The Evangelical Universalist Forum

BDAG on aionios

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), revised and edited by Frederick William Danker, University of Chicago Press, 2000. This popular Lexicon has come up a few times e.g.

So I thought I’d attach a scan (done by Luke!) of it’s definition of “aionios”:

Well done for scanning it and getting it up the forum. :smiley:

It might be a good idea to add the full biographical details so a not to infringe copyright. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), revised and edited by Frederick William Danker, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Do you reckon it’s ok now? :slight_smile:

Good work honcho, let’s fire up the debate.

“A long period of time, without reference to beginning or end.”
Why couldn’t this apply to Matthew 24, Luke?

BDAG is like a dictionary put together by academics. Academics are flawed, like all people, but it’s a benchmark, some-sort of widely accepted standard nonetheless. This of course doesn’t mean individual words can be hotly disputed. For example in the women in leadership debate, the Greek word kephale is taken by many Egalitarians as meaning source and by Complementarians as meaning head or authority.

So the question is does BDAG get it completely wrong, which is a lot more serious than saying a few of the references are wrong. If it’s the former than the concept of having an accepted dictionary is called into question.

We have a problem here…
Wouldn’t having an “accepted dictionary” be akin to having an “infallible pope”- a way to resolve issues that cannot be questioned?

Who declares that a dictionary is the “accepted standard”? I have high respect for this particular lexicon and no assurance that it is incorrect here. But in all my evangelical training, I have never heard this concept that anything in scholarly discussion could be settled by citing any dictionary like it was the “accepted” authority. Students of Scripture and ancient languages debate the meaning of words in particular contexts all of the time. And the questions rest on no different authority than those who produced the dictionaries can rest on: appealing to the usage found in ancient manuscripts and conjectures as to which meanings do the most justice to them. Citing one particular book’s conclusion as the “standard” seems to me to add nothing to the only data that matters in linguistics.

I’m very eager to hear your response to Bob, Luke!

I agree with roofus and Bob. No matter how widely accepted a lexicon is, to uncritically accept whatever it says without question is only to perpetuate the errors of those who contributed to it if they have (whether unintentionally or because of theological bias) made any.

Now, since the New Testament was not written by Greeks but by Hebrew men using the Greek language, shouldn’t we expect the idioms and word-meanings found in the NT to be, in general, derived not from secular Greek literature, but rather from the Old Testament Scriptures? While I’m certainly not suggesting that 1st century secular Greek works should be disregarded as irrelevant, shouldn’t the LXX be considered more appropriate and useful in determining the meaning(s) that Christ and the authors of the NT (who, of course, were Jewish) would have ascribed to the words aion and aionios rather than, say, the works of a 4th century BC Classical Greek philosopher? I mean, assuming there was such a thing in existence in the 1st century as the Hebrew Bible translated into Koine Greek, shouldn’t it be one of the primary sources to which one should refer when trying to ascertain what a 1st century Jew most likely meant when he used the words aion and aionios in a work written in Koine Greek? Or am I missing something?

As far as the definitions of aionios provided by BDAG, I think the first definition given (“pertaining to a long period of time” that is past) could apply to the word as it appears in the LXX in a number of places (e.g., Job 22:15; Ps 24:7; Ps 24:9; Ps 77:5; Pro 22:28; Pro 23:10; Isa 58:12; Isa 61:4; Isa 63:11; Jer 6:16; Jer 18:15; Eze 26:20; Eze 36:2; Hab 3:6). But I wonder what definition of aionios BDAG would consider most appropriate when a time of limited future duration is in view? Because the LXX abounds with such examples (e.g., Gen 17:7; Gen 17:8; Gen 17:13; Gen 17:19; Gen 48:4; Ex 12:14; Ex 12:17; Ex 27:21; Ex 28:43; Ex 29:28; Ex 30:21; Ex 31:16; Ex 31:17; Lev 6:18; Lev 6:22; Lev 7:34; Lev 7:36; Lev 10:9; Lev 10:15; Lev 16:29; Lev 16:31; Lev 16:34; Lev 17:7; Lev 23:14; Lev 23:21; Lev 23:31; Lev 23:41; Lev 24:3; Lev 24:8; Lev 24:9; Lev 25:34; Num 10:8; Num 15:15; Num 18:8; Num 18:11; Num 18:19; Num 18:23; Num 19:10; Num 19:21; Num 25:13; 1Ch 16:17; Job 3:18; Job 10:22; Job 21:11; Job 41:4; Ps 76:4; Ps 78:66; Ps 105:10; Isa 24:5; Isa 55:13; Isa 60:15; Jer 5:22; Jer 18:16; Jer 20:17; Jer 23:40; Jer 25:9; Jer 25:12; Jer 51:39; Eze 35:5; Eze 35:9; Jon 2:6; Mic 2:9).

While some might see the remaining occurrences of aionios in the LXX as falling under the last two definitions provided by BDAG (e.g., Gen 9:12; Gen 9:16; Gen 21:33; Ex 3:15; 2Sa 23:5; Job 33:12; Job 34:17; Ps 112:6; Ps 139:24; Isa 26:4; Isa 33:14; Isa 35:10; Isa 40:28; Isa 45:17; Isa 51:11; Isa 54:4; Isa 54:8; Isa 55:3; Isa 56:5; Isa 60:19; Isa 60:20; Isa 61:7-8; Isa 63:12; Jer 31:3; Jer 32:40; Jer 50:5; Eze 16:60; Eze 37:26; Dan 4:3; Dan 4:34; Dan 7:14; Dan 7:27; Dan 9:24; Dan 12:2), I think even these examples can be understood as referring to temporary duration rather than endless duration in an absolute sense. At any rate, most would agree that, while long and indefinite duration is most likely in view in the former examples, endless duration in an absolute sense is not. So I’m not sure why we can’t understand aionios in Matt 25:46 (for example) to have the same or similar meaning as it has in the LXX translation of Num 25:13 or Jer 25:9.

I like the concluding definition for aionios found in The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (edited by James Hope Moulton and George Milligan): “In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether the horizon be at an infinite distance, or whether it lies no farther than the span of a Caesar’s life.” That is, the word stands for a “hidden” and indefinite duration of time, whether past or future. This seems to be the meaning of olam in the Hebrew Bible, and since aion and aionion seem to have been employed by the inspired writers of the NT as the Greek equivalents of this single Hebrew word, this definition would be most consistent. And as it seems likely that Jesus would’ve spoken Hebrew or Aramaic (at least, when he was speaking to his disciples, like in Matt 25:46), the word he would have used would have either been olam or alam.

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That is the definition consensus of many academic scholars through the ages. It is just ignored by those who don’t want it to be, simply to accommodate their view of salvation and hell.

It is odd to say the lexicon is flawed but we’ll treat is as a benchmard anyhow. Why not say, it’s flawed and we know it so we’re just doing the best we can. Perhaps it’s because we can’t point fingers at that point.

Aaron, you need to read my comment more closely, you made the dramatic claim about an “infallible pope” when I simply said that while a dictionary provides a common standard, it’s nonetheless the product of flawed people and open to debate. Although if we throw out the whole idea of standard definitions we enter the bizarre territory of subjectivity.

Doesn’t this support BDAG’s verdict?


What does “who” mean? What does “declares” mean, what does “dictionary” mean, etc etc That’s a silly question Bob, dictionaries have been used for centuries as a commonly agreed standard.

If we were to debate BDAG’s statement, you would only use other lexical data, which would be just as open to debate as BDAG. In other words what argument could you provide that would be any more reliable than BDAG?

Actually it was Roofus who made the “infallible pope” comment. :slight_smile:

Perhaps I misread it, but BDAG’s verdict seemed to be that aionios can only denote limited duration when it is used in reference to that which is past. But The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament seemed to be saying that, depending on the subject with which it is associated, aionios can refer to limited future duration as well (which, as shown in my previous post, is how the word is frequently used in the LXX).

My bad, my apologies, clearly I am not infallible! Roofus needs to answer that rebuke then.

So you’d agree Moulton and Milligan are leaving open the fact that aionios could be translated as “eternal/infinite”? (Furthermore I don’t see how they are in disagreement with the definitions BDAG provides!)

I thought the point was that the horizon is not in view. That being the case, I’m not sure how you could translate it as “infinite”? You have no way of knowing whether it does or does not have an end if you can’t see that far.

However, “eternal” could be ok, depending on how it’s understood, since it’s focus is on the lasting-continuousness rather than on the not-endingness. But “eternal” has come to be used interchangeably with “infinite” so that causes complications. Eonian would be the better word.


Yes! But I think Moulton and Milligan also recognized that even when referring to future duration, aionios did not, in itself, convey the idea of endlessness - only a “hidden” duration, whether it be finite or infinite. If aionios is to be understood as depicting “that of which the horizon is not in view,” then the word by itself doesn’t tell us whether the duration is to be understood as limited or unlimited. This must be determined by other considerations. I should also add that I don’t think Moulton and Milligan’s definition of aionios is necessarily the ideal one; I just find it more helpful than the definitions provided by BDAG (which seem to disregard how aionios is used numerous times in the LXX).

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding their definitions, but (unlike Moulton and Milligan) BDAG doesn’t seem to leave open the fact that aionios can refer to future duration that is limited. In the first definition they provide (where aionios is said to mean “pertaining to a long period of time”) they seem to exclude future duration (for they add, “long ago”). Or do you understand them to be including future duration as well as past duration in their first definition?

While throwing out infallibility, you seem to be presenting two options in how one views lexical authority:
1: A common standard, nonetheless the product of flawed people and open to debate.
2: If we throw out the whole idea of standard definitions we enter the bizarre territory of subjectivity.

Neither option seems to provide any answer, for if we debate the common standard we risk entering the “bizarre territory of subjectivity”. If we depart from the common standard after debate, we end up in this territory, so why debate it?

Nicely put Aaron, and thanks you raised some points I hadn’t thought of before. I agree with SOTW that it certainly seems that the definition is biased by “their view of salvation and hell”, although they would accuse us of the same :unamused:


This is a bit deja vu. But to say that it is “silly” to question that someone’s preferred lexicon is the “agreed standard” may mean that our diference is simply semantic (if you only mean it’s a convenient place to start the discussion, most would agree that that would be ‘standard’). But it seems that our education’s perceptions about how academic discussions work just differs (mine was at UCLA and masters & doctorate at Fuller Seminary).

I’ve asked about understandings of “aionios” with my profs there and many other conservative N.T. profs during the last 40 years who endorse BDAG and an endless hell. My impression is that their and my understanding of its’ basic origins and range of meaning is the same, even though we might see its’ connotation differently in a specific instance of its’ use.

In such cases, its’ implication must then be debated in terms of its’ context and compared with uses in other relevant literature. I’ve just never seen any of them think that it was relevant with such questions to just appeal to a certain reference work. So I don’t understand how insistence that one particular definition or work needs to be accepted as the “standard” adds anything to what scholars do who debate a word’s meaning in a specific passage.