Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Nine

by G.T. Stevenson


Translation from one language to another is a notoriously difficult task, the expression of nuances felt to be present in one tongue being often practically impossible in another because of lack of appropriate vocabulary. Therefore it is to be expected that some discordance will arise.

In the translation of 'aion' in well-known English versions,the following forty different renderings appear: Age, eon, time, period, today, the future, universe, course, world, worldly, world without end, since the world began, from the beginning of the world, ever, evermore, for ever and ever, end of my days, eternal, everlasting, always, permanently, constantly, of old, ancient times, all time (since) time was, (since) time began, (before) time began, all time, (since) the beginning of time, eternal ages, eternal life, eternity, course of eternity, utter (darkness), (the son) does (remain), ages of the eternities, (in and through) the eternities of the eternities, etc.

For 'aionios" the English versions use:- everlasting, eternal, eonian, age lasting, age during, age duringly, age abiding, (in) the time of the ages, age times, (before) the ages of time, of the ages, (in) the periods of past ages, (before) the ages began, for the ages of time, (before) the beginning of time, since the world began, (before) the times of the world, (before) times eternal, from eternity, from all eternity, for ever, unfailing, final, unending, permanent, immemorial, enduring, lasting, eternally, long, perpetual, an immeasurable eternity, last, heavenly.

The above lists, compiled by J. Kirk, Eonian, Everlasting or Age-lasting? (Sacred literature Concern, Los Angeles, undated) have been gathered from The Douay Version (1582), The King James Version (1611), Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott (1881), Rotherham's Emphasized Bible (1872), The English Revised Version (1881), The American Standard Version (1901), Young's Literal Translation, The Modern Reader's Bible (1898), The Numerical Bible (1899), The Twentieth Century New Testament (1901), The N.T. in Modern Speech (Weymouth) (1903), The Complete Bible in Modern Speech (Fenton) (1906), Moffat's N.T. (1922), Goodspeed's N.T. (1923), The Centenary N.T. (Montgomery) (1924), Darby's W.T., The Concordant N.T. (1930), The Numeric English N.T. (Ivan Panin) (1935), The N.T. or Covenant (Cunnington) (1935).

The present writer express his indebtedness to the late Mr. J. Kirk, for these lists.

From the above multiplicity of terms it is evident that there has been no uniformity among translators as to how these Greek words should be rendered in English. While it is to be expected that, in different contexts, the terms will carry varying shades of meaning, it should be possible by studying all the occurrences of the derivatives of the root, to arrive at a common basic significance. Since aion is used consistently in the Septuagint to render 'olam'. our study of that word should form a basis for work on Greek terms.

The N.T. however provides only two quotations from the O.T. containing 'olam', both in Hebrew. In chapter 1 verse 8, Psalm 45:6 is cited,

'Thy throne O God (is) olam wa ad'. The LXX has 'eis aiona aionos' Heb.1:8 alters the phrase to 'eis ton aiona tou aionos',

'unto (or into) the aeons of the aeon'.

These phrases and other similar one have no particular meaning in Greek.

They must be regarded as Hebrew constructions in Greek words. The use of the definite article in the N.T. text suggests that in the intervening 300 years since the translating of the LXX about 250 B.C. the concept of an aeon as a time period corresponding in some degree with 'the olam" had been established in biblical thought patterns. A simple explanation of the slight difference in the LXX phrase and the N.T. quotation may be that the psalm writer envisaged the rule of God as extending into the remote unforeseeable future and beyond any human prognostication, whereas the N.T. eschatology embraced the concept of several aeons to come, the conditions in the second being resultant from the activity of Christ as the Son in the preceding one; that is, one aeon the outcome of the other and hence 'the aeon of the aeon'. On the other hand the N.T. phrase may be due to the carrying over of the Hebrew construct idiom into the Greek. The influence of the normal Hebrew polytotonic expression of the superlative degree, upon the Greek N.T. phrase will be discussed later.

In Heb.5:6, Psa.110:4 'Thou shalt be a priest 'to olam', is quoted as in LXX 'to (or for) the aion'. No difficulty arise here. Rev.21:22 states that in the New Jerusalem, the seer saw 'no temple'. It matters little how one interprets the term 'New Jerusalem', the fact remains that the N.T. predicts that in those far off future times of the consummation of the aeonian purpose of God, sin and death, enmity and sorrow "shall be no more'. Where no sin remains, no sacrificial priestly service can be needed. the Son's office as priest therefore cannot be 'for ever", but only for the age or period in which any humanity are estranged from God.

The whole argument of this section of Hebrews is that the Aaronic priesthood and sacrificial ritual 'brought nothing to completion'. It was a treadmill of repetitive service which could not make the participants perfect. But Christ's priestly intercession is to continue "for ever", his priesthood will have no more attained its objective than the Aaronic. Once human estrangement has been replaced by universal reconciliation, no further priestly mediacy will be needed. Hence Christ is, 'priest after the order of Melchisadech for the age, 'eis ton aiona'. These remarks apply also to Heb.6:20, 7:17,21,24 and 28 each of which refers to the Son's priesthood.

By N.T. times there had developed in Hebrew Rabbinic thinking the concepts of 'the present age' and 'the age to come'. Since the N.T. writers were familiar with the LXX Greek version of the O.T., from which they frequently quoted , and which employed 'aion' (age) and 'aiones' (ages) to translate 'olam' and 'olamim', we can readily see how these Greek terms took on the meaning belonging to the Hebrew words. The phrases 'the present age' and 'the age to come' are common in the N.T.

The dozens of various English expressions used by translators to render 'aion' and its derivatives can readily be divided into two groups, (a) those relating to finite time such as 'age', 'aeon', 'old time', 'age-abiding' and the like; and (b) those pertaining to infinity, 'eternal', 'eternity', and probably in the translators' thinking, 'everlasting' and 'for ever'. The distinction in definition set out in Chapter 1 regarding 'eternal' and 'everlasting' should be kept in mind, but translators who use these terms for 'olam' and 'aion', often appear to regard them as synonyms, and along with many theological writers, employ them interchangeably with consequent confusion.

Since consideration of space precludes discussion of all of the 180 occurrences of 'aion' and its derivatives, a selection of typical cases follows, along with an examination of contexts, the objective being to discover the concept or concepts represented by these terms.

The questions to which answers will be sought are these:

(a) Does the basic meaning of 'an age' or 'aeon' of time pervade the whole N.T. usage and provide a basis for a consistent understanding of those writings?

(b) Does the use of the plural, 'aiones', indicate a concept of some recognizable periods within the total duration covered by biblical history and predictive prophecy?

(c) Are these expressions used to say something about 'eternity', thought of either as timelessness or as infinite time?

Definitive answers to these questions must basically affect our understanding of predictive prophecy and the N.T. teaching regarding human destiny.

[Return to main indexpage]