Aeon (in the Bible)

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An indefinitely long period of time. The Biblical use of the term can be seen best by examining how it is employed in the OT, in intertestamental Judaism, and in the NT.

In the Old Testament. The Greek word α[symbol omitted]ών, from which the English word is derived, first occurs in the Greek versions of the Bible as a translation of the Hebrew word 'ôlām, meaning an indefinitely long period of time of greater or lesser extent. The terms express especially the notion of the duration of time in which one generation succeeds another (Eccl 1.4) or indefinite periods of time long since past (Jos 24.2) and thus come to mean age (Ez 26.20). Moreover, 'ôl ām and αών come to take on the more precise meaning of eternity or unlimited, endless time in some passages in which Yahweh is said to live "from of old" (mê-ôlām ), as one generation succeeds another. He is "the everlasting God" (ēl 'ôlām: Gn 21.33). He swears "As I live forever" (l e 'ôlām: Dt 32.40). The eternal King (melek 'ôlām: Jer 10.10) is, in the later, deuterocanonical books, He who lives forever (hê-' 'ôlām: Dn 12.7; Sir 18.1).

In Intertestamental Judaism. In addition to the two meanings of α[symbol omitted]ών, "long duration of time" and "eternity," that later Judaism received from the OT, two new and often related meanings emerged: (1) The apocalyptic literature in particular distinguishes between the present "age," which is "the aeon of injustice" (Ethiopic Enoch 48.7) and the future "age" of holiness (Syriac Baruch 15.78). In the eschatology of this period [see eschatology (in the bible)] there is postulated a moral difference between the present evil aeon and the future aeon with its promise of happiness for the just (cf. even the deuterocanonical Tb 14.5). (2) The present "age" was easily identified with the world that has existed from creation up to the present [see world (in the bible)] or to the future golden "age," and thus the temporal meaning of α[symbol omitted]ών tends sometimes to merge with a purely spatial sense of this material world (4 Esdras 7.50).

In the New Testament. The NT authors use α[symbol omitted]ών to mean (1) age in the sense of a certain period of time of greater or lesser duration, (2) age meaning an indefinite period of years or of generations, (3) eternity properly speaking, and (4) world either as the present material world, especially the world of sin and darkness that is opposed to the kingdom of God, or the "world to come" that has already begun.

(1) The word αών sometimes means simply age or era as a more or less defined number of years or generations. Thus in 1 Cor 10.11, St. Paul refers to the limited "ages" of the past when he says that "the end of the ages" has come.

(2) As an indefinite duration of time, αών may have been used several times (e.g., in 1 Cor 2.7, where "before the ages" may refer to the limited but indefinite period of time between creation and the end of the world), but such usage readily passes over into the following meaning.

(3) The term αών can signify eternity in the sense of an unlimited, endless period of time, either backward and forward or simply the future duration of time without end. Thus in Col 1.26 πò; τ[symbol omitted]ν αώνων apparently means "from all eternity," but perhaps equivalently, "before the foundation of the world," as in Eph 1.4; Jn 17.24; 1 Pt 1.20; see also ες τòν α[symbol omitted]να (forever) in Jn 6.51; ες τòν α[symbol omitted]να; το α[symbol omitted]νος and ες το[symbol omitted]ς α[symbol omitted]νας τ[symbol omitted]ν αώνων in Heb 1.8; Gal 1.5; 1 Tm 1.17 meaning "forever and ever," and α[symbol omitted]νιος (everlasting) in Rom 16.26; Heb 9.14.

(4) Finally, αών very frequently has the sense of world (Heb 1.2; 11.3), especially in those passages where "this present aeon" is contrasted with "the aeon to come" (Mt 12.32; Mk 10.30; Rom 12.2). As in Jewish usage there is often a moral difference between "this aeon" and "the aeon to come"; so in Lk 16.8, "the children of this aeon" are distinguished from "the children of light." St. Paul expressly speaks of "the present evil aeon" (Gal 1.4), and Jesus refers to its end (Mt 13.39). The future aeon has, indeed, already begun in the present aeon by means of Christ's Redemption (Gal 1.4; Heb 6.5), but there remains the tension between the present world and the growing realization of the kingdom of God.

Bibliography: h. sasse, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 1:197209. o. cull-mann, Christ and Time, tr. f. v. filson (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1964). j. barr, Biblical Words for Time (Naperville, Ill. 1962). a. luneau, L'Histoire du salut chez les pères de l'église (Paris 1964). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, trans. and ed. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 662664. f. j. schierse, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 1:680683.

[j. l. ronan]