The NT and The Genealogical Nature of Western Time Construction

Most people are familiar with the genealogies that run throughout their Bibles, beginning with Genesis 5, the genealogy of Adam, running into the NT, with Matthew 1 and Luke 4, offering the apocryphal genealogies of Jesus.  This was a way — the primary and predominant way — of identifying a person by his heritage, when living in a pre-technological world (Judea was indeed mostly pre-technological), before the advent of I.D. photographs and cards, before the DNA test, retinal scan or fingerprint kits.

A person would memorize his genealogy, and could use it to identify him (or her) -self to others.  I believe this personal history as memorized tradition eventually came to form the stories of the OT and the NT, and of all classical history along with it, that built up the early western view of history and historical writing (historiography).  It went at some point, gradually, from personal history as tradition to corporate history of people and nations — but by way of traditions about the lives of individuals.  These were the ancient biography tradition of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Life of Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea.  But interestingly, what began as a way of identifying one’s self would have a very important way of constructing time itself, a notion implicit at the least, in the development of any view of history.

This tradition of genealogical time was itself rooted in the ancient cosmogenies (mythological traditions of the Genesis of All).  They reach from the present moment (generation of the individual considered as the target of the genealogy), to the past, gradualistically, generation by generation. This is precisely the view of genealogical history as “evolution in reverse.”

This view moves progressively backwards, and includes the Semitic notion of greater honor accorded to “the fathers” of the past per the fifth commandment (You shall honor your father and your mother, that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you).

This implies a view of the future, that as one moves forward, we encounter a time of less and less honor, less and less virtue, and accords with the notion of a future apocalypse, a time when the earth becomes so corrupt that God must bring a worldwide disaster.

The Renaissance actually began a new, much more critical (skeptical) and more scientific attempt to understanding history, and with it — time.  Following the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon, the spirit of the age began to take on a more empirical character, and its historians to demand evidence to substantiate “traditional” claims.  “Linear perspective” had begun to distinguish illusion from reality, and Lorenzo Valla, had after all, absolutely defeated tradition with skeptical inquiry and rational investigation. And Nicolas Copernicus had challenged the “mere appearance of things” (phenomena) as sufficient to give an astronomical account (found in the Almagest), by a more rational account, using Ockham’s razor as a philosophical adjunct to scientific inquiry.     And the Enlightenment continued this trend all the more aggressively.

The question in astronomy follows the genealogical notion of time, as the retrograde motion of the planets, one of the primary points of contention in the Copernican Revolution.  The Sun, moon and planets are our timekeepers (historically), both daily, and when we try to mark world-history with specific events like solar or lunar eclipses.  But the king’s lists like Manetho’s Chronology (with Christians, lists of popes beginning with the present one — tracing them backwards, generation by generation, to this or that first pope, say, the apostle Peter) show a different, and quite genealogical, notion of time — just as hinted at by the study of the retrograde motion of their celestial counterparts.

This would compare kings to luminaries by timekeeping of historiographic analogy.  King’s list run somewhat “genealogical,” as do the dynasties of Egypt.  And they show “identity” rooted in origin by retrograde (generation counting) motion.

This genealogical view of time constructed our understanding of history in Western Civilization, until about the Renaissance. It still abides with us, here or there, in various cultural reflections, as with the surnames.  We still use names, esp. surnames, to identify ourselves, and these still end with -sen, -son, or -san, meaning the son of this or that person, e.g. “Johnson,” “Petersen,” or “Jensen.”   These imply the old genealogical construction of temporal understanding.

The construction and thinking of identity and time in terms of genealogies may have come from the flow of Hebrew (being compared to the Western tradition’s Greek) a language that moves “Backward,” reading from right to left.   “Literary time” — the time it takes to move through a story when reading it.  moves in a one direction.  Here, moving right to left is divinely ordained and “God-breathed,” and the scrolls, together with their literary view of time, becomes the way to keeping time by a kind of tacit command, itself seeming to be consistent with the fifth commandment.

This notion of time must figure into our understanding of how Western Civilization (ironically from an Eastern set of documents, written in Hebrew) has constructed both time and history — at least until the Renaissance, during which time we began to repeal it in favor of a much more critical and progressive view of time.  The future as progress — ethical, legal, scientific, economic and the like — with no apocalypse included, running forward indefinitely to greater and greater eras of human understanding and development, must forever remain the Deist grasp of time.

Our is based upon the blessing of God given at the outset, the infallible goodness and perfect governance of God, and the actual (empirical) historical record, which shows incredible progress of human achievement.  Oh sure it has been a bumpy ride, not smooth and steady progress, but it has been very progressive the entire time, volatility notwithstanding.

The best and more obvious progress of the human race began on my account with four great innovations

  1. The Copernican Revolution
  2.  The Printing Press
  3. Discovery of the New World.   This was precipitated by the maritime innovation of a new kind of ship that made possible the explorations of the world of the new knights — explorers like Magellan as the new Caballeros Andantes.
  4. The Donation of Constantine (Exposure by Valla).

Progress is the nature of time for those devoted to God and his unfolding goodness.



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