The Western Concept of Time

pks0637-752-300x199Christians often use time notions for understanding biblical creation. In the Hebrew creation account, most of God’s commands and their effects are described with continuing-action verbs. Understanding Creation with Hebrew non-tensed, continuing-action verbs is remarkably different from traditional translations based on the western notion of time.

Biblical Hebrew had no verb tenses. Languages without tenses relate continuing or finished events to other events or to the season of something. However, ancient Hebrews did  not refer to time. For example, some Bible passages could be predictive of God’s future care or they may recall his past care. One must use the context to determine if the events already happened or will happen. The Jews understood durations and sequences: the sun’s cycle is longer than the lunar or a particular king reigned before another one. However, a Jew could not run out of time because they did not speculate on its existence. Time was not measurable because it simply did not exist. They regulated their lives by the changing cycles of nature, not with time. They adjusted their shadow clocks to fit the observed variations of the Sun. They seasonally varied the amount of water in a water clock, since daylight is longer than night in summer.

Early societies did not imagine a time dimension, something real that could be measured.  Homer mentions events, their sequences or nature-periods, but he does not reference his stories to an underlying time continuum. The early Greeks told stories of Kronos (Saturn) who reigned during the era when people lived for eons. They thought lifetimes shortened when Zeus (Jupiter) banished Kronos to Tartarus, the deep abyss. Hesiod imagined that an anvil falling from Tartarus takes nine days to hit Earth,which is an estimate of great distance. (A long road takes longer to travel than a short one). The first Roman calendar had ten named months (September 7, October 8, November 9, December 10). The two months without agricultural work (January and February) remained unnamed until Numa’s reign. Evidently time in early Roman society had no independent existence. If the weather prevented seeing the new moon, a month might have 35 days while the next month only 20 days (see Plutarch & Livy). Ancient calendars were not for “measuring time.” They were for tuning life to the observed variations in nature. They saw never ending changes in the very places Westerners imagine linear time.

About 2600 years ago, the Greeks and Latins started imagining the existence of time. We find references to a time continuum in classical Greek tragedies with expressions about the “whole of time” and “time progressing” as though it were a self-propelling flow. This became an area for philosophical discussion, as in Heraclitus’ stream and Zeno’s paradoxes. Zeno showed that trying to divide time or motion into the smallest increments is nonsensical. Apparently Indo-European languages developed new verbs tenses to fit their new concept of time that was unlike that of earlier languages.

The church grew up under a Latin tyranny where the Romans studied Greek philosophy. Not surprisingly, the New Testament contains time words and verb tenses since that was the way people communicated in that era. The Greek word chronos refers to divisions of hours, days, seasons and calendars. The most common New Testament time-word is kairos: the proper moment, the opportune moment, the predicted moment, the right moment.  “For while we were still helpless, at kairos, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6)” Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot, until the kairos of the gentiles is fulfilled (Luke 21:24). Jesus said those who believe in him will live eon life (zoe aionios – John 3:16). Jesus came at the end of the plural eons (aionos – Hebrews 9:26).

The Greek translation of the Old Testament used the aorist as the default verb, since Hebrew had no verb tenses. Greek aorist does not specify when something happens, if it is a short occurrence, a long event, whether it ended or may end in the future. We find this timeless verb on every page of the New Testament. For example, Romans 8:30 has six aorist verbs. “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” The aorist does NOT tell us when He calls, justifies, or glorifies – yet the first two happened before they trusted Him. Although the New Testament often uses time words and verb tenses, it gives no direct support for the notion that time exists per se.

Augustine, a popular bishop, had an important influence on the western concept of time. He interpreted the Bible with Plotoinus’ notions about time. Consequently, Augustine claimed God created time in the beginning, was not in time and sees all the future. Augustine’s philosophy presumes that time actually exists and the future is perfectly determined. Medieval intellectuals interpreted creation and even built doctrines of God on the notion of an actual time. They even invented vocabulary words (like eternal – not in time) to fit Augustine’s notion of time.

About eight hundred years ago, Catholic scholastics unwittingly solved the problem of everything changing that prevented the Greeks from inventing an empirical science. In the medieval religion, God is outside of time and absolutely changeless (ipsum esse subsistens). This lead the scholastics to imagine that what God created has an unchanging essence. The assumption that the essence of substance is changeless became the fundamental faith of western scientists and the basis of an even newer concept of time, that it is linear and measured with clocks.

When studying creation, we should not read our western philosophy or grammar into the text. The first word in the Bible, bereshit, is not about time or its beginning. It means what is first in importance or preceding what comes after. With telescopes, we observe to the creation age at many ranges. We observe in billions of galaxies how they grew from the formless things God created first. Billions of galaxies intrinsically grew into huge growth spirals as stars continued to emerge and spread out.  The atomic light clocks accelerate along with the outward accelerating star streams.

The literal creation account is supported by the strongest evidence possible, the visible history of the universe back to the creation era. The triumph of the Bible over science is not far off.

The photo is of a pulsed jet emerging from the PKS 0637-752 compact galactic core (quasar). Telescopes observe the jet in visible light, X-rays and radio. Hubble resolved point sources within the knots in the emerging jet. Image Credit: Dr Leith Godfrey, ICRAR and Dr Jim Lovell, UTas.


Biblical Creation without Science