Want to be careful here, but I do think this is question worth looking at from an accurate translation perspective.
How should we best translate "aionos"?
This is important as it occurs in various phrases such as "aionos pyr" translated in the OEB now as "eternal fire." And ""aionos zoe" translated by the OEB and others as "eternal life." And "aiōnios kolasis" translated now as "eternal punishment."
I have seen arguments online that suggest that "aionos" is the adjectival from of the noun "aion" which means "age." http://biblehub.com/greek/165.htm
That if this were an actual modern English word, the most accurate translation would be "age-y." Or "relating to an age or ages."
But the closest translation into modern English of words commonly used would be "of the ages."
This argument suggest that when we translate this as "eternal" it is a confusing choice, as that denotes a time duration, where they claim the actual word "aionos" does not either way. They claim "aionios" does not mean "eternal" nor "temporary." Rather, it speaks to things which pertain to the ages of time, whether or not they are infinite or passing.
So if accurate, phrases now listed as "eternal life" should be "life of the ages." Phrases that include "eternal punishment" should be "punishment of the ages," and "eternal fire" should be "fire of the ages."
What do folks think? Anyone who knows Greek more deeply have an opinion?
An example commentary on this issue is from N.T. Wright, from How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
“God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.”
You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the "age to come.”
But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (pp. 44-45)
You can see his ideas in his translation of john 3:14-16 in his own Kingdom New Testament translation:
So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.
This is an important issue and one we shouldn’t rush into. But I agree we also shouldn’t just accept the inherited King James wording. NT Wright is not a crank on the fringes of scholarship after all! We don’t have many actual ‘eternal’s in the OEB, but we do have a fair number of ‘everlasting’s and ‘lasting’s and ‘without end’s and the occasional ‘immortal’!
Thanks. I figure bigger questions like this that might effect word choice across multiple dozens of verses can be handled each in their own thread.
This post was updated on .
In reply to this post by Timchambers
Wright is speculating. I don't see where he makes a point-by-point case from either Scripture or rabbinic literature that would support his translation choice. He is also relying on the composition/division fallacy, by saying that because Jews of Paul's time used aionos to refer to the Messianic Age, therefore every use of it refers to that age.
I started researching this by looking up occurrences of the word 'olam in the Hebrew Bible. I agree with Wright that much. Nothing is more likely than that aionos is a Hebraism. It probably is the Greek word that Jews like Paul used when they wanted to refer to the Hebrew word 'olam and all it stood for to them.
I didn't get far. It is obvious from the first few uses in Genesis that 'olam simply means "beyond knowing." It comes from the concept of hiddenness. Remember the character Gollum in Tolkien's stories? Yeah. His name is just 'Olam in English letters. He was the Hidden One. As Tolkien said, "Creativity is the art of concealing your sources."
The most telling use is in Genesis 6:4, where the author says, המה הגברים אשר מעולם, אנשי השם Heimah ha-gibborim asher me-'olam, anashei ha-shem. "These were the heroes of prehistory, the ones you have heard of." 'Olam refers here to a time beyond knowing, and this time is in the past.
As usual, the solution is simpler than we make it. Well, not perfectly simple. We could say "endless," or "perpetual," "infinite" or "unfathomable," but those are all really long words. "Infinite" probably comes the closest, because it is not only a word about time, but also about space, as well as things that are beyond our understanding.
My daughter is going to college to be an English professor. And she laments the shallowness and inflexibility of English words. It's true. We've made our words so specific that they are hard to use to translate from a language which uses them broadly and figuratively. It's hard to find a word to take the place of 'olam.
I think Wright's instinct is correct, that when a first-century Jew uses aionos, he is thinking of the age to come. But that is only a part of the picture. Using simpler words lets the reader think of the whole picture.
A good discussion on how to best translate "aionos" or "aion," worth further digging. I've been looking to see other conversations on this online and will post some that seem like good food for thought, here is one from a discussion forum on the question:
The Word "Aion"
The word "aion" means age or that which pertains to the ages. Ages have beginnings and endings. Their duration’s are for indefinite periods of time. There is no time element to eternity and therefore the word is eternal is totally inappropriate translation. God made the aions: "by whom also He made the worlds [aions]" (Heb.1:2). God is called the God of the aions or the "ever-lasting [aionial] God" (Rom.16:26). There was a time before the aions: "according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world [aionios] began" (2Tim.1:9). We live in the present aion: "Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world [aion]" (Matt.13:39). There is an age after this aion: "it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world [aion], neither in the world [aion] to come.(Matt.13:32).
There are aions to look forward to: "that in the ages [aions] to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace" (Eph.2:7). Jesus reigns to the aion of the aion: "But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever [to the aion of the aion]" (Heb.1:8). At the end of this age: "then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all" (ICor.15:24,28).
During this time of the aions, Christians have aionial life (Jn.3:16) aionial salvation (Heb.5:9) and an aionial inheritance (Heb.9:15).
This post was updated on .
Another discussion online suggested traslating "aionos" as "lasting" I think from the idea of the word as in essence "age-lasting" - and he makes an interesting case for it:
"So, once again, I affirm that there is nothing inherent in the word which indicates that a specific length of time is part of the meaning. The word "aionios" or "lasting" can be applied to a relatively short period (such as Jonathan's imprisonment), a much longer period (such as a life time), an even longer period (such as the durability of a stone wall), much longer yet (the durability of the hills) or a never ending period (such as the existence of God or our life in Christ).
Thus we should not affirm that "aionios" has a whole lot of different meanings just because it has a whole lot of different applications. It never means "lasting for 3 days". It never means "lasting for a life time". It never means "lasting for hundreds of years". It never means "lasting for thousands of years". It never means "everlasting". It simply means "lasting"...."
I was surprised today when I saw the word 'lasting' in Matthew 25.
Unfortunately I am not a Greek scholar but 'lasting' appears to have a very different meaning than most other Bibles that use the word 'eternal' or 'everlasting'. Maybe 'infinite' would be a better alternative.
To say that our time in Heaven is only 'lasting' does not seem to do justice to the passage and I am sure others will comment on the duration of punishment.
'lasting' conveys the impression of a length of time that isn't amazingly long.
I am not a Greek scholar either, but I am looking them up to try to find the best translation for ""Aionos" - and the discussion I listed above were making the case that the word did not mean "eternal" or "everlasting." But rather "of the age" or "pertaining to the age." And "age" or "Aion" seems to mean in essence "period of time."
But it does not appear clear exactly how long that was, and seems to have been applied to both long and short periods of time. In all cases those periods of time were not unending, however. So it would seem whatever terms we finalize on should not be either. To me that would mean "infitnite," "everlasting" or "eternal" are all mistranslations.
I found one more source:
Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent, D.D., Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary, New York:
"Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (peri ouravou, i. 9, 15) said, “The period which includes the whole time of one’s life is called the aeon of each one.” Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (aion) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il v.685; Od v.160). It is not, however, limited to human life. It signifies any period in the course of the millennium, the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not “a stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of a fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached.…The adjective aionious in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by their connotation….Aionios means “enduring through” or “pertaining to a period of time.” Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods….Out of the 150 instances in LXX, [Greek Old Testament] four-fifths imply limited duration. For a few instances, see Gen. xlviii. 4; Num. x. 8; xv. 15; Prov. xxii. 28; Jonah ii.6; Hab. iii. 6; Isa lxi. 17.4"
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