Thursday October 20, 2022
The universe will be 6026 years old this weekend. According to Irish Archbishop James Ussher, in 1650, the universe began on October 23, 4004 BCE (Before Christian Era).
It’s easy to make fun of Ussher. Years ago, I had a part in the play Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized treatment of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925.
During one rehearsal, the actor portraying prosecutor Matthew Brady declared, in a voice like God playing Spencer Tracy, that the earth had been created at “precisely 9:00 a.m.”
And a voice from the audience cracked, “9:30 in Newfoundland…”
The cast erupted in laughter.
We wrote that line into the play. It got a laugh every time.
(For non-Canadian readers, Canada has five and a half time zones; Newfoundland and Labrador are half an hour different.)
Time zones would not have occurred to Archbishop Ussher. They weren’t invented until 1883, by Sir Sandford Fleming, chief engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In 1650, the astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo had also not yet been widely accepted. Scottish naturalist James Hutton had not yet defined geological strata. Darwin’s insights about evolution wouldn’t appear for another 200 years.
The only authoritative source Ussher had to work with was the Bible. Which contains interminable “begats” – the dating of each generation of humans from Adam onward. (The life spans of women were not similarly recorded.)
These ages have to be approximations. They say how long Methuselah lived, but not the month or day of his birth and death.
Other historians, working with the same data, estimated comparable dates for creation. A thousand years earlier, the Venerable Bede had estimated 3952 BCE. The Eastern Orthodox Church, eight centuries before Ussher, picked 5508 BCE. A contemporary of Ussher’s, Cambridge scholar John Lightfoot, came up with 3929 BCE.
Those dates correspond surprising with some quite separate calculations. According to the Jewish calendar, this is year 5783, which puts creation at 3761 BCE. The Mayan civilization in Central America, working from radically different data, put creation at 3641 BCE.
By our calendars, that is.
Ways of counting time
Ah! There’s another complication. A hundred years before Ussher’s dating, Pope Gregory the Great revised the existing Julian calendar, which was sufficiently inaccurate that it added one extra day every century. When England eventually switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, a hundred years after Ussher, people rioted over losing 11 days of their lives.
Because Ussher was still working with the Julian calendar, significant annual events – like solstices and equinoxes – would have moved about 56 days since creation.
Ussher also assumed that the first day of creation would inaugurate a new year. (After all, how could there have been a year before creation?) So he picked am October date traditionally considered the beginning of a new year.
And fortunately, by his calculations, October 23, 4004 BCE, would have been a Sunday! The first day of the week; the obvious day for divine intervention.
In fact, Matthew Brady and countless others have misquoted Ussher. Ussher didn’t say 9:00 a.m. He chose 6:00 p.m. the previous evening, on the grounds that in biblical times, a day, even the first day in Genesis, would run from nightfall to nightfall.
Which would mean that, by our custom of days running from midnight to midnight, creation would have happened on October 22.
Science doesn’t agree? Too bad! Happy birthday, dear universe…
Copyright © 2022 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column mused about memories – where they come from, what happens to them.
Isabel Gibson wrote, “I've read that when we remember something (like the scene you describe), we're not remembering the event itself (as if captured in amber). We're remembering the last time we remembered it, along with any changes we made as re re-stored it.
“That helps to explain some of the arguments we get into with people whose memories of a shared event are dramatically different from ours. And it gives me a certain humility about the validity of my memories.”
Laurna Tallman explored why some people have exceptional memories: “The savants cannot help remembering the way they do. They may expose their brains to particular “objects” that most of us cannot recall. They recall them because their left-brain dominance is so low that they have immediate access to their right-brain warehouse of sensory experience.”
Laurna recommended the book, Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet, the British savant.
Fran Ota’s: “sister at 82 lives in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients. She has forgotten who I am, for the most part, though there have been times when there’s a spark. I’ve learned that what’s important is to be there on her terms and just roll with it.
“At the other end, one of my dearest friends from Japan days, Janet MacPherson, died two weeks ago. It was sudden and a huge shock. And I’ve been dealing with memories which have mostly remained buried, now coming up. Funny how that gets triggered.”
Ken Nicholls: “I live with many memories. Memories of my childhood, my two happy marriages, my children, my homes etc. The most profitable ones are those that mix the categories i.e. a particular person in a particular place. Hell for me would be the inability to recall the past. (There is a parallel there with nations that are unable to learn from their past!)
“Memories allow you to bring the past into the present and savour its richness and complexity and its joys (and sorrows!) This is why our Holy Communion Service is so important to me. It reminds me of Jesus' words 'Do this to remember me.' I feel Christ especially near because I am sharing the meal with him in a very personal way, as if I were really there at the table with him.”
My last line suggested that memories end with death. Wayne Irwin disagreed: “Maybe death doesn’t erase them all. It depends on where memories reside. Do they actually sit in our brain taking up storage space? Or do they exist ‘in the cloud’ as it were, accessible like photos on an iPhone. Maybe they live outside the physical body that dies.”
Steve Roney: ‘You do realize, don’t you, that your concluding sentence, that death erases all memories, is pure speculation in the absence of evidence? Or rather, in the face of the evidence.
People who have died and returned to life (“Near Death Experiences”) do not have amnesia.
“Second, it is the nature of memory that it endures regardless of changes in the physical world. You have not seen that special girl since high school; yet you remember her well. The obvious default assumption is that it will similarly persist beyond the separation of consciousness from the body, from the physical world as a whole.”
I should have known that any reference to cars we used to own would evoke others’ memories. Randy Hall asked, Was your '62 Valiant a two or four door? Straight drive or automatic? I had a black '63 three speed (three on the tree) Valiant. It had two doors, a red interior, an A/M radio, and it looked like a space ship with its horizontal fins on the back. I bought it for $300 in 1970 - my first car! Many good memories associated with it.”
Penny Kirk, too: “Ah man! 1962 Valiant! Beautiful! We owned a 1966 Barracuda in 1979. I took my driver’s test in it “
Finally, on my theological musings, Karen Toole wrote, “You are the first person I ever read who wrote the words so clearly, ‘for me incarnation is more central than the resurrection’. That has been my struggle for years with Christian theological interpretation. I hear the voice of God when I listen deeply to people who are speaking so insightfully that you can't miss what it means.
Once again, for some reason, I prefer the lectionary’s alternate psalm, Psalm 84, to the main listing. Originally, this psalm praised the Temple in Jerusalem. We now believe the whole earth is God's temple.
1 What a gorgeous home you have, God.
Its beauty takes my breath away.
2 My heart longs to live here in harmony with your wishes.
3 In your home, nothing is too small to matter.
Every butterfly has its blossom;
every groundhog has its burrow;
every river has its valley.
4 The separate songs of all that live together in your world well up, blending their voices in harmony.
5 Some do not know what they are doing; some do.
Some blindly obey instinct; others seek inspiration from you.
6 Even when they go through hell, they transform it into a garden;
green grows from the touch of their thumbs.
7 Their love of life grows stronger and stronger,
for they see you in everything.
Apparently the printed version of my paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary is now out of print. But you can still order an e-book version of Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)