Rambam on the Age of the Universe

“In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

How old is the Universe according to the Torah?

The Jewish Bible does not state the actual age of the Universe nor is the Bible intended to be a scientific textbook.

The answer to the question above, according to the Rambam, seems to be that the Universe was certainly created by Hashem in the finite past, and it did not exist forever, but we cannot say that it was created at any particular time. Therefore, we must believe that the Universe had a beginning, but we cannot really say how old the Universe is.

In Newton's Laws of the 18th Century, time is a transcendent property that is independent of the observer or the observer's conditions. All observers are assumed to measure the same elapsed time between two events. In contrast, Einstein's Theory of Relativity from the early 20th Century invokes the concept of "spacetime", where time is fused with the three dimensions of space into a four dimensional manifold. Thus, in Einstein's Theory of Relativity time is no longer a transcendent property of the Universe, and all observers do not measure the same elapsed time between two events.

In the Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam refers to time as an "accidental property" (mikreh in Hebrew), meaning that the property of time is not an independent property as time depends on the property of another object, such as motion. This is an example of the Rambam teaching a metaphysical concept that was explained hundreds of years later in mathematical terms by Einstein. Amazingly, the Rambam's concept of time is actually closer to the modern Theory of Relativity than it is to the "transcendent" time of Newton's Laws that is not a property of any other object!

The Rambam discusses the subject of the Age of the Universe in the second section of his book great Torah philosophy book "Moreh Nevuchim" (The Guide to the Perplexed), written in the 12th century CE. The viewpoint of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is that time itself was created, therefore we cannot state a specific time that the Universe was created. The Rambam's viewpoint implies that the current day "Orthodox fundamentalist" belief in a Universe created at a specific time (such as 5781 years ago) may actually be "heresy", because it implies belief in time before creation and the eternity of the Universe.

"The first opinion is that of all who believe in the Torah (teaching) of Moshe Rabbeinu. It is that the entire world, that is everything which exists other than God, was brought by God into existence after absolute nothingness...The correct position, in accordance with our opinion, is that time was created ex-nihilo along with all other objects and their accidental properties. Therefore, God’s creation of the world did not take place at any specific time, for time itself is included in the creation. Reflect upon this deeply in order that you will not bring upon yourself counter arguments which you will not be able to answer. Any positing of time before creation requires belief in the eternity of the world. For time itself is an accidental property (mikreh) and must therefore be a property of some other object. As a consequence, (for the world to have been created at a specific time) something must have existed before the world which we know of now. One must therefore free oneself from this viewpoint (i.e. that time was not created)." (Moreh Nevuchim 2:13)

The Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim II:25 that a belief in a finite age of the Universe allows the Torah and miracles to become possible. In contrast to the Torah viewpoint, an eternal Universe or eternal Multiverse, as taught by Aristotle, philosophers, and/or certain modern scientists, would be controlled only by scientific law, without the possibility of any Torah, any prophecy, or any miracles. This is because a Torah, prophecy, and miracles require the Creator's free will, which does not exist in an eternal Universe/Multiverse.

The Rambam does not seem to state anywhere a specific age to the Universe. It seems that according to the Rambam, those who claim a specific age for the Universe, such as 5781 years ago, are actually positing the existence of time before Creation. Thus, a claim to a specific age of the Universe would actually contradict the Torah by positing Aristotle's principal of the eternity of the Universe!

For hundreds of years the Torah concepts of Creation conflicted radically with the prevailing belief, derived from Aristotle, that the Universe had existed forever. Amazingly, since the 1920s and possibly earlier, the Rambam's statements have been confirmed by scientific discoveries that the age of the Universe is finite, and that time itself came into existence with the creation of the Universe.

The scientific evidence in modern times of a finite age of the Universe has profound implications for the existence of a Creator. Any beginning in time to the Universe and a beginning to the Laws of Nature requires a non-physical supernatural Creator who exists and operates outside the Laws of Nature.

According to the Rambam, time itself was created ex-nihilo, and therefore we may not state WHEN the Universe was created. Modern science is consistent with the Rambam to a large extent on this — I have seen in a modern astrophysics textbook that time itself began (at the "Big Bang" singularity) so that we cannot state when the Universe began. In a modern textbook, “Astrophysics is Easy”, p. 273, it states an idea that is quite consistent with what Rambam wrote in the 12th Century CE.:

“it (the Big Bang) couldn't have occurred at a particular time, because time itself was created at the moment the Big Bang occurred.”

Rambam on the Age of the Universe