James Ussher: The Numbering of Days from the Time of Creation

4 min

Our dating system in Western Civilization is undeniably linked to the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. As much as modern scholars may try to deny or belittle the fact, B.C. stands for “before Christ” and certainly does not merely mean “before the common era.” A.D. is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase “anno Domini,” which is translated “in the year of our Lord.”

One of the greatest historians of Western Civilization was an Irish archbishop named James Ussher. Ussher lived and labored in the first half of the seventeenth century. He was one of the best Hebrew scholars of his day and was considered an unrivaled expert in Old Testament chronology. So significant was his magnum opus “The Annals of the World” that this conservative, literal understanding of Biblical history is now called “Ussher’s chronology.” As we consider the importance of numbering our days, let’s consider the man who made it his life’s study to “number the days” of the world.

James Ussher was born on January 4, 1581. He was of Irish stock and a native of Dublin. His grandfather had been speaker of the Irish parliament, and the family was respected throughout the Emerald Isle.

As a young boy, James Ussher was taught to read by two unmarried aunts. He developed a deep love for languages, and he and his younger brother Ambrose became proficient in Arabic and Hebrew. Ussher entered Trinity College at Dublin when he was only thirteen years old. He advanced through his courses of study with high honors and was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland. At that time in history, the Church of Ireland was decidedly Protestant in character, modeled after the Church of England.

James Ussher quickly rose in the estimation of his fellow churchmen. He was recognized as a brilliant theologian who had a command of the original languages of Scripture. While still in his twenties, he became the chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, one of the most important churches in Ireland.

The young chancellor married a Godly young woman named Phoebe, and the Lord blessed their union with a daughter, whom they named Elizabeth. Ussher was a model of virtue and piety both in his public and private life, and guests in his home were particularly impressed with the sincerity and depth of the daily family worship conducted in his home.

At that time in Ireland, there were many theological and political controversies. Ireland has always had a love-hate relationship with England, and James Ussher became a peacemaker in that multi-generational conflict. He was instrumental in drawing up the first confession of faith of the Protestant Church of Ireland, known to history as “The Irish Articles of Religion.”

In 1619, Ussher took his family to England where he lived for two years. He obtained favor from King James I during this visit, and was nominated by the king to become Bishop of Meath. During this period of his life, Ussher engaged in a deep, thorough study of church history. After a stay back in Ireland, he returned to England in 1623.

James Ussher was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland in 1625. In this important post as leader of the Church of Ireland, he carefully navigated the difficulty of suppressing the rising anger of the remaining Irish Catholics. A gracious man, Ussher was able to maintain his strongly Protestant views with dignity.

Ussher was respected by Anglicans and Puritans alike, and everyone viewed the Archbishop of Armagh as a true and faithful man of God. Although Ussher was a firm Royalist and opposed the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, even Oliver Cromwell respected the archbishop and paid him the most profound deference.

As he advanced in age, Archbishop Ussher increasingly devoted his time and attention to a thorough study of Biblical chronology. He used his skills in Hebrew and other Semitic languages to study the original ancient texts.

Laying a firm foundation for presuppositional apologetics, Archbishop Ussher took the Bible as absolutely inerrant and inspired, even in the minute historical details of chronology and history. Instead of basing his dating system upon an Egyptian or Sumerian calendar, he carefully dated the world’s beginning and passage of time by using only the inspired texts of Scripture.

By painstakingly comparing Scripture with Scripture and numbering the days of the ancient kings of Israel and the lifespans given in the Old Testament genealogies, Ussher arrived at the date of October 23, 4004 B.C. for the date of the Creation of the world. He established this as Anno Mundi 1, the first year of the world. Working carefully, he established a precise date for every important event known to man leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He integrated Egyptian and Chaldean histories, including the writings of Greek historians such as Herodotus and Roman historians such as Josephus, but always subjugating them to the priority of Scripture.

This dating system devised by Ussher has continued to be relied upon by conservative Bible scholars who hold firmly to the view that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. As Bible-believing Christians, we all owe Archbishop James Ussher a debt of gratitude for helping Christians view human history in the light of eternity. History is not a random collection of scattered events. It is planned and orchestrated by an eternal God Who works providentially in an orderly way to accomplish His redemptive purposes in the world.

Ussher’s last contribution to scholarship was an examination of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was in common use during the life and ministry of Jesus. At seventy-five years of age, Ussher was still active in the work of the Lord when he was struck with intense pain in his side and died suddenly. Although Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of England, was a political rival, he so respected Archbishop Ussher that he ordered a state funeral for the renowned scholar, Cromwell also allowed Ussher to be buried in Westminster Abbey, where today his body lies awaiting the return of his Lord and Savior.

Sources and Further Reference:
Carr, J. A. The Life and Times of Archbishop James Ussher. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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