Doubting Ussher's Creation Date of 4004 BC
Posted August 22, 2017 by Amy Wang
Photo: kevron2001 / 123RF Stock Photo
The dating of creation is one of the most contentious issues related to science and the Bible. After the 17th century bishop, James Ussher, calculated a creation date of 4004 B.C., his chronology was propagated along with many bibles, and thus gained wide popularity. Nevertheless, it has stirred up ridicule from scientists and atheists, because there are many orders of magnitude of difference between a 6,000 year old earth and a 4.6 billion year old earth. Do anthropology and science disprove the Bible, or is it possible that Ussher and others have misinterpreted the Bible? Below, we will look at the possibility that Ussher misinterpreted the Bible.
Bear in mind that Ussher's interpretation is not representative of all Christians. In fact, in earlier centuries, many interpreted the creation "day" as a long period of time, including Jewish historian Josephus (1st century), Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (2nd century), Basil (4th century), Augustine (5th century), and Aquinas (13th century) (Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 141). To say that Christianity is mistaken because the earth is older than 4004 B.C. may be like attacking a straw man, because the Bible, properly interpreted, does not necessarily support the assumptions behind this calculation.
The Challenge: Ussher's Creation Date Conflicts with Anthropology and Modern Science
Let us consider the challenge of the atheist. In favor of an old earth, atheist Sam Harris talks about the Sumerian invention of glue about a thousand years before Ussher's creation date of 4004 B.C.(samharris.org). Additionally, evidence from astronomy (stars) and geology suggest a much older date of creation than 4004 BC. Although archaeological and historical records could have mistakes and scientists could be making assumptions in interpreting their data that is not verifiable, is it also possible that those who interpret the Bible also sometimes make assumptions that are not necessarily true? In this case, I'd like to propose that Genesis 1 does not necessarily imply all creation took place in six 24-hour solar days.
Watch this 7-minute video by Frank Turek.
A Response: Potentially Mistaken Assumptions Underlying Ussher's Chronology
When the Bible is translated from its original language into another language, there is not always a perfectly corresponding word in the target language. In the case of Genesis, two words that may have tripped up Bishop Ussher are the words "yom" translated as "day" in Genesis 1 and "ben" translated as "son."
1a. Why "Yom" is not Necessarily a 24-Hour Day
The Hebrew word "yom" translated to the English word "day" can also mean a "period of time." From the Strong's concordance with Hebrew and Greek lexicon, we may study all the verses that use the Hebrew word 3117:yom (yowm). From the verses below, it is evident that the word "Yom" can have other meanings besides a 24-hour day, including a period of time. In one of the cases listed below, "Yom" is even used to refer to a period lasting 40 years!
- 1Kings 11:42 - Period of time, which is here 40 years
- Genesis 1:14 - Day as distinguished from night (a portion of a day)
- Genesis 2:4 - Period of time in which God made the earth and heavens, possibly spanning all six "days" of creation
- 2Chronicles 21:19 - Period of a year
- Hosea 6:1-2 - Period that is longer than a solar day (Geisler, 271). If this period is a 24-hour day, we might ask why the resurrection of the saints has not yet occurred.
Here are a few other considerations that cast doubt on the six 24-hour days or young earth creationist theory:
- Is it reasonable to expect that Adam named all the animals in a single 24-hour day in Genesis 2:15-22? A.H. Strong considered this irrational in his Systematic Theology (Heeren, 61).
- If the period of the "yom" were only 24 hours, would Habakkuk have called the mountains “ancient” and the hills “age-old" (Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 151)?
- Contrary to what some young earth creationists may believe, no Hebrew grammar rule says if "yom" is attached to an ordinal, that it must be a 24-hour day (Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 147).
1b. Even if "Yom" is a 24-Hour Day, The Bible Might Still Be Consistent With An Old Earth
Frank Turek also points out that Genesis 1 does not mention the first day until after it mentions the creation of the heavens and earth, so it is also possible that there was a long creation prior to the first day. (See video.)
Without endorsing them, Geisler points out there are also various other interpretations that can be considered, such as gap theories. That is, even if the days of Genesis were literal 24-hour days, there could be gaps of time between the six 24-hour days. Although this interpretation may be dubious, it may be wise not to be too rigid on insisting that the entire span of creation was necessarily finished in six 24-hour days. (See Geisler's article for more information.).
1c. Does the Use of the Words "Evening" and "Morning" Imply a Solar Day?
Some Young Earth Creationists believe the evening and morning formula at the end of each day of creation implies a 24-hour day. Not all Hebrew scholars agree that this necessitates a solar day, however. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary suggests morning and evening may represent the beginning and close of each act of creation. See this reference for more info. Additionally, there is no mention of evening and morning for the seventh day, which some say indicates that God's rest has continued to the present (Hebrews 4:1-11) and is longer than a 24-hour day.
2. Genealogy Considerations: Abridged Genealogies
In calculating the date of creation based on genealogies, Bishop Ussher may have also overlooked one other phenomenon in biblical genealogies. The Bible includes instances of abridged genealogies. Most notably, in Matthew 1:1, an abridged genealogy lists Jesus Christ as the son of David, the son of Abraham. Indeed, the word for "son" here is not literally a direct father-son relationship.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, generations can also be skipped in genealogies, a phenomenon known as "telescoping." The Hebrew words for father (‘ab) and son (ben) can also mean forefather and descendant, so this is not an error. Perhaps the English translation could be improved here. Compare Ezra 7:1-5 and 1Chronicles 6:1-14 to see the abridgment of genealogies. Ezra's genealogy skips individuals between Azariah to Meraioth! If Ussher ignored the possibility of abridged genealogies, that is one other potential assumption that could result in miscalculation of the date of creation (Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp48-50).
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