Progress of History – Time
We’re now living in the time of human history that falls in between the fullness of Creation and the so-called End of the Age. In the biblical record, this period starts with the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis and reaches its climax in the book of Revelation.
Theologians and scholars have multiple, rather clearly defined perspectives on what happens during this time and how and in what manner God is involved in human affairs. It’s clear that human society has gone through some serious transitions over the millennia, some positive and some negative, and has learned a lot along the way, some of which has been more beneficial than other.
Before we get into looking at historical timelines, however, it may be worthwhile to pause for a moment to think about where God is and has been all along. C. S. Lewis, in his seminal book Mere Christianity, has a chapter on time with a cogent examination of how God relates to the time He created for our lives and history to dwell within. Here’s an excerpt, by way of introduction:
I should like to deal with a difficulty that some people find about the whole idea of prayer. A man put it to me by saying “I can believe in God all right, but what I cannot swallow is the idea of Him attending to several hundred million human beings who are all addressing Him at the same moment.” and I have found that quite a lot of people feel this.
Now, the first thing to notice is that the whole sting of it comes in the words at the same moment. Most of us can imagine God attending to any number of applicants if only they came one by one and He had an endless time to do it in. So what is really at the back of this difficulty is the idea of God having to fit too many things into one moment of time.
Well that is of course what happens to us. Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each. That is what time is like. and of course you and I tend to take it for granted that this time series — this arrangement of past, present and future — is not simply the way life comes to us but the way all things really exist We tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from past to future just as we do. But many learned men do not agree with that. It was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in time at all: later the Philosophers took it over: and now some of the scientists are doing the same.
Almost certainly God is not in time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. if a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty-and every other moment from the beginning of the world — is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.
Another Difficulty with Time
History is based on timelines. Who was alive, when and where did they live, what did they do, who were they able to communicate with and learn from, and how can we get a good understanding of their lives? Archaeologists study artifacts found buried in ruins at different strata below the surface, which can give a idea of what period of time they are from. Carbon dating can help somewhat. Once writing was discovered/invented, people could write down accounts which often determined time based on well-known events of that period that had occurred fairly recently, seasons of the year, phases of the moon, and other measures of time. Much of what we find in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is of this sort. Tombs with genealogical records were sometimes kept, shedding some light on the relative passage of time. The problem comes when we try to synchronize dates on a common timeline, as illustrated by Paul Kosmin’s article, A Revolution in Time. How do we compare what was happening in different regions and on different continents that weren’t in direct communication with one another in prehistoric and early historic times? Judith Giannini has written a fascinating manuscript addressing this topic that sheds light on the difficulties involved.
History, Myth, or Bible Stories?
Another problem has to do with perception. We tend to receive, learn, and store knowledge in separate categories for easy access and recall. Many of us started to learn about the Bible when we were children in Sabbath or Sunday school classes. We were told “stories” at home and in church about Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, the Exodus, David and Goliath, and Jesus. Various holidays, like Purim and Passover for some and Christmas and Easter for others, were celebrated with costumes, skits, felt-board presentations, and coloring books tailored to our ages. When we were older we began to study “history” in school where we learned about cave dwellers, Christopher Columbus, native Americans, and adventures in cultures around the world. The difference between the “stories” told out in the community and the “history” taught at school often became construed as one of unreal myth with morality lessons included being contrasted with actual facts about what real people did. As N. T. Wright has written, “[A myth] is a powerful story told over and over again to reinforce one particular view of the world and human life. The question is whether the ‘myth’ corresponds to reality.”
Much scholarship over the centuries has concluded that the “stories” recorded in the Bible have at least as much if not more credibility as the “real history” of their time recorded in other documents, especially given the challenges of dating in the earliest stages of the historical record. In the timelines that follow on this website I’ve taken an informed but fairly rough stab at synchronizing world history with Biblical events. When did our “Bible stories” actually happen in the context of world history as a whole? We’re going to take up the task in blocks of time, or stages. However, before we embark on that journey, let’s take a moment to discuss how other Bible scholars have chosen to divide historical periods from a theological perspective.