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In this chapter it is my task, my daunting task, to suggest some of the ways in which the three Cosmic Questions of the program - “Did the universe have a beginning?” / “Is the universe designed?” / “Are we alone?” - may have taken the form they have because of the historical interaction between Athens and Jerusalem (using the name “Jerusalem” to include also the New Testament, whose principal events did, after all, take place there). But first I need to point out again that it is in fact to neither of these ancient cities but to Classical Rome that we must look for the most brilliant - and the most skeptical - formulation of these three Cosmic Questions in Classical Antiquity, and specifically to the De rerum natura of Lucretius.Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? “Timaeus” and “Genesis” in Counterpoint (Ann Arbor, 1997), 1-22. For Lucretius stands with Goethe and Dante among those whom George Santayana early in this century described as the “three philosophical poets,” who embodied in a special way the combination of poet and philosopher and scientist:George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe (Cambridge, MA, 1910).

Whence was a pattern for making things [exemplum gignundis rebus] first implanted in the gods, or even a conception of humanity [notities hominum], so as to know what they wished to make and to see it in the mind’s eye?

Or in what manner was the power of the first-beginnings [uis principiorum] ever known, and what they could do together by change of order, if nature herself did not provide a model for creation [specimen creandi]?Lucretius De rerum natura 5.181-86.

In coping with the three Cosmic Questions of this week’s program, however, and therefore also, directly or indirectly, with the devastating challenge of Lucretius to the theistic and teleological answers to them, both the Greek East and the Latin West, for a thousand years and more, pondered above all the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem. From Athens this meant Plato’s most important treatise on cosmology, and the only dialogue of Plato that was known in the West during most of the Middle Ages, while the scientific works of Aristotle, which Byzantium did preserve along with the other works of Plato, were still unknown in the West: the Timaeus, which determined the vocabulary of science, philosophy, and theology, indeed, their way of framing questions. And from Jerusalem it meant the Book of Genesis: not in its original Hebrew, except when occasional contacts with Jewish biblical scholarship made it accessible,Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (reprint edition; Notre Dame, 1964), 149-56.but in the Septuagint, the Greek translation by Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria during the two centuries B.C.E.,Elias Bickerman, “The Septuagint as Translation,” Studies in Jewish and Christian History (Leiden, 1976), 1:167-200.whose interpretation and, I believe, very vocabulary were significantly shaped by the Timaeus; and then in the Latin Vulgate, which still owed much to the Septuagint, even though Jerome had translated from the Hebrew. It should, moreover, be emphasized, especially in the light of subsequent history, that the effort to harmonize Athens and Jerusalem on all three of our Cosmic Questions had not originated with Christianity but with Judaism, more particularly with Philo of Alexandria.David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato (Leiden, 1986).(As a historical curiosity, I should add that exactly three weeks ago today I received from Hong Kong a Chinese translation of Philo’s On the Cosmogony of Moses - speaking of  “daunting tasks”!).

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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