I know; it sounds like a trick question. But in the ancient world time was circular. The earth continually renewed itself through the regular recurring cycles of nature: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Such a cycle is basically “startime” (the sun is a star) produced by the rotation of the earth around the sun in our solar system giving us also, in addition to the recurring seasons of the year, the time of day: dawn, noon, sunset, night. These cycles are described as the theory of the eternal return. “The universe and all existence and energy [have] been recurring, and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The theory is found in Indian [India] philosophy and ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics” in the Greek tradition.1 In many ways, without modern precision, cyclical time replicates our own system of sidereal time—time as tracked by clocks, watches, and chronometers. In short, except for daylight savings time, your watch is keyed to the circle of the earth around the sun.
The Judeo-Christian view of time, on the other hand, is linear. Everything originated in God’s act of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-3:24) and moves forward toward the inevitable Day of the Lord at which moment “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:10 RSV)—and time will be no more. All events in world history, from creation to end, are believed included in this forward movement, which gives an illusion of progress in history.
Today we experience time from both of these perspectives. Reckoning time from a linear perspective and a cyclical perspective both prove useful for us in order to situate ourselves in time—e.g., hour of the day, season of the year, century provided by our linear calendar. We also experience time in other ways—as passing fast or slow, depending on how occupied we are in a given situation; as either individual and private or epochal and public—for example, one’s personal birthday celebration as opposed to the end of WWII. Life is believed to be a progressive series of such milestones or epochs—at least as we calculate time today.
The idea that time is linear is aided by a decision to distinguish the passage of time between BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini—in the year of the Lord). This theological plot on time, which shifts time from circular to linear is credited to Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor in 525 AD; his system was not widely accepted until after 800AD, however. The BC/AD system of Exiguus was used to number the years in the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Our modern calendar derives from the Gregorian Calendar, which is the most widely used calendar in the world today.2 Modern critical scholars change BC/AD designations to BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) in order to secularize the divisions. The segments remain essentially the same, however.
One comes to realize the core problem of time by addressing the following question: how are all personal and public epochs since the beginning of time linked so as to give us a single linear sequence of time with all events taking their place in a relentless progression toward a particular goal?3
Historians also think of the movement of history as a linear movement. History is defined as “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events as steps in the sequence of human activities.”4 Historical narrative is an attempt to reconstruct the past, not in its aggregate totality, but in what the historian considers its more significant aspects. In my view, however, history itself is something other than a historical narrative.5 Nevertheless modern historians still see time and human history moving forward in a linear line. Yet here we are making circles around the sun locked into a solar system going no place in particular. How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
3This argument is adapted from, and with apologies to, John Dominic Crossan, Raid on the Articulate. Comic Eschatology in Jesus and Borges (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 133-136.
4Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (2002), s. v. “history.”
5Hedrick, “History, Historical Narrative, and Mark’s Gospel,” Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, Dec 22, 2013.