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How Old is the World?

Is the age of the universe billions of years old, as science claims, or is it thousands of years, as the Bible claims?

30.10.13 | 07:21
How Old is the World?

Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a former professor of nuclear physics at MIT and a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, is the author of “Genesis and the Big Bang” (published by Bendhem, 1990) and the recently published book “Science of G-d.” Dr. Schroeder is a frequent lecturer at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. One of the most contentious issues between Torah and science is the age of the universe. Is it billions of years old, as science claims, or is it thousands of years, as the Bible claims?

When we add up the generations in the Torah, we arrive at the figure of 5758 years, while data from the Hubbell space telescope or the telescope stationed in Hawaii, indicate 15 billion years. In attempting to resolve this obvious conflict, we will look at historical trends in science, since absolute proofs are not available. We will find that science has changed its perception of the universe, in contrast to the Bible, which has not changed its perception because there is no possibility of changing it.

In refuting the scientific view, I will not use modern interpretations of the Bible because they are frequently influenced by scientific discoveries. The only data I will use is the Biblical text itself (3300 years old), the Aramaic translation of the Torah by Onkelos (completed 100 C.E.), the Talmud (redacted in 500 C.E.), and the three major Torah commentaries. There are many, many commentaries but the three who were accepted by all were Rashi (11th century France) who explains the plain meaning of the text, Rambam (12th century Egypt) who explains the text from a philosophical point of view, and Ramban (13th century Spain), who was among the first kabbalists, scholars of Jewish mysticism. The text of the Torah (the five books of Moses) is ancient, and the other commentaries were finalized hundreds or thousands of years before Hubbell, so there is no possibility of Hubbell or any other scientific data influencing it. This is essential to discuss this topic objectively.

The Universe had a Beginning

In 1959, a survey was done of leading American scientists. Among the many questions asked was: “What do you believe is the age of the universe?´´ That year, astronomy was popular but cosmology - the deeper understanding of the universe’s physics - was just developing. The responses to the survey was recently published in the Scientific American, the world’s most widely read scientific magazine. Two-thirds of the scientists gave the same answer. The answer of the overwhelming majority of scientists was: “Beginning? There was no beginning. 2400 years ago Aristotle and Plato taught that the universe is infinite. Yes, we know the Bible says ‘In the beginning’, but this is a great story that helps kids fall asleep at night. We sophisticates know better: There is no beginning…”

That was in 1959. Then in 1965, Penzias and Wilson found the echo of the Big Bang in the darkness of the sky at night and the world’s view changed from believing in an infinite universe to a universe that had a beginning... Science had made an enormous change in its perception of the world. Let us try to understand what this means.

Science now said that our universe had a beginning, that the first word in the Bible is correct ..... I can not overestimate the importance of this scientific discovery. Evolution, cavemen are all trivial problems compared to the fact that we now understand that there was a beginning. However, the fact that there was a beginning does not mean that there was a Starter. From a secular perspective, we cannot determine the truthfulness of the second half of the first verse in Genesis. The first half of the verse says “In the beginning” and the second half is “God created the heavens and the earth.” Physics allows a beginning without a Starter. I do not intend to go into that now, but my new book “The Science of God” examines this in detail.

It All Began on Rosh Hashanah

The question we are left with is how long ago did Genesis occur? Is it as the Bible suggests —  5772 years (corresponding to the secular date 2012) — or 15 billion years, as is believed in the scientific community?

First, we must understand the origin of the Biblical calendar. The Jewish calendar is calculated according to the passage of time since Adam’s creation. In addition, there are six significant days that preceded the creation of Adam. Obviously, the question will be where to put the decimal point in the total number of years...

On the first day of the Jewish calendar year, Rosh Hashanah, we blow the Shofar three times during the Musaf service after which we recite the verse: “Today is the birthday of the world…” The verse seems to imply that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the universe but it doesn’t. Rosh Hashanah is a birthday, but not of the universe. We blow the shofar three times to mark the last three things created in the six days of Genesis. At first, the entire universe and laws of nature were created. On the fifth day, the animate world was created which have living souls.

At the end of the sixth day, a new being was created — man, who has a unique soul. Rosh Hashanah falls on the anniversary on the Creation of Adam, and Jews believe that we are 5772 years from that moment. Our time clock begins with Adam, and doesn’t include the 6 prior days of Creation. In essence, we have two clocks, one prior to Man’s Creation, and one after his Creation. This idea is not a modern rationalization since the Talmud noted it 1500 years ago. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 29:1) relates that all the sages agree that Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish calendar, commemorates the creation of Adam but the Six Days of Genesis were not included in it.

This claim was recorded in the Talmud 1500 years ago not because the sage Hillel was talking with his 10 year old son who told him: “Dad, you will not believe it. We were at the museum today, and learned that the universe is a billion years old.” and then said Hillel decided, “Oh, if that’s the case, then I’ll have to deviate from the Bible text and leave the six days of Creation out…” We must put ourselves in the mindset of people who lived 1500 years ago, who traveled by donkeys, didn’t have electricity and assumed the sun revolved around the earth.

Why did they leave the six days of Genesis out of their calendar? At that time, there was no pressing need to show that the time during these days was any different than the time after these days. No one at the time believed that the world was in existence 15 billion years.

The Torah’s description of these six days is “it was evening and it was morning…”, a rather strange and unusual way to describe time which is very different from how humans describe  time.  Once Adam appears on the scene, the flow of time is expressed almost totally in human terms. Adam and Eve lived 130 years before they had Seth. Seth lived 105 years before he had children, etc. From Adam onward, the flow of time is totally human in concept. But before Adam, time was an abstract concept: “evening and morning.” It´s as if you are looking down on events from a detached, cosmic perspective.

A Deeper Look at the Text

To understand the flow of time, we must remember that the entire Six Days of Genesis is described in 31 sentences. These Six Days, which have given so many headaches to people who have tried to understand how science meshes with the Bible, are described in a mere 31 sentences! In the Hayden Library in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they have about 50,000 books dealing with the evolution of the universe: cosmology, chemistry, thermodynamics, paleontology, archeology, high-energy physics. Up the river at Harvard, at the Weidner library, they have close to 200,000 books on the subject. But the Bible — only 31 sentences.

A cursory reading of these sentences will not reveal any hidden details. It is obvious that we have to dig deeper to get the information out. It must be emphasized that we are not digging deeper for a rationalization. The Talmud (Chagiga, Chapter 2) tells us that from the first verse of the Bible until the beginning of the second chapter, the entire text is a parable. Now put yourself into the mindset of 1500 years ago, during the period of the Talmud.

Why would the Talmud think it is a parable? Do you think they didn’t believe that G-d could create the universe in six days? Is there a problem with it? The Bible today may have a problem with cosmology and the present scientific data at our disposal. But 1500 years ago? What was the problem with six days? There was no problem. So when the Sages separated these six days from the calendar and said that the entire text of Creation is a parable, it wasn’t because they were trying to rationalize Creation with what they saw in their local museum. There was no local museum. No one was digging up ancient fossils.

The fact is that a close reading of the text makes it clear that there is hidden and coded information between the lines and beneath the surface. The idea of searching for a deeper meaning in the Bible is no different than looking for deeper meaning in science. If you get up early in the morning, look above at how the sun rises in the east. Wait a few hours and you’ll see how the sun sets in the west. A simple observation would be “The sun is moving around the Earth.”

But there is so much more. What about the Earth rotating on its axis? And if we ignore the rest of the universe and just focus on the Sun - Earth relationship, it’s not the sun moving but just our feeling that it is. The sun is actually motionless while the earth rotates on its axis and is moving about 1,287 kilometers per hour.

We do not feel the movement because we are moving at a constant speed. If there is no acceleration, we feel like we are standing in one place. We are revolving around the sun 24 hours a day. Our planet orbits the sun at about 32 kilometers per second, and the entire solar system moves around the center of our galaxy at about 402 kilometers a second, despite us not feeling it. When Galileo argued that the earth is revolving around the sun, he was put under house arrest.

Just as we plumb science, we must also plumb the Bible. Thousands of years ago we learned that there are subtleties in the text that expand the meaning way beyond its simple meaning. We want to discover those subtleties.

Natural history and Human History

Ancient Jewish sources tell us that the calendar has two parts. (Vayikra Rabba, which was written 1500 years ago, says this explicitly.) In Moses’s farewell discourse to the people, he said: If you want to see G-d’s fingerprints in the universe, then “Remember the days of old, understand the years of each generation; Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will relate it to you.´´ (Deuteronomy 32:9). Ramban quoting Kabbalah explains: Why did Moses divide time into two parts - the “days of old” and the “years of each generation”? The “days of old” refer to the Six Days of Creation and “years of each generation” refer to the history of mankind since Adam.

Moses says that we can examine G-d’s fingerprints in the universe in two ways. Look at the phenomenon of the Six Days of Creation — the amazing evolution of the universe. If that still does not impress you, then consider the development of mankind since Adam — the phenomenon of human history. Either way, you´ll find God’s imprint.

I recently met in Jerusalem Professor Leon Lederman, who received the Nobel Prize in physics.

We talked science, of course. In the middle of the conversation I asked him: “What about spirituality, Leon?” He replied: “Schroeder, I will talk science with you, but concerning spirituality, go speak with the clerics across the street.” He then continued: “But I find it supernatural that the Jews have returned to Israel.”

It is interesting that the first part of Moses’ statement: “Remember the days of old…” referring to the six days of Genesis did not impress Prof. Lederman, but the “understand the years of each generation” — human history — did. Professor Lederman did not see anything strange about Eskimos eating fish at the Arctic Circle, and Greeks eating Musika in Athens, but he found it supernatural that Jews were eating falafel on Jaffa Road. Because there was almost no chance of it happening. Historically, it didn’t make sense that the Jews would return to the Land of Israel, But that is what happened.

This is the role of Jews in the universe. To be a proof. We do not want the whole world to become Jewish, but only to understand that history is not random. There is a direction in the flow of history and the world should realize it through us. It is no coincidence that Israel is on the front page of the New York Times more than any other foreign country.

What is a “Day”?

Let us return to the Six Days of Genesis. First, we have to know that when the Bible tells us that we are at calendar year 5772, we must add “another six days”. Several years ago, I purchased a dinosaur fossil dated 150 million years. (It was a vertebra from the neck of a Plesiosaurs and I would love to show it to you if you come visit me in Jerusalem). My seven-year-old daughter asked me: “Dad, a dinosaur? How can there be dinosaurs 150 million years ago when my Bible teacher said the world isn’t 6,000 years old?”

I asked her to open the Book of Psalms 90:4 where she would find something remarkable: “A thousand years in Your eyes is like a yesterday that passed on, and like a night watch.” Perhaps from King David’s perspective or from the Creator’s perspective, time is different than what we know it.

The Talmud (Chagiga, Chapter 2) probes deeper into the text and focuses on the word ”darkness”. This word first appears in Gen. 1:2. The Talmud states that it refers to black fire (black energy), a kind of energy so powerful that it cannot even be seen. Two verses later (Gen. 1:4) the word darkness appears again. This time the Talmud explains that darkness refers to an absence of light.

Other words are also not understood according to their usual meaning. For example: “Water.” Rambam claims that in the description of creation, water was also a building block of the universe. Another example: (Genesis 1:5) “And G-d called the light Day and He called the darkness Night and it was evening and morning, Day One.” This was the first time that a day was quantitatively defined — a morning plus evening. Rambam discusses what is “evening” and “morning”. Does it mean sunset and sunrise? It would certainly seem so. But Rambam points out a problem in that.

The text says: “And there was evening and there was morning one day... and there was evening and there was morning, a second day… and there was evening and there was morning, a third day…” But only on the fourth day does the sun appear. Rambam says that an intelligent reader will notice the problem right away: how can the concept of evening and morning exist during the first three days if the sun was only created on the fourth day? Even if one believes that the authors of the Bible were a bunch of Bedouins sitting around a campfire, one thing is certain - those authors were smart. Whoever it was, they were able to produce the world’s longest running best-seller. We therefore can not attribute the appearance of sun on the fourth day to the author´s stupidity.

It is obvious that there is a reason why the sun appeared on fourth day. It was intentionally planned that as time goes by, and people understand more about the universe, they would be able to return to the text and dig deeper for more understanding. The Bible uses the words “and it was evening” differently than theusual meaning. Ramban says that the root letters of the word “evening” (erev = Ayin Raish Beth) symbolize chaos (irvuviya) and disorder which is why it is callederev.

The literal meaning of “evening”, the time when the sun goes down and one’s vision is blurred, is “a lack of order”. In contrast, the Torah’s word for “morning” is boker, whose literal meaning is the exact opposite of “evening” — a time when one can perceive the order in things. Therefore, it does not seem necessary to mention the sun before the fourth day, since evening turning into morning is a flow from disorder to order, from chaos to cosmos, and this flow (as any scientist will testify) can not occur randomly. Order never arises spontaneously from disorder. The system must have an overseer. This is unequivocal. Order can not arise from disorder by random reactions. (The probability of it happening is statistically so low that scientists tend to regard this prospect as zero.)

If we would go down to the Dead Sea and ask: “Look at all these salt formations, do you mean to say that G-d above created each crystal?” The answer is of course no. They developed under the constraint of the laws of nature which are part of Creation. Laws of nature determine how the universe develops. There were a large, unusual quantity of developments which were encoded in the story of the Six Days of Creation which were not directly mentioned in the text.

Otherwise, we would have a new creation mentioned in every sentence. The Torah intentionally surprises us with a flow of order, starting from chaos-level plasma and ending with a symphony of life. Day after day, the world evolves into higher and higher levels — order out of disorder. This terminology is described in words 3000 years old.

Creation of Time

Each day of creation is numbered. Yet the way they are numbered doesn’t follow the same pattern. The verse says: “And there was evening and there was morning, dayone.” But for the second day it says: “And there was evening and morning, a secondday” —  instead of day two. The Torah then carries on counting the numbers ordinally: a third day, a fourth day, a fifth day, a sixth day... Only on the first day does the text use a cardinal number system — one day.

Many translations of the Bible make the mistake of writing “first day” instead of “one day” because they wanted the text to sound nice and consistent. But they are ignoring the cosmic message in the text! Ramban explains that the difference is qualitative. The difference between one and first is that “one” is absolute while “first” is relative. Ramban asserts that on the first day,  time was created.

The fact that time is a creation is a phenomenal insight. I can understand that matter was created, and even space was a creation, but time? How do you create time? Unlike material and space and energy, you can not see time or hold it. How can we understand that time is a creation? Eight hundred years ago, Rambam arrived at this insight because it says “one day” in the Torah. This is exactly Einstein’s great innovation in his Law of Relativity. Not only was space and matter created, but time itself.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity

Mankind looks at the universe and says it is 15 billion years because this is our perception of time. But what is the Bible´s perception of time? How does it understand “time”? Perhaps it understands time differently and that is what is causing the big difference? Albert Einstein taught us that the Big Bang led to the existence of not just space and matter, but also time. Time is a dimension. Time is affected by our view.

How you see time depends on your vantage point. A minute on the moon goes faster than a minute on Earth, while one minute on the sun goes slower than a minute on earth. Time on the sun is stretched out and if you could put a clock on it, it would tick slower. The time difference is small, but it can be measured and it was measured. If we could plant oranges on the Sun, they would take longer to ripen. Would we feel that time was passing slower? No, because we would also be part of the slower system and would also be coordinated with the local clock. If we would be able to compare the two systems, we would see that the time was different because of differences in speed and gravity.

One evening when we sat down for dinner, my 11-year old daughter asked, “How can I accommodate science’s billions of years with the Bible’s thousands of years?”

I told her to imagine a planet where during the time it takes 3 minutes to pass, it takes two years to pass on Earth. Such places exist, but they have harsh living conditions and can not be reached. But try to imagine what it means that two years on Earth equals 3 minutes on that planet.

“Great!” my daughter said, “Send me to that planet! I’ll do my homework in three minutes there instead of two years of homework here!” Not bad thinking.

Assuming she was 11 when she left, and spent only three minutes on the planet and then came home (we’ll ignore the journey), she would be 11 years and three minutes while her friends would be 13 years. If she looked at the Earth while on the planet, she would feel like we were all moving very quickly here while we would see her planet move very slowly. So who is right? Is it two years or three minutes? The answer is both. Both occurred in the same period of time. This is the legacy which Albert Einstein bequeathed on us.

There are billions of places in the universe where we would find that if we could set a clock down on them, the clock would tick so slowly that — if we could survive for so long — a billion years would passed on Earth while the clock on that planet would only show that six days had passed. No one can deny this.

Time Travel and the Big Bang

How does this help us interpret the Bible? The Talmud and the commentators say that the six days of Genesis contained 24 hours each day. Let´s examine this a bit deeper. Classical Jewish sources say that we can not know what existed before Creation or what predated the universe. The Midrash explains that the Torah begins with the letter Beth because it is closed on all sides except forward. This is because it is beyond human perception to know what came before Genesis, but we can know from then on. The kabbalist Ramban states that even though those six days had 24 hours each, they contained “all the days of the world” — all the ages and all the secrets of the universe.

Ramban continues and says that nothing existed before the universe… but then suddenly the entire creation appeared as a tiny speck. Ramban gives a dimension to this point by comparing it to a tiny grain of mustard. And he says that it contained the entire physical creation. All the rest of Creation was spiritual.

The Animal Soul and the Human Soul

From the physical point of view, that tiny speck is all that there is. Everything else is God. That speck contained all the raw material necessary for making everything else. Ramban describes this matter as “very thin without substance.” And as this speck expanded out, this substanceless speck turned into the matter that we are familiar with.

Ramban continues that when this speck lacking substance became matter, it became subject to time. Once this negligible speck took on volume, congealed and coalesced after the Big Bang creation, the Biblical clock began to tick.

Science has proven that there is only one substanceless thing that can be converted into matter and that is energy. Einstein´s famous equation E = MC2, tells us that energy can take on the form of matter and once it changes into matter, the clock begins to tick. Ramban has made a phenomenal statement. I do not know if he was familiar with the Laws of Relativity, but we who do know it, realize in amazement that this is what he was saying.

We know that energy - light beams, radio waves, gamma rays, X rays - all travel at the speed of light — 300 million meters per second. At this speed, time stands still. The universe was aging, time was passing, but time only kicks in when there is matter. The moment of “From when it began to exist, it became subject to time,” lasted only a negligible 1/100,000th of a second, but it was sufficient for the universe to expand from a tiny speck into the Solar System. From that moment on, we have matter and Biblical time begins. The clock began ticking here.

Seeing Time from the Beginning

When the Bible tells us: “And it was evening and it was morning, day one” it is referring to time from a Biblical perspective. Einstein proved that time varies from place to place in the universe and it even varies depending from the point where you are looking in the universe.

Now if the Torah were looking at time since the days of Moses on Mount Sinai — 2448 years after Adam’s time — it wouldn’t have written “one day.” Because until Sinai, millions of days had passed, and since there were many days to compare the first day to, the text would have written “first day”. On the second day of Creation, the Bible says “second day” because there was already one day to compare it to. On the second day, it was possible to ask, “What happened on the first day?” but on the first day, we couldn’t have asked, “What happened on the first day?” because “first” implies a comparison to an existing series while on that day there wasn’t an existing series. All there was, was just one day.

A scientist looks back in time and says the universe is 15 billion years. But every scientist knows that when he says that the universe is 15 billion years old, what he really implies without saying is: “The universe is 15 billion years old as seen from the time-space coordinates of the earth.”

This is Einstein’s relative point of view. The key point is that the Torah is looking forward in time, from a very different time-space coordinate that applied when the universe was smaller. However, since that time, the universe has stretched and spread out. Stretched space totally changes the perception of time.

Try to imagine in your mind going back billions of years to the beginning of time. Pretend that there is a very intelligent community across the universe that has a laser device which can send a blast of light rays. Every second, it sends a pulse of light, and billions of years later you can see the huge distance on a time line. We on Earth have a satellite antenna which can pick up the pulses of light. Each pulse contains information that says: “We are sending you a pulse of light every second.” (You can transmit information using light beams through fiber optics.). A second goes by and another pulse is sent. Light travels 300 million meters per second, so that each pulse is separated from the other by a distance of 300 million meters. They are traveling through space for billions of years, and will be arriving at Earth billions of years after they were sent.

But is the universe static? No, the universe is expanding and that means that the universe is spilling over into the empty space around it. When the universe expands, it does so by its space stretching out. So what happens to the light pulses which are traveling through billions of years at the same time that the universe is expanding and space is stretching out? The space between them is also stretching so the distance between them is increasing. Billions of years later when the first pulse arrives, we say, “Wow, a pulse from outer space!´´ And the information on it says: “We are sending a pulse every second...´´ We call together all our friends and await the next pulse. Does it arrive a second later? No. A year later? Maybe not. Perhaps a billion years later. Because the amount of time this pulse of light has traveled through space will determine the amount of space stretching that has occurred, and so how much space and therefore how much time there will be between the arrival of the pulses. That´s standard cosmology.

15 Billion or Six Days?

Today, we look back at time and see 15 billion years of history. Looking forward from when the universe was very small - billions of times smaller — the Torah says there were only six days. In fact, they both may be correct.

What´s exciting about the last few years in cosmology is we now have quantified the data to know the relationship of the "view of time" from the beginning of stable matter, the threshold energy of protons and neutrons (their nucleosynthesis), relative to the “view of time” today.  It´s not science fiction any longer. A dozen physics textbooks all bring the same number. The general relationship between nucleosynthesis, that time near the beginning at the threshold energy of protons and neutrons when matter formed, and time today is one million million (1,000,000,000,000). So when a view from the beginning looking forward says, "I´m sending you a pulse every second," would we see a pulse every second? No. We´d see it every million million seconds. Because that´s the stretching effect of the expansion of the universe.

The Talmud tells us that the soul of Adam was created at five and a half days after the beginning of the six days. That is a half day before the termination of the sixth day. At that moment the cosmic calendar ceases and an earth based calendar starts. How would we see those days stretched by a million million? Five and a half days times a million million, gives us five and a half million million days. Dividing that by 365 days in a year, that comes out to be 15 billion years. NASA gives a value of about 14 billion years. Considering the many approximations, and that the Bible works with only six days, the agreement to within a few percent is extraordinary. The universe is billions of years old from one perspective and a mere six days old from another. And both are correct!

Not a bad guess for 3000 years ago. The way these two figures match up is extraordinary. I am not speaking as a theologian, I am making a scientific claim. I did not pull these numbers out of hat. Therefore I explained it very slowly so you can follow step by step.

Now let’s go one step further. The five and a half days of Genesis are not of equal duration. Each time the universe doubles in size, the perception of time halves as we project that time back toward the beginning of the universe. The rate of doubling, that is the fractional rate of change, is very rapid at the beginning and decreases with time simply because as the universe gets larger and larger, even though the actual expansion rate is approximately constant, it takes longer and longer for the overall size to double. Because of this, the earliest of the six days have most of the 15 billion years sequestered with them. This rate of expansion is quoted in “The Principles of Physical Cosmology” textbook that is used around the world.

The conclusions we may draw from the above calculations is as follows:

   • The first Biblical day lasted 24 hours from the beginning time point in terms of length, but in
      our time is 7.1 billion years.

The second day again lasted 24 hours from the beginning Biblical perspective, but only half of the
   first day, approximately 3.6 billion years

The third day is also half of the previous day — 1.8 billion years.

The fourth day was 0.89 billion years.

The fifth day was 0.45 billion years.

The sixth day was 0.23 billion years.

When we add up the total years of the age of the universe, we get approximately 14 billion years,
   the same number of years which NASA gives to the age of the earth. Is this a coincidence

There is another thing. The Bible tells us in painstaking detail what was created on each of these days. Now we can examine scientific findings from cosmology, paleontology, and archeology to see if the age of various creations approximate the time period when the Torah says they were created. Here’s a hint: They match so perfectly that it will send shivers up your spine.