Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Five (The Greek Adjective Aiónios)

The Greek Adjective Aiónios

Thus far we have considered the Hebrew noun, olam, and the Greek noun, aion (which appears in both the singular and the plural form in the LXX and the New Testament). We now come to the word that was used by the LXX and the authors of the New Testament in place of olam as the adjective form of the noun aionaiónios (αἰώνιος). As the adjective form of aionaiónios should best be understood to mean "belonging to, or lasting for, an eon." Hence it is rendered "age-abiding" in Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, "age-during" in Young's Literal Translation, and "eonian" in the Concordant Literal New Testament. Just as "color" is to "colorful," "length" is to "long," and "day" is to "daily," so aion is to aionios. And just as "daily" can never mean "yearly" (because its limit is defined by the noun "day" from which it is derived), so aionioscan never refer to something other than an aion or "eon." Because aion is not used in Scripture to mean "eternity," the adjective form of the word (aionios) should not be understood to mean "eternal."

Commenting on Matt. 25:46, English theologian Charles Ellicott has the following to say on the adjective, aionios:

"...the Greek word which is rendered "eternal" does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and an ending (Rom. 16:25), where the Greek is "from aeonian times;" our version giving "since the world began." (Comp. 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:3)--strictly speaking, therefore, the word, as such, apart from its association with any qualifying substantive, implies a vast undefined duration, rather than one in the full sense of the word "infinite."" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible)

The first definition of aionios provided by A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature(edited by Frederick William Danker) is "pertaining to a long period of time." In The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (edited by James Hope Moulton and George Milligan), the concluding comments for aionios are as follows:

"Without pronouncing any opinion on the special meaning which theologians have found for this word, we must note that outside the NT, in the vernacular as in the classical Greek (see Grimm-Thayer), it never loses the sense of perpetuus....the spirit of [which is illustrated in] Job 19:24 [`With iron pen and lead, that they should be hewn in rock for the future!']....In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether the horizon be at an infinite distance...or whether it lies no farther than the span of Caesar's life."[1]

In his Word Studies in the New Testament (Vol. IV) 19th century Bible scholar Marvin Vincent wrote,

"The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of 'endless' or 'everlasting.' Aionios means, ‘enduring through or pertaining to a period of time.’ Out of the 150 instances in the LXX (Septuagint), four-fifths imply limited duration."

And on the Perseus Library Greek Dictionary, aiónios is defined as “lasting for an age.”[2]

Dr. F.W. Farrar - a well-versed scholar in the Biblical languages - states in his book Mercy and Judgment (p. 378):

"Since aion meant 'age,' aionios means, properly, 'belonging to an age,' or 'age-long,' and anyone who asserts that it must mean 'endless' defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago. Even if aion always meant 'eternity,' which is not the case in classic or Hellenistic Greek—aionios could still mean only 'belonging to eternity' and not 'lasting through it.'"

This common-sense fact is inexplicably overlooked by Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon (1886), as well as that by Arndt and Gingrich (1957). In both of these lexicons, the adjective aiónios is presented as having three meanings: (1) without beginning; or (2) without end; or (3) without beginning or end. Such a definition as this should most likely be attributed to theological bias and presuppositions; apart from the fact that this threefold definition of aióniosbears no resemblance whatsoever to the noun form of the word (from which it was derived), this definition simply cannot be applied consistently in the New Testament (see, for example, Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Titus 1:2, which will be considered below).

Nor does this definition work consistently in the LXX. As noted in the quote from Dr. Vincent above, the wordaiónios appears 150 times in the LXX. This ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible was in common use among the Jews in the 1st century and frequently quoted by the authors of the New Testament.[3]It can therefore shed much light on how the authors of the New Testament would've most likely understood and used the term aiónios in their own writings. As one of the words with which olam was translated,aiónios was used in the LXX in reference to long periods of time. It refers to things of long-lasting (but limited) duration that were, at the time, considered past[4] as well as to things of long-lasting (but limited) duration that were, at the time, consideredfuture.[5]

Paul used the word with this very meaning in Romans 16:25. There, Paul speaks of a mystery kept secret for "chronos aiónios" (literally, "during times eonian") but "now revealed." It is evident that aionios cannot mean "without beginning" here, for Paul's use of the expression pro chronon aionion ("before times eonian") in 2 Tim. 1:9 and Titus 1:2 implies that the chronos aiónios had a beginning. Nor can aiónios here mean "without end," for it is connected with a period of time during which a mystery was kept secret but later "revealed." It is evident that Paul is simply referring to those long periods of history that elapsed before the gospel of grace was revealed to Paul and began to be proclaimed. If the word aionios did carry the idea of endlessness here, then the "mystery" or "secret" of which Paul wrote would have never been revealed to people. This meaning of aiónios is entirely consistent with its usage in the LXX, with which Paul (as well as the other authors of the New Testament Scriptures) were very familiar.

Aiónios in Extra-Biblical Literature

We may further note that aiónios was used by first-century Jewish writers to describe those things that are of a limited duration. Philo used the exact phraseology we find in Matthew 25:46 - just as Christ used it - in the context of temporal affairs between people of different socio-economic classes:

"It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and everlasting punishment (kolasis aiónios) from such as are more powerful" (Fragmenta, Tom. ii., p. 667).

Josephus also employed aiónios to refer to things of temporal duration (such as the period between the giving of the law to Moses and that of his own writing, to the period of the imprisonment of the tyrant John by the Romans, and to the period during which Herod's temple stood, before its destruction by the Romans). In one Jewish work (Solomon’s Parables) we read, "These they called aiónios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations." Here, the expression "three entire generations" warrants the use of the adjective aiónios.

When speaking of things that he believed would be of endless duration, Josephus employed words other than aionios. For example, concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees in the first century, Josephus stated: "They believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison [eirgmon aidion], but that the former shall have power to revive and live again" (D. Ant. 18.14-15).

Here we find that the Pharisees believed the subterranean place of punishment for wicked immortal souls was an "eternal [aidion, not aionion] prison." And in another place (B. War 2.162-64), Josephus states that the Pharisees "say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment." The words translated "eternal punishment" are aidios timoria, and should not be confused with Jesus' words in Matthew 25:46 (kolasin aiónios, or "chastening eonian"). Similarly, in describing the doctrine of the Essenes (another Jewish sect), Josephus says they believe that“the souls of the bad are sent to a dark and tempestuous cavern, full of incessant punishment [adialeiptos timoria].” This was the language used by the Pharisees and the Essenes when describing their views of the punishment that the wicked would endure. But Christ and his apostles refrained from using such language, instead using aiónios (eonian) when referring to punishment.

But what about the Greek philosopher, Plato? Some theologians have come to the conclusion that aiónios means "eternal" in Scripture based on how Plato used the word in his writings. But surprisingly, Plato's philosophical use of aión and aiónios actually supports the position being defended in this study. Like the authors of Scripture (as well as the translators of the LXX), Plato understood the word aiónios to be the adjective form of the noun aion, and consistently employed the word in this way. But in stark contrast to its usage in the LXX and New Testament, Plato contrasts aion with time (chronos). Time, for Plato, is but a "moveable image of aionos," and that of which time is an image is the unchanging, timeless realm of ideas, which transcends the ever-changing world we experience and perceive.[6]Thus, Plato used aión to denote an unchanging, timeless realm (i.e., "eternity" in the absolute, metaphysical sense), and contrasted it with all changing, temporal duration.

Now, just as Plato used aionios as the adjective form of the noun aion/aionos, so did the inspired authors of the New Testament. But the key difference (a difference which those theologians who've derived their understanding of the meaning of aionos from Plato have failed to appreciate) is this: whereas Plato used the noun aion to denote an unchanging, timeless realm (i.e., "eternity"), the authors of the New Testament and the translators of the LXX did not. In contrast to Plato, they used aion to refer to a particular period or duration of time.In other words, they used the word to mean the exact opposite of what Plato meant by it! For them, aion and its derivatives were the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew olam. And since aionios is used as the adjective form of aion (which, in the New Testament and LXX, means "eon" or "age"), it follows that the adjective should be understood in the New Testament to mean "lasting for, or belonging to, an eon" (or simply, "eonian") - not "eternal," as in Plato.

Plato:                    1. AION (noun) means "ETERNITY" (noun).
                              2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "ETERNAL" (adjective).

This is consistent. Plato used the noun "aion" to mean "eternity," and used the adjective form of the noun to mean "eternal."

Literal Bibles:      1. AION (noun) means "EON" or "AGE" (noun).
                                2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "EONIAN," "AGE-LASTING," or "AGE-                                       DURING" (adjective.)

This, too, is consistent. The most literal Bible translations (such as Young's Literal Translation, Rotherham's Emphasized Bible and the Concordant Version) translate the noun aion as "eon" or "age," and translate the adjective form of the noun in a way that is consistent with (and reflects the meaning of) the noun.

However, when we turn to most Bible translations (such as the KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, etc.), the inconsistency is glaring:

Most Translations:       1. AION (noun) means "AGE" (noun).
                                         2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "ETERNAL" (adjective).

What the translators of most Bibles have done (at least part of the time) is correctly translate aion with a word that, in English, denotes a long but temporary span of time (an "age"), and then (inconsistently) translated aiónios according to its Platonic/philosophical meaning (using the word "eternal"). 

[1] James Hope Moulton and George Milligan; London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1949, p.16


(See also the first definition provided by LSJ/Middle Liddell)

[3] It is difficult to deny that God directed the authors of the New Testament (the Greek Scriptures) to use the Septuagint when its translation was preferable. Among all the "Old Testament" books from which the inspired authors quoted most frequently (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah), the LXX was quoted from more often than the Masoretic text. Only when Job, Zechariah and Malachi are referenced is the Masoretic text used more often. As a rule, each New Testament author agrees with the LXX translators more frequently than with the Massoretes, with the most striking contrasts found in John's gospel, Acts, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, James and 1 Peter.

[4] See, for example, Job 22:15; Ps 24:7; Ps 24:9; Ps 77:5; Pro 22:28; Pro 23:10; Isa 58:12; Isa 61:4; Isa 63:11; Jer. 6:16; Jer. 18:15; Ez. 26:20; Ez. 36:2; Hab. 3:6

[5] See, for example, Gen 17:7; Gen 17:8; Gen 17:13; Gen 17:19; Gen 48:4; Ex 12:14; Ex 12:17; Ex 27:21; Ex 28:43; Ex 29:28; Ex 30:21; Ex 31:16; Ex 31:17; Lev 6:18; Lev 6:22; Lev 7:34; Lev 7:36; Lev 10:9; Lev 10:15; Lev 16:29; Lev 16:31; Lev 16:34; Lev 17:7; Lev 23:14; Lev 23:21; Lev 23:31; Lev 23:41; Lev 24:3; Lev 24:8; Lev 24:9; Lev 25:34; Num 10:8; Num 15:15; Num 18:8; Num 18:11; Num 18:19; Num 18:23; Num 19:10; Num 19:21; Num 25:13; 1Ch 16:17; Job 3:18; Job 10:22; Job 21:11; Job 41:4; Ps 76:4; Ps 77:5; Ps 78:66; Ps 105:10; Isa 24:5; Isa 55:13; Isa 60:15; Isa 61:4; Jer.5:22; Jer. 18:16; Jer. 20:17; Jer. 23:40; Jer. 25:9; Jer. 25:12; Jer. 51:39; Ez. 35:5; Ez. 35:9; Jon 2:6; Mic. 2:9.

[6] Plato wrote, "When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal (aidios) gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal (aidios), he sought to make the universe eternal (-), so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was eternal (aiõnios), but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity (aiõnos),and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal (aiõnios) but moving according to number, while eternity (aiõnos) itself rests in unity; and this image we call time (chronos).For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also. They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal (aidios) essence; for we say that he "was," he "is," he "will be," but the truth is that "is" alone is properly attributed to him, and that "was" and "will be" only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity (aiõnos) and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent -- all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion."


  1. You write that Charles Ellicott claimed that /aionios/ "does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and an ending (Rom. 16:25)[.]"

    This is incorrect. Neither Rom. 16:26, which mentions "the eternal God," nor verse 25 - which doesn't contain the word at all! - uses /aionios/ to refer to anything "that ha[s] had both a beginning and an ending[.]"

    Moreover, nowhere in the NT do we see /aionios/ being used of what are known to be temporal things. By contrast, we see the adjective being used explicitly as the very *opposite* of what is temporary, in 2Cor. 4:18.

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thank you for your comments, and for taking the time to read part 5 of my article (I'm assuming you've read parts 1-4). The fist part of your response concerns something Charles Ellicott wrote: "...[aionios] is applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and an ending." Ellicott then references Rom. 16:25 in support of his statement. Disagreeing with Ellicott, you wrote that this is not only incorrect, but that Rom. 16:25 doesn't even "contain the word [aionios] at all." This, I hate to say, is a mistake on your part. Verse 25 does, in fact, contain the Greek word aionios (a fact which is obscured in a number of translations, such as the KJV). You can see for yourself here: Significantly (and as can also be seen on the page for which I provided the link) the translators of the NET Bible have translated the adjective aionios (pertaining to an eon/age or eons/ages) into a plural noun (ages) for v. 25. Although I don't think they made the right decision to translate an ADJECTIVE as if it were a NOUN, it's clear that they at LEAST recognized that aionios doesn't mean "eternal" here (and, I would argue, it doesn't mean "eternal" anywhere else in Scripture).

      The NET translation is a good segue to my next point. A little later in my article I wrote the following concerning Romans 16:25: "Paul speaks of a mystery kept secret for "chronos aiónios" (literally, "during times eonian") but "now revealed." It is evident that aionios cannot mean "without beginning" here, for Paul's use of the expression pro chronon aionion ("before times eonian") in 2 Tim. 1:9 and Titus 1:2 implies that the chronos aiónios had a beginning (and one must wonder why a secret would need to be kept from those who have not begun to exist yet). Nor can aiónios here mean "without end," for it is connected with a period of time during which a mystery was kept secret but later "revealed." It is evident that Paul is simply referring to those successive eons of history that elapsed before the gospel of grace was revealed to Paul and began to be proclaimed. If it did carry the idea of endlessness, the "mystery" of which Paul speaks would have never been revealed to people." Despite your assertions to the contrary, I maintain my position that the adjective aionios always has in view periods of time that had (or will have) a beginning and an end (i.e., "eons" or "ages"). And when the word is used in connection with God, it needs to be emphasized that aionios is not limiting the duration of God's existence to the eons/ages that are in view (a point I make in part 6 of my article), but simply emphasizing his relationship to the ages/eons over which God rules as King (1 Tim. 1:17), and during which he is carrying out his sovereign plan (Eph. 3:8-11).

      As far as your remark on Paul's use of aionios in 2 Cor. 4:18, I've provided some comments on this verse in the final part of my article ( Assuming you've already read parts 1-5, I would encourage you to check it out if you haven't already. In a nutshell, Paul is contrasting two different measures of time in this verse - one that is relatively brief (i.e., one that is "a short time" or "fleeting") and one that is relatively long (i.e., that which pertains to an eon, or age). Aionios, in this passage, has to do with the final ages or eons during which those whom God has chosen to believe Paul's gospel will be blessed with life prior to the end of Christ's reign, when God becomes "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:22-28). In other words, Paul has in view the "eonian life" of those in Christ.

      Grace and peace,

  2. Aaron,

    Thank you so much for this blog. I've embraced belief in universalism--that is, the coming ultimate success of God's attempt to reconcile all things and thereby all individuals to himself through Christ's cross--for several months now. Many of my friends reject universalism because they think that "aionios" clearly teaches that punishment is irreversible and unending for the damned.

    I have suspected that aionios doesn't necessarily mean eternal (though I do actually have some arguments that reconcile aionios--as meaning technically permanent--with universalism anyways), but did not know about Romans 16:25 before. I hope that UBS's rejection of Rom. 16:25-27 as authentic will not encourage rejection of the point by my friends.

    Also, I love Titus.

    ~ Christopher