#8 – Classical Greek Literature

In the last blog we saw just a fraction of the hundreds of verses that the Septuagint uses the word aion and aionios in.  We saw how these words were used to express concepts that are not endless.  This is very significant for that was how the majority of people who read the New Testament writings understood the meaning of aion and aionios.  This blog will focus on the usage of the word aion and aionios in Extra Biblical writings, a.k.a – Classical Greek Literature.  We will see how even the secular writers did not use these words in a way that meant endless.   This is will further aid in confirming that aion and aionios did not necessarily have to mean “eternal.”

To introduce this, I want to quote a few sources who touch on this subject.  G. T. Stevenson in his book Time and Eternity remarks about Greek literature outside of Scripture saying,

“Since, as we have seen, the noun aion refers to a period of time, it appears very improbable that the derived adjective aionios would indicate infinite duration, nor have we found any evidence in Greek writing to show that such a concept was expressed by this term.” (p. 63)

Dr. F.W. Farrar in his gigantic book Mercy and Judgment says,

“Even if aion always meant ‘eternity,’ which is not the case in classic or Hellenistic Greek – aionios could still mean only ‘belonging to eternity’ and not ‘lasting through it.’ (p. 378)

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.”

Rev. Ezra S. Goodwin in the Christian Examiner, Vols. 10, 11 and 12 (Boston: Gray & Bowen) agrees remarking,

“We have the whole evidence of seven Greek writers, extending through about six centuries, down to the age of Plato, who make use of Aión, in common with other words; and no one of them ever employs it in the sense of eternity.”  And later, “Aión in these writers never expresses positive eternity.”

Let’s take a look some examples.

In Homer’s epics (800-701 BC), The Iliad and Odyssey, aion occurs thirteen times, but never in a sense of endlessness.  Here are a few examples,

“Thyself shall be deprived of pleasant aionos (life),”  (Iliad 22, 58)

“Husband thou hast perished from aionos (life or time).” (Iliad 24, 725)

Dr. Beecher, concerning Homer, writes in his book Christian Union,

“But there is a case that excludes all possibility of doubt or evasion, in the Homeric Hymn of Mercury, vs. 42 and 119. Here aion is used to denote the marrow as the life of an animal, as Moses calls the blood the life. This is recognized by Cousins in his Homeric Lexicon. In this case to pierce the life (aion) of a turtle means to pierce the spinal cord.  The idea of life is here exclusive of time or eternity.”

Hesiod (750-650 BC) employs it twice in the following sense:

“To [the married man] during aionos (life) evil is constantly striving.” (Theogony 609)

Aeschylus (525-426 BC) uses the word nineteen times like so:

“This life (aion) seems long.”  (The Persians 263)

“Each wife shall deprive her husband of life (aion).” (Prometheus 862)

Pindar (522-443 BC) gives thirteen instances, such as

“A long life (aion) produces the four virtues.” (Nemean 3, 130)

Sophocles (496-406 BC) uses it nine times.

“Endeavor to remain the same in mind as long (aionos) as you live.” (Electra 1030.)

“He breathed out the aióna.” (Philocthetes)

Dr. J.W. Hanson in his book Aion-Aionios gives further insight saying,

“He (Sophocles) also employs makr-aion five times, as long-enduring. The word long increases the force of aión, which would be impossible if it had the idea of eternity.” (p. 21)

Empedocles (490-430 BC) says,

“An earthly body deprived of happy life (aiónos)”

And in Aristotle’s Physic, he quotes a passage from Empedocles, saying that in certain cases “aión is not permanent.” (Quoted by Aristotle in Physics Lib. 8 cap 1)

Euripides (480-406 BC) uses the word thirty-two times in the following sense,

“Marriage to those mortals who are well situated is a happy aión.” (Orestes 596)

“Every aión of mortals is unstable.” (Ibid 971.)

“A long aión  has many things to say,” (Medea 428)

His use of aion clearly refers to ‘life.’

Hippocrates (460-370 BC) says,

“A human aión is a seven days matter.”

Plato (427-347 BC) uses the word in this sense,

“Leading a life (aióna) involved in troubles.” (De Legibus – On the Laws. Lib. 3)

Aristotle (384-322 BC) says,

“Which of these things separately can be compared with the order of the heaven, and the relation of the stars, sun, and also the moon moving in most perfect measures from one aión to another aión.” (De Mundo – On the Heavens, cap. 5, p. 609 C)

“All these things seem to be done for her good, in order to maintain safety during her aiónos (life).” (Ibid. p. 610 A)

Dr. Hanson remarks concerning Aristotle saying,

“Aristotle uses aión twelve times. He speaks of the existence or duration (aión) of the earth; (De Mundo Cap.5) of an unlimited aiónos; (In Metaphysics Lib. 14) and elsewhere, he says: aión sunekes kai aidios, ‘an eternal (aidios) aión’ (or being) ‘pertaining to God.’ The fact that Aristotle found it necessary to add aidios to aión to ascribe eternity to God demonstrates that he found no sense of eternity in the word aión, and utterly discards the idea that he held the word to mean endless duration.” (p. 22)

Again Dr. Hanson remarks about Plato and his work Timaeus, saying,

“Plato quotes four instances of aión, and three of aiónios, and one of diaiónios in a single passage, in contrast with aidios (eternal.) The gods he calls eternal, (aidios) but the soul and the corporeal nature, he says, are aiónios, belonging to time, and ‘all these,’ he says, ‘are part of time.’ And he calls Time [Kronos] ‘an aiónios image of Aiónos.’  Exactly what so obscure an author may mean here is not apparent, but one thing is perfectly clear, he cannot mean eternity and eternal by aiónios and aiónion, for nothing is wider from the fact than that fluctuating, changing Time, beginning and ending, and full of mutations, is an image of Eternity.” (p. 24)

We will look at this Greek word aidios in the next blog, for it is one of the Greek words that actually does mean endless, and yet it is never used to denote the future judgment in Scripture.

All of the writers that I have mentioned thus far fall under the category of Classical Greek Literature.  Now we will look at a few examples from Josephus and Philo who both lived during the time of Christ and His Apostles.

Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) states that,

“It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and aionian punishment (kolasis – chastisement) from such as are more powerful.” (De Praemiis it Poenis – On Rewards and Punishments, Tom. 2, pp. 19-20. Mangey’s edition)

F.W. Farrar, in his book Mercy and Judgment, comments about Josephus (37-100 AD) and his works Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews saying,

“Josephus shows that aionios did not necessarily mean endless. He applies the epithet to the period between the giving of the law and his own writing; and to the imprisonment of the tyrant John by the Romans; and to Herod’s Temple, which was already destroyed when he wrote. And when he wants to assimilate Jewish theology to Greek teaching, he is so well aware that aionios will not convey his meaning, that he purposely uses instead the word aidios. …  As for the usage of Philo, there could not be a better authority than his editor, Dr. Mangey, who says that he never used aionios for endless duration.” (p. 379, 380)

Finally, Stephens’ Thesaurus, quotes from a Jewish work:

“These they called aionios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for 3 entire generations.” (Solomon’s Parabables)

There are many other such Greek writers that we could reference, many even from the Jewish Talmud, but for the sake of time I will refrain. However, I think that what we have looked at is substantial enough to demonstrate that the Greek understanding of aion and aionios was not one of endlessness.

The next blog will deal with the Greek words that do mean endless.  And we will further notice their use not only Greek Literature but also the Bible.

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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