Konstan and Ramelli 4: Aiônios and aïdios in the Septuagint (Guest post, part 4)

Given the prevalence of the term aïdios in Greek literature down through the Hellenistic period, it comes as something of a surprise that in the Septuagint, aïdios is all but absent, occurring in fact only twice, both times in late books written originally in Greek: 4 Maccabees and Wisdom. In addition, there is one instance of the abstract noun, aïdiotês, again in Wisdom.

On the other hand, aiônios occurs with impressive frequency, along with aiôn; behind both is the Hebrew 'olâm.

A few examples of its uses must suffice. In Genesis, the perpetual covenant with human beings after the flood, commemorated by the rainbow, is termed diathêkê aiônios, just as is that between God and Abraham and his descendants; in Exodus it is the compact between God and Israel sanctified by the observance of the Sabbath, which in turn is called “an eternal sign” of this covenant across the generations and ages (aiônes). Here we see the sense of aiônios relative to aiôn, understood as a time in the remote past or future.

In general, the sense of aiônios is that of something lasting over the centuries, or relating to remote antiquity, rather than absolute eternity.

Now, when the same term is employed in reference to God, e.g., theos aiônios, the question arises: does aiônios mean simply “long-lasting” in these contexts as well, or is a clear idea of God’s everlastingness present in at least some of these passages? Take, for example, Exod 3:15: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever [aiônion], and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations [geneôn geneais].” The emphasis on successive generations, past and future, suggests perhaps that aiônios here connotes repeated ages, rather than a strictly infinite period of time. Many of the other examples come from relatively late texts, but even in these it is difficult to decide which sense is intended, in the absence of the kind of precise language to be found in the philosophers but alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. In some cases, moreover, the reference may be to the next epoch or aiôn, rather than to an infinite time as such.

Of particular interest is the mention in Tobias (3:6) of the place of the afterlife as a topos aiônios, the first place in the Bible in which aiônios unequivocally refers to the world to come. In 2 Maccabees, the doctrine of resurrection is affirmed and aiônios is used with reference to life in the future world.

In sum, the Septuagint almost invariably employs aiônios, in association with the various senses of aiôn, in the sense of a remote or indefinite or very long period of time (like 'olâm), with the possible connotation of a more absolute sense of “eternal” when the term is used in reference to God—but this connotation derives from the idea of God. In certain late books, like those of Tobias and the Maccabees, there is a reference to life in the aiôn, understood in an eschatological sense as the world to come, in opposition to the present one (kosmos, kairos).

The adjective aïdios occurs only twice in the Septuagint. In Wisdom, which is saturated with the Greek philosophical lexicon, Wisdom is defined as “a reflection of the eternal [aidion] light” that is God. In 4 Maccabees, an impious tyrant is threatened with “fire aiônion” for the entire age or world to come (eis holon ton aiôna). But here we find the expression bios aïdios or “eternal life” as well, in reference to the afterlife of the martyrs; this blessed state, moreover, is opposed to the lasting destruction of their persecutor in the world to come. This contrast between the parallel but antithetical expressions olethros aiônios and bios aïdios is notable. Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is, a future aiôn, but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term aiônios, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term aïdios, denoting a strictly endless condition.

[The post tomorrow shall consider aiônios and aïdios in the New Testament]


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