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How Eternal is Eternal?--Part 2

Nov 04, 2009

There are many scholars who tell us that no ancient language had a direct expression of "eternity" as we know it today. The Hebrew olam literally means "obscurity" and expresses the idea of an indefinite or an unknown period of time. Other languages follow similar patterns.

The Hebrew Old Testament began to be translated into Greek around 280 B.C., that is, about 40 years after the death of Alexander the Great. His conquests made Greek the common and commercial language from Italy to the Euphrates. In the first century, Paul wrote a letter to the saints in Rome using the Greek language, knowing that it was the common language used there, which all would understand. There were many Latin dialects in Italy and North Africa, but Greek was the language that most of them had in common.

Alexander the Great built the city of Alexandria in Egypt and invited Jews to immigrate there. Many did, and within a generation many of them no longer spoke Hebrew. This created a need for a Greek translation of Scripture. Hence the Septuagint was produced by 70 Hebrew scholars.

When they came to the Hebrew word olam, they rendered it by the Greek equivalent, aion andaionian. So technically, it matters little how the Greeks actually used aion. What really matters is how the Hebrews used olam. The Greek term was only the closest word they could find to express a Hebrew concept. So even if one was speaking or reading Greek, it was necessary to think Hebrew.

Even so, aion was used by the Greeks to mean an eon, or age, a period of time that might vary widely, but in the end it was a limited period of time.

As Rome consolidated its empire, Greek remained the language of culture for a long time. Even so, there were many local Latin dialects throughout Italy and North Africa. In particular, the Latin spoken in North Africa was quite different from that spoken in Italy. The first Latin translation of Scripture (into "Old Latin") was of the "African" type, largely free of Greek influence.

From about 190-220 A.D., Tertullian of Carthage, who was a Roman lawyer, used this Old Latin version, which is how we even know of its existence. When it was introduced into Italy, its grammar broke many of the rules of more refined Latin and its roughness grated on their nerves. And so many took it upon themselves to make corrections and refinements. Soon there were a multitude of Latin translations, and it was said that there were as many translations as there were manuscripts!

This was the situation in the fifth century when Jerome decided to produce a standard Latin translation of the Bible. Up to that time, the Septuagint had been the most widely used version, but the need for a Latin translation was by this time quite apparent. So he spent considerable time learning Hebrew from the rabbis.

In the course of translation, Jerome had to translate the Hebrew olam and the Greek aion into Latin. Essentially, he had two Latin words to choose from, each being used in the various Latin dialects. These were seculum and aeternum.

Seculum, as defined in Latin dictionaries, meant a generation, an age, the world, the times, the spirit of the times, and a period of a hundred years (being the outer limits of a man's life span).

The more important question is how Jerome viewed the meaning of the word aeternum. Being fluent in Greek, Jerome certainly knew the meaning of aionian. He must have known that the Latin wordaevum, which (letter for letter) was almost identical to aion, was used to denote "lifetime, life, an age." According to Alexander Thomson's book, Whence Eternity?, page 20, "Aevum is never found in Latin standing for endless time."

On page 17, Thomson writes,

"Farrar says that even the Latin Fathers who had a competent knowledge of Greek knew that aeternum was used in the same loose way, for an indefinite period, in Latin writers, as aionion was used in Greek."

Jerome appears to have compromised by using both seculum and aeternum interchangeably. Out of 130 occurrences of aion in the New Testament, Jerome translated it seculum 101 times andaeternum 27 times.

A thousand years later, when the Reformers began translating the Bible into the common languages of the people, they generally followed Jerome's lead. Where Jerome used seculum, the English translators used "world." Where Jerome used aeternum, Tyndale particularly used "for ever."

In the 16th century, Phavorinus' Etymologicum Magnum states with a certain irony,

"Aion is the imperceptible (aidios) and the unending (ateleutetos), as it seems to the theologian."

In other words, theologians were equating aion with other Greek words that were used in the New Testament to express the idea of unending time. Phavorinus decided not to contradict established Roman doctrine, but he softly registered his protest.

He knew, of course, that a thousand years earlier, the Emperor Justinian had taken it upon himself to extend the meaning of aionian in Church doctrine to indicate unending time. Justinian wrote a letter (about a century after Jerome's time), in which he says,

"The holy church of Christ teaches an endless eonian (ateleutetos aionios) life for the just, and endless (ateleutetos) punishment for the wicked."

It is obvious that Justinian had to add a word to aionios to make it truly mean "eternal." He is the emperor who called for the Church Council of Constantinople (548), where Origen and others were anathematized for the first time. Justinian objected to the long-held view of the Restoration of All Things and wanted to ban it officially. Even so, the Church Council merely condemned Origen's view that Satan and his angels would be saved in the end, without referencing the ultimate reconciliation of all men.

Universal Reconciliation was not actually condemned by a Church Council until 696 A.D.

The idea of never-ending torture for most of humanity came primarily out of the Latin Fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Their view was that evil was a force apart from God. Mankind was conspersis damnata, massa perditionis, "one damned batch and mass of perdition," and only a few would be saved out of it. With such a view, it is not surprising that they would have extended the meaning of aeternus to infinite time.

In the end, however, it does not really matter what the Latin words originally meant or how these words have changed in meaning over the years. All that really matters is what the Greek words meant when the New Testament writers used them. And more importantly, what matters is not what the Greek word means but what its Hebrew equivalent means (olam). The Septuagint had used Greek words to express Hebrew thought. Though the Greek meanings were usually near to the Hebrew thought patterns, certain words like hades did not adequately express the Hebrew concept of sheol.

In the case of olam, however, the Greek word aion was a near equivalent. Neither expressed the idea of endless time, but obscure or indefinite time. The Latin aeternum started out as a proper translation, but later it was extended to mean "eternity" as we know it today.

This is the final part of a series titled "How Eternal is Eternal?" To view all parts, click the link below.

How Eternal is Eternal?

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