The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its earliest citation for the word "computer":

1613   ‘R. B.’ Yong Mans Gleanings 1, I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number.

I understand that a computer used to be a human being who performed calculations. What I would like to know is whether the author was referring to a human computer or to God.

Here is the context for the quotation:


What art thou (O Man) and from whence hadst thou thy beginning? What matter art thou made of, that thou promisest to thy selfe length of daies: or to thy posterity continuance. I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number: The daies of Man are threescore and ten. That reuerend Patriarch Iacob, (though he had liued a long and prosperous time) yet he confesseth his daies to be few and euill: the life of Man (saith the Prophet) is as the grasse that soone withereth: it is as swift as a Dromedarie, continuing not, but passing from this pilgrimage of earth, aimeth at the centre, to which all flesh is limitted, this earthly mansion from whence we had our Beginning; Homo abhumo natus. Man is borne of the earth, from whence he had his birth, and shall conclude the date and period of his daies.

Did the author mean for the "computer" to be understood as a human statistician or as God?


It's not clear to me from the quote you give whether the writer means God or Moses. The phrase "The daies of Man are threescore and ten" comes from Psalm 90:10, which in the human sense was written by Moses and a Jew or Christian would say was inspired by God.

Yes, the words "that ever breathed" imply he's talking about a mortal human, though this could just be speaking loosely. But he also says "he reduces thy days into a short number". It's certainly not Moses who determines how long people live, but God.

So I'd say probably he means God and the part about breathing is meant metaphorically.


Does sound like God is the truest computer, with a lofty tone reminiscent of Psalm 39:

"Lord, make me know my end, and what is the measure of my days."

  • Thank you. I was confused by the reference to breathing, but if God can have an outstretched arm (Exodus 6)... – Ellen Spertus May 25 '17 at 16:55
  • Remember that a metaphor can be as loose as it wants. The words "that ever breathed," say 'existing at any time'.' – Yosef Baskin May 25 '17 at 20:34
  • Yes, that was the point of my comment: If God can be described as having an outstretched arm (in the Bible, no less), there's no reason he couldn't be described as breathing. – Ellen Spertus May 26 '17 at 14:13

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