Saturday, October 19, 2013

EN ATOMWi in 1 Cor 15:52

I've posed this query in other forums and just wondered what my blogging audience might have to say.

There is a question that I've wondered about on and off for a number of years and I want to ask what you all think.

As most of you here know, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that while the Bible is not a scientific treatise, when it touches on scientific matters--it is believed to be spot on (as the Brits say). For instance, Isaiah talks about the "circle" of the earth (Isa 40:22), apparently referring to the oblate spheroid known as planet earth and Job also speaks of the earth hanging upon nothing (Job 26:7). This point also comports with our present understanding of centripetal and centrifugal force.

Paul likewise writes that "star differs from star in glory," thus confirming what we know today about the variegated celestial bodies that comprise part of God's creation. (See 1 Cor 15:41.)

With the foregoing in mind, I must say that the apostolic use of EN ATOMWi in 1 Cor 15:52 has me somewhat perplexed. After all, do not the words recorded in this account imply or explicitly say that an atom (as was thought in ancient times) is indivisible?

According to BDAG, ATOMOS basically means "uncut" or indivisible. Moreover, the term is used of an entity "that is viewed as such a unit that it cannot be cut, esp. because of the smallness (e.g. particle of matter, uncompounded word) indivisible . .

Aristotle uses the phrase EN ATOMWi when referring to time (see Phys. 236a, 6).

I don't want to imply that this question is about to make me stumble. But I just wanted to see if others have noticed this point before. Modern-day physics has taught us that atoms can undergo both fission and fusion. Atoms are evidently not indivisible since physicists now write about particles known as quarks that are more basic than atoms.

IMHO, the definition was appropriate for first century minds or for ancient thinkers like Epicurus or Democritus, who were not aware of the atom's ability to undergo nuclear fission or fusion. Even moderns had to learn progressively that the atom is in fact reducible to smaller constituents. Moreover, the Greek ATOMOS seems to have more to do with the putative inability of an atom to be divided than with its "size."

Thanks for your consideration,


Nathan said...

Hi Edgar,

Another great question!

I wonder whether this account is more a case of modern science's misapplication of terms, rather than the biblical writers misunderstanding of a word. For instance, when the word atom was first applied to that particular construct which comprises the proton, neutron and electron, was it not considered the smallest object ever discovered? Further advances in particle physics have ostensibly invalidated this claim, but then again, if the quark or lepton was discovered before any application of the term "atom", would these (or something even more fundamental) have taken on the name instead?

On the other hand, might Paul's use of the word be akin to Jesus' "tiniest of all the seeds" illustration – a relative remark, not an absolute account.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Nathan,

Your input is always appreciated. Now I just want to make it clear that it's not my intent to criticize Paul, but I've long wondered if the account of Corinthians is working with the current (from a first-century standpoint) definition of ATOMOS. It could just be the case (as you basically suggested) that Paul is working with the known definition of the time since we now know that atoms are not indivisible. Asimov wrote a great work on this very subject entitled "Atom."

The notion of an indivisible thing called an "atom" goes way back in history. Some of the famous atomists are Democritus, Leucippus, and Epicurus. These ancient thinkers believed that an atom was the one thing that could not be divided any further. One can divide a heap of sand or continuously split wood. However, the ancients reasoned that atoms are not that way. They probably could not have envisioned that the atom could be split, fused, and then split again (i.e. the atom bomb). It's interesting that science today still retains the old name "atom" despite knowing that these constituents of matter are divisible after all.



Nathan said...


Excellent points!

In thinking about this issue, I wonder if Paul was simply using borrowed terms as a metaphor in his analogy. After all, if his language was meant to be taken literally then shouldn't we take his construal of time literally as well? This would mean that time really does have a smallest component (aka. Chronon), and that these components can be assembled together in order to hold experience. I'm not convinced that such a view accurately defines time, and I can't see how it would lend itself to empirical study even if it were true.


Edgar Foster said...

Good observation, Nathan. To describe the time it takes for an anointed Christian to be raised from the dead, during the Lord's PAROUSIA, as "the blink of an eye" (uncut time) is likely metaphorical. As we look at Aristotle's use of this language for time, we see that expressing matters this way is idiomatic as well.

I believe you're correct about time having a smallest component as well. If time were to have a smallest part, that would probably mean that time be infinitesimally small. That view would be as suspect as the idea that there's a highest integer. So I think you're on the right track. Thanks for helping me to understand this scripture better.