Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Four (The Greek Noun Aión)

The Greek Noun Aión

As noted earlier, the Jewish authors of the New Testament used the Greek language to express what were essentially Jewish ideas and concepts shaped largely by the inspired content of the Hebrew Bible. So when they wanted to express the idea that the Hebrew word olam embodied, they used words from the Greek language that could best serve as vehicles for its meaning. One of the words that they used as the Greek equivalent of olam is the Greek noun aión. In the New Testament, the word aión denotes an uninterrupted, indefinite duration of time - or simply, an “eon”[1] or “age.” The Analytical Greek Lexicon defines aión as "a period of time of significant character; life; an era; an age."

Consider the following entry on "time" from The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. IV, p. 643):

"Time: The OT and the NT are not acquainted with the conception of eternity as timelessness. The OT has not developed a special term for "eternity." The word aion originally meant "vital force," "life;" then "age," "lifetime." It is, however, also used generally of a limited or unlimited long space of time. The use of the word aion is determined very much by the OT and the LXX. Aion means "long distant uninterrupted time" in the past (Luke 1:10), as well as in the future (John 4:14)."

In every case in which the noun aión (age or eon) appears in the New Testament, it can be understood as referring to long, uninterrupted periods of time in redemptive history that span many generations on earth. We are told that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2), and that God created the eons by his word (Heb 1:2, 11:3). Hence, Paul calls God "the King of eons" (1 Tim 1:17), since he created and rules over them. In the Greek scriptures we read of past eons (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 10:11; Eph 3:9; Col 1:26, Heb 9:26), a present eon (Matt 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; 1 Cor. 2:6-7; Gal 1:4), and future eons to follow this present eon (Mk. 10:30; Mt. 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; Lk. 18:30; Eph. 1:21; 2:7; Jude 1:25). We also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb 9:26). There are, then, a minimum of five eons referred to in Scripture.[2]

"For the Eon(s)"

Two phrases that appear several times in Scripture are "eis ton aióna [singular]" and "eis ton aiónas [plural]." A literal translation of these expressions would be "for the eon" and "for the eons," respectively. The following are some examples of where the first expression can be found in the New Testament: Mt.21:19; Mk.11:14; Lk.1:55; Jn.6:51, 58; 8:35; 12:34; 14:16; 1 Cor. 8:13; 2 Cor.9:9; Heb.5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 1 Pet.1:23, 25; 2 Pet.2:17; 1 Jn.2:17; 2 Jn.2; Jude 13; Heb.7:24. The form of the expression in which the plural aiónas (ages/eons) is used can be found in the following places: Mt.6:13; Lk.1:33; Rom.1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; 2 Cor. 11:31; Heb.13:8; Jude 25. 

The fact that the expression appears with both the singular and the plural form of aion makes it evident that neither expression means "forever." For if eis ton aióna [singular] means "forever" (as most English translations have it), then the plural form of the expression would then have to be translated "forevers" -which, of course, is absurd. And since there is a plural form of the expression, it follows that the singular form can't mean "forever."But both expressions make perfectly good sense if they're referring to one or more periods of time (i.e., eons). 

That the expression eis ton aióna(s)doesn't refer to "eternity" is evident not only from the above considerations, but also from its use in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the LXX). For the expression eis ton aióna ("for the age") is found in several places in the LXX which even the most stubborn opponent of the position being advanced in this study would have to concede doesn't have anything to do with "eternity," or with that which is literally "forever." For example, we read that the servitude of bondmen was to be eis ton aióna (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17; Lev. 25:45-46). Here, the expression eis ton aióna ("for the eon") has reference only to the present eon, in which the people in view existed as bondservants in Israel. The meaning of the expression is simply that one's servitude would last as long as they lived during this eon.

Another similar example from the LXX can be found in 2 Kings 5:27, where we read that Gehazi and his descendents would be afflicted by a skin disease eis ton aióna or "for the eon." Again, the "eon" in view here simply cannot be an endless duration of time. Gehazi and his descendents were not being told that they would have a skin disease literally "forever," or for "all eternity!" That would be absurd. Even when translators render the original expression as "forever," no one in his right mind could interpret this literallyBut again, there is an age or eon in view here. And the eon that is in view is the present eon, where people can (and do) live and die with the kind of skin disease that afflicted Gehazi and his descendents. In this verse, eis ton aióna("for the eon") clearly means that Gehazi and his descendents would be afflicted by the skin disease as long as they lived during this eon.

Another interesting verse from the LXX is found in the book of 1 Maccabees. Although I believe this book to be apocryphal and non-inspired (as do most non-Catholics), I still regard it as being of important historical value. And in this instance it can tell us a good deal about how the Greek expression eis ton aióna was understood by those Jews who translated the inspired Hebrew Scriptures into Koine Greek (which, again, is the same Greek dialect in which the New Testament was written). In 1 Maccabees 14:41, we read, "Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest eis ton aiónauntil there should arise a faithful prophet..." Obviously, the expression eis ton aióna ("for the eon") cannot be understood to mean "for eternity," or (literally) "forever." For if that were the case, there could be no "until." The obvious meaning is that Simon would be the governor and high priest as long as he lived during this eon (and "until there should arise a faithful prophet").

In Mark 11:12-14 (Concordant Version), we read the following: "And on the morrow, at their coming out from Bethany, He hungers. And perceiving one fig tree from afar having leaves, He came, if, consequently, He will be finding anything on it. And coming to it, He found nothing except leaves, for it was not the season of figs. And answering, He said to it, 'By no means may anyone still be eating fruit of you for the eon [eis ton aióna].' And His disciples heard."

Here again, the expression eis ton aiona simply refers to the present age or eon(i.e., the eon in which the fig tree existed). When Christ spoke these words, the fig tree withered, thereby preventing anyone from being able to eat fruit from it "for the eon." Christ's words had no reference to "eternity," or to any future eon. He had in mind only the eon in which the fig tree existed, and in which it could possibly bear fruit for others to eat.

In Hebrews 5:6, we read of Christ that he is a priest "for the eon [eis ton aióna]." Most translations render this expression "forever." However, we know the aion (eon) in view must refer to a temporary period of time. The work of a priest is to deal with sin (see Heb. 2:17 and 5:1). If Christ's priestly office is to continue "forever," then it would mean that sin is never going to come to an end and be blotted out. A priestly office is only necessary as long as there are sinners in need of a priest to deal with their sins. Thus, Christ's priestly office - and the eon during which he will act as priest on behalf of Israel - will eventually come to an end, since there is coming a time when sin will be no more. Similarly, there is coming a time when there will no longer be a need for Christ to hold his kingly office. Why? Because the purpose for which he was given this office will have been fulfilled. Once there is no one left to be subjected (for all are ultimately going to be subjected to Christ), Christ is going to subject himself to God, and deliver the kingdom to him (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

"For the Eon(s) of the Eon(s)"

A similar expression to eis ton aiona that appears occasionally in the Greek Scriptures is eis tous aionas ton aionon. This and other similar expressions are all translated "forever and ever" in most Bible translations. In the expression eis tous aionas ton aionon, both words which are translated "forever" and "ever" are the plural form of aion. But of course, the English word "ever" is singular. And "forevers and evers" is even more absurd than "forever and ever" (which is bad enough in itself; if something is already "forever," no further duration could be added to it)! Consequently, for those Bible translators desiring to be as literal and accurate as possible in their translation, the English word "ever" is simply not an appropriate choice with which to translate the plural form of the Greek noun aion. The Greek expression eis tous aionas ton aionon would better be translated "to the ages of the ages" (as in Young's Literal Translation or Rotherham's Emphasized Bible) or (perhaps better still) "for the eons of the eons" (as in the Concordant Version).[3]And as noted earlier, the expression "for the eon (or eons) of the eons" implies at least two future eons to follow the eon in which we are now living.[4]

Some erroneously believe that this expression should be understood as referring to an infinite number of eons. But that would be like saying that the phrase "holies of holies" (ta hagia ton hagion) in the LXX translation of 2 Kings 8:6 refers to an infinite number of holy places, for the Greek grammatical construction is the same in both expressions. The expression "holies of holies" simply refers to the most holy places among other holy places. Similarly, "the eons of the eons" should be understood as referring to the greatest eons among other eons, and not to an infinite number of eons. That this is the case is evident also from the fact that, in a number of verses, the expression is "for the eon [singular] of the eons [plural]," which is of the same grammatical form as the expressions, "holy of holies" and "king of kings." Just as the "holy of holies" refers to the greatest holy place among other holy places, and the "king of kings" refers to the greatest king among other kings, so the "eon of the eons" refers to the greatest eon among other eons (which Scripture clearly reveals will be the final eon).

Interestingly, in the English Standard Version (a self-described "essentially literal" translation), the translators actually acknowledge that the Greek expression they've consistently translated as "forever and ever" in their translation literally means, "to the ages of ages" (see, for example, the footnote provided for 1 Timothy 1:17). This honest acknowledgement of the literal meaning of the Greek makes one wonder why this "alternative" translation was relegated to a footnote rather than placed in the text itself. For the inclusion of this footnote betrays the fact that the words which appear in the text (i.e., "forever and ever") are actually the interpretation of the translator, rather than an "essentially literal" rendering of the Greek.



[1] An “eon” is defined as “an indefinitely long period of time; an age” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/eon). This, I believe, the best translation of the Greek noun aion that we have in the English language, and is thus the most appropriate word with which to translate it. What makes “eon” especially suitable as a translation of aion is the fact that it has an adjective form (“eonian”) that corresponds perfectly with the Greek adjective aiónios.

[2] Since there is no good reason to assume there to be more, it seems most reasonable to believe that the total number of eons which God planned before creation, and which will transpire before the consummation (when death is abolished and Christ delivers the kingdom to God), is five. That there are five total eons can also be inferred from the fact that there are four great cataclysms referred to in Scripture. If every eon ends with one of these great cataclysms (except the last, which will end with God's being "all in all"), then the total number of eons is five.

[3] The reason is this: ton aionon is in the genitive form meaning "of" or "belonging to" the aionon. And there is no conjunction in the Greek expression tous aionas ton aionon (the Greek word for "and" is "kai," not "ton"). So to replace the Greek "of the" (a genitive plural article) with "and" (a conjunction) is dubious, to say the least. There is no grammatical or linguistic reason for any translator to do this. And if the word aion is rendered "eon" or "age" by an English Bible translation, then to be consistent, the plural form of aion (aionon) should be rendered "eons" or "ages."

[4] It should be noted, however, that some believe this expression should be understood idiomatically rather than literally. Even if this is the case, we have no reason to assume that an endless duration of time is in view. If the expression tous aionas ton aionon should be understood idiomatically rather than literally, it could simply be understood to mean, "into the distant future," or "for a long time," and would convey the same general idea that is expressed in expressions such as, "from generation to generation" (Isaiah 34:10) or "throughout all generations" (Eph 3:21; cf. Col 1:26). Whether such expressions are to be understood literally or figuratively, no idea of an absolute "eternity" or a literal "forever" need be implied.

1 comment:

  1. Someone once commented that they thought it was "forever and Revor" whoever Revor was ;)

    ReplyDelete