#6 – The Septuagint – Part 1

In the last blog we looked at how aion and aionios were used in the New Testament in ways that do not mean endless.  This blog will introduce how these 2 Greek words were used in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and was quoted by the authors of the New Testament anytime they referenced the Old Testament writings.  It was also the main translation in use during the time of Christ.  For those who spoke Greek (which was the universal language at the time), this was how they knew the Scriptures.  Understanding how the Septuagint uses aion and aionios to translate the Old Testament will help clarify for us the meaning of these 2 words, as well as reveal how the people at that time understood them.  This, as I have stated before, is important because these words are at the core of the issue regarding whether judgment for the wicked is endless or merely for an age.

So, to begin with, any interpretation of the teachings in the New Testament ought to be understood from a Hebrew mindset, not a Roman mindset.  When the Bible speaks of the “adoption as sons,” it is referring to the Hebrew practice, not the Roman practice (an unfortunate oversight in the Son-ship teachings within the Church).  All the people who were involved in Judaism, during the time that Christ and His apostles ministered, understood Scripture from a Hebrew mindset.  However, the common and dominant language was Greek not Hebrew.  Hence, the New Testament as we have it is an expression of the Hebrew culture through the Greek language.

The Septuagint was translated around 300 BC, long before Jesus arrived.  It is many times referred to as LXX, which are the Roman Numerals for 70, because tradition states that 70 scholars translated it.  Tradition also states that all 70 of these scholars translated it independent of each other, but when they came together to compare notes, they had all translated it the same!  So the Greek translation was considered divinely inspired.  That, however, is probably a myth – and beside the point.   The point is – many people in Jesus’ day understood the Old and New Testaments through the Septuagint.  They understood the words and teachings of the New Testament from how those same words were used in the Septuagint.

So it is pertinent that we understand how the Septuagint uses Greek words to translate the Old Testament in order for us to understand specifically the cultural mindset of the people that the New Testament was written to.  The words aion and aionios, were used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word olam.  The noun aion is used 349 times and the adjective aionios is used 110 times; in all but 4 occasions (note that, only 4!) it is the translation of the Hebrew word olam.  Which means that aion was used for no other word than olam.  This gives the Hebrew word olam almost exclusive defining rights to the Greek word aion; thus the 2 words are interchangeable.

This blog will focus on defining what olam means in order that we can see the connection to aion.  The next blog is where we will look at the usage of the words aion and aionios in the Septuagint.

Lets get started; Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon tells us that olam means,

“What is hidden; specially hidden time, long; the beginning or end of which is either uncertain or else not defined.”

J. W. Haley in his work An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible says:

“The Hebrew word ‘Olam’ rendered ‘forever,’ does not imply the metaphysical idea of absolute endlessness, but a period of indefinite length, as Rambach says, a very long time, the end of which is hidden from us.” (p. 216)

Parkhurst’s Lexicon states that,

“Olam seems to be used much more for an indefinite than for an infinite time.”

The Encyclopedia Dictionary of the Bible (Catholic Bible Dictionary), under Eternity, says,

“The Bible hardly speaks of eternity in the philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end. The Hebrew word olam, which is used alone (Ps. 61:8; etc.) or with various prepositions (Gn. 3:22; etc.) in contexts where it is traditionally translated as ‘forever,’ means in itself no more than ‘for an indefinitely long period.’ Thus, ‘me olam’ does not mean ‘from eternity’ but ‘of old’ (Gn. 6:4, etc.).  In the N.T. aion is used as the equivalent of olam.” (p. 693)

Dr. Bullinger’s Appendix 129 to The Companion Bible, says this about olam

“The Hebrew [word] olam . . . denotes indefinite, unknown or concealed duration (an age); just as we speak of ‘the patriarchal age,’ or ‘the golden age,’ etc.”

Dr. Beecher observes, in his book Christian Union, that,

“We find, since there are many ages, or periods, that [Olam] is used in the plural.  Moreover, since one great period or age can comprehend under it subordinate ages, we find such expressions as an age of ages, or an Olam of Olams, and other reduplications.  In some cases, however, the reduplication of Olam seems to be a rhetorical amplification of the idea, without any comprehension of ages by a greater age.  This is especially true when olam is in the singular in both parts of the reduplication, as ‘To the age of the age.’” (Italics mine)

Again Dr. Beecher notes that,

“The use of the word in the plural is decisive evidence that the sense of the word is not eternity, in the absolute sense, for there can be but one such eternity. But as time past and future can be divided by ages, so there may be many ages, and an age of ages.”

It does not take much time to discover that the idea of eternity did not exist in certain if not most ancient cultures.  They expressed everything with the idea of eras or ages. As The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. IV, under Time says,

“The O.T. and the N.T. are not acquainted with the conception of eternity as timelessness. The O.T. has not developed a special term for ‘eternity which one could contrast with ‘temporality.’ The word aion originally meant ‘vital force,’ ‘life;’ then ‘age,’ ‘lifetime.’ It is, however, also used generally of a limited or unlimited long space of time. The use of the word aion is determined very much by the O.T. and the LXX (Septuagint).  Aion means ‘long distant uninterrupted time’ in the past (Luke 1:10), as well as in the future (John 4:14).” (p. 643)

Lange’s Commentary American Edition, Vol. V, commenting on the Hebrew word olam, translated by the Septuagint as aion in Ecclesiastes 1:4 states that,

“The preacher, in contending with the Universalist, or Restorationist, would commit an error, and, it may be, suffer a failure in his argument, should he lay the whole stress of it on the etymological or historical significance of the words, aion, aionios, and attempt to prove that, of themselves, they necessarily carry the meaning of endless duration.” (p. 48)

Rev. G. Bennet in his incredible treatise Olam Haneshamoth says,

“The primary nature of Olam is ‘hidden,’ and both as to past and future denotes a duration that is unknown.” (p. 44.)

Rev. J.S. Blunt in the Dictionary of Theology under the entry Eternity; says,

“The conception of Eternity in the Semitic languages is that of a long duration and series of ages.”

On page 62 of Dr. J.W. Hansen’s short but comprehensive book Aion-Aionios, he quotes a scholar from the Christian Examiner (Sept. 1830, pp. 25,26), but gives no name,

“Aiónios is a word of sparing occurrence among ancient classical Greek writers; nor is it by any means the common term employed by them to signify eternal. On the contrary, they much more frequently make use of aidios (not aionios)…To me it appears that the Seventy (Septuagint), by choosing aiónios to represent olam, testify that they did not understand the Hebrew word to signify eternal. Had they so understood it, they would certainly have translated it by some more decisive word; some term, which, like aidios (again not anionios) is more commonly employed in Greek, to signify that which has neither beginning nor end.”  (parenthesis mine)

And lastly, but most beautifully, Jeff Benner describes the Hebrew word olam in his book, The Living Words; Volume One.  You can also find it at his website:

http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/27_eternity.html

In the ancient Hebrew words that are used to described distance and direction are also used to describe time. The Hebrew word for east is qedem and literally means “the direction of the rising sun”. We use north as our major orientation such as in maps which are always oriented to the north. While we use the north as our major direction the Hebrews used the east and all directions are oriented to this direction. For example one of the words for south is teyman from the root yaman meaning “to the right”. The word qedem is also the word for the past. In the ancient Hebrew mind the past is in front of you while the future is behind you, the opposite way we think of the past and future. The Hebrew word olam means in the far distance. When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam. The word olam is also used for time for the distant past or the distant future as a time that is difficult to know or perceive. This word is frequently translated as eternity or forever but in the English language it is misunderstood to mean a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is “l’olam va’ed” and is usually translated as “forever and ever” but in the Hebrew it means “to the distant horizon and again” meaning “a very distant time and even further” and is used to express the idea of a very ancient or future time.  (pgs. 34-37)

As before, there are many more scholars I could quote on the subject, but for the sake of time and your attention, I will refrain.  But I hope that it is somewhat clear to see that even in the Old Testament, there was not an understanding of eternity or endlessness.  Rather, there was a concept of ages; or even grander, ages of ages.

The next blog will focus on the seemingly endless (pun intended 😉 ) number of verses that use the Hebrew word olam, which the Septuagint translates with aion and aionios.

 

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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One Response to #6 – The Septuagint – Part 1

  1. Julia says:

    There is no evidence that the Septuagint of the first century contained the Apocrypha. The earliest Greek manuscripts, which contain them, date from the 4

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