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Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios
How Words "Mean" in Greek and English

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Two readers wrote with similar questions about the Greek word aionios as it appears in the Bible.  They questioned the translation or definition of the Greek word with the English word "eternal" or "everlasting."

I understand the meaning of the word aionios (often appearing in genitive plural aionion) in Greek to carry the connotation of 'pertaining to the age' or 'age enduring.'  The word is a form of the word we have borrowed into English from the Latin transliteration of the Greek as aeon or eon.  The problems in interpreting it as the English “eternal” or “everlasting” are several.

Let's get in focus some working principles of languages, meaning and translation.  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 language.

Keep in mind that a "definition" is only a summary of how a word has been 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 need to take a step back to look at the cultural or worldview concept.  What we do is look at how we find a word being 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.  Greek words "mean" what the Greek speaker was thinking in the Greek-speaking environment of that era and location.  Similarly, today a Greek speaker is not referencing anything in English when he thinks and speaks fluently in his native tongue, or reads his Bible in his native tongue!  Greek "means" in "Greek."

The English speaker/reader must get into that world to determine meaning, then search for the most adequate word or phrase to express that in the English language and cultural-social context.

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 A T Robertson succeeds in doing in his amazing classic, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1934, various reprints since).

Robertson does not "define" words, in some authoritative abstract manner, 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 the breadth and variety of usage through history and across contexts.

On this particular word, Robertson points out that this word aionios is not a common adjective in the classical sources [p 159].  The context of usages in the New Testament ought to be the guide for a possible meaning in those passages.  But most fall back into their comfortable English vocabulary and modern western worldview.  The scriptures deserve better than this!

Working from a broad comparative linguistic background, A T Robertson was one of the few amazing scholars in the biblical exegesis field who was able to do this.  His explanations of usages make the ancient world come alive, and the people and their concerns and interchanges are the core of the “meaning” of Greek phrases he considers.

This dynamic approach attempts to honor the integrity of texts of any age or language and the language in which they are framed.  This is what the linguist, missionary or any cross-cultural communicator must do.

Original Meaning
The linguist and missionary focuses on the original meaning of the biblical passage in its cultural and historical context.  The next step is how to make that meaning come alive in the target culture’s language, such as American English, New Guinea Pidgin English or Swahili.

And I am not worried about being “right.”  That is a superhuman burden that Modern Rationalism places upon us.

I am providing a perspective from which to approach the question, on how language works.  A critical factor is the historical and cultural context.  Keep those focuses in mind.  I don’t see references to that in most of the traditional academic, reductionist conclusions.

It is important to me to honor the integrity of the language and the biblical texts, rather than use English as the reference point for what the Greek might mean.

We are all learners here.  This is a safari of discovery!

The purpose of this paper is not to rehash the common reviews and arguments related to every instance of this or related words, but to provide some perspectives that inform such efforts from the linguistics and language-culture fields.

Theology or Language?
One factor behind such discussions is that the participants often are narrow-focused and they think they are discussing a theological problem.  But when I see what they are saying and how they are saying it, I quickly see they are not talking about theology, they are talking about language.

But they are not treating the language problem as a language problem!  They are arguing about language assumptions couched as theological questions, or they are basing their arguments on an assumed theory of language they have not articulated objectively.  It is this underlying misconception that is misleading them and us.

The problem lies in the common lack of awareness of how language works.  They have an abstract, ideological starting point, a common feature of the Rationalist, analytical approach developed out of the European Enlightenment.  There are underlying prior concepts assumed from the folk idea of language and word definition.

Meaning Deeper than Words
The problem goes much deeper than word meanings.  Words have meaning only as they are used (See my article “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 ancient world, concrete and dynamic in orientation, was focused on relationships and processes.

Time Measurement
The word in English "everlasting" assumes a context of time sequence and measurement, which the word "aionios/aionion" (of the Ages) 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 English word "eternal" further carries an abstract metaphysical connotation not seemingly in focus in ancient dynamic worldviews. The influence of Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish neo-Platonist of the 1st century, was influential in that direction in later European thought.

Of a Different Kind
Plato's own idea of what has been translated as "the Eternal" is not so much metaphysical as focused on difference in kind.  The focus was "not subject to decline," "undiminishable," not subject to time," or in modern terms, "not subject to entropy."

William Barclay, in his excellent essay on this word aionios, comments on all the connotations of the various usage of aionios and specifically about Plato's use:

"But it was Plato who took this word aionios – he may even have coined it – and gave it its special mysterious meaning. To put it briefly, for Plato aionios is the word of eternity in contrast with time. Plato uses it, as it has been said, 'to denote that which has neither beginning nor end, and that is subject to neither change nor decay, that which is above time, but of which time is a moving image'.

"Plato does not mean by this word simply indefinite continuance – this is a point to which we must later return – but that which is above and beyond time."

He proceeds to cite three instances of this different focus.  These are all good additional illustrations of why it is incorrect to translate the Greek word aionios as "eternal" or "everlasting."

Barclay concludes, among other details and insights:

"Simply to take the word aionios, when it refers to blessings and punishment, to mean lasting far ever is to oversimplify, and indeed to misunderstand, the word altogether. It means far more than that."

New Kind of Age
The Greek word, and the messianic idea it attempts to represent, are focused on condition or character, not time or length of time.  In focus is 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 analytically 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 have 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 as the Rule of God (traditionally interpreted in the European Imperial terms as “Kingdom of God”).  This is based on the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.

The Greek word in its own context likewise does not carry any connotation of focus on time sequence that I can discern.  But rather it focuses on a period of time very like the common word most used to translate it, "age" or "of the age."

We don't get that from just one word, and you don't build a doctrine on a supposed "definition" of one word, or two.  We look at the broad thematic context of the New Testament writings.

The Greek word in its own context likewise does not carry any connotation of focus on time sequence, but on a period of time as a unit, very like the common words most used to translate it, "age," "of the age."  Aionios is the adjective form of the noun aion, "age" or "eon."

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 (genitive plural of aionios), 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.

Note “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.”

Somewhat-equivalent phrases 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 in form (meaning "related to").

Thus a standard formal form of it is “of the Age.”  And it is commonly used in the PLURAL.  Thus you will also see it as “of the Ages.”  John 3:16 is a famous passage that uses this adjective, "having life of the ages.

So this word 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 of time 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 indispensable to understand what the original passage was even talking about.

Adaptation and Syncretism
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!

The Age of Ages
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 an 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.

Before Jesus
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.

One reader commented that on an online discussion about the meaning of this Greek word "aionios."  One member recently suggested that aionios meant "eternal" (meaning "endless")  in Classical Greek, but not in Koine.

First a comment on the false assumption underlying this assertion.  It is the same classic error we find through the modern error, starting with an English context and pulling the Greek into it.

Does a Greek Word "Mean" and English Word?
A major problem in such discussions is to consider the starting place the English words we have available.  Traditional discussions seem to start with that English word a certain Greek word means.  There may be an assumption that the Greek word must mean one of the English words, that English will have one word that will fit the meaning of the Greek word.

The discussion takes place in the English, western worldview, arena, while the meaning lies in the Greek, 1st-century worldview, arena.  The approach centers on questions and vocabulary in our own language about certain philosophical concepts.  Then the Greek words are assumed to “mean” one of these English words or another.

The linguistic understanding of meaning is that the meaning of any word or phrase in a language depends on the worldview, the cultural context of the people using that language.  No word in any language means a word in another language.  Put another way, no word in one language is equivalent to a word in any other language.  Or no word in any language can be defined by any word in another language.

The most humorous aspect of this is hidden to most people.  But as linguists understand language, meaning does not reside in words.  Meaning resides in syntax and usage!  There is an abstract assumption behind most of these arcane arguments about which word in English a biblical Greek word means.  It assumes one WORD means another WORD.

But words have meaning only in their cultural worldview context.  And a word can make sense only in the context and structures of its own language.  Meaning is culture-sensitive.  This is simply what we know about how human language works.

Most of the classic lexicons or dictionaries don't give you a meaning of the Greek word.  Most simplistically reference how that word has been translated into English!  So we still don't know what it MEANT in GREEK!  In the Mediterranean 1st-Century socio-cultural setting!  We are still dependent on the limitations of that translator or translation committee.

Most traditional ("classical") academic references do NOT tell you what the Greek word means!  They only tell you how it has previously been translated into English!  This hides the Greek in a circular English discussion.

Greek Starting Point
A T Robertson does not take this approach.  This is perhaps why this hand-developed compendium from 1934 has remained such a valuable source up to now.  He discusses how a Greek word or phrase was used in classical and Koine period documents of all kinds.

It is too easy to impose the assumptions and concepts behind an English word upon the Greek word!  This destroys the integrity of the biblical or other ancient text.  Context is everything in determining the meaning of a word or phrase in any text!

Closest Equivalent
The Greek word aionios is basically the adjective form of the noun aionios.  If we were to find the closest dynamic equivalent usage in English for the word, the Greek word aionios could be pretty well expressed by the English phrase “of the ages.”  The root of it is the word aion (our English aeon or eon), usually understood as "age," similar in usage to our term "era."

Thus associating the Greek word with “eternal” or “endless” in English adds an overlay of assumption and concept to the Greek intention.  The English words entails a couple of stages of adjustment or correction to associate it with the English concepts entailed by the word "eternal" that is often at the core of the modern English rationalist worldview.  The western worldview is much more focuses on metaphysics that the Hebrew or Greek worldview in the 1st century.

(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.)

Time Without Time
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.”

Even 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 are familiar with in our common life, those 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.  

As to Classical usage compared to Koine usage, I don’t see that much difference in the usages and connotations in Classical and Koine Greek.  I note here that my specialty is not classical Greek.  I am a cultural linguist and have worked across many cultures and languages.

In my own studies I use the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with several modern language, and modern Greek.  I focus on the languages and the texts (not just individual words) in their dynamic real-life context of the culture and society in which they were developed and preserved.  That is where and how the "mean."

Some try to draw upon Augustine as a support and authority for their reductionist approach of aligning the meaning of the Greek ainios with the modern western idea of "endless."  This is problematic, because that reads back upon Augustine the linear analytical idea of time and the modern way of looking at time.

I will say I am not familiar with Augustine’s thought in detail.  But it is important that we recognize that Augustine's time and the questions he was answering were all different from those modern westerners assume to be normative and natural in our modern era.

My Latin is operable, but not as sharp and deep at this stage as it once was.  I rarely use Latin anymore, working for many years in African and other langagues, and focusing on the Greek of the Christian scriptures in my own studies and the Greek along with nmy laborious Hebrew for the Hebrew Scriptures.

But the Latin word Augustine used to translate the biblical Greek word was aeternum.  Modern readers commonly read this Latin word, from which comes the English word eternity, as having the same meaning and connotation as the modern word.

Across Cultures and Eras
In this case, we are spaning multiple cultures and eras, as well as languages.  The scientific and analytical worldview assumed to be normative in the west is very new in human history and not to be considered synonymous with another era whose vocabulary we have borrowed and modified over the centuries.

This naive one-to-one word approach betrays a lack of awereness of how language actually works.  Found so often even in academic theology, this static concept of language overlooks the very different worldview and cultural setting of the Latin that Augustine used. Language arises out of real-life relationships and situations, and is necessarily time-bound.  The meaning of language does not reside primarily in words, but in syntax, structures and usages.

Further, the Latin was an attempt to interpret into Augustine's language and experience the meaning of the dynamic eastern concept in the Greek word aionios.  History and contemporaries inform us that Augustine was struggling with the Greek.  Finding the best word in Latin to convey the connotation carried by the Greek philosophical term would have been a task.

Language and Worldview
It is the worldview perspectives and assumptions that I focus on and find to be always the critical factors when dealing with cross-cultural communication.  I find that Augustine was not highly proficient in Greek, and depended on Latin.

There are some important differences in worldview connotation between Greek and Latin in words chosen to discuss some of these ideas.  The contemporary Greek fathers made fun of Augustine’s poor Greek and “deficient” theological concepts.

His metaphorical figures seem to me to have been taken as firm literal or metaphysical categories, rather than relational categories I perceive.  The cultural milieu in North Africa was, where he grew up and worked, I would expect to be more relational in focus.

Nothing in that era was linear and reductionist as modern thought.  Further, Augustine was greatly influenced by the Manichean and related Gnostic mystery religions from his pre-conversion days, though he wrote against these ideas later.

The New Age
Both the Classical Mediterranean world and the 1st century world reflected in the Common Greek of the New Testament texts were far from the abstract analytical thinking of the modern European era.

Imposing the idea of English “endless” introduces time sequence and depth, and that's just not what the Greek word entails.  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 Modern mindset (often called Modernist or Rationalist) is that it wants to rationally analyze and categorize everything into clear, firm and constant distinctions, when in fact that is not how real language works, that's not how real life works.

Reality is dynamic and uncertain, always changing.  Especially the way words are used.  People are creative and are always searching for new, artistic, more picturesque or more personal ways to say things.  Recent extensive studies in neurology and psychology have shown that people do not naturally think in objective analytical categories, but we think in metaphors.

We use symbols and association with previous experiences or understandings.  “Definitions” are just summaries of how people use words.  As people use words differently (all the time), "definitions" change.

Language is "fuzzy" because it is used by humans, who are ambiguous, creative, humorous, expressive and imprecise.  Humans think in visual, pictorial images, so analogy, metaphor and association are always how we speak.  It is not the occasional way of adding color to an abstract linear, rational dissertation, like an illustration for an analytical sermon.  The latter is the exception.

The normal, common way humans thin is analogically and pictorially.  The story is not just a thoughtful, interesting add-on.  For all humans except the modern western analyticals, the story is the point, the story itself is the lesson.  Not the points, propositions and interesting factoids abstracted from it.  These are simply the characteristics of language.

How Words "Mean"
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.  To learn what a word "means," we must investigate how it has been used (in its own language!).

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 focuses of the ancient cultures and the Greek or other languages that reflect those cultures and times.

One reader included some examples of the traditional "classical" academic "definitions."  To define the Greek words, they give one or two English words as the "definition."  These examples illustrate very well that the common approach assumes a one-to-one equivalency of some word (and it underlying concepts and assumptions) with some single word in another language (and it underlying cultural background an connotations).

One minister in the discussion group, she says, had it all worked out.  He simply declared and reasserted the meaning he likes and prefers.  He seemed unaware that his idea of arbitrary definitions and abstract word-to-word meanings conflicts with everything we know about how language works.

Greek "Means" in Greek, not English
His starting point was his traditions and prior beliefs, based on the analytical, rationalist world view of the modern west, and he had to make the biblical words and texts fit that.  To him, that abstract, standardized and simplified format was "reality."  He had to find biblical texts to support that "obvious" abstract view of reality and truth.

But Greek "means" in the Mediterranean cultural setting of the 1st century, not in the very different modern world.  So the thoughts and intentions of the Greek in its setting have to be translated, not one Greek word into one English word.

I have tried to provide the perspective of language and culture that informs us on how words mean and how languages relate.  I see these classic examples illustrate the lack of reference to the actual characteristics of language.

Examples of Honor
But you can find hundreds of sources and authorities on how language works, how biblical exegesis is done, how the biblical integrity is honored in the way that I have commented.  I summarized the basic characteristics of language and the worldview behind the words in question.

I have addressed this mater in many articles with lots of links to other sources for reference and resource on my website.  So feel free to roam and search.

Extensive examples one reader included in her query were instances of this simplistic western method of simply telling what English word had been used in previous translations to translate the Greek word.  These examples illustrate that they are interpreting the Greek by finding an English word that seems to match it.

Meaning vs Translation
I have always found it amazing and amusing that so often the way a word’s supposed ”meaning” in English is established is simply by going to find ways it has BEEN TRANSLATED into the target language!  It is a circular argument.  It keeps you from getting into the actual Greek usage context that gives the Greek word its meaning!

Such “classic” western analytical approaches seem unaware of the way language really works.  No word has meaning when detached from its context, the cultural worldview assumptions in which the word was born and the usages of that word in its own original cultural context to bring out those background concepts.

Watch how arguments over words are constructed.  A common approach is to go looking for a Greek word, usage or phrase that will support the idea you already hold and want to “defend.”  This immediately places the starting point outside the biblical and historical life of the biblical language, compromising the integrity of the scriptures, who have life and meaning before we even consider English.

They don’t mean to do it, it is just natural to think that the way we know how to think is the way the whole world thinks or the only way to approach a matter.  But the Bible comes out of a different era and worldview context, so it had to makes sense in that context.  Or otherwise it would never have meant anything to them and the scriptures would never have been preserved for us.

That is an ironic approach, though, for a Christian teacher.  Since Jesus teaches us to reach past the common cultural way of doing things, to look behind traditions, and look for the Rule of God among all of us.  The unity that God is creating.  As Paul puts it, God is creating a whole new Humanity to unite all of us (Eph 2).  God's focus is not on individual words or phrases.  God's Good news focuses on relationships.  Paul warns us against arguments over words and ideas.

It is very difficult for us to realize, and for “classical” western academic scholarship to realize, that there are multiple ways humans understand and relate to reality.  This entails the usages in their languages.  So missionaries and Bible translators have to be very careful to investigate the cultural and social background of the biblical passage in focus and the culture of the target language, or worldview of the people they want to communicate with.

Integrity of the Text
Let me just restate:  No word in any one language “MEANS” any other word in some other language.  Each word or phrase in any language bears its own integrity, which arises out of its place in the cultural worldview of the people whose language that is!

So we must look for the best way to express in English what we think the Greek word and concept are conveying.  NO usage in any language “proves” any usage in any other language.

Best wishes, my reader, as you continue your probing, studies and spiritual growth.  I am very glad God is supra-cultural and yet, we understand through the  incarnation and the teachings about the Holy Spirit, is able to relate to each of us directly in our own limited cultural and historical “box.”

The Holy Spirit indeed makes us one beyond what our minds can comprehend.  I am so glad my understanding of things is not the basis of the Grace he has bestowed on me!

Also related:
[Reviews] Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
[Reviews] The Gospels in their Jewish Setting
[review] Greek Egypt
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] The Languages Jesus Used
[TXT] Through Thick and Thin
[PDF] Life, Resurrection and Judgement: the Hope of the Believing Community (John 5:19-30)
[PDF] The Unity of Jesus And God In The Fourth Gospel
[TXT] What Was Koine Greek?

Related on the Internet:
A T Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research
William Barclay – Time: Aionios: the Greek word for Eternity


Original comments written 6 January 2011 in answer to an email query from a reader
Topic developed February and July 2011
Article finalized and posted on OJTR 5 August 2011
Revised 8 July 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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