An Hebraic Metaphysic of Time: Whose Time? Which Eternity?

Did God create time? To answer the question, it would probably be good to figure out what we mean by “time.” This is the approach that Dr. Leithart takes (See his essay here.). He begins to tackle this question with a definition, as he seeks to show us what time is according to the Bible. His piece inspired me to put together some of my own observations about the conception of time in the Hebrew Bible and in Second Temple Judaism, to fill out the picture of how we get to the idea of “created time” in Augustine’s writing.

Let me start by commending Dr. Leithart’s concern to seriously investigate what the Bible has to say on this subject. Both Dr. Leithart and I are against the idea that “the Bible is too primitive to offer a ‘philosophy of time.’” Scripture is not just an unphilosophical or pre-philosophical collection of data to which we can apply our philosophical frameworks; Scripture is already philosophical. It may not address every philosophical question directly, but we would be well advised to listen carefully to what it does have to say about philosophy before posing further questions.

Dr. Leithart highlights the fact that, like many other pre-modern conceptions of time, the idea of time as a cycle plays a vital role in the Hebrew Bible. Time is organized around the repetition of meaningful events, and Dr. Leithart is right to see this as the focus of Day 4 of the creation story documented in Genesis 1. God creates the heavenly lights for the express purpose of organizing time into festival seasons, signs, days, and years. Prominent among these is the religious festivals—time is organized around God’s relationship with his people as exercised in these festivals. Modern people who have become accustomed to thinking of time only in linear and scientifically quantized ways will have to do some adapting to understand this biblical conception.

As we think about extending and exploring this picture, we face a few methodological problems. The first is one of breadth: A focus on the Hebrew time-word ᑦēt (time, occasion) will highlight this theme of cyclical time. However, other biblical time-words need to be investigated. For example, words like ᑦôlām (foreverness, long duration) and ᑦad (perpetuity) tend to describe a more linear view of time, which coexists alongside the cyclical one. We should also not become too focused on word-studies, but look more broadly at the concept of time as it shows up throughout the canonical Scriptures. To be clear, I am not going to provide a complete biblical theory of time in this article, nor am I even able to do so at present. There is a great need for basic, close-textual analysis in the field of philosophical criticism of the Bible on the subject of time. I don’t think that the necessary scholarly work has yet been done—until it has, our attempts to characterize a biblical theory of time will always be somewhat misleading.

For the second problem: we need to distinguish between language about time and a theory of time. It is easy to show that certain language about time assumes certain imagined frameworks, but less easy to show that those using the language are intentionally theorizing about those frameworks. To give an illustration here, the language of the Hebrew Bible geographically orients a speaker toward the east, with the sea behind them, so that in Biblical Hebrew north is “left” and south is “right,” contrary to modern maps’ orientation with north at center forward. But it would be saying too much to say that this is a biblical theory of geography. We could make similar mistakes with time as well. For example, there is plenty of evidence in the Hebrew language that time was understood through spatial categories (as it is in English and many other languages). We can see this from idioms like “length of days” to describe a long time. The Hebrew preposition bet (ב) has the concrete spatial meaning “in,” and it is frequently used in temporal clauses, where English would use “when.” This is evidence for the metaphor “TIME IS A CONTAINER,” where a stretch of time is understood as an object inside of which another time can be located.” If we take these linguistic phenomena to be evidence of explicit theorizing about time being comparable to space, then this theorizing has taken big steps towards scientific conceptions of time as a dimension, as well as the conception of time as a bounded object. Such a theory could make the advanced theological claim that God is “outside” of time meaningful. But this would be a mistake. Just because the Bible uses a language that reflects a very common conceptual metaphor in its vocabulary doesn’t mean that it is developing a theory along the lines of that metaphor. More work is required to show that the biblical authors are really making claims about time itself.

Leithart rightly highlights the importance of the book of Ecclesiastes for explicit biblical reflection on time. The idea of cyclical time is undeniably present—we could hardly have a more eloquent statement of the concept than the “time (ᑦēt) for everything” passage of Ecclesiastes 3. But the author is not only interested in the cycles of time, he is also interested in the linear duration of time. Indeed, precisely what is remarkable about the book is that from the very first chapter, the author zooms out from the repeating cycle to show us the stretch of cycle after cycle repeating over and over forever. It is this which is the source of his anxiety—the fact that the cycle’s repetition grinds away everything good and even every memory of everything good.

Still, some things are forever (ôlām). In Ecclesiastes 3:14, “what God does” will last forever: here it is especially God’s establishing of the endless cycle itself which is in view. In 9:6, it is death which forever banishes humans from this world. On top of that, 2:16 makes clear that even human memory of the dead does not last forever. According to 3:11, God has put “forever” (haōlām) in the human heart. Some take this to mean that God has given humans a concept of eternal reward to console them through the reverses of time; I take it more pessimistically to mean that God has ordained for humans to be the only animals that are aware of the fact that they and everything they treasure will eventually be erased by the unending march of time. To sum up, the author’s concept of ôlām, “forever,” specifically picks out the permanent and unrepeatable duration of time, and wrestles with God’s purposes in it. This description I have given is all too brief, but it does show us a biblical view of linear time which is perhaps closer in some ways to an “infinite container or a blank colorless constant.”

This leads straight into the third methodological problem: Once we have detected a theory of time in the Bible, can we say that it contradicts alternate theories? To return to our geography example: if biblical geography is oriented towards the east, but modern maps are oriented towards true north, does that make modern maps unbiblical? Or are these just different but acceptable ways of looking at the world? As we just said, the author of Ecclesiastes seems to have both a cyclical and a linear view of time; indeed, the interaction between these two drives the central tension of the book. It is inevitable that, as we seek to discover the philosophy of the Bible, we will need to make contrasts with other philosophies, but this procedure is also dangerous, as it could lead us into a sort of simplistic dichotomization. If the biblical theory of time is cyclical and personal, does that contradict Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Newton’s theory of time? Perhaps, from a certain perspective, time could be cyclical or linear, infinite container or bounded container, colorless constant or significantly demarcated. In fact, good philosophical theories often integrate several different nuances of a topic while avoiding the dichotomous opposition of simpler accounts. It is not enough to simply put the biblical theory side by side with another theory and point out that they are different. One would actually have to prove that they are contradictory. I think I need only mention the geocentrist/heliocentrist debate, or the creationist/evolutionist debate, to show how fraught and complex this process of discernment might be. Certainly, we would need the comprehensive view of what the Bible has to say if we are to have any chance of accomplishing this (and again, I don’t currently have such an account in my possession).

The fourth problem emerges from this one: To understand the full implications of the principles of the Hebrew Bible, we must look beyond the Hebrew Bible. We need to understand the bigger story of how we got to Augustine and Newton. Sometimes, the development of human thought may require us to apply biblical principles to problems that are not directly addressed in the Bible. I think the question of whether God created time is one of these. These sorts of questions were probably raised for the first time for Jewish scholars of the Bible with the advent of a Hellenistic intellectual context—indeed, the book of Ecclesiastes may be late enough to already show evidence of this cultural pressure. One facet of this challenge was as follows: The Hebrew Bible is clear where God stands in relation to other gods, and to the basic physical structure of the world – he created them. But where does God stand in relation to more abstract principles, like matter or time? The Hebrew Bible doesn’t explicitly rule out the possibility that God could be subject to these principles, or that they eternally co-existed with him—but one might think that it implies that this would be a sort of idolatry. Perhaps, just like the gods of old, these principles should be demoted to the realm of God’s creative control—in other words, God created these too. Notice how a new philosophical outlook, not found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, was necessary to put the question—nevertheless, we might say that the answer does come from the Bible in some sense, since biblical principles imply that the question must be answered a particular way.

Would this be a capitulation to “Greek thought?” It would be more accurate to say that given some philosophical categories introduced by Greek thought, the Hebrew Bible had certain implications, and Second Temple Jews worked through those implications. In this way, biblical principles could be extended to new questions.

It is then with Second Temple Judaism that we get the first explicit statements about God creating time. The sectarian writings of the Qumran community included “the ages of eternity” (qṣy ᑦd or qṣy ᑦwlm) in the list of things God created (1QM 10:15-16, 1QH 5:15-16). The Apostle Paul says that God gave grace to his people in Christ “before eternal times” (pro chronōn aiōniōn, 2 Timothy 1:9), a phrase which implies that God exists outside of time. The phrases here are quite similar and remind us of the perspective of Ecclesiastes—a plural period of times is bundled together as a totality, and as such a totality, is described as “eternal” in duration.

Philo argues that time exists in dependence on the world, since time is the interval of the world’s motion, and a mere image of God’s eternity (On the Creation 7, On the Eternity of the World 10, On the Unchangeableness of God 6). Philo does use Plato’s theory of time to make this argument, but the conclusion he is arguing for is the broadly Jewish one of subjecting all things to God’s power—Greek philosophy is being used to support a biblical principle. Rather than speaking of an eternally extended bundle of times, Philo uses the singular “time” as more of an abstract concept. But the resulting doctrine is not distant from the Qumran community or Paul. God is outside of time, and time is subject to his power. In Philo, this theme occurs in the context of God’s complete foreknowledge of all things, at Qumran and with Paul, it occurs with an even stronger sense of predestination—God’s creation of time includes his predestination of future events.

Of course, one might disagree with the interpretive moves of these Second Temple Jewish thinkers. Perhaps some new theory of time could provide another way out of the dilemma, a different way of answering the question while preserving the relevant biblical principles. But we had better understand these thinkers well, and understand why they thought their view was biblical, so that we can be sure the view we would replace it with is at least equally successful in preserving biblical principles.

This is my very rough outline of how we got the doctrine that God created time, beginning with the biblical authors and progressing through the Hellenistic context of Second Temple Judaism. I happily admit that it could use a good deal of filling in (perhaps some gaps in the logic could be filled in by including insights from early Christian theologians). In any case, this blog post is woefully inadequate as a summary of the biblical theory of time, and so I must end it by calling for further work to be done, to sketch out, in exegetical detail and whole-Bible balance, what the Bible’s own philosophy of time is. If this work is advanced significantly, we will be in a much better place to understand and evaluate the attempts in later tradition to apply the principles of the Hebrew Bible to new philosophical problems.