Thinking about time

The artificial separation of science and religion is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of recorded history, religious leaders have also been leaders in the observation of nature and the study of the sciences. Academia and scholarship have been supported by religious institutions. Most of the great universities of the world have their roots in religious institutions and the desire of religious leaders to teach and learn.

One of the keys to the study of science is an understanding of the nature of time. It is a conundrum that has puzzled scholars since the beginning. People observed that the separation of day and night varied depending on one’s location in the world and the season of the year. They also observed the regularity of seasons. Combining those observations with observations of the movement of objects in the night sky, an understanding of the solar system and the movement of planets began to develop. All of this resulted in the division of the day/night cycle into 24 hours, which in turn were divided into 60 minutes and minutes into 60 seconds. the development of precision mechanical timepieces allowed for the measurement of location upon the surface of the planet and long distance navigation.

Because the understanding of the nature of time took many generations, there were human errors in the measurements. The development of more accurate tools of observation resulted in more precise ways of talking about time. It is important to be aware of this when we consider ancient texts. In terms of contemporary scientific measurement, the Bible is not precise when talking about time. Because people observed that wisdom develops with age and the passage of time, it was often assumed that wise people were older than was the case. Famous figures in the stories of our people were often reported to have had very long lives and remarkable physical stamina and vigor. Among the ancient stores of our people is the story of Abraham and Sarah. According to the Biblical record Sarah was 90 or 91 when Isaac was born and she died at the age of 127. Abraham is reported to be 100 years old at the birth of Isaac. It strains the imagination to come up with a theory of how this could be if we assume that the measurement of a year was precisely the same of our contemporary measurement.

The measurement of time and even the passage of seasons has changed throughout history. Trying to reconcile ancient texts with modern measurements results in some interesting discussions. Literalists try to measure everything by contemporary standards. Serious biblical scholars note that the Bible itself comments on the flexibility of time. Notably the 90th psalm compares a thousand years from a human perspective to a single day from the perspective of God. Since the development of the theory of relativity contemporary scientists have know that perspective makes a difference when measuring time.

All of this is background to a discussion, or perhaps even an argument, that I have had with a few of my friends recently. The conversation is about whether or not the end of 2019 marks the end of the decade. On the surface, it makes sense to use the even number 2020 to mark the beginning of the new decade. It is ten years from 2010 and 20 years from 2000. It will be ten years until 2030 arrives. From one point of view it is quite simple. However, there are those who argue that since there was no year 0, the years that end in 10 are the tenth years and therefore the new decade doesn’t begin until the year 2021. You can see how such an argument could be sustained for a long time.

It is true that neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendars have a year zero. In both, the year 1 AD immediately follows the year 1 BC. The negative numbers are followed by positive numbers without a zero year. The argument might make sense if there was a precise measurement of the year where the division takes place. In reality, both calendars are based on estimates of the date of Jesus birth and it is likely that the estimates are inaccurate. At least it is fair to say that the most accurate we can come is within three or four years. Add to that the confusion that was caused by the fact that a year is not technically 365 days, but rather 365.2422 days. We deal with that by adding a day every fourth year, which we call a “leap” year. that gets us a bit closer to a measurement of the passage of time. However, our calendars with leap years are based on 365.25 days, not 365.2422 days, so we would get off were it not for the fact that our calendar omits a leap year every 100 years. That is more precise, but not completely so (365.2425 vs 365.2422). Additional adjustments need to be made every 400 and 4000 years to keep our calendar from moving around the seasons and remaining in sync with the movement of our planet in the solar system. It is fairly confusing, but the difference can become significant as is demonstrated by the differences between the Julian Calendar (without leap years) and our current Gregorian Calendar.

The development of the calendar we use was a religious project adopted in 1582 by an official decree of Pope Gregory XIII. The calendar retained the irregular lengths of months (varying from 28 to 31 days) of the Julian calendar. The irregular months were the result of political decisions. Mixing politics and religion always ends up with a certain degree of confusion.

So, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that it is reasonable to think of tomorrow as the last day of a decade and Wednesday and the beginning of a new decade. I’m aware that this isn’t completely precise, but sometimes you have to make an arbitrary designation for the sake of the story. And I suspect that in my personal life and in the life of the church the next decade will be at least as significant as the one that is ending.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!