in September, at the autumnal equinox, and, by counting back the ages at which the personages in the Bible had given birth, that Christ was born 3928 years after the creation.

The idea of an approximately 6000-year history of the earth was already around: thus Brice (1982) draws attention to a passage from Shakespeare's As You Like It (Act 4. Scene I): 'The poor world is almost six thousand years old'. What Ussher wrote in 1650 (in Latin: English edition, 1658) was simply this: the Bible says that the death of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, occurred 3442 years after the creation of the world; history records that he died in 562 B.C.; 3442 plus 562 equals 4004, so that's when the creation happened. In that year, the Sunday nearest to the autumnal equinox (from Lightfoot's calculation) was October 23rd. From all this he deduced that the creation of Heaven and Earth 'fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty-third day of October in the year of the Julian calendar, 710', which was, of course, a Sunday.

The year 710 of the Julian calendar? The reader would be quite justified in asking how Ussher could have calculated all this without once asking where those lost 710 years could have got to!

For Ussher, it was important to establish the date not only of the creation but also of Noah's Flood. He knew of four different calculations for the time between the Creation and the Flood: the Hebrew text (1656 years), the Samaritan pentateuch (1307 years), the Septuagint version (2242 years), and an Ethiopian text (2262 years); as might be expected, he pronounced the Hebrew text most re1iable.

Note a slight discrepancy here. The flood would, according to Ussher's chronology, have been in the year 2348 B.C.; putting his creation date of 4004 B.C. together with Lightfoot's calculation of the date of Christ's birth - 3928 years after the creation, see above - we reach the conclusion that Christ was born in 76 B.C. Oops.

It was Ussher's calculations, not Lightfoot's that became standard. His dates for events were printed in many standard editions of the Bible right into the present century.           

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