Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Meaning of Aion in the New Testament

In my last blog article (”The Translational Inaccuracy of ‘Forever and Ever’”), I explained why I believe the expression “forever and ever” is an inaccurate and untenable translation of the Greek expression “eis tous aiónas tón aiónon” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) that is found in verses such as Revelation 20:10 and 22:5. Instead of “forever and ever,” I believe a better translation would be “for the eons of the eons” (or something similar in wording and meaning). The main argument I presented for why I hold to this position could be summarily expressed as follows:

1. The Greek expression “eis tous aiónas tón aiónon” refers to the same future duration of time as that which is referred to in Luke 1:33 as “eis tous aiónas.”
2. The duration of time referred to by the words “eis tous aiónas” in Luke 1:33 is the duration of time for which Christ shall be reigning.
3. According to what is revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Christ is not going to be reigning for an endless duration of time (his reign is only “until” a certain point, at which time he will give up the kingdom to his God and Father).
4. Thus, the duration of time expressed by the words eis tous aiónas tón aiónon cannot be endless.

It should be emphasized that the argument above is logically valid; if all the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true as well. Thus, in order to avoid the conclusion, it must be shown that one of the premises is faulty. However, if the argument is sound (and I’m convinced that it is), then it follows that any translation of the expression eis tous aiónas tón aiónon that conveys the idea of endless duration is inaccurate, and should be rejected in favor of a translation that is consistent with the truth of the limited duration of Christ’s reign (i.e., a more literal, word-for-word translation in which the terms “eons” or “ages” is used).

Now, shortly after I posted my article and began sharing it on Facebook, I began receiving some critical feedback from those who did not agree with the position being defended in the article (which is, of course, not surprising given its controversial nature). Interestingly, however, the critics who took the time to respond to the article did not, in their comments, directly address or attempt to refute the premises of the above argument. Other objections against my position were, of course, raised, but the premises by which I arrived at the main conclusion of my article were left untouched.

One of my critics (who I’ll be referring to as J.M.) asked, “What makes you think that your translation of these two words is the only correct translation, and that thousands of years worth of the majority of Greek scholars have had it wrong?”

I think the skepticism underlying J.M.’s question is completely reasonable. When someone claims that the majority of scholars are (or could be) mistaken on any particular point related to how a certain Greek term or expression ought to be (or ought not to be) translated, I think the burden of proof is entirely on the one making such a claim to show why their claim is worthy of one’s consideration, and why their position should be taken seriously. On the other hand, a less reasonable response to a claim that challenges a majority view would be to conclude that the person must be wrong entirely on the basis of scholarly authorities or tradition (I added “tradition” because they tend to be close companions).

Now, if all I’d done was claim that the expression “forever and ever” is an inaccurate translation (and simply left it at that), an appeal to scholarly authorities would be an appropriate response. But I did more than merely make this claim; I accepted the “burden of proof” and made a case for my position with reasons and argumentation. And in response to actual reasons and arguments presented, I find a mere appeal to scholarly authority (without actually showing how such authorities disprove the arguments presented) less than compelling as an actual argument against my position. If someone thinks the arguments I made in defense of my position are weak (or simply choose to trust that my position could be easily refuted by those scholars who think “forever and ever” is just as valid a translation as the alternatives), then they are certainly free to take this stance. But it would be a fallacy to conclude that I must be wrong because my position is contrary to the position of those who are directly or indirectly responsible for the presence of the expression “forever and ever” in most Bibles.

Now, it needs to be emphasized that the majority of Greek scholars would not disagree with the following point (as well as other similar points) made in my article: the words “the ages of the ages” (or some similar expression) would constitute a grammatically valid English translation of the Greek expression τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. So in regard to this particular point – i.e., the grammatically valid translational use of the term “ages” or “eons” in the above Greek expression – the scholarly majority to which J.M. appealed would agree with me. The more controversial claim that I made in the article is, of course, that the expression “forever and ever” is not a tenable alternative to those expressions in which the terms “ages” or “eons” are used. But again, I presented reasons why I believe this to be the case, and why I think my claim ought to be taken seriously (rather than being simply dismissed out of hand with an appeal to scholarly authority or tradition). If my argument is sound, then it logically follows that the duration of time expressed by the words eis tous aiónas tón aiónon is not endless.

Echoing his earlier appeal to the “scholarly majority,” J.M later asked, “Wouldn't you think that if what you're saying is true, that there would be a whole lot more scholars raising huge red flags?”

Actually, I’m not at all surprised that “a lot more scholars aren’t raising huge red flags.” One reason for my lack of surprise could be expressed as follows: In accord with the high view of God’s sovereignty to which I hold, I believe that it’s actually a part of God’s sovereign plan that the majority of humans during this wicked eon remain “in the dark” concerning what Christ accomplished through his sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection (which I believe to be the procuring of the salvation of all). That is, I believe that it’s not God’s intention that the majority of people on this planet (whether religious or secular) come to a realization of this truth yet. And I see this plan as being reflected in the fact that the majority of scholars throughout “church history” (although not all without exception) have failed to see that there’s a problem with how certain terms and expressions used in Scripture (terms and expressions which have huge implications concerning what Christ accomplished) have been generally understood and translated.

J.M. went on to write, “From what I've found, it turns out that these arguments hinge more on cultural context and understanding of phrases like 'to the ages of the ages' i.e. how did first century Greeks understand them?”

Although I think J.M. is making a rather big mistake here, I don’t think he’s alone in making it. In fact, I’m inclined to think that the erroneous assumption that’s underlying J.M.’s comment is, to some extent at least, responsible for the confusion that persists among otherwise intelligent, scholarly people concerning the meaning of aión in the New Testament (it is usually dubious assumptions and erroneous presuppositions that tend to be the culprit when otherwise intelligent and scholarly people arrive at wrong conclusions concerning a certain subject that is within their general area of expertise).

Notice how J.M.’s focus is on the cultural context and understanding of “first century Greeks.” The problem with this focus is that the authors of the New Testament were not “first century Greeks,” and their “cultural context” was not the same cultural context in which first century Greeks were immersed. They were, instead, Jewish men who were simply using the Greek language to express ideas which had, as their primary background, their own inspired Hebrew Scriptures.

This is an important point that needs to be emphasized. The “cultural context” of those whose writings constitute the New Testament Scriptures was not the same cultural context as “first century Greeks.” This means that the meanings ascribed to words and expressions by the New Testament writers would have been derived largely from their inspired Hebrew Scriptures rather than from Hellenistic culture or first century Greek literature. So, the answer to J.M.’s question – although not completely irrelevant – is not going to get us nearly as close to the truth of what a particular expression used by the NT writers means as would the answer to the following, more relevant question: “What did the first century Jews who wrote the inspired books of the New Testament mean by their use of certain terms and expressions?” Rather than secular or religious Greek culture, these men would’ve been far more influenced by their Jewish religious culture and (more importantly) by the inspired Scriptures around which their religious culture was largely based. They would’ve also been heavily influenced by whatever more recent revelation they received from God concerning his redemptive purpose, and which they sought to communicate in their writings.

J.M. went on to draw my attention me to a couple of Wikipedia articles concerning the meaning of aión, one of which he noted provides “an extra-biblical example of the use of the word aión for eternal” (here’s a link to the article in which the example he had in mind is found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeon). Interestingly, this article states that the more “common usage” of aión is “for any long, indefinite period” – which is basically the idea that I believe the New Testament writers were expressing when they used the term. But concerning the “extrabiblical example” to which J.M. was referring, we’re told the following concerning the philosophical view of Plato: “Plato used the word aeon to denote the eternal world of ideas, which he conceived was ‘behind’ the perceived world, as demonstrated in his famous allegory of the cave.” Apparently, then, J.M. thinks that we would do well to look to the Greek philosopher Plato to better understand what the NT writers meant when they used the term aión. Although this would certainly be in accord with the methodological approach which J.M. appears to think would get us closer to the truth (which involves a focus on Hellenistic culture), I’m convinced that this approach is flawed.

In part five of my study “Eternal or Eonian?” I argued that Plato should be considered a poor source for understanding what the meaning of aión  is in the New Testament Scriptures. Plato, of course, had a completely different cultural background and worldview than that of Christ and the NT writers, and in my study I showed how the metaphysical meaning which Plato attached to the term aión (at least, in certain contexts) is very different from the way in which the term is used throughout the New Testament. Plato, I noted, contrasted aión with time (chronos). For Plato, time was but “a moveable image of aionos,” and that of which time is an image is the unchanging, timeless realm of ideas/forms, which transcends the ever-changing world we experience and perceive. Thus, Plato used aión to denote an unchanging, timeless realm, and contrasted it with all changing, temporal duration.

Keeping in mind J.M.’s comment concerning the cultural context of first century Greeks, it would be worth noting what the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (who was a contemporary of Christ), had to say concerning the meaning of aión. It should be emphasized that, despite his Jewish ethnicity, Philo was a staunch Platonist. And, just like Plato, Philo used the term aión to express the concept of eternity (i.e., timelessness). For example, Philo wrote that “there is nothing future to God, who has the very boundaries of time subject to him; for their life is not time, but the beautiful model of time, eternity [aión]; and in eternity [aión] nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only” (Deus. 31-32).

But the writers of the New Testament simply did not use the term aión to mean what Plato (and those influenced by his philosophy) used the word to mean in their philosophical writings. Rather than using the term aión to refer to a timeless, unchanging realm of ideas/forms which transcends the created world we perceive and experience, they used it to refer to long spans of time (past, present and future) of undefined/unspecified duration. We read, for example, of past eons (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 10:11; Ephesians 3:9; Col 1:26, Hebrews 9:26), of a present eon (Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; Galatians 1:4), and of future eons to follow the present eon (Mark 10:30; Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; Luke 18:30; Ephesians 1:21; 2:7; Jude 1:25). It’s also clear from what is said concerning the past eons that they are limited in number, for we read that there was a time before the eons began (1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). We also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26), which suggests that the succession of eons revealed in Scripture has an end as well as a beginning. This is further confirmed from the fact that the future eons referred to (e.g., in Ephesians 2:7) are the eons for which Christ will be reigning, and – as previously argued – Christ’s reign is not going to continue endlessly.

In light of these and other scripture-informed considerations, I see no good reason to believe that Plato’s philosophical views had any influence whatsoever on the way aión was used by the Jewish writers of the New Testament, or that these inspired writers ever used aión in the philosophical, metaphysical sense used by Plato and others. The uses of the term aión that we find referenced above can tell us far more about what aión means throughout the New Testament than the use of the term by any writers whose writings can be said to reflect, or to have shaped, Greek culture.

J.M. wrote: ”I did want to share a bit from Vine's that I found really compelling. It goes a whole lot deeper than this, but for the sake of brevity, I would just encourage you to check it out for yourself, if you own one or are able to obtain one.”

Although I don’t own a copy of Vine’s, I was able to find it fairly easily online. And in the entry on aión, we find it defined as “a period of indefinite duration or time viewed in relation to what takes place in the period.” This definition is actually similar to the first definition I provided in part four of the study I referred to earlier (where it’s defined as “an indefinitely long period time”). I went on to quote from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. IV, p. 643), which noted that “The use of the word aión is determined very much by the OT and the LXX. Aión means ‘long distant uninterrupted time’ in the past (Luke 1:10), as well as in the future (John 4:14).” But all of these meanings are perfectly compatible with the view that all of the time periods that are being referred to in Scripture through the use of the term aión are, ultimately, of limited duration (even if they’re indefinite in the sense of being of “an unknown or unstated length of time,” which is one of the primary meanings of “indefinite”).

J.M. wrote: “So, essentially they are saying, and I think you would agree, that these arguments aren't settled so much on literal interpretation of these words from Greek, but more so on the cultural context, i.e. how did the Greeks of that time understand these phrases. This and other sources who appear to know a good bit about 1st Century Greek culture, seem to assert that they would understand phrases like this to mean 'eternal,' or 'forever and ever.'”

Once again we find J.M. referring to first century Greeks and their culture. However, it must again be emphasized that the cultural context in which the writers of the NT Scriptures were immersed – and which so heavily influenced the ideas/concepts which they sought to express in their writings through the use of the Greek language – was not “1st century Greek culture.” The terminology used by the NT writers ought to be understood primarily from a Hebrew mindset rather than a Greek (or Roman) mindset. And insofar as this is the case, I wouldn’t agree with my critic that these arguments are to be settled by focusing on Greek culture, or on the literature which could be considered an expression of Greek culture (whether it be from the first century or any other century). Instead, I believe we must look to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Aion in the NT = Olam in the OT

Outside of the New Testament itself, it is the inspired writings that constitute the Hebrew Scriptures which should be considered the most important and relevant sources in determining what, exactly, the inspired NT writers had in mind when they used certain Greek words to express their ideas. Thus, it would be helpful to consider the Hebrew term that influenced how the NT writers used the term aión (and its adjectival form aiónios).

It’s a known fact that both the noun aión and its adjectival form, aiónios, were used by the NT writers (as well as the translators of the Septuagint, or LXX) as the Greek equivalents of the single Hebrew term olam. Thus, an understanding of the meaning(s) of the term olam will invariably shed light on the meaning(s) of the terms used as its Greek equivalents in the LXX and NT. So what does olam mean? According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs English and Hebrew Lexicon, olam means “long duration, antiquity, futurity” (https://biblehub.com/hebrew/5769.htm). The term was derived from the verb alam (which means “to veil from sight” or “to conceal”). Thus, olam can be understood as denoting a long span of past, present or future time of undefined (and thus “concealed”) duration.

That the “long duration” denoted by olam need not be understood as endless in duration seems clear from how the term is regularly used by the inspired writers (and is a fact that, as far as I can tell, is not at all considered controversial among even mainstream Biblical scholars). In defense of this point, let’s consider some examples from the Hebrew Scriptures in which the word olam appears. Because of its consistent rendering of olam with the English noun eon (or its adjectival form, eonian), I’ll be quoting from the Concordant Version of the Old Testament. In parentheses I’ll also be providing the LXX translation of the relevant Hebrew term or expression in which the term olam is used (for, as already noted, both the noun aión and the adjective aiónios were used throughout the LXX as the Greek equivalents of olam). As I think will become evident to the reader, the use of aión in the LXX corresponds perfectly to the meaning of aión that we find expressed in the verses from the New Testament referenced above.

Gen. 6:4
They were the masterful ones, who were from the eon (LXX: ap aión), mortals of renown.

Clearly, the “masterful ones” being referred to didn’t exist from “eternity”; rather, they lived in what would’ve been considered by Moses as the distant past (and which, being before the global flood of Noah’s day, was, I believe, a previous eon).

Gen. 13:15
For all the land that you are seeing, I shall give it to you and to your seed unto the eon (LXX: eós tou aiónos).

Genesis 17:8 (cf. Gen. 48:4)
And I give to you and to your seed after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, as an eonian (LXX: aiónion) holding; and I will be Elohim to them.

The territory promised to Israel is not going to belong to Israel “for eternity,” for we know that the earth of which the promised land is a part will one day be destroyed and replaced by a new earth (Hebrews 1:10-12; 2 Peter 3:7-13; cf. Matthew 5:18; Rev. 21:1). Thus, although Israel will be enjoying their promised territorial allotment for a long period of time (more than a thousand years), this promise has nothing to do with “eternity.”

Genesis 17:13
He shall be circumcised, yea circumcised, the manservant born in your household or acquired with your money. Thus will My covenant be marked in your flesh as an eonian (LXX: aiónion) covenant. As for the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, this soul will be cut off from his people; he has annulled My covenant.

The covenant of circumcision between God and Israel does not pertain to “eternity.” Rather, it pertains to the present eon (as well as, I believe, the future eon).

Exodus 15:18
Yahweh, He shall reign for the eon and further (LXX: eis ton aióna kai ep aióna kai eti).

The Greek term eti (which appears at the end of the LXX translation of this verse) translates the Hebrew ‘ad, and – in connection with the preceding terms – expresses the idea of additional duration (https://biblehub.com/greek/2089.htm). However, there can be nothing further than or beyond eternity, so the duration of time beyond which God will be reigning cannot be a reference to eternity.

Exodus 21:6
Then his lord will bring him close to the door or to the jamb, and his lord will bore his ear with an awl; and he will serve him for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna).

Obviously, there are no servants from Moses’ day who are still serving their masters. The servitude in view in this and other similar verses (e.g., Lev. 25:46 and Deut. 15:17) is not something that is still ongoing, or something that will be occurring in “eternity.” The servant’s servitude was to continue “for the eon” – i.e., as long as he lived during the eon. The indefinitely long period of time that’s in view here (and which is being denoted by the Hebrew term olam) has no reference to any period of time beyond the eon during which the lords and servants in Israel lived and died.

Exodus 30:21
Then they will wash their hands and their feet so that they should not die. It will become to them an eonian (LXX: aiónion) statute, for him and his seed throughout their generations.

Numbers 19:10-11
This will be an eonian (LXX: aiónion) statute for the sons of Israel and for the sojourner sojourning in their midst: The one touching the dead body of any human soul will be unclean seven days…

Exodus 30:21 and Numbers 19:10-11 are just two of many examples in which the term olam is used to describe the duration of the statutes of the law of Moses. Although these and other statutes of the law could be accurately described as pertaining to an indefinitely long period of time, they are by no means “eternal.” Scripture is clear that the law of Moses was never intended to continue for “all eternity.” Moreover, God (who inspired and instructed Moses to say what he did concerning the duration of the law and its statutes) knew that these and other statutes wouldn’t remain forever, and would not have inspired Moses to use the term olam if its meaning wasn’t consistent with the limited duration of the law.

It’s worth noting that, in the LXX, the Greek term that is regularly substituted for olam in verses where the statutes of the law of Moses are in view is the adjectival form of the noun aión (i.e., aiónion).

Exodus 40:15
So it will come to be that their anointing is to bestow on them an eonian (LXX: eis ton aióna) priesthood throughout their generations.   

The priesthood in view here will not be functioning for “eternity”; the state of affairs is confined to a long and undefined - but ultimately limited - span of time. Notice also the parallel use of the statement, “throughout their generations.” This indicates that the undefined span of time that’s in view here is one in which generations of Israelites come and go.

Deut. 23:3, 6
No Ammonite or Moabite shall come into the assembly of Yahweh. Even the tenth generation from them shall not come into the assembly of Yahweh for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna)…You shall neither inquire after their well-being nor their good all your days for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna).

This restriction and command concerning the Ammonites and Moabites has no reference to anything that will be occurring in “eternity.” The state of affairs in view here is confined entirely to people’s mortal lifetimes (“all your days”) during the eon in which the commands were given.

Deut. 32:7
Remember the days of the eon (LXX: aiónon); understand the years of generation after generation.

Israel was not being exhorted to remember the days of “eternity.”

Joshua 4:7
Thus these stones have become a memorial for the sons of Israel unto the eon (LXX: eis tou aióna).

The state of affairs in view here has nothing to do with “eternity.” It pertains entirely to the undefined span of time in which the stones would serve as a memorial for the sons of Israel.

1 Samuel 1:22
When the lad is weaned, I will bring him; for he must appear before the face of Yahweh and abide there for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna).

Hannah didn’t believe Samuel would have to abide in “the house of Yahweh at Shiloh” for “all eternity.” The expression simply means that Samuel would minister to Yahweh in the house of Yahweh for as long as he lived (v. 28) during this eon.

1 Samuel 27:12:
Now Achish put his faith in David, saying, He has made himself a stink, yea a stink among his people in Israel, and so he has become mine as a servant for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna).

Again, the duration of time in view here has no reference to any period of time beyond the eon in which Achish and David lived.

2 Kings 5:27
Now Naaman’s leprosy, it shall cling to you and to your seed for the eon (LXX: eis ton aióna).

Psalm 73:12
Behold, these are the wicked! Even these at ease eonian (LXX: eis ton aióna), who make their estate huge.

Obviously, the time during which the wicked are “at ease” will not continue beyond the eon in which they live and die (i.e., the eon which Paul referred to as “the present wicked eon,” and of which Satan is said to be the “god”).

Psalm 143:3
For the enemy| has persecuted my soul; he has crushed my life to the earth; he has made me sit in utter darkness like the eonian (aiónos) dead.

The time during which the dead being referred to here had been dead cannot, of course, be a time of unlimited duration.

Isaiah 32:14
For the citadel, it will be abandoned, the clamorous city, it will be forsaken; fort and lookout, such will become caves into the future, unto the eon (LXX: eis tou aióna).

The future duration of time that’s in view in this verse cannot be a reference to “eternity.”

Isaiah 61:4
And they will rebuild the places deserted for an eon (LXX: aiónian); the desolations of former times they shall raise up; and they will renew the wasted cities, the desolations of generations after generation.

The past duration of time that’s in view in this verse cannot be a reference to “eternity.”

Jeremiah 5:22
I, Who placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, an eonian (LXX: aiónion) statute, and it shall not pass beyond it? Though its waters reel, yet they shall not prevail, and its billows clamor, yet they shall not pass over it.

The duration of the sea-boundary is, of course, relative to the existence of the sea itself. The sand can only be considered a barrier for the sea as long as both the sand and the sea exist together. But since the present heavens and earth are not “eternal” or “everlasting,” neither is the sea. Moreover, we’re explicitly told in Revelation 21:1 that, on the new earth (which will replace the present earth after it’s “passed away”), the “sea” will be “no more.”  

Micah 4:5
Though all the peoples, they shall walk, each man in the name of his elohim, yet we shall walk in the Name of Yahweh our Elohim, for the eon and further (LXX: eis ton aióna kai epekeina).

Notice that, in the LXX, the expression eis ton aióna is followed by the expression kai epekeina. The term “kai” means “and,” while “epekeina” means “further on” or “beyond” (https://biblehub.com/greek/1900.htm). However, as noted in my remarks on Exodus 15:18, there can be nothing further than or beyond “eternity.” Thus, it follows that the duration of time beyond which faithful Israel will be walking in the Name of Yahweh their God (and which is expressed in the LXX as “eis ton aióna”) cannot be a reference to eternity.

Another interesting verse from the LXX is found in the book of 1 Maccabees. Although I don’t believe this book has the same inspired status as the Hebrew Scriptures, 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 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 aióna, until there should arise a faithful prophet...” Obviously, the expression eis ton aióna cannot be understood to literally mean “for eternity” or “forever.” For if that were the case, there could be no “until.”

Now, in light of the above, let’s consider the following quote from Vine’s entry on the term aión (and which J.M. quoted in defense of his position):

“The phrases containing this word [i.e., the word aión] should not be rendered literally, but consistently with its sense of indefinite duration. Thus 'eis ton aiona' does not mean 'unto the age' but 'for ever' (see, e.g., Heb. 5:6).”

In this quote from Vine’s, we find Hebrews 5:6 being referenced as an example of how the expression eis ton aióna means “for ever” in the New Testament. Here is how the verse reads in the Concordant Literal New Testament: “Thou art a priest for the eon [eis ton aióna] according to the order of Melchizedek.” It should be noted that the author of Hebrews is quoting from Psalm 110:4, and in the LXX the same expression eis ton aióna is used to translate the Hebrew in this verse. Although Mr. Vine (who, of course, represents the mainstream view here) believed that this expression would be better translated “forever,” there is good reason to not only question this view, but to reject it completely.

That the expression eis ton aióna need not be understood as referring to an unending or “eternal” duration of time is evident from the fact that this same exact expression was used in the LXX to denote temporary rather than interminable duration (see, for example, the following verses quoted above: Exodus 15:18; 21:6; 40:15; Deut. 23:3, 6; 1 Sam. 1:22; 27:12; 2 Kings 5:27; Psalm 73:12; Micah 4:5). It is both grammatically valid and within the scope of its usage to understand the expression eis ton aióna as meaning, “for (or into) the eon.” In light of this fact, I think a fair question to ask of Mr. Vine (or any other scholar who subscribes to the view articulated in the above quotation) would be, “If the author of Hebrews had wanted to express the idea that Christ would be a priest ‘for the eon,’ what better Greek phrase could he have used than the one he actually used?” The fact is that the expression eis ton aióna is perfectly suited to expressing the idea of something’s lasting for an indefinitely long but limited duration of time.

It would seem that the main reason that Mr. Vine (and others) thinks that eis ton aióna means “forever” in Hebrews 5:6 (and elsewhere) involves the assumption that the inspired writer’s intention was to express the idea of “forever” or “eternity” through their use of the expression. In other words, Mr. Vine (who we can understand as representative of those scholars who would agree with him on this point) was assuming that, by the author’s use of the expression eis ton aióna in Hebrews 5:6, the author of Hebrews must have been trying to express the idea of eternality. But that’s an entirely unwarranted assumption. For not only do we have evidence from the LXX that the duration being conveyed through the use of this expression should be understood as limited, but there are other scripture-based considerations which make the translation “forever” completely untenable.

First, we know that the work of a priest is to deal with sins (see Heb. 2:17 and 5:1). A functioning, God-ordained priesthood presupposes that there are sinners on whose behalf the priest is interceding, and for whom he must act as an intermediary between the sinner and God. If Christ’s priestly office is to continue “forever,” then it would mean that those on whose behalf Christ acts as Chief Priest are going to continue sinning forever. But since there is coming a time when sin will be no more, Christ's priestly office - and the eon during which he will act as Chief Priest on behalf of those who are in need of his priestly ministry - will eventually come to an end.

Second, the very essence of the Melchizedekian priesthood is such that the priest of this order is also a king. Significantly, the verse from which the author of Hebrews is quoting (i.e., Psalm 110:4) comes from the same Psalm in which Christ’s enemy-subjecting reign is prophetically referred to (Psalm 110:1-2). And, as I argued in my article, the reign of Christ being prophetically referred to in this Psalm (and in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28) is not going to be of endless duration. When the purpose for which Jesus has been given his kingly office and authority by God is fulfilled (and this will take place when all are subjected to Christ and the last enemy, death, is abolished), he is going to subject himself to his God and Father, and deliver up the kingdom to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

Consider the following argument:

1. Jesus’ function as chief priest according to the order of Melchizedek will continue for no longer than his reign as king.
2. But we know from 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that Jesus’ reign is not going to be of endless duration.
3. Thus, the expression “eis ton aióna” in Hebrews 5:6 cannot denote a span of endless duration.

Thus, in addition to how the expression
eis ton aióna is used in the LXX, we actually have two scripturally-based reasons to believe that eis ton aióna in Hebrews 5:6 cannot refer to an absolutely endless duration of time. But these considerations were clearly not on Mr. Vine’s “radar screen” when he referred to this verse as an example of how the expression eis ton aióna denotes endless duration.

J.M. wrote: “I think this is most important: "The Greeks contrasted that which came to an end with that which was expressed by this phrase, which shows that they conceived of it as expressing interminable duration."”

We’re not told in the Vine’s entry who “the Greeks” being referred to are, or how close they lived to the time in which the New Testament was written (and it should be noted that one could refer to something that came to an end – for example, the priestly work of Aaron – and contrast it with something that is said to be eis ton aióna – i.e., the priestly work of Christ – without believing that the latter will be of “interminable duration”). But really, it’s irrelevant which “Greeks” are (or aren’t) in view here. For it is not the writings of “the Greeks” but rather the writings which constitute the Hebrew Scriptures (in conjunction with the LXX) which should be appealed to in support of what the term aión means (and doesn’t mean) in the New Testament.

I also think it’s interesting that, in the Vine’s entry on aión, we’re told that the word aión “is sometimes wrongly rendered ‘world.’” And yet, in an earlier comment by J.M., he said that one of the meanings of aión that was in accord with “the agreeing consensus” was “the worlds.” In response to his list of various “scholar-approved” meanings for aión, I asked how, exactly, “context, prefixes and suffices of the Greek language” could determine when the singular noun aión should be translated “age” in some places and “eternity,” “universe” “the worlds,” and “for ever” in other places.” Apparently, Mr. Vine would’ve agreed with me that there is no good reason for aión to ever be translated “world” (or “the worlds”) anywhere in Scripture. I would simply go further and eliminate every word from the list of meanings J.M. provided except “age” or “eon” (which is the only consistent way of translating aión).

I want to close this article with some remarks on an excerpt from an article that J.M. considered to carry quite a bit of weight insofar as understanding the meaning of the term aión goes. The article is from The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3), and the excerpt on which I’ll be commenting is from an entry written by Joachim Guhrt on the term αἰών (aión). On page 830 (second paragraph), Mr. Guhrt wrote, “It is further clear that passages such as Matt. 21:19; Mk. 3:29; Lk. 1:55; Jn. 13:8; and 1 Cor. 8:13 are speaking of a future within time which is linked with the duration of that to which reference is made. On the other hand, the statements of the Johannine writings, which cannot always be pinned down with absolute certainty of meaning (Jn. 4:14; 6:51, 58; 8:35, 51 f.; 10:28; 11:26; 12:34; 13:8; 14:16: 1 Jn. 2:17; 2 Jn. 2), Heb., where the meaning is quite clear (1:8, quoting Ps. 110:4; 5:6; 6:20; cf. 1:2; 6:5; 7:17, 21, 24, 28; 9:26; 11:3; 13:8, 21) and naturally those cases where aión is used in the plural, all reveal a strong inclination to conceive of a timeless, because post-temporal, eternity.”

Among the verses in which Mr. Guhrt thought it “quite clear” that aión referred to a “post-temporal eternity” is Hebrews 5:6. However, the same question asked of Mr. Vine could be asked of Mr. Guhrt as well: “If the author of Hebrews had wanted to express the idea that Christ would be a priest “for the eon” in this verse, what better Greek phrase could he have used than the one he did use (i.e., “eis ton aióna”)?”

We know for a fact that (1) the inspired Hebrew writers used the term olam to refer to things or events that are of known limited duration, (2) that the term  aión (and its adjective form aiónios) is regularly used in the LXX as a translation of olam, and (3) that the expression eis ton aióna was used in the LXX to refer to things that are by no means “of interminable duration,” and which have no reference at all to anything that will be continuing in existence for “all eternity.” So there is no problem whatsoever with understanding Hebrews 5:6 (or any occurrence of the term aión in the NT, whether singular or plural) as referring to a period of indefinite but ultimately limited duration (e.g., the future eons of Christ’s reign, prior to the consummation when God becomes “all in all”). Again, the expression eis ton aióna is perfectly suited to expressing the idea of something’s lasting for an indefinitely long but limited duration of time. Moreover, in light of the points considered earlier, it’s reasonable to conclude that the expression “eis ton aióna” in this verse can’t refer to a “timeless” and “post-temporal eternity.” It refers, instead, to a long but limited period of time that will continue no longer than there are sinners who remain in need of Christ’s priestly work on their behalf.

Among the verses from John’s account in which the term aión was apparently thought by Mr. Guhrt to express the idea of a “timeless eternity” are John 8:51 and 11:26. Here is how these verses read in the English Standard Version (which can be understood as representative of most popular translations):

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

“…everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

These verses must be among those from John’s account that Mr. Guhrt believed couldn’t “be pinned down with absolute certainty of meaning,” because, as translated above, they represent Jesus as declaring something which, when understood in a literal and straight-forward sense, is completely false. It’s simply not the case that those who kept Christ’s word and believed in him during his earthly ministry never saw death, and never died. Everyone who kept Christ’s word and believed in him during his earthly ministry eventually “saw death” and died (and they’re still just as dead today as they were on the day that they died). Since Christ did not teach what is false, we can conclude that it’s the translation (and not what he actually said) that is at fault here.[1]

The problem that the above erroneous translation creates is resolved with a more accurate translation. Here are the same verses from the CLNT:

“Verily, Verily, I am saying to you, If ever anyone should be keeping My word, he should under no circumstances be beholding death for the eon.

“And everyone who is living and believing in Me, should by no means be dying for the eon. Are you believing this?”

In both verses, it is “for the eon” (eis ton aióna) that believers will “under no circumstances be beholding death” and will “by no means be dying.” The “eon” in view is not the present eon but the future eon (the “eon to come”) that will begin when Christ returns to earth, and in which Christ will be resurrecting those who believed in him. It is during this time that those who believed in him during this lifetime will “under no circumstances be beholding death” and will “by no means be dying.”

Mr. Guhrt also believed that “those cases where aión is used in the plural” should be understood as “naturally” revealing “a strong inclination to conceive of a timeless, because post-temporal, eternity.” However, among those verses in which aión is used in the plural is Luke 1:33. And since the eons in view in this verse are the future eons during which Christ will be reigning – and since we know that Christ’s reign is not going to be “eternal” in duration – we can conclude that, in this verse, the plural form of aión does not denote a “timeless, post-temporal eternity.” And what is true of this verse can, I believe, be understood as true of every verse in which the term aión is used in the plural.



[1] Some might suggest that the “death” Christ had in view in these verses should be understood as something other than literal, physical death (i.e., the death that occurs when someone’s life on earth ends, and they “breathe their last”). However, a closer look at the broader context of John’s account indicates that the death which Christ had in view is the kind of death from which resurrection saves us. Based on what we read in John 6, the kind of death of which Christ was referring in the above verses should be understood as the same sort of death that the Israelites died in the wilderness (:48, 58), and as being the kind of death that, for the believers to whom Christ spoke at that time, will end when they’re raised up by Christ “in the last day” (:39, 40, 44, 54; cf. John 5:21-29). This is also evident from the larger context of chapter 11 (the main focus of which is, of course, the death and resurrection of Lazarus). So there is simply no good reason to understand the death in view in John 8:51 and 11:26 as being something other than the kind of death that every believer in Christ’s day eventually "beheld" (and from which they’re in need of being saved via resurrection).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your hard work and scholarly approach on this blog. I am always blessed by your writings.

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