Creationism and Biblical Geneologies

By Mike Janssen

The interpretation of ancient texts is a tricky enterprise, and the more ambiguous the text, the more difficult it is to come to a concrete, widely-accepted interpretation. As such, the Genesis Creation account is often difficult to deal with - is it reliable history as written, or ambiguous and difficult to believe? Debate is heated even within the Christian community. Biblical literalists ascribe to the viewpoint that the Bible is to be interpreted literally (except for certain poetic passages). Those who hold such a viewpoint interpret the Creation account in Genesis as taking place over six literal 24-hour days. Additionally, the Bible contains genealogies describing the descendants of Adam to the Jewish patriarchs and beyond. It is not surprising, then, that attempts have been made by Biblical literalists to use genealogies given in the Bible to assign a date to the origin of humanity. Then, given an interpretation of Creation week (and its length), it is possible to assign a date to Creation itself. The two most famous such attempts (incorporating a literal week as Creation week) were made by John Lightfoot and James Ussher in the 17th century. Their work is known as the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar.

The Age of Humanity

In order to use Biblical genealogies as a calendar, one must make the fundamental assumption that Adam and Eve were the first humans. Obviously, if this is not the case, then the Bible's genealogical record is incomplete, and thus any calculation made using its genealogies would be erroneous.

In 1642, John Lightfoot published a "voluminous" calculation of the exact date for the creation of the universe: September 17, 3928 B.C. This date was reached after an analysis of the Biblical genealogies found in Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Eight years later, James Ussher deduced that the first day of Creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday, October 3, 4004 B.C. According to Ross (2004), a final round of "academic sparring" resulted in John Lightfoot's adjustment of Ussher's date to conclude that all creation took place the week of October 18-24, 4004 B.C. He concluded that the creation of Adam took place on October 23 at 9:00 A.M. In addition, Ussher derived specific dates for "every historical event mentioned in the Bible" (Ross 2004). The methodology employed by Ussher was similar to that employed by other Biblical scholars; thus, the dates they independently achieved are fairly concordant. Among other assumptions, both Lightfoot and Ussher decided that the Genesis 1 creation days were "six consecutive 24-hour periods" (Ross 2004). Unfortunately, this genealogical Creation chronology was incorporated into the King James Version of the Bible from the 18th century onward, either as margin notes or even headings in the text. Thus, it was difficult to tell inspired work from commentary. As Protestantism spread, the King James Version of the Bible became the standard English translation. Thus, the 4004 B.C. creation date went unquestioned for many years. Yet, how was this date reached?

Ussher's methodology was simple: use the genealogies provided in the Bible to construct a timeline. Barr (1984) identifies three distinct periods that Ussher had to deal with: the early times (Creation through the reign of King Solomon), the early age of kings (Solomon to the destruction of the temple), and the late age of kings (Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Christ). The early times were likely the easiest to deal with, as the Bible provides an unbroken male lineage from Adam to Solomon, complete with the age of each father at the birth of his son, the next patriarch. Genesis alone provides genealogies from Adam to Jacob. However, the same ages are not presented by all versions of the Bible. For instance, the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament) provides considerably longer ages, adding another 1500 years to the Creation date. Ussher avoided this problem by relying on the Hebrew Bible (the Masoretic).

The early age of kings is a bit more complicated to deal with, as the lineage breaks down; instead, the Bible records the lengths of kings' reigns. Additionally, overlaps and ambiguities in the text complicate the picture. Thus, Ussher relied on cross-referencing the Bible with other known dates of events and people to create this part of the timeline.

The late age of kings complicated matters even more, as no information (pertaining to lengths of time) is provided whatsoever in the Bible. Thus, it was necessary to use other writings (from other cultures) to link the later events to those of the time of Christ. In doing so, Ussher arrived at a date of 4004 B.C. After an error by Dionysius Exiguus, the creator of the Anno Domini numbering system, was discovered, Ussher readjusted accordingly, putting Creation firmly at 4004 B.C. (Wikipedia). Thus, an age for the creation of humanity is given.

Table 1: Table of Patriarchs
From Stevens, 2003
F: Age of fatherhood L: Length of Life
B: Birth date (Anno mundi) D: Date of Death (Anno mundi)
Septuagint Samaritan Masoretic
Age Year Age Year Age Year
Patriarch F L B D F L B D F L B D
Adam 230 930 0 930 130 930 0 930 130 930 0 930
Seth 205 912 230 1142 105 912 130 1042 105 912 130 1042
Enosh 190 905 435 1340 90 905 235 1140 90 905 235 1140
Cainan 170 910 625 1535 70 910 325 1235 70 910 325 1235
Mahalalel 165 895 795 1690 65 895 395 1290 65 895 395 1290
Jared 162 962 960 1922 62 847 460 1307 162 962 460 1422
Enoch 165 365 1122 1487 65 365 522 887 65 365 622 987
Methuselah 187 969 1287 2256 67 720 587 1307 187 969 687 1656
Lamech 188 753 1474 2227 53 653 654 1307 182 777 874 1651
Noah 502 950 1662 2612 502 950 707 1657 502 950 1056 2006
Flood 2262 1307 1656
Shem 100 600 2164 2764 100 600 1209 1809 100 600 1558 2158
Arphachshad 135 615 2264 2879 135 438 1309 1747 35 438 1658 2096
Cainan 130 460 2399 2859                
Shelah 130 460 2529 2989 130 433 1444 1877 30 433 1693 2126
Eber 134 504 2659 3163 134 404 1574 1978 34 464 1723 2187
Peleg 130 339 2793 3132 130 239 1708 1947 30 239 1757 1996
Reu 132 339 2923 3262 132 239 1838 2077 32 239 1787 2026
Serug 130 330 3055 3385 130 230 1970 2200 30 230 1819 2049
Nahor 79 208 3185 3393 79 148 2100 2248 29 148 1849 1997
Terah 70 205 3264 3469 70 145 2179 2393 70 205 1878 2083
Abraham 100 175 3334 3509 100 175 2249 2424 100 175 1948 2123
Isaac 60 180 3434 3614 60 180 2349 2529 60 180 2048 2228
Jacob   147 3494 3641   147 2409 2556   147 2108 2255
Creation According to the Bible

One of the key issues in interpreting the Biblical account of creation is the interpretation of the word "day." In the Genesis Creation account, God created the Earth, the Universe, and everything in it in a span of six "days"; thus, different lengths for these "days" will yield different ages for the Earth. According to Ross (2004), the Hebrew word ym, translated as "day," means a finite period of time; however, the length of such a time is not fixed from usage to usage. On the other hand, Wise (2002) contends that, since ym is translated to mean a literal 24-hour day nearly every time it occurs in the Bible, that it must have this meaning in the Genesis creation account. Biblical literalists interpret "day" as a literal 24-hour day.

Potential support for the young-earth interpretation is provided by Boyd (2005) in his analysis of the statistical distribution of Hebrew verbs. Boyd begins by pointing out that there are three possible ways to read the Biblical Creation account: 1) an "extended poetic metaphor, which communicates truth but in the plain sense of its words does not correspond to reality"; 2) a "narrative, which purports to be the truth when it is in fact in error"; 3) a "narrative, which accurately portrays reality" (Boyd 2005). Boyd sets out to use verb distribution as the means by which one can determine the genre of the Creation account. He evaluates the verbs present in various parts of the Bible (such as 1 Kings, or 1 Chronicles), in which the text is unquestionably of the narrative genre, and then compares them to the verbs present in Biblical poetry, such as that found in the book of Psalms. Using this data, the Genesis 1:1-2:3 Creation account is a narrative, with probability between 0.999942 and 0.999987 at a 99.5% confidence level. Therefore, it is "statistically indefensible" to argue that the text is poetry (Boyd 2005:632). Thus, Boyd asserts that the first approach (reading the text as poetry) can be safely disregarded. According to Boyd (2005), then, the text must be read as a narrative. As a young-earth creationist, Boyd believes the account to be true. However, the young-earth interpretation of the Genesis Creation account is not the only option. The Gap Theory, the Day-Age theory, and theistic evolution are widely-accepted alternatives.

Gap theory is the notion that there is an indeterminate amount of time (the gap) between the first two verses of Genesis. Genesis 1:1 states: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Next comes the gap of possibly millions of years. Then, Genesis 1:2 states: "And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters" (Thompson). Such a gap allows for the lengthy geologic record to harmonize with the Bible. The Day-Age theory is the notion that, while there is no gap in time omitted by the Bible, each Creation "day" was not a literal day, but instead an age - a period of millions of years or more (Ross 2004). Thus, the age of the Earth achieved by this theory can be concordant with the age reached by scientists: 4.5 billion years. It is noteworthy to point out that Day-Age theorists, such as Hugh Ross, do not generally include evolution in their theory of Creation. Evolution is found in the theistic evolution interpretation. This option takes evolution as axiomatic and states that God used evolution to create. Thus, the scientific record is valid, and the Genesis Creation account is, at most, symbolic.


One can now begin to see how it is possible to use the age of humanity, together with a given length of Creation week, to assign an age to the Earth. Doing so combines the chronology of Ussher and Lightfoot with the literal narrative interpretation of Genesis, and gives a Creation date of 4004 B.C. However, Ussher's methodology of assigning a date to the age of humanity requires the fundamental assumptions of Biblical literalism and inerrancy. This is not particularly easy to take, as many of the ages of the patriarchs given in different versions of the Bible (discordant though they are) are extremely long (see Table 1) and appear quite unrealistic by today's standards. Additionally, given the variations (both large and small) in different versions of the Old Testament, there is little proof that the genealogical information presented is complete or accurate. Finally, it is worth noting that different interpretations of the scriptural description of Creation week will yield different ages, even when combined with a 6000-year age of humanity. Nevertheless, young-earth creationists predominately ascribe to the interpretation of Ussher's human calendar and six-day creation week.

  1. Barr, James. 1984-85. "Why the World Was Created in 4004 BC: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 67:575-608.
  2. Boyd, Steven W. 2005. Statistical determination of genre in biblical Hebrew: evidence for an historical reading of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Chapter 9 (pp. 631-734) in L. Vardiman, A. A. Snelling, and E. F. Chaffin (eds.) Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Volume II: Results of a Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, California, 818 p.
  3. "What is the 'Gap Theory'?" Accessed: December 8, 2005.
  4. Ross, Hugh. 2004. A Matter of Days. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 300 p.
  5. Stevens, Luke. 2003. "Chronology of the Biblical Patriarchs" Accessed: December 12, 2005.
  6. Thompson, Frank Charles, ed. 1993. The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible: New American Standard. Indianapolis: B.B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc.
  7. Wikipedia. 2005. "Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar." Last Updated: November 22, 2005. Accessed: December 3, 2005.
  8. Wise, Kurt. 2002. Faith, Form, and Time. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 287 p.