Konstan and Ramelli 5: Aiônios and aïdios in the New Testament (Guest post, part 5)

In the New Testament, when the reference is to God, aiônios may be presumed to signify “eternal” in the sense of “perpetual.” Nevertheless, the precise sense of aiônios in the New Testament, as in the Hebrew Bible, cannot be resolved with the help of explicit definitions or statements equating it with terms such as “ungenerated” and “imperishable,” of the sort found in the philosophers and in Philo of Alexandria. Hence, the positions adopted by religious scholars in this controversy have embraced both extremes. On the one hand, William Russell Straw affirms of aiôn that, in the Septuagint, “it is never found with the meaning of ‘life,’ ‘lifetime’ . . . The majority of instances can bear only the meaning ‘eternal.’” As for aiônios, “It may be rendered ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ in every occurrence.” Peder Margido Myhre, on the contrary, argues that the Platonic sense of the term as “metaphysical endlessness” is entirely absent in the New Testament. I quote: “Since, in all Greek literature, sacred and profane, aiônios is applied to finite things overwhelmingly more frequently than to things immortal, no fair critic can assert . . . that when it is qualifying the future punishment it has the stringent meaning of metaphysical endlessness . . . The idea of eternal torment introduced into these words of the Bible by a theological school that was entirely ignorant of the Greek language would make God to be a cruel tyrant.”

We turn now to the two uses of the more strictly philosophical term aïdios in the New Testament. The first (Rom 1:20) refers unproblematically to the power and divinity of God. In the second occurrence, however (Jude 6), aïdios is employed of eternal punishment—not that of human beings, however, but of evil angels, who are imprisoned in darkness “with eternal chains” (desmois aïdiois). But there is a qualification: “until the judgment of the great day.” The angels, then, will remain chained up until Judgment Day; we are not informed of what will become of them afterwards. Why aïdios of the chains, instead of aiônios, used in the next verse of the fire of which the punishments of the Sodomites is an example? Perhaps because they continue from the moment of the angels’ incarceration, at the beginning of the world, until the judgment that signals the entry into the new aiôn: thus, the term indicates the uninterrupted continuity throughout all time in this world—this could not apply to human beings, who do not live through the entire duration of the present universe; to them applies rather the sequence of aiônes or generations.

[tomorrow's post—the last in the series—will consider the use of aiônios and aïdios in Origen]


Anonymous said…
This is a wonderful series Robin. Thank you for featuring it.

Along with Helena Keizer's "Life Time Entirety" (online Google Book!) this work really should at least lay to rest the "always everlasting" kind of interpretation.

One small point: I think "Eternal God" appears only once in the OT (olam) and once in the NT(aionios). So my feeling is that we shouldn't start saying there's a shift of nuance, here, towards the "everlasting".
Just leave it as "God of the whole Age" in the OT passage, and as Eternal (Holy/Divine)God in the NT.
Anonymous said…
just checked the texts referred to above, and need to make a slight correction, in that there's 3 in the OT:

Gen 21:33 has El-olam
Isa 40:28 has Elohe-olam
Jer 10:10 has melekh-olam (referring to God)

Rom 16:26 has tou aioniou Theou

In our liturgies and prayers we so often use the phrase "eternal God" (and "Everlasting God").
So, isn't it surprising to find the actual phrase so few times in the Bible?

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