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Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?

We appear to be living in an age where science no longer matters.  As you may know, the English word “science” comes from the Latin term “scientia,” which means “knowledge.:  People who reject “science,” well, what is it they’re rejecting?   We live in dangerous times.

Apart from the more obvious examples of this rejection that you can find in the newspaper every day (involving a human-induced apocalypse of biblical proportions), there are still, of course, a large number of “creationists” out there, who not only deny evolution (as a student now then will always tell me, with passion in his voice, “Hey, it’s ONLY a theory!!”) but who also subscribe to a young earth theory.  The earth has just been around for about 6000 years.  Really.  (When I was a fundamentalist I knew people who seriously claimed not only that dinosaurs and humans were walking around the earth together, but that fossils that appear to date to millions of years earlier were put into the geological record by Satan, who wanted to lead the world astray so they would all go to hell.  They were serious.)

But why 6000 years?  Why not, say, 7000 or 5000?  Turns out there’s a reason for it.  In fact, as you also may know, in the traditional King James Bible, where there are dates given in the margins for various key events, Genesis 1, the creation of the world, is given as 6004 BCE.  Now *that’s* strange.  Why not just round it off a bit?   What’s with the precision?

I deal with this in a sidebox in my college-level textbook on the Bible, as I posted years ago on the blog.  Here is the original post:

*************************************************************************

In my Bible Intro, I am including a number of “boxes” that deal with issues that are somewhat tangental to the main discussion, but of related interest or importance. Here’s one of the ones in my chapter on Genesis, in connection with interpretations that want to take the book as science or history. For a lot of you, this will be old news. But then again, so is Genesis.

**********************************************************************************************************************

In 1650 CE, an Irish archbishop and scholar, James Ussher, engaged in a detailed study of when the world began.  Ussher based his calculations on the genealogies of the Bible, starting with those in the book of Genesis (which state not only who begat whom, but also indicate, in many instances, how long each of the people thus begotten lived) and a detailed study of other ancient sources, such as Babylonian and Roman history.  On these grounds, he argued that the world was created in 4004 BCE — in fact, at noon on October 23.  This chronology became dominant throughout Western Christendom.  It was printed widely in King James Bibles and continues to be believed by non-evolutionarily minded Christians today.

This has been a useful dating for many Christians since that time.  For many centuries – going back in fact to the early second century of the Common Era – there have been Christians who thought that the world would last for 6000 years.   The reason is a bit complicated.  According to a passage in the New Testament…

To see the rest of this post you will need to be a blog member.  If you’re not, you better join up fast.  If we’ve only been here 6000 years, there’s not much time left!

According to a passage in the New Testament, “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet. 3:8).   Now, if the creation took God six days to complete, and each day is a thousand years, then the creation must be destined to last a thousand years.  Right?  That would mean it would all end about 2000 years after Jesus had died.

Why, though, did Archbishop Ussher not simply round things off a bit and opt for the year 4000 BCE, say, some time in late afternoon?  It was because he realized full well that there was a problem or two with our modern calendars.   The calendar we use was invented in the sixth century CE by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus (whose name, in English, translates as “Dennis the Short”).  Dionysius began the new era (C.E. or A.D.) with the year 1.  He had no option to that, since the concept of zero was not mathematically worked out yet in the sixth century, and so the first year could not have been 0.   But even more than that, Dionysius Exiguus miscalculated the date of Jesus’ birth, from which the era had its beginning.  For if Jesus was in fact an infant during the reign of King Herod – as related by both Matthew and Luke in the New Testament – then he must have been born no later than 4 BCE, the year of Herod’s death.  This creates a problem, of course, for those who continue to work with the abbreviations AD (anno domini: Latin for The Year of our Lord) and BC (Before Christ) – since, as sometimes noted, according to the calendar we use Jesus was actually born four years Before Christ!

The larger problem, though, for literalistic Christians who believe that the universe came into being not some 13 billion years ago, as modern astronomers maintain, but in 4004 BCE, ago, as Ussher claimed, and who think that is that the world is supposed to to exist for exactly six thousand years, based on the six days of creation in Genesis, it should have ended already, by noon on October 23, 1997.


When Christians Went on the Attack Against Jews
Flat-out Lies or Willful Ignorance. How Do They Get Away With It?

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Comments

  1. Rick
    Rick  July 1, 2019

    But, it must be true. Frederick March aka Mathew Harrison Brady aka William Jennings Bryan so testified under oath!
    If I recall he didn’t know what time zone it was in though.
    “Inherit the wind” 1960

    BTW: If you haven’t seen the 1988 version – Kirk Douglas’ “Brady” was fantastic!

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      nichael  July 2, 2019

      A couple points:

      1] Relying on popular, commercial movies as a source for historical or factual information is always dangerous at best (to return to the topic of the list, pick your favorite Hollywood biblical epic; or, say, “The Da Vinci code.)

      “Inherit the Wind” is no exception. (For further details see the discussion of the Scopes trial in Stephen Jay Gould’s in-all-ways-excellent “Rocks of Ages”.)

      2] More specifically I think it’s useful to note that (as Gould points out ) Bryan’s primary objection to Darwinian Evolution (at least by his own claim) had to do with the ways in which Darwinianism was being put forward at the time, as a “scientific” basis for rather horrific theories of race and of eugenics movements popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries[[NOTE]].

      I’m not interested here in getting into a discussion of the how and why’s of Bryan’s points. But I do think that dismissing someone like Bryan as a simple rube or yahoo half-wit is not particularly helpful.

      [[NOTE: As specific examples consider the following quotes which Gould provides.

      In particular, note that these quotes come from “A Civic Biology” by George William Hunter. That is, the text from which John Scopes was teaching evolution in his Tennessee classroom:

      From a section entitled “Parasitism and its Costs to Society –The Solution”:
      “Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality and crime to all parts of this country. […] Just as certain plants and animals, these families become parasitic on society. […] If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”

      Or from a paragraph under the heading “the races of man”
      “At the present time there exist upon the earth five races of varieties of man, […] These are the Ethiopian or negro race, […] the Malay or brown race, […] the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race […]; and finally, the highest type all all, the Caucasian, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”]]

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      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  July 4, 2019

        I was not aware of this. I know that “social Darwinism” was used to justify a lot of economic cruelty. I’ll have to read the book you cited, by Gould. But notice how even-handed a scientist can be. As opposed to how tendentious a true believer can be.

  2. Avatar
    saavoss  July 1, 2019

    I’m missing something. I understand the 6 days of creation being 6000 yrs. but I don’t get how that means that the Earth is 6000 yrs old (why couldn’t it have taken God 6000 yrs to creat the world, 14 billion yrs ago? The 6000 yrs only applies to how long it took for the process of creation, not all the history that happened since then), or why it should all end by 2000 yrs after Jesus. Like I said, I’m missing a something.

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      It’s not that 6000 years is how long it took to create the world. It’s that the six days of creation are a metaphor for the six thousand years of creation (how long it took to create — 6 days — is how long creation will last — 6000 years.)

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      • Avatar
        anthonygale  July 2, 2019

        I thought the same thing as saavoss. Perhaps it was because I’m inclined to think someone believing in creationism would read the Bible literally. That is perhaps an unsafe assumption. I still find it odd though. If the Bible can speak metaphorically, why take anything else literally (e.g. think that Methuselah really lived to be 969)? It seems like they read literally or metaphorically as they see fit.

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    samkho  July 1, 2019

    But didn’t Ussher realuze that there were 2 genealogies of Jesus? How could the genealogies he used be dependable?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Like everyone else until the most modern times, he believed the genealogies could be reconciled. (I don’t know his precise approach to reconciliation, but one common one was to say Luke’s genealogy was of Mary, Matthew’s of Joseph)

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    BAdams517  July 1, 2019

    I live in Western Ky. A young earth is widespread and VERY few Christians around here are NOT YECs. Side note: there also churches on nearly every corner and they are building some huge ones nowadays. Usually, instead of telling them they are wrong, I like to just explain to them how far away andromeda is and how when they see it through my telescope they see it as it existed over 2 million years ago. I figure one day, YEC will come up elsewhere and they will remember what I told them and the light bulb will light up.

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  5. Lev
    Lev  July 1, 2019

    In the movie ‘The Terminator’, Skynet became self-aware and launched the nukes on 29th August 1997 – Judgement Day. I wonder if the film’s creator, James Cameron, was aware of Archbishop Ussher’s prediction back in 1984? I guess not, otherwise, he would have placed Judgement day on the 23rd October.

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    flshrP  July 1, 2019

    Yep. So far none of these biblically-inspired end of the world predictions have panned out. That doesn’t keep these uber-Christian fundamentalists from continuing this insanity.

    Why are these unfortunate individuals, who are trapped in this living hell of fear, guilt, worry about the threat of eternal punishment, so concerned about the apocalypse? Is it entirely due to the nonsense in Revelation about the end times, or to the Rapture goofiness? Or is there something else at work here?

    Do they just want Judgement Day to come in their lifetime so the anxiety caused by their worry about eternal damnation is over?

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      I’m hoping that’s what my next book will be about.

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      • Avatar
        flshrP  July 2, 2019

        Glad to hear that.
        “We appear to be living in an age where science no longer matters. As you may know, the English word “science” comes from the Latin term “scientia,” which means “knowledge.: People who reject “science,” well, what is it they’re rejecting? We live in dangerous times.”

        The people you describe are full time residents of a religious fantasyland in which their cherished, but unsupported, beliefs are considered to be 100% true. What they are rejecting is the core idea that drives scientific inquiry, namely, that all knowledge that any human can acquire is tentative and contingent on the persuasiveness of the evidence, and is not absolutely, 100% true. These fantasizers have a mentality that is incapable of critical, skeptical thought, especially when it involves their cherished beliefs.

        In the words of Richard Feynman: Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.

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  7. Avatar
    Leovigild  July 1, 2019

    Bart, are you familiar with some scholars’ attempts to redate the death of Herod the Great? I haven’t seen any published refutation, and maybe it’s not in your wheelhouse, but I am curious about it. One example is:

    Steinmann, Andrew E. “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum, vol. 51, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–29.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      I seem to recall seeing the article, but I don’t remember it. I haven’t noticed a groundswell of support, but then again there are lots of things I don’t notice!

      • Avatar
        nichael  July 6, 2019

        Random suggestion:

        This might be a good topic for a post. NOT the dating of Herod, but rather how an informed scholar goes about keeping up with the (no-doubt overwhelming) constant influx of new information, specifically the proposal of new ideas.

        For example, how much time does one spend on reading new books, and, perhaps more importantly, journal articles? Which journals do you regularly keep up with? What conferences do your regular attend? What other, less obvious sources of new information are important to you? (Asking from personal experience, do you depend on your grad students to function as an “auxiliary radar” for new ideas?) If you come across a new, interesting proposal that you would like to pursue, how do you go about wedging it an already full schedule? Etc?

        Just a though.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          No, I never rely on grad students to keep me abreast of the field! 🙂 The journals I subscribe to are New Testament Studies, New Tesatment Abstracts, Journal of Biblical Literature, Journal of Early Christain Studies, and Vigiliae Christianae (the latter two are the premier journals on early Christianity in the U.S. and Europe, respectively). I have had editorial responsibilities for the final three, and still am an editor-in-chief for the final one. The conference I most regularly attend (for 37 years in a row now!) is the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeing; late this month I’ll be going to the international Society for the Study of the New Testament conference in Marburg Germany. Other sources of information: will I guess I’m in regular contact with scholars of NT and early Christainity and a lot comes that way. Most of my professional friends are active scholars in the fields. Interesting idea about posting on all this!

          • Avatar
            nichael  July 8, 2019

            >> [….etc/etc/etc…] editor-in-chief for Vigiliae Christianae […etc/etc/etc…]

            I know this question has been raised before…

            …but, seriously, dude… When *DO* you sleep??

          • Bart
            Bart  July 9, 2019

            Ha! Over 8 hours a night. But the only TV I watch are sports. And I’m in England just now. WIMBLEDON!!!

  8. Avatar
    Hormiga  July 1, 2019

    > [the world] should have ended already, by noon on October 23, 1997.

    I have think that somewhere there’s a sect that maintains that it *did* end then. So we who think it didn’t are in error and, of course, damned. Details to be worked out.

    BTW, about “noon”: Would that be GMT, Jerusalem time, or does The End sweep around the world with solar noon starting at 180 East and ending at 180 West?

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Ha! He was Irish. So I assume it was GMT! But it’s a good question.

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      • Avatar
        Jonny_the_Nerd  July 2, 2019

        Did he even realize that different time-zones were a thing? Certainly educated people by this time knew the Earth was round and that it rotated, but without modern communication systems, a lot of people might have just not thought about it.

  9. Avatar
    fishician  July 1, 2019

    I have heard various rationalizations for this, like the six days representing six eons, or the Genesis creation being the creation of the modern world in place of a more ancient one, etc. But what I find curious is how many people accept the validity and usefulness of science in virtually every area of life except when it comes to their religious beliefs. It’s like we have a religious area in our brain that is exempt from rational analysis. I think emotion tends to trump reason except when real effort is applied.

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Yup, very curious indeed. When they go to their *dentist* they don’t want him to be following the scientific views from the time of Genesis!!

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  10. Avatar
    Epikouros  July 1, 2019

    Of course, if they date it 2000 years after Jesus died, that would make it about 2029. So I look forward to lots of apocalyptic predictions in about 10 years. Literalists will always find ways to entertain us. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    XanderKastan  July 1, 2019

    FYI, it was recently in the news that it turns out the big bang really might have occurred only 12.5 to 13 billion years ago. Of course even if that is officially confirmed as accurate, it means the old estimate was only 8 to 10% too high. 6000 years is still short by a factor of around 2 million. But this development is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s significant, because it apparently requires physicists to figure out what their current model is missing to account for that roughly 9% error. Second, it illustrates the difference between science and dogma, when faced with new data that don’t fit the current paradigm. After confirming it’s not a fluke, scientists welcome the opportunity to try to solve the new puzzle and to learn from it. Exactly the opposite of defense of dogma, the only option being to double down and try to explain away the contradictory evidence as false or irrelevant.

    https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/universe-may-be-billion-years-younger-we-thought-scientists-are-ncna1005541.

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    Brittonp  July 1, 2019

    “We appear to be living in an age where science no longer matters.”
    I believe the larger problem is with a lack of honesty and diligence. Conservative religions, mainstream media, politicians and social media distribute a mix of solid science, junk science, politics and religious beliefs. For many it can be difficult determining the truth. I know a number of people who are climate skeptics not because of the arguments of skeptics but due to the failed predictions of climate activist scientist and politicians. The activist know the solid science but they preach hyperbole. The irony is they are creating the very skeptics they rant against.

    Your honesty and diligence is why I recommend your books and blog.

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  13. Avatar
    cmdenton47  July 1, 2019

    Do you mean that it didn’t?

  14. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 1, 2019

    It’s far from clear that matter and energy even needed to be created. God provides a convenient way to provide a stopgap to an infinite regression of causes and effects, if you want to think in terms of causes and effects, but there’s no logical reason to reject a universe that has always existed in some form, if you are willing to accept the existence of something else (God) that has always existed. We have a better idea of what matter and energy are than of what God is, anyway. That makes a universe unbounded in time and space actually easier to deal with– you can use science to examine the implications. With God you can’t use much of anything. And actually, there’s no reason at all to reject the idea of a God that’s co-eternal with an infinite and eternal universe. It would just not be a very Biblical or Scholastic sort of God. But that wouldn’t be very scientific anyway– how could you falsify that sort of God? Or, how could you detect it, if it existed?? No end of problems.

    I’ve heard people complain that arguing with a creationist, especially a young Earth creationist, is worse than pounding your head into a brick wall. At least the brick wall is honest. It isn’t going to make things up and lie and twist around and throw weird stuff at you from every direction.

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    nichael  July 1, 2019

    Just out of curiosity:

    Following the reasoning above, this means that Jesus would have been born at the beginning of the fifth millineum in the history of the world. Specifically during the millineum corresponding to the fifth day of creation (I.e. Let the waters bring forth living creatures… and winged bird of very kind… [etc])

    Given his obvious attempt to use the symbology of the Week of Creation, do we know if Bishop Usher attempted to explain/rationalize why this day should correspond to the coming of Christ? (I realize he was sort of stuck with the timing, given his chronology; but it seems like a weird choice which he might have been interested in justifying.)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      I don’t know in detail. But he obviously couldn’t have Jesus born in the sixth day leading to the climax, since he, Ussher, was living in the 17th century and by that logic the world should have ended many centuries earlier. so it had to be the fifth day. Not sure how he matched that to the fifth day in Genesis.

  16. Avatar
    nichael  July 1, 2019

    Concerning early Christians believing that the world would last 6,000 years:

    One source for this is the Epistle of Barnabas, of course, where the author states that the world is 6,000 years old *then*. So presumably he thought the end of the world was right around the corner, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Yes, he is the first to use that logic. He doesn’t, of course, tell us when he thought the first day started.

  17. Avatar
    jwesenbe  July 1, 2019

    As with so many fundamentalist translations of the Bible, the 4000 years is still an interpretation made by men of what was written by other men. Fundamentalists hold these truths to be self evident, when in fact, they never are. Nowhere in the Bible does it say the earth was made approx. 4000 BCE, but rather, humans make interpretations of what is written. By doing so, they take what is written and interpret to serve their purpose.

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    nichael  July 1, 2019

    Concerning the passage from 2Pet (I.e. “One day equals 1000 years.”)

    This is usually presented as the “logical basis” for the symbolic association of the six days of creation with the supposed 6,000 year history of the world.

    But is it possible that the “logic” ran the other way round? That is, that the notion of a purported “short history” of the world (associated with the coming reign of Christ) was around first, and then passages like the one in 2Pet were invented as a way of providing support for this doctrine?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      2 Peter is trying to explain why the end had not happened yet. Yes, it is to be “soon.” But “soon” for God means something different from “soon” for us mere mortals, so the early Christains and Jesus were NOT wrong to say the end is coming soon.

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      Miles  July 2, 2019

      Just a further note on the 2nd Peter passage. I was raised in a literalist church that allowed for metaphorical interpretations when there was no other rational approach Most believed the 1 day = 1000 years was metaphorical, and really meant that for God one day could be a thousand, million, billion years, whatever, and that the real truth is that humans simply can’t comprehend how God perceives time. This allowed them to embrace what everyone recognized as pretty solid science as to the age of the earth while adhering to the creation story in Genesis. Evolution, however, was largely rejected, although I’d dare say these days some of them might be willing to consider evolution as being the tool through which God created man, which seems to have become a standard approach for many apologists.

  19. Avatar
    Adam0685  July 1, 2019

    On a different note, I saw your new Heaven and Hell book is coming out in March 2020! It’s ready for pre-order on Amazon!

    https://www.amazon.com/Heaven-Hell-Afterlife-Bart-Ehrman/dp/1501136739/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1562027972&sr=8-1

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    Pattylt  July 1, 2019

    Oh, golly…I missed it! I’m always late to the party.
    So how do those that accept this reasoning deal with us still being here and apparently going strong? Do any Christian groups that are apocalyptic ever just admit that it’s pointless to keep “predicting” end dates? I know JW’s don’t advertise end dates publicly these days but are they still scratching away with pencil and paper figuring out the next date and revealing it internally within their churches?
    I haven’t heard when the next date is supposed to occur. It would be nice if I knew when I can skip my next car payment!

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2019

      Yes, many (most?) of the most fervent apocalypticists refuse to set dates. There’s only so many times you can be wrong….

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      Anticonflationist  July 2, 2019

      As someone who associated with jw’s for some time
      I can tell you that they indeed have learned NOT to
      Set dates. they now adopt the stance that the end is
      Immediately before them. Imminent eschatology.
      They continue to speculate about the length of “the generation”. It was supposed to end before those
      Living in 1914 came to an end. That didnt pan out so they reinterpreted the generation speculation to last
      Indefinitely. This is a fascinating and bizarre sect.
      Absolutely clueless. There are no trained scholars
      Holding any degree of any kind on ot or nt manuscript
      Studies. They claim to be “anointed” christians possessing spiritual insight. This is the basis for their
      Odd understandings. Its fascinating to study their
      History from 1874 till now! Pure rationalization and
      Pseudo-scholarship. Unfortunately it appeals to simple
      Minded folks. Once hooked, its pointless to reason with them.

    • Avatar
      Anticonflationist  July 2, 2019

      The 6000 year calculation was at the center of the 1975 debacle for jw’s as well. 6k years were to end
      In fall of 1975 by their “trustworthy”calculations. Bringing with it the great tribulation and of course armageddon to follow. Faithful jw People made preperations based on this ” inspired chronology ”
      And were subsequently disappointed when it failed!
      Many sold homes. Businesses, cashed in insurance
      Policies, borrowed money all to spend the final time
      Preaching the imminent end of the world. Oops!
      Jw leaders published an apology 5 years after in 1980.
      However, they placed the blame for the disaster on the
      Members who ” put to much faith in a speculative prediction! Nice! No conscience whatsoever!
      Again! A fascinating group to study!

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