UW News

July 29, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: Annals of the World, 1650

UW News

A portrait of James Ussher (1581 –  1656), author of the Annals of the World.

A portrait of James Ussher (1581 – 1656), author of the Annals of the World.Sir Peter Lely

As shadows lengthened and day turned to night on Saturday, Oct. 22, in the year 4004 BCE, God created the universe. Or, perhaps not.

Nevertheless, that is the specific time and date for creation determined, after long and painstaking research, by Irish scholar and church leader James Ussher, author of the 17th century chronology Annales Veteris Testamenti — otherwise known as Annals of the World.

Ussher created his 1,300-page Annals of the World through close study of The Bible’s Old Testament as well as a wide range of more secular histories. The work’s full title in English is “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabees.”

That document, published in Latin in 1650 and in English eight years later, and which was taken as true for centuries, is the subject of the latest Documents that Changed the World podcast by the University of Washington’s Joe Janes.

Documents that Changed the World:


In the podcasts, Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

“I went into it with the standard bias that Bishop Ussher was some hack who pieced things together to prove the date of Creation,” Janes said of this installment in the series. “So I was surprised to find that he was such a careful, thoughtful and thorough scholar — using a wide range of sources — and was genuinely concerned with getting it right.”

Annals of the World, first published in Latin in 1650.

Annals of the World, first published in Latin in 1650.Wikimedia commons

Janes added that the date Ussher chose is at least consistent with what others understood at the time, including such revered minds as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler.

New and better tools to help search for the beginning of history come with the passing years. Still, Janes said, “old ideas die hard, and Ussher’s chronology and dates still resonate today.”

Public opinion polls over recent decades, he noted, consistently show that about three-quarters of Americans believe God played some role in human development and that about half think both humanity and the Earth to be between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. Separate surveys, he said, also show one-quarter to believe the sun goes around the Earth.

Janes said in the matter of Ussher and his calculations that he agrees with a defense of the work by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “that that he was doing the best he could with the tools and the knowledge that he had.”

Which prompts Janes to ask — especially regarding those polls — can the same be said of our current society?

  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 225,000 downloads there so far.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series