HOUSTON. — Houston -- A reference in one of my columns to the evolution of language once produced a letter from a subscriber who professed himself shocked that I should believe English had evolved from some Germanic language, when ''everybody knew'' that prior to May 17, 2248 B.C. everyone on Earth spoke Hebrew. God had punished a sinful humanity, which had been trying to reach Heaven by building a ziggurat tower of Babel, by confusing their tongues, creating on the spot all the language now spoken.
It may have been a leg-pull, but the writer made his point well. If scripture is taken as an infallible bedrock for historical data, it can lead to all manner of untenable positions -- of which the creation of species is by no means the only.
Of particular interest is the date given for the destruction of Babel, May 17, 2248 B.C. The Old Testament, of course, makes no mention of such dates, but the writer hadn't pulled it out of then air. He had taken it from the Archbishop Ussher chronology.
James Ussher (1581-1656) was an Irish prelate with an inquiring mind. By the early 17th century, people were beginning to ask new questions, and intellectual horizons were expanding. There was, as yet, no reason to question the account of creation in Genesis (or the scriptural explanation of anything else, for that matter), but there didn't seem to be any answers in Genesis to some of the questions now popping up.
There was, to begin with, the matter of dates, which the Bible simply ignored. The one ''fixed'' date was the birth of Christ, with which year the ''Christian era'' began; most major European events since then could be fixed, although it was well into the second millennium before everyone started to use the ''A.D.'' dating system.
Ussher was an antiquarian, with a lively interest in the still-imprecise science of dating, especially in the chronological Black Hole of the Old Testament. He took the 1611 King James version of the Bible, and started to work backward from 1 A.D.
Ussher was no crackpot, he was using the best ''scientific'' approach of the times, but there were few signposts to guide him, beyond one or two dubious dates from recorded history elsewhere to use as cross-checks. He was forced to extrapolate, working out reasonable times for the duration of reigns. A major aid was found in the ''begat''-studded genealogical tables of the Old Testament; Ussher turned to the known dates for the royal houses of Europe and the comprehensive documentation of the House of Lords and established primitive actuarial tables. He came up with an average life-term and the duration of a ''generation,'' and cheerfully skipped back through the ''begats'' Methuselah was a giant leap) all the way to Adam. And Creation itself lay a certain six days before that!
Ussher was nothing if not meticulous; not satisfied with the year he insisted on month, date and week-day as well. Exactly how he arrived at these is unrecorded; there were frequent scriptural clues to seasons, and Ussher may have decided references to religious ceremonies must have occurred on a sabbath.
In 1654, aged 73, he published his chronology, solemnly announcing the exact date of Creation had been Monday, March 23, 4004 B.C. (It had to be a Monday, because the Lord rested on the seventh day which was obviously the first Sunday.)
The Ussher chronology gave the date for everything in the Bible, and was perfectly legitimate scientific enterprise, given the documentary sources available (and scripture was the inerrant primary source) and the analytical techniques of the time.
It was accepted by the Christian world (there are those who believe in it implicitly to this day), and it wasn't totally useless for historical purposes either, since it did provide a relative framework, and it wasn't wildly off for events in the later stages. Ussher had dated the Tower of Babel to 2248 B.C. (we'll ignore the 17 May); modern archaeologists now date the first great ziggurats to the 18th century, B.C.
Its validity was hardly questioned until the 1830s, when a geologist, Charles Lyell, presenting evidence of the true antiquity of rock formations (in the billions of years) indirectly shattered Ussher's dating of creation, and touched off the first wave of scriptural skepticism. The ''Big Bang'' theory, now almost universally accepted in the scientific community, puts the creation of the universe at about 13.5 billion years ago, and the completed formation of our planet at about 4.45 billion years ago.
The other end of the Ussher Chronology has suffered far less damage; the birth of Christ is now estimated to have occurred in 3 or 4 B.C. and there is an impressive analysis of both historical and astronomical evidence which points to Friday, April 3, 33 A.D., as the precise date of the Crucifixion.
But anyone trying to defend the instant creation, in their present form, of all languages now spoken as having occurred on May 17, 2248 B.C. (or on any other date), will have his work cut out for him.
Donald R. Morris syndicates a column.