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Ancient Languages/Word meaning changes over time

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QUESTION: Maria,

I stumbled upon an argument that has been festering for about 1,800 years as it relates to how "aion" and "aionian" has, or has not, changed its meaning over the centuries. On one side the scholars say that for several centuries before Christ and for about two centuries after Christ's birth those words meant "age" or "relating to an age," and beginning with Tertullian and ending with Augustine in the 5th Century A.D. these words began to be translated "eternal" or "eternity." On the other side the scholars say that when the Bible authors used those words, they meant to convey "eternal" or "eternity," except in those instances where a shorter time period is required.

I have done some research, and to this point it appears that the first group is correct. I can find several references where the translation given is "age" or "relating to an age," and where to translate it as "eternity" would be nonsensical. I think I have found only one source where someone in the 1st Century A.D. used the term "aionian" and implied "eternity."

As far as I can tell, these two different camps don't appear to talk much to each other, so I was hoping to get an unbiased opinion on the matter.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

ANSWER: Hello,

first of all the ancient Greek noun αἰών (transliterated as “aiṓn”, 3rd declension) was originally written as “αἰϝών” with the digamma (Ϝ, ϝ), the sixth letter of the early Greek alphabet probably pronounced as V (cf. Latin “aevum”) and become obsolete before the classical period.

As for its meaning, we know that it meant “lifetime”, “long space of time”, “age” , epoch”, and also “the ages”:hence its usage in plural, εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας (for ever, i.e. “for eternity”), as we read not only in the New Testament, but also e.g.:

1.in Aeschylus who  passim uses in his tragedies the expression “τὸν δι᾽ αἰῶνος χρόνον “ just meaning “ forever”/” for eternity”.

2.in Lycurgus, Against Leocrates, 1, 62:” …τὸν αἰῶνα ἀοίκητός ἐστι (Troy was deserted for ever…);

3.in Plato, Timaeus, 37 d:…εἰκὼ δ᾽ ἐπενόει κινητόν τινα αἰῶνος ποιῆσαι (..wherefore he planned to make a movable image of Eternity…);


Similarly, the adjective αἰώνιος (aiṓnios) meant “lasting for an age”, but also “ perpetual”,  “ eternal “, as we read e.g. in  Plato, Timaeus, 37 d: ἡ μὲν οὖν τοῦ ζῴου φύσις ἐτύγχανεν οὖσα αἰώνιος...( But inasmuch as the nature of the Living Creature was eternal...).


To conclude, my opinion is  that the noun "αἰών" ( “aiṓn”)  and  the adjective "αἰώνιος” (aiṓnios)  have not changed their meaning over the centuries, since it is not true that “for several centuries before Christ and for about two centuries after Christ's birth those words meant "age" or "relating to an age," and beginning with Tertullian and ending with Augustine in the 5th Century A.D. these words began to be translated "eternal" or "eternity".

In fact, the dramatist Aeschylus (born 525/524 BC - died 456/455 BC), the philosopher Plato (born ca.427 BC – died 348/347 BC)  and the orator Lycurgus (c. 390 BC – 324 BC), though all born several centuries before Christ,  use “αἰών” and “αἰώνιος” to say “age”, “relating to age”, but also to say “eternity” and “eternal”, i.e. an  aeon as an immeasurably and very long period of time, as I’ve already written.


Best regards,

Maria


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: First, thank you for the very thoughtful answer.

You finished your answer with "though all born several centuries before Christ,  use “αἰών” and “αἰώνιος” to say “age”, “relating to age”, but also to say “eternity” and “eternal”, i.e. an  aeon as an immeasurably and very long period of time, as I’ve already written."

If I understand their position correctly, there is a large number of scholars and others who don't believe that "aion" or "aionian" as used in the New Testament always meant "eternity" or "eternal" as we use that word. They have a very long list of reasons for that belief. I don't believe they would argue with your point that it is "an immeasurably and very long period of time," but would say that whatever it's length, it does have a beginning and an end, therefore it should be translated "age." In fact, I've read somewhere that it can't possibly mean "eternal" in the sense that we typically use that term because, for instance, people are not in hell currently, so they cannot be eternally in hell, since their understanding of eternal is "without beginning or end."

I am just finishing my first semester in beginning Greek, so I am in way over my head on this topic. Is there an easy way for us to know, for instance, if the phrase in the New Testament says "aionian life" to know if it means "eternal life" or "life for an age" or something still different from those two choices?

Thank you again for your insights.

Answer
Hello,

I think that there is no  way for us to know  with absolute certainty  if the accusative feminine singular  αἰωνίαν  ζωήν  (aionían zôén),  that we  read at various places throughout  the New Testament in the role of a direct object,  means "eternal life" or "life for an age", though  I am inclined to believe that it means “eternal/everlasting life”.

For instance, in Matthew 25:46 we find καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, where the accusative singular αἰώνιον related first to the feminine accusative κόλασιν (punishment)  and then to ζωὴν (life)  is usually translated as  “everlasting” or “eternal”, since the passage has been rendered as follows:”And these will go away into everlasting punishment, while  the righteous will go into  eternal life”.
[Note that the adjective αἰώνιος can have two terminations, i.e. αἰώνιος (masculine and feminine, whose accusative singular is αἰώνιον) and αἰώνιον (neuter) , or three terminations, i.e. αἰώνιος (masculine), αἰωνία (feminine, whose accusative singular is just αἰωνίαν) and αἰώνιον (neuter)].

To conclude,it’s obvious that my opinion about this matter is determined by my knowledge of ancient Greek where the adjective αἰώνιος meant  “eternal”/”everlasting “.

I know however that there is a theological debate on  the concept of eternity, but hermeneutics of the Bible, i.e. that branch of knowledge that deals with biblical interpretation, is not my field of expertise.

Best regards,

Maria  

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Maria

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I am an expert in Latin & Ancient Greek Language and I'll be glad to answer any questions concerning this matter.

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Over 25 years teaching experience.

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I received my Ph.D. in Classics (summa cum laude) from Genova University (Italy).

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