This is a short history of how, over about 2,600 years, time began in western minds.
Biblical Hebrew did not have a general word for time, nor did it have verb tenses. Like other early people, the Jews could not measure time since it did not exist in their world view. The ancients adjusted their lives to follow the observed cycles of nature, not time. Ancient people counted the cycles of nature, but they were merely counting days and years, not time.
Jacob told Pharaoh that his days and years of were shorter and worse than the days and years of his fathers (Genesis 47:9). Did he believe that days and years are themselves getting shorter? The “fathers of me (abthi)” is used in scripture for one’s male ancestors. His father Isaac live 180 years but his grandfather Abraham only lived 175 years. He must have known that his father lived five more years than this grandfather. Why does he say that the days and years of his fathers were shorter and worse than his days and years? Perhaps Jacob believed, like Hesiod, that the degeneration of lifetimes continues until children are born with gray temples.
If ancient days were longer than modern days, one would expect that ancient people could walk farther in a day than we can.
In Judges 19, a Levite and his wife depart Bethlehem when the day (yom) sinks down – with two donkeys and a pedestrian servant. They pass Jerusalem when the day was exceedingly low. The sun finally sets as the travelers are opposite Gibeah. They make no reference to time, only to places along the road and the sun’s position. They walked more than 10 miles through mountains as the sun sets. Other ancient travelers (Jacob, Alexander and Xenophon) recorded walking much farther in a day than we can today. Jacob drove sucking lambs from the Euphrates to the mountains of Gilead in seven days (Genesis 31:21-25 and Genesis 33:13). That is about 50 miles a day. A hundred and fifty years ago, cowboys could drive full grown range cattle only about 10 miles a day.
The skull is the only part of our skeleton that keeps growing with age. If, in their lifetimes, our ancestors observed geological events, their brows would grow Neanderthal, as Job described in chapter 14 (the few days of life, the geological events and their faces changing before they died).
Around 600 BC, Greeks philosophers began wondering if the universe had a beginning or if motion can be analyzed for instantaneous moments. For example, Melissus asked if the universe were to change “by so much as a single hair in ten thousand years, it would all perish in the whole of time.” What did they mean by time and how did this concept develop? The most common word translated as time in the New Testament is kairos. In Homer’s Iliad, kairos did not mean time, it had to do with the right place to strike an enemy. Hesiod used kairos for how to regulate life with the cycles of nature: watch for Pleiades rising before dawn and harvest your grain (spring). Prune your vines before Arcturus sets. Isocrates, a popular fourth century author, greatly influenced the meaning of kairos. He used it for the best moment to make pragmatic decisions. By the New Testament era, kairos came to mean the decisive moment, the predicted event that happens at the opportune point. Jesus came saying the kairos is at hand. He wept over Jerusalem because they did not recognize the kairos of their visitation (Luke 12:42).
New Testament verbs function part way between ancient and modern English verbs. Like biblical Hebrew, Koine verbs did not refer to time, but to the kind of action. Only in the indicative mood, do they sometimes indicate past, present, or future. In Matthew 17:15, a father tells Jesus his son falls (present tense, active, indicative) into the fire. He was not falling into the fire at that moment, but had repeatedly done so – and the present tense shows continuing actions.
Bible students often think that Greek aorist verbs should be translated as past tense. However, aorist make no reference to time, when or how often. The Bible uses aorist verbs for when God chooses to save us, so we have no information about when he made the individual choice. Yet he is actively working on a plan that has existed from the foundations of the earth. He is also actively answering the prayers of his faith-children to save their loved ones, since he gives them the right to participate in his choices. John 20:23 “If you forgive (aorist) the sins of any, they have been forgiven (present – continuously); if you retain (present, active, subjunctive – continuing possibilities) the sins of any, they have been retained.
Augustine was schooled in Plotinus’ system before he became a Christian. Plotinus imagined a nature-god who could not change, therefore was outside of time. Augustine used Plotinus’ ideas to speculate that God created time, exists outside of time and sees the future. The Bible does not mention such things in the original languages. What is the point of praying if the future is already determined? Augustine’s amalgamation of philosophy and his religion had a profound affect on the western world view.
In the thirteenth century, Catholic scholastics discovered Aristotle’s works on physics and metaphysics. The Greek philosophers had tried to invent science – but were stymied by the problem of everything changing. Aristotle thought that matter grows like a baby in the womb as its form changes. Since in Catholic theology, God is static and unchanging (ipsum esse subsistens), the scholastics imaged that matter derived an unchanging nature from the immutable God. They thought that matter can change in many ways, but its essence (from the Latin verb to be) – what it intrinsically is – does not change. The essence of substance is changeless became the fundamental assumption upon which western science was founded. During the thirteenth century, monks also invented mechanical clocks that rang bells for ordering medieval life. The methodical ticking of clocks suggested to Newton that time is linear. Newton disregarded the common sense notion of time (crowing roosters and sunsets) and proposed a mathematical, linear model of time. Most physics definitions, empirical measuring units and the mathematical laws or physics rely on the assumption that seconds are linear because the essence of substance is changeless.
Telescopes allow us to directly view the past in the distant universe and test between the dogma on which science was founded and the ancient notion that everything changes.
The picture at the beginning of this essay is a Hubble, Subaru, Spitzer combination picture of the primordial Himiko nebula and galaxy string. The nebula and the inline clumps show hydrogen alpha emissions that shine at about 13% of the frequencies emitted by modern atoms. (ALMA did not detect a carbon spectra from Himiko, suggesting it had not yet formed heavy elements). Galaxy strings and galaxies with beaded arms were common in the early universe. This is a string of globs emerging from the quasar PKS 637-752 as seen with radio telescopes. Image Credit: Dr Leith Godfrey, ICRAR and Dr Jim Lovell, UTas.
What we observe in the universe is that everything is changing. Billions of galaxies grew from point sources as the properties of matter kept changing. Atoms from the distant past shine at fractions of the frequencies of modern atoms. The orbits accelerate outwards along with the accelerating atomic clocks.
According to the Bible, half way through the creation week, he continued to form the Sun, Moon and stars and continues to form them into things that spread out (Hebrew raqia). We observe intense burst of gamma light arriving from the early universe. Often they seem to originate from the areas around galaxies where the arms are beginning to form. Evidently this was God commanding light to energize and give form to matter. We observe the history of galaxies at many ranges how they changed over the eons. Billions of galaxies visibly grew from the insides outward, (often into local growth spirals) as the space matter takes up, its inertial properties and its light frequencies all change in parallel, relationally. This is Hubble Deep Field galaxy 4491 that is shooting out a stream of blue star globs from its red core. Image is from NASA.
When NASA compared local atomic clocks with their radio reflections from hours ago, the Pioneer Anomaly, the atomic vibrations were observed to accelerate at approximately the same rate relative to distance (the Hubble ratio) as we observe in billions of ancient galaxies at many ranges. Nowhere do we see any evidence for atomic perpetual motion, which is the basis for mathematical empiricism and the scientific laws of physics.
Time began in western minds when philosophers first began to imagine that it exists. The visible universe does not support the fundamental assumption upon which the concept of time depends. What we observe only supports the literal creation account.