#4 – What Biblical Scholars Say about the Word “Aionios”

When most people want to know the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word in the Bible, they look it up in a Concordance. Concordances are a great tool to begin to dig deeper into Scripture, but they are not the ultimate source. While Concordances do give short definitions, they are not intended to define. Their sole purpose is to show all occurrences of a particular word and how it was translated. To get the best definition of a word, therefore, requires a little bit of research, research which is not usually necessary to the layperson because there are few words in Christian doctrine that necessitate a better definition. But in the case of the two words that are translated “eternal” and “forever” (aion and aionios in Greek), we find it is necessary to do more research.

The intention of this blog is not to try and prove that these words do not mean endless, but to demonstrate actual sources that support the position that they more correctly mean an “age.”  I could just tell you that many scholars, Bible Translations, Bible Dictionaries and Bible Encyclopedias define these words as “age,” but that wouldn’t prove anything.  So I am going to quote a large number of sources to show that I am not alone in my assertion that aion and aionios rarely (if ever) convey endlessness.

But before we look at what some Scholars say about these words a few notes are in order. Firstly, there are 16 verses in the Bible that can be said to directly address some sort of judgment of an eternal nature. We will specifically refer to the one verse most emphasized as proving an ‘endless damnation’ for the unrepentant – Matthew 25:46.

“These will go away into eternal (aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aionios) life.” (NASB)

Secondly, to be fair we are going to look at some ancient scholars as well.  I will give sources where I can, but I have not found them all.

Thirdly, normally I would not worry about defending my position with scholars, b/c for me Scripture is enough. My motto is Sola Scriptura – “What saith the Scriptures?”  However I recognize that not everybody has the time or motivation to search these things out for themselves. Such people find it helpful to have authority figures confirm the truth. Therefore I wanted to begin this series with the view of a certain Scholars.  Perhaps it will also help others to realize that I am not alone in my position.  If you are one of the above, then this blog is dedicated to you!

The Scholars

To start with, Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible, which is a literal word for word translation of the Bible, translates the word aionios here and elsewhere in the Bible as “Age Abiding.” You can see this for yourself at the following website.

http://qbible.com/ebr-rotherhams-emphasized-bible-1902/matthew/25.html#44

Young’s Literal Translation, also a literal word for word translation of the Bible, translates the word aionios here and everywhere else as, “Age During.”

http://www.biblestudytools.com/ylt/matthew/passage.aspx?q=matthew+24;25

The Concordant Version translates it as “Eonian” in the sense of pertaining to an Eon.

http://www.concordant.org/version/index.html

I could not find a website for many of the following, but those who have access to a theological library can check them out easily enough; or you could buy a copy of each resource for yourself from Amazon.com 😉 .  (Yeah right!)

The Emphatic Diaglott simply transliterates the word as “Aionian” to avoid any confusion at all concerning its meaning. This is only done when a translator feels that the language he is translating into does not have a proper word to use. Which means that he finds the word “eternal” to be lacking.

The Cambridge Bible Dictionary, by A.W. Argyle, says about Matthew 25:46,

“Eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever. Eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.” (Italics mine.)

Bible translator, Dr. R.F. Weymouth, slightly disagrees with Young’s translation (mentioned above) on page 657 of The New Testament in Modern Speech, saying,

“Eternal: Greek: ‘aeonion,’ i.e., ‘of the ages.’ Etymologically this adjective, like others similarly formed, does not signify ‘during,’ but ‘belonging to’ the aeons or ages.”

So he is saying he doesn’t like Young’s translation of “age-during” but would rather render it “belonging to the age.”

Dr. Bullinger’s Appendix 129 to The Companion Bible, says this about the NT term aion:

“aion = an age, or age-time, the duration of which is indefinite, and may be limited or extended as the context of each occurrence may demand. The root meaning of aion is expressed by the Hebrew olam . . . which denotes indefinite, unknown or concealed duration; just as we speak of ‘the patriarchal age,’ or ‘the golden age,’ etc.”

When he claims that the actual duration of the age is unkown or concealed, he does not mean that it is infinite, it just means nobody knows its length until it is over. This of course is perfectly natural, b/c who doesn’t tend to shy away from admitting their age! 😉

The oldest lexicographer that we have of the Greek New Testament, Hesychius (who lived somewhere around AD 400-600), defines aion thus: “The life of man, the time of life.” J.W. Hansen remarks about Hysychius’ definition here saying,

“At this early date no theologian had yet imported into the word the meaning of endless duration. It retained only the sense it had in the classics (which refers to Greek writers before the Septuagint), and in the Bible.” (Parenthesis mine.)

Theodoret (AD 300-400) in his work In Migne Vol. IV, on page 400 says,

“Aion is not any existing thing, but an interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man.”

John of Damascus (AD 750) defines it thus,

“1, The life of every man is called aión. … 3, The whole duration or life of this world is called aión. 4, The life after the resurrection is called ‘the aión to come.’”

Dr. Edward Beecher in his book Christian Union remarks about the ancient understanding of this word,

“It commonly means merely continuity of action . . . all attempts to set forth eternity as the original and primary sense of aión are at war with the facts of the Greek language for five centuries, in which it denoted life and its derivative senses, and the sense eternity was unknown.”

He further states,

“that the original sense of aión is not eternity. . . . It is conceded on all hands that this (life) was originally the general use of the word.”

In the Paris edition of Henry Stephens’ Lexicon it is affirmed emphatically,

“that life, or the space of life, is the primitive sense of the word, and that it is always so used by Homer, Hesiod, and the old poets; also by Pindar and the tragic writers, as well as by Herodotus and Xenophon.”

We will explore these Greek writers and their use of Aion and Aionios along with many others in a later blog in this series.

Professor Knapp, the author of an edition of the Greek Testament, one in use in many colleges, observes that:

“The pure idea of eternity is too abstract to have been conceived in the early ages of the world, and accordingly is not found expressed by any word in the ancient languages. But as cultivation advanced and this idea became more distinctly developed, it became necessary in order to express it to invent new words in a new sense, as was done with the words eternitas, perennitas, etc. The Hebrews were destitute of any single word to express endless duration. To express a past eternity they said before the world was; a future, when the world shall be no more. . . . The Hebrews and other ancient people have no one word for expressing the precise idea of eternity.”

Hasting’s Dictionary of the New Testament, says,

“There is no word either in the O.T. Hebrew or in the N.T. Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity.” (p. 542 Vol. I)

“Eternal, everlasting–nonetheless ‘eternal’ is misleading, inasmuch as it has come into the English to connote the idea of ‘endlessly existing,’ and thus to be practically a synonym for ‘everlasting.’ But this is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes.” (p. 369, Vol III)

For those who may be unfamiliar with the laws of language, an adjective cannot have a greater force than the noun from which it originates. And aion is a noun and aionios is the adjective directly derived from aion. Thus if aion means age, then aionios cannot mean anything greater than an age. Thus by Linguistic principles aionios can only mean age-long, or pertaining to an age. A good example of this is the adjective generational, which originates from the noun generation. Generational means “pertaining to a generation.” A generation is usually around 40 years. If I was to come along and start claiming that the word generational meant 1000 years, or to make this an even better analogy, to claim that generational means an endless duration, I would literally be crucified by English professors!

This helps make the above quote more understandable when he says that, “everlasting…is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes.”

James Donnegan in A New Greek and English Lexicon (1839) writes,

“Time; space of time; life time and life; the ordinary period of man’s life; the age of man; man’s estate; a long period of time.”

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (page 1010) says,

“Primarily signifies time, in the sense of age, or generation”

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon says,

“A period of existence; one’s lifetime; life; an age; a generation; a long space of time. A space of time clearly defined and marked out; an era, epoch, age, period or dispensation.”

And lastly, and in my opinion, least, is the Strong’s Concordance. Not generally a good source for defining words, but nonetheless what the majority of Christians will reference when looking for the definition of a word. Anyways, even the NASB’s Strong’s Concordance gives “Age-long” as one of the definitions of aionios! The evidence has been right in front of us this whole time, but we havent had eyes to see it.

There are many more scholars that I could reference who are of the same mind concerning the meaning of aion and aionios, but I think we have more than enough to build on. In the next blog we will look at the usage of the words aion and aionios in the New Testament.

About Luke Kessler

Luke Kessler has a bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies (not that that matters to God) and spent some time as a missionary in Asia. It was there, through unique circumstances that God began to reveal His glorious plan to save all men. God brought his time of missions to an end and Luke now works in Construction on the Central Coast in California. He enjoys spending his free time studying God's Word and the signs of the times, and sharing what God has shown him every opportunity he has. If you can figure the following out, feel free to contact him by email (his Yahoo account spelled out so as to avoid spam is "luke" then "land" then the number "7") :)
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8 Responses to #4 – What Biblical Scholars Say about the Word “Aionios”

  1. Michael says:

    Wow, who would have thunk it. Universalists must be right. The Bible teaches that King Jesus is not eternal but has a limit to His reign (based on the use of aionios in 1 Tim 1:17). And the inheritance which God gives believers is not eternal (based on the use of aionios in Heb 9:15 says), and salvation is not eternal (based on the use of aionios in Heb 5:9 says), and God’s election of believer does not have an eternal purpose (based on the use of aionios in Eph 3:11 says). All these things only last an age? Wow. For God so loved the world He sent His son so we could have an age of life! That’s amazing (not!)

    You are citing men like Hesychius and Chrysostom (1) out of context, and (2) centuries after the Bible was written. But you forgot to delete part of Theodoret’s quote, because he clearly says that aion can be used for “infinite.” Look at how many English words have changed nuances and whole meanings in just 100 years. Or 400 years since the KJV was written. Why not cite the standard lexical works in New Testament? Works like “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature” or “The International Dictionary of New Testament Theology” or “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament”? The only standard Greek lexicon you cite is Liddell, but this lexicon covers the whole ancient Greek language, not the time of the Bible. The way that pagan Greeks used a term is not always the same as the way NT writes used it. Yet, even Liddell says the word can mean “eternal” or “everlasting.” Why not put the full citation in? You would do well to read Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson.

    http://carm.org/look-word-aionion

    Stop dealing with old, outdated English translation written by one man (instead of a committee) and deal with the Greek NT. What you’re doing here is just bad exegesis. The #1 rule of exegesis is context. A word is defined by its context. The first step of exegesis is not to cite scholars that back up one’s position.

    • Luke Kessler says:

      Thanks Michael for taking the time to respond.

      I do not base hardly any weight of why I believe the Bible teaches Universal Reconciliation b/c of “Scholars'” views. For me Scripture is everything. But I do know that there are many people who cannot accept truth unless it is supported by a human authority. So I offer a selection of scholars who support this understanding of Aion and Aionios. I never claimed that other scholars support the opposite. And just b/c I only quoted one Lexicon doesnt mean there are no other lexicons that support what I am saying. I tried to keep it short enough to be readable, as well as offer as wide a variety as possible (lexicon, encyclopedia, dictionary, translations and independent scholars).

      You have a valid argument at this point when you were being sarcastic about all that amazing God stuff being only “age-long.” But there is just far too much information to share in one article, that is why this is a series; I will eventually deal with that. Suffice it to say that the Greek language does have words that mean “never ending” and they are ONLY used in connection with God and His life and His kingdom, “His kingdom shall have NO END.” (Luke 1:33)

      “And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an ENDLESS life.” (Hebrews 7:15,16)

      I need not go on, b/c I deal sufficiently with that in my article that will be labelled #9 in the series. if you care to wait till I post it to check it out.

      And I am not practicing bad exegesis. I will be defining these words not only through the cultural mindset during the time of Christ, and not only from the Greek language as it was understood at that time, but also through its almost universal USAGE in Greek Literature. My articles will show how these words were used both in Scripture and in all of ancient Greek writings. THAT is the context by which we ought to discern the definition. And I will also deal with the CONTEXT in which these words are used in Scripture (which may surprise you). You should wait to read all of my articles in this first series before you judge it.

      So again, I give very little weight to supporting my position based on scholars who “back me up.” In case you missed it, I mentioned that fact in the article. I simply begin my series with that selection of quotes so that nobody can claim I have no “academic support” for how I will be defining these words. To me, the far greater weight of proof lies in the upcoming articles.

      But thank you for taking the time to comment. Please feel free to continue to do so, but please be civil, sarcasm only breeds offense.

      • Michael says:

        Luke,

        Thanks for your reply. Sarcasm can be used to make a point (2 Cor 11-12 being prime example) but I will refrain out of respect for your blog.

        You mention the term “endless” (Greek: telos) in Luke 1:33. But notice the first clause of Luke 1:33, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever (aionios)” (NASB). Now these clauses are in parallel. Christ will reign over the house of Jacob “forever” and His kingdom is “endless.” They both express the same idea, i.e. that Christ will rule forever. Therefore, your assertion that only telos is used to speak of eternity is incorrect here. To say that telos is only used to speak of God and His life and His kingdom is incorrect. Telos is used 40 times in the NT, and is most often used to speak of an end, termination, conclusion. But in Luke 22:37 it means “fulfillment” (NASB). So one could (incorrectly) play similar games with telos as has been done with aionios by the universalists. One could say, “You see ‘telos’ in Luke 22:37 carries the meaning ‘fulfillment.’ So we can plug that into Luke 1:33 and say that ‘His kingdom has no fulfillment.’ Now all these modern translations are just trying to trick you by saying ‘Jesus’ kingdom has no end.’ They are hiding a secret from you. Yep, if we really do it right, like Dr. Who’s translation and Professor I.M. Nutty’s book from the 18th century, we can see that Jesus will not fulfill His kingdom! Now the real truth has been exposed and will overturn all of church history for 2000 years [key Dr. Evil laugh].” Do you see how bad exegesis can bring about bad theology?

        This is also the case in Heb 7:16. If you read on to the very next verse 7:17 (immediate context), you see an OT quotation from Ps 110:4 to support what is being said in v. 16. It reads, “You are a priest forever” (NASB). And the word “forever” is aionios. Therefore, the High Priest Jesus has endless life (akatalutos) and is a priest forever (aionios). Again, the two ideas are in parallel. The fact that His life will not end means He will be a high priest forever. It is not proper exegesis to say that since akalutos is used only this once to speak of God, that is the only meaning it carries. In the case of hapax legomena, it is wise to look at other non-biblical uses in and around that time to help with meaning. In 4 Maccabees 10:11 it is used to speak of a man receiving endless torments. So the meaning is not in question, but as you can see the term can be used in reference to mankind as well as God.

        If anything, the two examples make an even stronger argument that aionios often means eternal in the NT. Both telos and akatalutos, in these contexts, strengthen the idea that aionios means “eternal.”

        Also, your logic fails regarding aionios. Your point is that aionios is a limited span of time, and therefore the verses speaking of aionios punishment are just for a time and they will be saved. When asked about why the Bible speaks of God as aionios, you say that other words deal with God’s life and kingdom, etc. However, this is a red herring fallacy. Before moving on to other words and what they mean, the issue of using aionios to describe God must be dealt with. If aionios means a limited age, then why does the Bible speak of God being limited by time?

        • Luke Kessler says:

          Michael!

          I firstly want to thank you for being so considerate of my blog. I appreciate your willingness to refrain from sarcasm, even though both Paul and Jesus used it at various times. I have yet to figure out how to use it myself without causing people to be offended. So I thank you for being considerate.

          And you certainly are well educated, which I very much appreciate. However, I think you are mistaking some of my points (which unfortunately is almost impossible to avoid through written dialogue). I am not saying that “telos” conveys eternity, in my studies (which are by no means comprehensive) I have not found that the Hebrews or Greeks had a concept of eternity until sometime around Augustine. They did have a concept of endlessness, which I suppose some could claim is a description of eternity, but I would disagree. Eternity is timeless, endlessness is never ending time.

          Anyways, I dont know enough about that to debate that, I just wanted to say that I am not claiming telos as speaking about eternity, but that “never ending”-ness is only spoken of in connection to God or His Kingdom, etc…

          Also, there are some scholars who claim that aionios only carries a sense of endlessness when it is connected to an endless object, so when used in connection with God it can carry a sense of endless, while in connection with other things it does not, “for God alone possesses immortality.” This also confirms my view that only God and His kingdom never end, but judgment does, “for His wrath is but a moment,” but “His mercy never comes to an end.” Dont you find it peculiar that the only time these phrases like “immortal” or “never ending” or (as well as several others which I will deal with in the appropriate blog) are used they are used in connection with God alone? Even though you said that Maccabees uses it in reference to endless torment, dont you find it curious that Scripture never does? Even though the people were familiar with the idea of endless torment, and had several phrases of such (as Josephus and Philo were so kind to point out) they are never used in Scripture. I find that to be extremely compelling, even as Moses “who was taught in all the ways of Egypt” never once mentioned endless damnation as punishment for sin, even though this was a very common doctrine amongst the Egyptian religion (found in the book of the dead).

          And the last article in this series on Aion and Aionios will address the issue of why the Bible speaks of God as “Age-long,” or as you stated, being limited by time. He isnt, just b/c He is the God of time, doesn’t mean He is constrained by it.

          On top of that, you are touching on too many issues which I will directly address in articles throughout this series. If you would be so gracious as to read them all and then give me your thoughts, I would be glad to respond. But this is why I am putting together this series of blogs, so that instead of writing out every thought and issue that I find in support of my position every time someone disagrees, I can simply point to an article.

          So I appreciate your attentiveness and your intelligence. And I will be most glad to hear your criticisms after you have read through all the information I will present.

          Thank you again for your comments and for being so considerate.

          • Michael says:

            Thank you for your reply Luke. I will comment as you go through the series (as I am able), rather than reply here to too many issues at once.

  2. Dear Luke Kessel.
    The Concordant Version translates it as “Eonian” in the sense of pertaining to an Eon. I could not find a website for this, or many of the following, but those who have access to a theological library can check them out easily enough; or you could buy a copy of each resource for yourself from Amazon.com 😉 . (Yeah right!)

    Try this.
    http://www.concordant.org/version/index.html
    David.

    • Luke Kessler says:

      Thank you David!

      That is most helpful. I did find that site before, but I couldn’t find a link to give people that they could jump directly to Matthew 24, but I will add this link anyways, in case they want to dl the pdf. Thank you again!

  3. TITI OLAOYE says:

    Luke

    Thanks for taking time out to expose your findings. I am enjoying the debate, I wish to implore the respondent not to please stop until the series is over, the opinion you offer will give us all the opportunity to check and be sure of what we will believe. God bless you all.

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