I recently emailed Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins, a linguist who also has both biblical training and missionary experience, and asked him to comment on the development of the idea of eternal and the usage of the Greek aionios. His reply is posted with his permission.
Edited to add … this has now been revised and some points better clarified, and posted as an article on OBJ’s website:
Thanks for this interesting question. I was just considering this question recently.
A major problem in such discussions is to consider the starting place the English words we have to use, or that commonly come up in our discussions in our own language about these philosophical concepts. Then the Greek words are assumed to “mean” one of these English words or another.
If we find an equivalent English usage for the word, the Greek word aionios mean “of the ages.” So associating it with “eternal” or “endless” in English entails a couple of stages of adjustment and association with the English concepts entailed by the word in the modern English rationalist and analytical worldview of our era. The word has/had meaning in the Greek worldview and cultural context that does not match the modern English-language worldview and cultural context.
(Actually the argument comes not from the contemporary period but the earlier Modern period, based on Enlightenment and Rationalist thinking. The Modernist era has been surpassed with a more dynamic way of thinking that tries to focus on the relational and dynamic usages.)
The concept I have of the Greek worldview concept and usage connotation of the Greek word aionios/aionion is “timelessness.” Neither of the English words “eternal” or “endless” match that connotation in the Greek worldview. In western and English-language philosophical usage, “eternal” and “endless” do not mean the same thing either.
Normally the underlying concept of “eternal” would be closer to the ancient Greek philosophical idea that the universe was not created but always existed, and the accompanying idea that ultimate reality exists outside “time.” Time is understood, as it is in modern and current scientific thought, to be a measure of our experience of sequence. The Greek idea commonly represented by the English word “eternal” is “outside of time,” unaffected by time.”
The English term “endless” necessarily entails the idea of time, or sequence. This also represents many of the components or symbols we find in biblical references to the new age. The idea of personal experience is still there, the idea of relationships with others is still there, and the metaphors used include presence and relationships with animals and among the different animals to each other, other nations and kings and administrations.
That is, the same concepts and relationships we care familiar with in our common life, that define and make up our life and meaning as humans, these are all reference points in the thinking of what the New Age would look like.
But the idea of how long never appears in focus. The focus is on difference of kind, quality, style. Time length or lack of it does not seem to be the point. It is the focus on peace and justice and harmony that are in focus.
I don’t see that much difference in the usages and connotations in Classical and Koine Greek. Both were far from the abstract analytical thinking of the modern European era. Imposing the idea of English “endless” introduces time sequence and depth, and I don’t see that the Greek word entailed that. It was focusing of the relational and moral situation. Things would be different, safe, just, positive, in the direct rule of God. This is how Jesus talked also about the “Rule of God” (traditional term Kingdom of God).
One problem with the Modernist mindset in rationally analyzing and categorizing everything is that it wants to make distinctions, clear and firm distinctions, when in fact that is not how real life works. Reality is dynamic and especially the way words are used and the way people think is in metaphors, symbols and association with previous experiences or understandings. “Definitions” are just summaries of how people use words.
Words in one language don’t “mean” any word in another language. Each language is a complex set of conceptual components that we use dynamically to express our ideas, experiences and reflections, and convey them among other human beings.
The target language worldview concepts and usages are the context to determine “meaning,” not the language we’d like to interpret it into. So many times questions asked and meaning sought in the modern analytical thinking are not related to the worldview concepts and focus of the ancient cultures and the Greek or other languages that reflect those cultures and times.
I recently made some notes while thinking about this when the question came up. Maybe these comments and reflections will be helpful.
I understand the meaning of the word aionion in Greek to carry the connotation of ‘pertaining to the age’ or ‘age enduring.’ The problems in interpreting it as the English “eternal” or “everlasting” are several. First of all, a word in one language and the culture it represents does not “mean” a word or the cultural concept it carries in another character.
Keep in mind that a “definition” is only a summary of how a word may be used. Meanings are all determined by usage. This what makes human speech so creative, dynamic, expressive and flexible. Inadequate assumptions about words, language and meaning can mislead us from the beginning.
So we first take a step back to look at the cultural or worldview concept. What we do is look at how a word may be used. We honor the language and its cultural integrity. We do not assume in language that there is some objective authoritative “meaning” or “definition” that prescribes what a word can or must mean. That is not how language works.
We consider what underlying ideas are carried in words in a particular language. No language is independent of a historical, cultural context and the worldview of the culture using that language.
Thus in the strictest term, a word in Greek does not “mean” in English. We must determine what it means in the original language-culture then search for a similar way to represent or approximate that in the target culture-language. This is what Robertson’s amazing Historical Grammar of the Greek New Testament tries to do.
He does not “define” words, in some authoritative abstract concepts, like the modern rationalist mind would prefer. Robertson does not try to find a clear, definite box in which to file away a word in Greek. He looks into the usage of a word or grammar form and surveys to breadth and variety of usage through history and across contexts.
This dynamic approach attempts to honor the integrity of texts of any age or language and the language in which they are framed.
Meaning Deeper than Words
The problem goes much deeper than word meanings. Words have meaning only as they are used [See my article [url=http://orvillejenkins.com/langlife/thickthinll.html]“Through Thick and Thin”] to represent mental concepts deriving from a particular worldview. The ancient world in any culture was considerably different from the modern materialistic culture focused on scientific analysis and linear reasoning to deduce “facts” as the essence of reality.
The word in English “everlasting” assumes a context of time sequence and measurement, which the word “aionion” does not. The word everlasting indicates a starting point and moving towards what would be an ending point, but without a real ending point. That is, the focus seems to still be on sequence. The Greek word, and the messianic idea it attempts to represent, is focused on condition or character, a new age that is different from the current age, in kind and quality. The focus is not on how long in terms of time sequence.
The Greeks, as well as all the ancient peoples, were dynamic and relational in their understanding of the world, even the “philosophical” thinkers. We call those cultures concrete-relational, or oral-relational. Modern literacy and the resultant way of thinking analytical since the Enlightenment has affected the actual way people think.
The western Rationalist approach to knowledge, reducing matters down to components and analyzing them by linear deduction, has led to a high focus on time sequence and cause and effect by “independent” actors, rather than the connected, relational concepts of reality dominant in the rest of the modern world and universal in ancient human cultures.
It Does Not Compute
That means the ideas of “everlasting” or “eternal” in English has a time-sequence meaning you cannot get away from. This is just not involved in the Greek (really Hebrew) idea of a New Age. The New Age is what is referred to in the New Testament, based on the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, of the Rule of God (traditionally interpreted in the European Imperial terms as “Kingdom of God”).
The modern western linear thinking, dominant since the 1600s-1700s Enlightenment, focuses on time sequence and cause and effect physical sequences. This is not involved in the concepts like aionion, a grammatical phrase in a word, focusing on a situation or condition, related to an “Age.”
Focus is not on how long it is but the differentness or newness of it. Again, the context is relational, experiential. The Messiah was introducing a New Age. Read the Gospels and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God and you will get a sense of the dynamic urgency and presence of this.
“The Kingdom is Within You” and similar phrases. Jesus is actually presenting an alternative reality that can be experienced now. Length of time or future-ness is not involved. There is always the future hope aspect, as things progress toward a complete implementation or fulfillment. But the focus is on whether God is ruling or a human authority is ruling, deciding how we will live and relate. (Revelation, contrast between God’s Rule and Imperial Rule.)
Greek concepts were dynamic likewise, though if you start from a western analytical point of view, the philosophers certainly look more rational and deductive, but the actual content arises in a different context.
This word does not deal with time, but with era. Aeon or Eon is the form of the root word as we still use it, borrowed directly from the Greek, with the Latin phonetic spelling. The form used here is a whole phrase in the modern choppy syntax of English and other European languages, except German and modern Greek keep the “phrase-in-a-word.”
The somewhat equivalent phrase would be “referring to the Age” “in regard to the Age” “For the Age” “Of the Age” depending on the context of the discourse or the interpretation determined to meet the syntax requirements of English. It is genitive or possessive in form. So “Of the Age” is a standard formal form of it. And it is PLURAL. Thus you will also see it as “Of the Ages.”
So it carries the concept of the New Age, which is already here, as a choice among “Ages” or experiences. This is how the current and the future hopes relate in the idea of the word. The word meaning and its worldview concept does not match the modern western view underlying the English word “eternal” and its European language equivalents.
The worldview assumptions are different, not focused on the passage or duration (lack of duration) of time, but on a New Age. The focus is on a new orientation to life, a time of justice and peace, with a concern for the level, quality, moral character of life. You will find this practical life-based understanding among most of the world’s cultures today.
Related to the Philosophical discussion above, the translation “eternal” is an accommodation to English-culture concepts. The idea even there has changed from the 1300s when the first English translations were made from Latin then Greek, captured in the King James Version and carried over by tradition in some modern versions. It is a “contextualization,” an attempt to use a current idea in the target language-culture that might make sense of the old idea.
But the more different the worldview and the connotation carried by the new word, and the more vaguely or incorrectly the translators of the time understand the original word, its usage and the worldview of its language, the more misleading or incorrect the attempt at interpretation or accommodation will be. The tendency is to start with ideas you already have, then adapt the biblical text (or other text) to the cultural ideas already held.
Most people, being unaware that there are multiple ways of understanding reality, will look for a biblical phrase that seems to relate to what they are thinking, or has similar wording that might be applied, treating the biblical text something like a dictionary or encyclopedia, which it is not. The context is critical and the original topic or focus is indispensible to understand what the original passage was even talking about.
This pattern of starting with our cultural ideas, the looking for a Bible passage that could support it, leads us across the line into syncretism. There is very much unacknowledged syncretism in Western Christianity as a whole. This is one factor that makes western Christian forms different from the cultural and theological forms of non-western churches.
These ancient churches in other cultural setting have also tried to make the Gospel relevant in their cultures and histories. This process of interpreting in our cultural context is a natural way our brains work to learn. We start where we are and relate new input to the concepts we already have from experiences we have had up to that point.
Any change imposed upon a biblical word of concept is normally inadvertent and results from imperfect attempts to bridge the gap. We are cultural creatures. The abstract rational approach of the Modern mind, focused on the ability of Human Reason to grasp and understand Ultimate knowledge misleads us to thinking what we have understood up to a point is in fact the ultimate structure of reality and truth and God sees it! The original sin of wanting to know like God knows!
Now, with that background caution, back to the specific question. The English word “Everlasting” and the concept is entails is just wrong as an attempt to interpret what was entailed by the Greek term in its context. The New Testament terminology in Greek was interpreting the Hebrew messianic idea, as modified in the fulfillment claimed by the Christians, of the “Age” or “New Age” or “of the ages.” How literal or symbolic this was thought to be seems to vary.
The usage should be considered somewhat of an idiom, because of the way it is used in the biblical texts and as n interpretation of the messianic concepts we claim as believers in Christ. The main idiomatic feature for us would be the plural. Perhaps this is for emphasis, a common Semitic/Hebrew way of making emphasis.
Patterns of translation and usage in Greek were already set long before the time of Jesus, in the translation of the Hebrew scriptures collectively referred to as the Septuagint. This is what most of the New Testament writers quoted from. This word aionion had been used to capture the messianic promises perceived at that time.
Failure to consider of these cultural worldview questions has been the source of many arguments that are just talking about whole different questions than the biblical text is even considering or addressing.
Dr Orville Boyd Jenkins firstname.lastname@example.org
Language, Culture, Faith email@example.com
Yezidis, Kurds and Zoroastrianism:
orvillejenkins.com/peoples/yezid … anism.html