The date of the world’s beginning

The Irish Archbishop and biblical scholar James Ussher’s Annales veteris testamenti, first published in Latin in 1650, expanded to include the New Testament in 1654, and translated into English in 1658, is now as it was in its own time most famous for its precise dating of the first moment of Creation, which, as he indicates in his opening sentence, occurred on Sunday, the twenty-third of October, in the year 4004 B.C. He goes on to detail the events of the first chapter of Genesis, assigning a date to each stage of Creation’s unfolding. Ussher’s extraordinary precision here may seem comical to us, but the calculation of the age of the world was a necessary foundation for all further temporal relations between events in history. The major Reformation dates recorded in other objects in this exhibition are all tabulated on such a scale of biblical-historical time; works like Usher’s throw into relief how something as familiar as a system of dating in anno domini depends upon a system of understanding rooted in Christian soteriology. From 1701, Ussher’s dates begin to appear in English bibles, running down the margins marking the chronological proceeding of history, and forming the basis for a ‘chronological index’ and a ‘table of time’ included as appendices. BW

Jacobi Usserii Armachani annales veteris et novi testamenti (Paris: Lud. Billaine & Joannis du Puis, 1673).


Further Reading

The Holy Bible (London: Charles Bill and the Executrix of Thomas Newcomb, 1701).

James Barr, ‘Why the World was Created in 4004 BC: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 67 (1985), pp. 575-608.

——, ‘Pre-scientific Chronology: The Bible and the Origin of the World’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 143 (1999), pp. 379-87.

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