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Did the Universe Have a Beginning?

At first glance, the answer at least of Jerusalem to this question seems to be simple and direct: the very first word of the Hebrew Bible is Brēshith, and in Greek en archēi, “in the beginning,” echoing the first sentence of Part II of Timaeus,Part I, “The Works of Reason,” beginning at 29D; Part II, “What Comes of Necessity,” beginning at 47E; Part III, “The Co-Operation of Reason and Necessity,” beginning at 69A.which contained the words: hē toude tou kosmou genesis . . . kat’ archas”;Plato Timaeus 48A. Throughout, I shall follow the translation by R. G. Bury in the Loeb Classical Library.and the phrase “heaven and earth” in any language, even in Lucretius’s Latin,Lucretius De rerum natura 5.67-69.means “universe.” But already in the exegesis of the rabbis the prior question arose about the existence, or the metaphysical status, of this “beginning”; for the very first letter of the Hebrew Bible and the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter Beth, can mean not only “in” but “by means of,” so that the sentence could be rendered “By means of the primordial God made heaven and earth,” prompting one to ask whether therefore this “primordial” had already (or always!) been there. If it had, what, if anything, could be said about it?

At this point Athens came to the aid of Jerusalem with the theory of the four elements, which Empedocles, calling them “rizōmata,” had enumerated as earth, air, fire, and water, and which Plato, especially in the TheaetetusPlato Theaetetus 201E. but also in the Timaeus,Plato Timaeus 48B.called “stoicheia,”George Stuart Claghorn, Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s “Timaeus” (The Hague, 1954), 20-38.the term that stuck. Lucretius’s Latin word for them was either “elementa,” which he seems to have been the one to coin as a technical term in physics and chemistry that we still use in Western languages,Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 5-II:341-43. or “primordia.”Lucretius De rerum natura 1.753-54; 778-79; 753-54. If, then, the opening sentence of the Book of Genesis were to be translated with the instrumental sense of its first letter that I suggested earlier, “By means of the primordial God made heaven and earth,” the first of the three Cosmic Questions on this program, “Did the universe have a beginning?” would be answered by the familiar philosophical (and theological and scientific) device of moving it back one notch: Did the elements of the universe have a beginning? The consideration of this device would lead Thomas Aquinas, drawing upon Aristotle but not without remnants of Plato and of Timaeus still in his vocabulary especially because of the influence of Augustine,See M.-D. Chenu, Toward Understanding St. Thomas, translated by A.-M. Landry and D. Hughes (Chicago, 1964), 111-13, 141-43.to argue already in Question Two of Part One of the Summa Theologica against an “infinite regress” of motion or of causality or of possibility and necessity as basically inconceivable, and therefore for the Creator / Primum Movens Immobile / First Cause as a proposition that was not only an article of faith and a doctrine of revelation but was also demonstrable by reason.Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Ia, Q. 2, Art. 3.

It was out of such considerations that the definition of divine creation as specifically a “creatio ex nihilo” had come.Gerhard May, Creatio ex nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, translated by A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh, 1994). Lucretius was, again, the one who posed the issue, quoting and paraphrasing Epicurus: “The first principle of our study we will derive from this, that no thing is ever by divine agency produced out of nothing [Principium cuius hinc nobis exordia sumet, / nullam rem e nilo gigni diuinitus umquam].”Lucretius De rerum natura 1.149-50. Thus the combination - or, as I have called it, the “counterpoint” - of Athens and Jerusalem led to a system in which the elements that were the building blocks of the universe had in turn been created. Out of what? (See how incurable, despite Aquinas’s best efforts, the “regressus infinitus” is!) Once again, Athens came to the rescue with an answer: it was out of the Ideas, the Platonic Forms, which were already there! And when Jewish scholars like Rabbi Akiba began to speculate that there was a “Torah from heaven [Torah min ha-shamayim],” which had preexisted in God before it came to earth through Moses,Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim (3 vols.; London and New York, 1962-90); English translation in preparation.there were the “building blocks” for a combination of Athens and Jerusalem that would have it both ways: “creatio ex nihilo” and also preexistent reality - but in God. Orthodox Christianity gave that combination its special turn in the doctrine of the transcendent Trinity, according to which the “Torah in heaven,” the pre-existent Wisdom of God described by Solomon in the Book of Proverbs as the principle of creation,Proverbs 8:22-31. Quotations from the Bible according to the Authorized (“King James”) Version throughout.which was also the Word of God, was the divine Logos, who already existed “in the beginning, en archēi” - the identical Greek phrase having been used both at the beginning of the Septuagint Genesis and at the beginning of the Gospel of John - through whom all things were made, and who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”John 1:1-14. Therefore Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century, drawing upon Athens to explain Jerusalem, was able to posit a prior creation of “this invisible world,” an “order of things” above all of the Platonic Forms, and then the creation of “a new world” of the empirical realities, both of these creations having been taught by Moses in the Hexaemeron (rightly interpreted, of course).Basil of Caesarea Hexaemeron 1.5. For Basil’s harmonization of Athens and Jerusalem in his interpretation of the Hexaemeron, then, “the form which God wished to give” to each creature had come first; it was “in harmony with” that preexistent form that God “created matter”; and “finally, God welded all the diverse parts of the universe by links of indissoluble attachment and established between them so perfect a fellowship and harmony that the most distant, in spite of their distance, appeared united in one universal sympathy.”Basil of Caesarea Hexaemeron 2.2.

Contributed by: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Athens and/or Jerusalem: Cosmology and/or Creation

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?

Is the Universe Designed?
Are We Alone?


Jaroslav Pelikan

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