Happy Universe’s Birthday!

Harmony of the Birth of the World – 7 Variations on an Unstated (invisible) Theme W. Zeitler

Chorale Prelude on “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise”

Fantasia J. Pachelbel (1653–1706)

This coming Wednesday is the Universe’s 6018th birthday — at least according to the famous calculations made by Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656) who determined the first day of creation to be 22 October 4004 BCE. Ussher calculated this date by working backward from the Roman Emperors named in the New Testament, using the genealogies, ages of the patriarchs, and historical events described in the Old Testament.

Ussher was born in Dublin, Ireland, into a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family — his grandfather had been speaker of the Irish parliament. Ussher was taught to read by two blind, spinster aunts, and a steady academic rise ultimately saw him Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1605 and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin in 1615. In 1640 Ussher and his wife Phoebe left Ireland for England.

A committed Calvinist, Ussher wrote extensively on theology and ecclesiastical history, and these subjects gradually displaced his youthful anti-Catholic writings. He came to be known not only for his deep learning, but for his charity and good temper, more interested in conciliation than confrontation — a ‘saintly scholar’. In those days in England and Ireland, politics and religion were ‘full-contact sports’ where a political or theological misstep could literally cost you your head. On more than one occasion Ussher defended a potentially hazardous view with such firm grace that his political and theological opponents gave him leave. King and Parliament consulted Ussher, and when he lost his home in the Irish Uprising in 1641, both Parliament and the King came to his financial assistance. He was buried in Westminster Abbey at the insistence of Cromwell — yet another political opponent.

Ussher is most famous for his calculation of the date of Creation, published in 1650 in his “Annales veteris testamenti” (“Annals of the Old Testament”). Ussher’s chronology represented a considerable feat of scholarship, demanding great depth of learning in ancient history as well as expertise in the Bible, biblical languages, astronomy, ancient calendars and chronology. Some of Ussher’s historical analysis still stands, such as the dates he determined for the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar.

Others also calculated the date of Creation — notably Isaac Newton (1642–1726), who when he wasn’t busy inventing Calculus and Physics spent enormous amounts of time on alchemy and as an ‘undercover cop’ for the Crown lurking in seedy bars tracking down counterfeiters (Newton was personally responsible for 28 counterfeiters being hanged, drawn and quartered). Newton also held unorthodox religious views, dabbled in the occult, and determined from his Bible research that the world began in 4000 BCE and would end no sooner than 2060. Newton’s father died just before Isaac was born, and when his mother remarried a few years later her new husband wanted Isaac gone, so mom deposited him with grandparents who didn’t want him either, so they parked him in a boarding school. Bullied there, young Newton’s fortunes turned when he realized he could be the ‘brain bully’ of the school, and the rest, as they say, is history. Newton never married (indeed, evidence is scanty that he ever loved at all) and is reputed to have laughed only three times in his life — at the discomfiture of enemies. Newton’s view of the Cosmos as a brutal and soulless Machine ultimately became that of Modern Science, prevailing over gracious Ussher. In light of subsequent historical events, was Newton’s triumph really a ‘Good Thing’? I sometimes wonder.