The Greek Frame of Reference

The New Testament concept of time is often portrayed against the backdrop of the Greek understanding of time.73 Prominent here is the evaluation of the eternal—based on Parmenides and Zeno—as the true,74 and the temporal as having an ontological deficit. Without true being, time is merely onoma, a concept set forth by human beings; yet people are dependent upon its actuality.75 Mere becoming is hopelessly inferior to immutable being. If time is conceived in a Platonic sense, as a moving image of eternity, i.e., an image that is eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity,76 then a cyclical concept of time seems desirable for at least two reasons. First, as an emulation, a cyclical concept of time most closely approaches the ideal of timelessness. This is supported by the fact that the circle, and especially the sphere, correspond best to the Greek ideal of harmony. Second, in the cycle, "time [can be] more or less captured by circulatory repetitions of processes that permit unavoidable temporal movement but prevent an 'outpouring' caused by an eruption into linear infinity."77 It succeeds in "cyclically taming time."78 Furthermore, the idea of rhythm also serves to tame time, which is dangerous because it is so unpredictable. Rhythmicity, as one finds it in poetry, music, and dance, "cultures" the natural flow of time.79

Within the horizon of such thought, neither the temporal beginning nor the final goal of things is of interest. Instead, we find an "orientation toward the present, indeed, a joyfulness in the present"80 that is expressed in the kairos and comes along "with an especially powerful expression of spatial consciousness that rivals linear, future-oriented time consciousness."81 The Aristotelian inference of time from place and movement, as well as the generally high estimation of geometry among the Greeks, point in the same direction. Seen this way, it does not surprise that in Greece the act that is performed at sacred sites becomes decisive, whereas in biblical thinking the pendulum seems to swing in the direction of an understanding of time as the place of purposeful divine action in history.

While Greek thought sees the world primarily as space, Israel rather accentuates time and, based on this presupposition, relates time and space to each other.82 In this respect, James Muilenburg speaks even of a basic difference between Israel and its neighbors, for "in Israel the mystery and meaning of time is not resolved by appeal to the cosmic world of space; among the other nations, the heavenly bodies are deified and chronos spatializes time into extension and duration";83 and in Israel, "time is grasped in terms of purpose, will, and decision."84 The Jewish prohibition of pictures and polemic against graven images should also be understood in light of the primacy of time to space: "The God of Israel is active, active in time and event; he cannot be transformed into space."85 Accordingly, time does not become concrete within the context of the spatial, but rather, in the language of the Word. If Greek culture is primarily a culture of the eye, then Hebrew culture is rather a culture of the ear86 (cf. Isa. 50:4ft 55:iof.).

Even if such stylized comparisons of one people to (almost) all other peoples should be met with a healthy skepticism,87 Muilenburg's emphasis on the primacy of time over space in biblical thought is noteworthy. It brings up the interesting question of how the primacy of time has been managed theologically and to what extent, for example, it led to the neglect of space or to the escalation or dissolution of time in eternity.

The difference between New Testament and Greek thinking can also be shown—as was done in the context of existential interpretation—by pointing out dissimilarities in views of the "moment." While Greek thought springs from "a basic transcendental disposition in which people—driven by their fears—fail to realize the demands of the moment,"88 the New Testament is often concerned precisely with the event of the eschatological moment that is breaking into time. While the former is striving, by means of ideas and ideals, to overcome being at the mercy of time, the latter is concerned with the eschatological time that seizes actual persons in their temporality and that opens up a new history. Thus, we have two poles of thought, namely, space, fixed orders, and eternal ideas, on the one hand, and time, event, and eschatological happenings, on the other.

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