Odd, isn't it, that it's always poor James Ussher (1581-1656), the Irish theologian who famously calculated the precise date of Creation - Oct. 23, 4004 BC - who gets mocked as the looniest of the deluded Christians: the presumably intelligent people who regarded the Bible, however divinely inspired, as a history book. Ussher is always good for a chuckle. (In his bestseller God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens references Ussher only for his "foolishness.") But the ridicule bespeaks a certain ignorance of its own.
Ussher wasn't the only 17th-century scholar to date Creation. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who formulated the laws of planetary motion, placed it in 3992 BC. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, placed Creation in 4000 BC. Why mock Ussher - and excuse Kepler and Newton?
Ussher was extraordinarily brilliant. He entered Trinity College at 13. He got his master's degree at 18. He was ordained an Anglican priest at 20. He was appointed Archbishop of Armagh (Northern Ireland) at 40. He became a revered historian and Hebrew scholar. On his death, Oliver Cromwell ordered him buried in Westminster, with this epitaph: "among saints, most scholarly; among scholars, most saintly."
In 1650, he published his monumental The Annals of the World, a 1,300-page work written in Latin, a book in which he sought to date every major historical event from Creation - "in the beginning" - to 70 AD. By Ussher's calculations, we are now set to enter the year 6015: 4004 plus 2011. This is very close to Jewish tradition, which puts us in the year 5771. Given the variations in calendars and clocks over thousands of years, a 244-year gap is reasonable, one way or the other. (Using Ussher, we will be precisely 2,455,792 days removed from the first day of Creation on New Year's Day.)
Ussher used known dates of historical events - calling on secular sources (Thucydides, Herodotus) as well as religious sources (the Old Testament, the Apocrypha) - to anchor his calculations. He relied heavily on the work of Yose ben Halafta (who died in 160 AD), a rabbi whose monumental Book of the Order of the World established the traditional Jewish historical chronology. Ussher sought comparable credibility in his own magnum opus: He needed 12,000 footnotes to reference secular sources, 2,000 footnotes for religious sources.
So why October of 4004 BC? The Bible does not say that Creation began in October - let alone Oct. 23. Ussher relied on Jewish tradition: Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, was an autumn event from earliest times. Ussher arbitrarily selected the first Sunday after the autumnal equinox. The autumnal equinox, of course, occurs in September: Ussher delayed Creation to compensate for arcane errors in the juggling of dates caused by the ancient Jewish calendar, which divided the year into 12 months of 30 days. (This year, Rosh Hashanah began at sunset on Sept. 8; next year, it begins at sunset on Sept. 28.)
Ussher was apparently correct (judging by the contemporary consensus) in identifying the birthdate of Jesus. Based on the death of Herod, he concluded that Jesus could not have been born later than four full years before Jan. 1, 1 AD. He dated the first Christmas - again, in autumn - at 4 BC.
Ussher's Annals makes for fascinating reading. He omits nothing of interest, either sacred or profane. As a reference book, it's unique: Every paragraph is numbered and referenced in the index; every paragraph is coded to identify sources. (You can quickly locate not only the citations to the celebrated Cleopatra, for example, but to the six Cleopatras who preceded her.)
Out of print for decades, impenetrable in its Latin and old English editions, Annals is now available in a fine slipcase edition improbably edited for clarity by a retired Ontario couple - Latin scholar Larry Pierce and his wife, Marion, of Winterbourne, a village north of Kitchener-Waterloo. The Pierces acquired photocopies of the original Latin and English versions in 1997 and spent years making them comprehensible to the modern reader. With this Annals now in its seventh printing, the result is a contemporary affirmation of history as - in someone's words - a "divine poem" that heralds hope for all Creation.