A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 6 - The Antiquity of Man, Egyptology, and Assyriology

The Sacred Chronology

IN the great ranges of investigation which bear most directly upon the origin of man, there are two in which Science within the last few years has gained final victories. The significance of these in changing, and ultimately in reversing, one of the greatest currents of theological thought, can hardly be overestimated; not even the tide set in motion by Cusa, Copernicus, and Galileo was more powerful to bring in a new epoch of belief.

The first of these conquests relates to the antiquity of man on the earth.

The fathers of the early Christian Church, receiving all parts of our sacred books as equally inspired, laid little, if any, less stress on the myths, legends, genealogies, and tribal, family, and personal traditions contained in the Old and the New Testaments, than upon the most powerful appeals, the most instructive apologues, and the most lofty poems of prophets, psalmists, and apostles. As to the age of our planet and the life of man upon it, they found in the Bible a carefully recorded series of periods, extending from Adam to the building of the Temple at Jerusalem, the length of each period being explicitly given.

Thus they had a biblical chronology - full, consecutive, and definite - extending from the first man created to an event of known date well within ascertained profane history; as a result, the early Christian commentators arrived at conclusions varying somewhat, but in the main agreeing. Some, like Origen, Eusebius, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, and the great fathers generally of the first three centuries, dwelling especially upon the Septuagint version of the Scriptures, thought that man's creation took place about six thousand years before the Christian era. Strong confirmation of this view was found in a simple piece of purely theological reasoning: for, just as the seven candlesticks of the Apocalypse were long held to prove the existence of seven heavenly bodies revolving about the earth, so it was felt that the six days of creation prefigured six thousand years during which the earth in its first form was to endure; and that, as the first Adam came on the sixth day, Christ, the second Adam, had come at the sixth millennial period. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, in the second century clinched this argument with the text, "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years."

On the other hand, Eusebius and St. Jerome, dwelling more especially upon the Hebrew text, which we are brought up to revere, thought that man's origin took place at a somewhat shorter period before the Christian era; and St. Jerome's overwhelming authority made this the dominant view throughout western Europe during fifteen centuries.

The simplicity of these great fathers as regards chronology is especially reflected from the tables of Eusebius. In these, Moses, Joshua, and Bacchus, - Deborah, Orpheus, and the Amazons, - Abimelech, the Sphinx, and OEdipus, appear together as personages equally real, and their positions in chronology equally ascertained.

At times great bitterness was aroused between those holding the longer and those holding the shorter chronology, but after all the difference between them, as we now see, was trivial; and it may be broadly stated that in the early Church, "always, everywhere, and by all," it was held as certain, upon the absolute warrant of Scripture, that man was created from four to six thousand years before the Christian era.

To doubt this, and even much less than this, was to risk damnation. St. Augustine insisted that belief in the antipodes and in the longer duration of the earth than six thousand years were deadly heresies, equally hostile to Scripture. Philastrius, the friend of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, whose fearful catalogue of heresies served as a guide to intolerance throughout the Middle Ages, condemned with the same holy horror those who expressed doubt as to the orthodox number of years since the beginning of the world, and those who doubted an earthquake to be the literal voice of an angry God, or who questioned the plurality of the heavens, or who gainsaid the statement that God brings out the stars from his treasures and hangs them up in the solid firmament above the earth every night.

About the beginning of the seventh century Isidore of Seville, the great theologian of his time, took up the subject. He accepted the dominant view not only of Hebrew but of all other chronologies, without anything like real criticism. The childlike faith of his system may be imagined from his summaries which follow. He tells us:

"Joseph lived one hundred and five years. Greece began to cultivate grain."

"The Jews were in slavery in Egypt one hundred and forty-four years. Atlas discovered astrology."

"Joshua ruled for twenty-seven years. Ericthonius yoked horses together."

"Othniel, forty years. Cadmus introduced letters into Greece."

"Deborah, forty years. Apollo discovered the art of medicine and invented the cithara."

"Gideon, forty years. Mercury invented the lyre and gave it to Orpheus."

Reasoning in this general way, Isidore kept well under the longer date; and, the great theological authority of southern Europe having thus spoken, the question was virtually at rest throughout Christendom for nearly a hundred years.

Early in the eighth century the Venerable Bede took up the problem. Dwelling especially upon the received Hebrew text of the Old Testament, he soon entangled himself in very serious difficulties; but, in spite of the great fathers of the first three centuries, he reduced the antiquity of man on the earth by nearly a thousand years, and, in spite of mutterings against him as coming dangerously near a limit which made the theological argument from the six days of creation to the six ages of the world look doubtful, his authority had great weight, and did much to fix western Europe in its allegiance to the general system laid down by Eusebius and Jerome.

In the twelfth century this belief was re-enforced by a tide of thought from a very different quarter. Rabbi Moses Maimonides and other Jewish scholars, by careful study of the Hebrew text, arrived at conclusions diminishing the antiquity of man still further, and thus gave strength throughout the Middle Ages to the shorter chronology: it was incorporated into the sacred science of Christianity; and Vincent of Beauvais, in his great Speculum Historiale, forming part of that still more enormous work intended to sum up all the knowledge possessed by the ages of faith, placed the creation of man at about four thousand years before our era.

At the Reformation this view was not disturbed. The same manner of accepting the sacred text which led Luther, Melanchthon, and the great Protestant leaders generally, to oppose the Copernican theory, fixed them firmly in this biblical chronology; the keynote was sounded for them by Luther when he said, "We know, on the authority of Moses, that longer ago than six thousand years the world did not exist." Melanchthon, more exact, fixed the creation of man at 3963 B. C.

But the great Christian scholars continued the old endeavour to make the time of man's origin more precise: there seems to have been a sort of fascination in the subject which developed a long array of chronologists, all weighing the minutest indications in our sacred books, until the Protestant divine De Vignolles, who had given forty years to the study of biblical chronology, declared in 1738 that he had gathered no less than two hundred computations based upon Scripture, and no two alike.

As to the Roman Church, about 1580 there was published, by authority of Pope Gregory XIII, the Roman Martyrology, and this, both as originally published and as revised in 1640 under Pope Urban VIII, declared that the creation of man took place 5199 years before Christ.

But of all who gave themselves up to these chronological studies, the man who exerted the most powerful influence upon the dominant nations of Christendom was Archbishop Usher. In 1650 he published his Annals of the Ancient and New Testaments, and it at once became the greatest authority for all English-speaking peoples. Usher was a man of deep and wide theological learning, powerful in controversy; and his careful conclusion, after years of the most profound study of the Hebrew Scriptures, was that man was created 4004 years before the Christian era. His verdict was widely received as final; his dates were inserted in the margins of the authorized version of the English Bible, and were soon practically regarded as equally inspired with the sacred text itself: to question them seriously was to risk preferment in the Church and reputation in the world at large.

The same adhesion to the Hebrew Scriptures which had influenced Usher brought leading men of the older Church to the same view: men who would have burned each other at the stake for their differences on other points, agreed on this: Melanchthon and Tostatus, Lightfoot and Jansen, Salmeron and Scaliger, Petavius and Kepler, inquisitors and reformers, Jesuits and Jansenists, priests and rabbis, stood together in the belief that the creation of man was proved by Scripture to have taken place between 3900 and 4004 years before Christ.

In spite of the severe pressure of this line of authorities, extending from St. Jerome and Eusebius to Usher and Petavius, in favour of this scriptural chronology, even devoted Christian scholars had sometimes felt obliged to revolt. The first great source of difficulty was increased knowledge regarding the Egyptian monuments. As far back as the last years of the sixteenth century Joseph Scaliger had done what he could to lay the foundations of a more scientific treatment of chronology, insisting especially that the historical indications in Persia, in Babylon, and above all in Egypt, should be brought to bear on the question. More than that, he had the boldness to urge that the chronological indications of the Hebrew Scriptures should be fully and critically discussed in the light of Egyptian and other records, without any undue bias from theological considerations. His idea may well be called inspired; yet it had little effect as regards a true view of the antiquity of man, even upon himself, for the theological bias prevailed above all his reasonings, even in his own mind. Well does a brilliant modern writer declare that, "among the multitude of strong men in modern times abdicating their reason at the command of their prejudices, Joseph Scaliger is perhaps the most striking example."

Early in the following century Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World (1603-1616), pointed out the danger of adhering to the old system. He, too, foresaw one of the results of modern investigation, stating it in these words, which have the ring of prophetic inspiration: "For in Abraham's time all the then known parts of the world were developed.... Egypt had many magnificent cities,... and these not built with sticks, but of hewn stone,... which magnificence needed a parent of more antiquity than these other men have supposed." In view of these considerations Raleigh followed the chronology of the Septuagint version, which enabled him to give to the human race a few more years than were usually allowed.

About the middle of the seventeenth century Isaac Vossius, one of the most eminent scholars of Christendom, attempted to bring the prevailing belief into closer accordance with ascertained facts, but, save by a chosen few, his efforts were rejected. In some parts of Europe a man holding new views on chronology was by no means safe from bodily harm. As an example of the extreme pressure exerted by the old theological system at times upon honest scholars, we may take the case of La Peyrere, who about the middle of the seventeenth century put forth his book on the Pre-Adamites - an attempt to reconcile sundry well-known difficulties in Scripture by claiming that man existed on earth before the time of Adam. He was taken in hand at once; great theologians rushed forward to attack him from all parts of Europe; within fifty years thirty-six different refutations of his arguments had appeared; the Parliament of Paris burned the book, and the Grand Vicar of the archdiocese of Mechlin threw him into prison and kept him there until he was forced, not only to retract his statements, but to abjure his Protestantism.

In England, opposition to the growing truth was hardly less earnest. Especially strong was Pearson, afterward Master of Trinity and Bishop of Chester. In his treatise on the Creed, published in 1659, which has remained a theologic classic, he condemned those who held the earth to be more than fifty-six hundred years old, insisted that the first man was created just six days later, declared that the Egyptian records were forged, and called all Christians to turn from them to "the infallible annals of the Spirit of God."

But, in spite of warnings like these, we see the new idea cropping out in various parts of Europe. In 1672, Sir John Marsham published a work in which he showed himself bold and honest. After describing the heathen sources of Oriental history, he turns to the Christian writers, and, having used the history of Egypt to show that the great Church authorities were not exact, he ends one important argument with the following words: "Thus the most interesting antiquities of Egypt have been involved in the deepest obscurity by the very interpreters of her chronology, who have jumbled everything up (qui omnia susque deque permiscuerunt), so as to make them match with their own reckonings of Hebrew chronology. Truly a very bad example, and quite unworthy of religious writers."

This sturdy protest of Sir John against the dominant system and against the "jumbling" by which Eusebius had endeavoured to cut down ancient chronology within safe and sound orthodox limits, had little effect. Though eminent chronologists of the eighteenth century, like Jackson, Hales, and Drummond, gave forth multitudes of ponderous volumes pleading for a period somewhat longer than that generally allowed, and insisting that the received Hebrew text was grossly vitiated as regards chronology, even this poor favour was refused them; the mass of believers found it more comfortable to hold fast the faith committed to them by Usher, and it remained settled that man was created about four thousand years before our era.

To those who wished even greater precision, Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the great rabbinical scholar of his time, gave his famous demonstration from our sacred books that "heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water," and that "this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on the twenty-third of October, 4004 B. C., at nine o'clock in the morning."

This tide of theological reasoning rolled on through the eighteenth century, swollen by the biblical researches of leading commentators, Catholic and Protestant, until it came in much majesty and force into our own nineteenth century. At the very beginning of the century it gained new strength from various great men in the Church, among whom may be especially named Dr. Adam Clarke, who declared that, "to preclude the possibility of a mistake, the unerring Spirit of God directed Moses in the selection of his facts and the ascertaining of his dates."

All opposition to the received view seemed broken down, and as late as 1835 - indeed, as late as 1850 - came an announcement in the work of one of the most eminent Egyptologists, Sir J. G. Wilkinson, to the effect that he had modified the results he had obtained from Egyptian monuments, in order that his chronology might not interfere with the received date of the Deluge of Noah.

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