Sunday, March 15, 2015

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?

From John H. Sailhamer's Expositor's Bible Commentary on Genesis (page 20):

"The statement in [Genesis] 1:1 not only identifies the Creator, it also explains the origin of the world. According to the sense of 1:1 (see Notes), the narrative states that God created all that exists in the universe. As it stands, the statement is an affirmation that God alone is eternal and that all else owes its origin and existence to him. The influence of this verse is reflected throughout the work of later biblical writers (e.g., Ps 33:6; John 1:3; Heb 11:3)."

Also: "In opening the account of Creation with the phrase 'in the beginning' (BERESIT), the author has marked Creation as the starting point of a period of time."

Here's what Keil-Delitzsch say:

"'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.'" - Heaven and earth have not existed from all eternity, but had a beginning; nor did they arise by emanation from an absolute substance, but were created by God. This sentence, which stands at the head of the records of revelation, is not a mere heading, nor a summary of the history of the creation, but a declaration of the primeval act of God, by which the universe was called into being. That this verse is not a heading merely, is evident from the fact that the following account of the course of the creation commences with w (and), which connects the different acts of creation with the fact expressed in Genesis 1:1, as the primary foundation upon which they rest. בּרשׁיח (in the beginning) is used absolutely, like ἐν ἀρχῇ in John 1:1, and מראשׁיח in Isaiah 46:10. The following clause cannot be treated as subordinate, either by rendering it, 'in the beginning when God created ..., the earth was,' etc., or 'in the beginning when God created...(but the earth was then a chaos, etc.), God said, Let there be light' (Ewald and Bunsen)."

David S. Oderberg argues for a cosmic beginning as he refutes Adolf Grünbaum in the article "Adolf Grünbaum and the Beginning of the Universe," Philosophia Naturalis Band 36 (1999):187-94.


Robert Jastrow (agnostic astronomer) famously wrote:

Recent developments in astronomy have implications that may go beyond their contribution to science itself. In a nutshell, astronomers, studying the Universe through their telescopes, have been forced to the conclusion that the world began suddenly, in a moment of creation, as the product of unknown forces.

The first scientific indication of an abrupt beginning for the world appeared about fifty years ago. At that time American astronomers, studying the great clusters of stars called galaxies, stumbled on evidence that the entire Universe is blowing up before our eyes. According to their observations, all the galaxies in the Universe are moving away from us and from one another at very high speeds, and the most distant are receding at the extraordinary speed of hundreds of millions of miles an hour.

This discovery led directly to the picture of a sudden beginning for the Universe; for if we retrace the movements of the moving galaxies backward in time, we find that at an earlier time they must have been closer together than they are today; at a still earlier time, they must have been still closer together; and if we go back far enough in time, we find that at a certain critical moment in the past all the galaxies in the Universe were packed together into one dense mass at an enormous density, pressure and temperature. Reacting to this pressure, the dense, hot matter must have exploded with incredible violence. The instant of the explosion marked the birth of the Universe.


Duncan said...

Your quote comes back to "red shift" which was the precise point which is in dispute.

Edgar Foster said...


all I was trying to show is that the Bible, reason and science offer complementary lines of evidence for a beginning. The point about red shift or expanding universes is tangential. I'm trying to make a narrower point to address your other comments.



Edgar Foster said...

Our discussion so far has revolved around Gen 1:1 and whether the universe had a beginning or not (i.e., Big Bang, etc). I was trying to show that one can find support for cosmic origins in various domains. Jastrow was an agnostic and yet he saw parallels between Genesis and modern cosmology, which is not to say that he thought Genesis was inspired or true. Only that he thought the opening words of Tanach resonated with some findings of astronomy/cosmology.

Duncan said...

Thanks edgar,

It's still begs & comes back to an obvious question - Has he ever read the Hebrew or is his link made though the KJV?

All things are not equal.

Duncan said...

From the introduction to Bereishit in the JPS study edition:-

In Heb, it is known, like many books in the Tanakh, by its first word, bereishit, which means, "In the beginning." Genesis is indeed a book about beginnings - the beginning of the natural world, the beginning of human culture, and the beginning of the people Israel, whose story occupies most of this book and will dominate the rest of the Torah. In the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel emerged, beginnings were deemed to be crucial, for the origins of things were thought to disclose their character and purpose. In Genesis, the origins of Israel the people known later as the "Jews" lie in a mysterious promise of God to a Mesopotamian whose name is Abram (changed in ch.7 to "Abraham").

Edgar Foster said...


to beg the question, in logic, generally means that someone is making a circular argument or assuming what he/she should be proving.

But I did not quote Jastrow to prove that the universe is expanding, nor did I invoke him to prove that the universe has a beginning. My only reason for quoting him was to show that science offers evidence for a universe that had a beginning. So I don't see how the question is being begged in relation to our present concerns.

Jastrow was an astronomer, not a biblical scholar. I don't know if he read Hebrew although I tend to doubt it. Yet maybe he did.

Isaac Asimov was a decent Bible scholar (IMO) although he too did not believe in God.

Edgar Foster said...

What does JPS mean by "natural world"? If by that terminology it means "the material universe, I would agree. But if "natural world" only applies to earth and its immediate environs, then I would disagree.

Philo writes:

He [Moses] says that in six days the world was created, not that its Maker required a length of time for His work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously, remembering that 'all' includes with the commands which He issues the thought behind them" (On the Creation 13-14).

Notice that Philo believes Genesis describes the world's beginning, likely referring to the entire material world on a cosmic scale. He apparently did not limit Gen 1:1ff to the inhabitable earth's beginnings.

Duncan said...


It is circular reasoning, since the science to which you keep referring is the red shift upon which all other expanding universe hypothesis are built.

Let me add some other opinions into the mix (not mine):-

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE CREATIVE WEEK (Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3).
(1) In the beginning.—Not, as in John 1:1, “from eternity,” but in the beginning of this sidereal system, of which our sun, with its attendant planets, forms a part. As there never was a time when God did not exist, and as activity is an essential part of His being (John 5:17), so, probably, there was never a time when worlds did not exist; and in the process of calling them into existence when and how He willed, we may well believe that God acted in accordance with the working of some universal law, of which He is Himself the author.

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1–5. The Beginning of all Things, and the First Creation Day

1. In the beginning] B’rêshîth: LXX ἐν ἀρχῇ: Lat. in principio. This opening word expresses the idea of the earliest time imaginable. It contains no allusion to any philosophical conception of “eternity.” The language used in the account of Creation is neither that of abstract speculation nor of exact science, but of simple, concrete, and unscientific narrative.

Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. By the heaven some understand the supreme heaven, the heaven of heavens, the habitation of God, and of the holy angels; and this being made perfect at once, no mention is after made of it, as of the earth; and it is supposed that the angels were at this time created, since they were present at the laying of the foundation of the earth,

Note the usage of "heaven of heavens" in this last extract.

Edgar Foster said...


Whether the scientist in question argues for an expanding universe--thus a red-shift--is not the point I'm trying to make. The important point here is that he thinks Genesis and some findings of modern astronomy could be complementary. Secondly, Jastrow saw evidence (scientifically) for a beginning. I'm only trying to establish that science offers evidence for a beginning. Jastrow is just an example since there are others I could invoke. The red-shift is not essential for the point I'm attempting to make.

I realize that many interpretations of Gen 1:1ff are out there, but we have to consider the arguments themselve, the evidence, and why one interpretation might be better than the other. K-D, Sailhamer, et al have addressed the comments you post above. Did you also read BDB or consult Gesenius or HALOT to see how BERESIT is being used in Gen 1:1? It's likely being used in an absolute sense, which would mean that Ellicott is mistaken.

Gill sets forth "the heaven of the heavens" as a possible understanding, and I'm familiar with this interpretation. Of course, 1:1 does not use the expression and the context may/may not support understanding the verse that way. On the other hand, if 1:1 is synecdochal, then the "heavens of the heavens" interpretation is highly unlikely.

Edgar Foster said...

one last obsevation: the red-shift is not the only scientific evidence for a universe that began. Cosmologists have many lines of evidence for a univesal beginning.

Duncan said...

Red shift is used a an evidence, not evidence that the universe had a beginning, but that a "big bang" occurred & that the universe is expanding from a point.

The vast majority of the current hypotheses are built upon this idea.

Duncan said...

This has some commentary on Philo:-

"Philosophical Writings

Many of the ancient Jewish writers, however, do not just comment on the text
but read great amounts into it. This is certainly the case with Philo in his works
On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses and Allegorical Interpretation
of Genesis II, III.

Edgar Foster said...

Red shift suggests that the universe had a beginning, and it's one line of evidence for the Big Bang, but clearly it's not the only evidence for it, right?

The Big Bang also appeals to the cosmic background radiation that was measured in the 1960s and has been measured at other times too.

But neither red shift, the expanding universe or cosmic background radiation have a direct bearing on my argument--nor are they essential for the point I was making. That's all I'm going to say about this subject.

Edgar Foster said...


what you/the file say may be true about Philo. However, that doesn't mean that he's wrong about Moses referring to the world in Gen 1:1ff. Furthermore, his position that the world is being referenced is echoed by many others including contemporary writers whom I've already quoted, like K-D and Sailhamer (a quite recent commentator). So it's not just one writer, who argues that an absolute beginning is being discussed at Gen 1:1, nor does only one commentator reject the translation, "When God began to create." Besides, you have to ask yourself what's the alternative to a universe which began. Are we to accept Aristotle's view that the cosmos is eternal? I don't see how that idea is Christian or scriptural. Moreover, it possibly conflicts with science and with logic.

Duncan said...


As I have already said - I believe that the physical universe had a beginning & our frame of existence does not allow us to understand anything else but it does grate against the god time problem as you can surely appreciate - that which lies beyond our science & logic.

Edgar Foster said...


if you're speaking in terms of absolute certainty as what to expect from science/reason, then I believe most are agreed (including me) that science/reason can only give us probable answers. But some answers are more probable than other answers. Some also more closely approximate what we find in scripture. If God created all thinbgs (not just the material universe), then all things evidently began to exist at some point. Only God is without beginning (Ps 90:2; Revelation 4:11).

Science and logic show that "all things" could possibly have begun to exist at some point.

Duncan said...

Any thoughts on Psalm 102:25-27?

Edgar Foster said...

There's quite a bit that could be and has been stated about the psalm. It's a highly poetic/metaphorical description of Jehovah's creative activity, and the writer makes a sharp contrast between God's ontological immutability and the transitory nature of the cosmos. The language about foundations being laid reminds us of Job 38:1-7.

Do you have any thoughts on these verses?

Duncan said...

They will perish?

Edgar Foster said...

The statement is not necessarily easy to understand, but it probably should be balanced with passages that speak about the earth and heavens being stable (Ps 89:36-37; 104:5). Ellicott's Commentary on Ps 102:26 is worth reading too. His parallel examples are good. Compare Mt 24:35. Hebrews 1:10-12 uses this psalm, but notice what Heb 2:5 states.

Lange also provides this commentary on Psalm 102:25ff:

"Although the heavens and the mountains are termed everlasting with reference to the lasting duration of the order of things (Gen. 8:20; 9:9; Ps. 72:6; 148:6), preserved from decay (Isa. 48:13), yet, when contrasted with God, they are not merely transitory and mutable (Ps. 72:7; Job 14:12), but will undergo a change by the power of God (Isa. 34:4; 1. 9; 51:6; 65:17; 66:22)."