Many of the patristic fathers believed 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”) taught that the universe would last seven thousand years. They saw the seven days of Creation in Genesis one as presenting the seven ages of the earth, with each age approximately 1000 years long. Many believed that they were living in the sixth stage just prior to Jesus’ return. They concluded that the earth had been created at approximately 5000-5500 BC, and therefore Christ would return sometime between 500-1000 AD. Theophilus of Antioch (d. 191) placed creation at 5529 BC.
However, a number of the early fathers—Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Augustine are some examples—interpreted the seven days of creation in non-literal terms. Philo, a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria who was a contemporary of Paul, took an allegorical approach to interpreting the Genesis account. Clement of Alexandria and Origen did likewise. However, most patristic authors, such as the Cappadocian fathers, took a more literal approach.
For the Medieval scholars the age of the earth appears to have been of little concern. The theologians often discussed the nature of the water above the firmament or how light shone during the first three days even though the sun was not created until the fourth, but they gave very little attention to the world’s age. (One exception appears to have been Robert Grosseteste, the 12th century bishop of Lincoln. He calculated the creation to have occurred around 3,997 BC.) The Reformers also gave the question scant attention. For example, both Luther and Calvin held that the world was less than 6000 years old but neither attempted to work out a chronology. Astronomical issues, such at the validity of the Copernican model of the solar system, garnered more attention.
It is during the post-Reformation era that biblical scholars began the attempt of precisely determining the world’s age. They seem to have been driven by eschatological concerns similar to those of the patristic fathers. Many of the early editions of the King James Bible had “4004 BC” listed in the margin of the opening chapter of Genesis. The date was taken from James Ussher’s (1580-1656) Annals of the World published in 1650. At that time many disagreed with Ussher. At least 140 different contemporaries provided alternative dates, ranging from 3004 BC to 6484 BC. Ussher went beyond assigning the year though, he also picked the very day. The cover of Annals of the World declares:
In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth, Gen. 1. v. 1. Which beginning of time, according to our chronologie, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob, in the year of the Julian Calendar, 710.
In other words, Ussher was saying that creation took place on Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC. John Lightfoot (1602-1675) would make the additional claim that Adam was created the following Friday at 9 am.
In my next post I will look the impact of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution on the question of the earth’s age. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.)
Cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com