ÆON (αἰών, αἰῶνες, ‘age,’ ‘ages’)
There is some uncertainty as to the derivation of the word αἰών. Some relate it with ἄημι, ‘to breathe,’ but modern opinion connects it with ἀεί, αἰεί (= αἰών), and finds as other derivatives the Latin œvum and the English ‘aye.’ In the LXX αἰών is used to translate עוֹלָם in various forms, as מַעוֹלָם, Gn 6:4; עַד עוֹלָם, 1 K 1:31; אַל עוֹלָם, Gn 21:33; הָעוֹלָם, Ec 3:11. It is of frequent occurrence in the NT. The instances number 125 in TR, and 120 in critical editions. Following these, it is noteworthy that in the Gospels and Acts, where it occurs 34 times, it is only once used in the plural (Lk 1:33). In the rest of the NT the use of the plural predominates (54 out of 86 instances). In Rev. the word occurs with great frequency (26 times). In every case it is used in the plural, and, except in two places, in the intensive formula εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων—a form which is never found in the Gospels or Acts. αἰών is variously translated as ‘age,’ ‘for ever,’ ‘world,’ ‘course,’ ‘eternal.’ It expresses a time-concept, and under all uses of the word that concept remains in a more or less definite degree.
- It expresses the idea of long or indefinite past time, ἀπʼ αἰῶνος, ‘since the world began’ (EV; Lk 1:70, Ac 3:21; 15:18; cf. מֵעוֹלָם, Gn 6:4, Is 64:4, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος, Jn 9:32). In these instances, the phrases express what we mean when, speaking generally and indefinitely of time past, we say ‘from of old’ or ‘from the most ancient time.’
- The common classical use of αἰών for ‘lifetime’ is not found in the NT; but there are instances where the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα seems to have that significance; e.g. ‘The servant abideth not in the house for life, but the son abideth for life,’ Jn 8:35 (also Mt 21:19, Jn 13:8, 1 Co 8:13).
- The phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα or τοὺς αἰῶνας is frequently found in the NT as a time-concept for a period or ‘age’ of indefinite futurity, and may be translated ‘for ever.’ Strictly speaking, in accordance with the root idea of αἰών the phrase indicates futurity or continuance as long as the ‘age’ lasts to which the matter referred to belongs. The use of the intensive form εἰς τοὺς αἰώνας τῶν αἰώνων (Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, He 13:21, and Rev. passim) indicates the effort of Christian faith to give expression to its larger conception of the ‘ages’ as extending to the limits of human thought, by duplicating arid reduplicating the original word. The larger vision gave the larger meaning; but it cannot he said that the fundamental idea of ‘age,’ as an epoch or dispensation with an end, is lost. In the Fourth Gospel the phrase is sometimes employed as a synonym for ‘eternal life’ (Jn 6:51, 58).
- The plural αἰῶνες expresses the time-idea as consisting of or embracing many ages—æons, periods of vast extent—‘from all ages’ (RV, Eph 3:9), ‘the ages to come’ (Eph 2:7, etc.). Some of these ‘ages’ are regarded as having come to an end—‘but now once in the end of the world (‘at the end of the ages’ RV) hath he appeared to put away sin’ (He 9:28). The idea of one age succeeding another as under ordered rule is provided for in the suggestive title ‘the king eternal’ (EV ‘the king of the ages’) (1 Ti 1:17; cf. אַל עוֹלָם, Gn 21:33). In He 1:2 ‘through whom also he made the words’ (ages), and He 11:3 ‘the worlds (ages) were made by the word of God,’ we have the striking conception of the ‘ages’ as ‘including all that is manifested in and through them’ (Westcott, Com. in loc.). (In Wis 13:9 there is a curious instance of αἰών as referring to the actual world, ‘For if they were able to know so much that they could aim at the world [στοχάσασθαι τὸν αἰῶνα], how did they not sooner find out the Lord thereof?’)
- There is also attached to the word the significance of ‘age’ as indicating a period or dispensation of a definite character—the present order of ‘world-life’ viewed as a whole and as possessing certain moral characteristics. It is unfortunate that there is no word in English which exactly expresses this meaning. The general translation in AV and RV is ‘world,’ though ‘age’ appears always in RVm and in the text at He 6:5. There is undoubtedly at times a dose similarity of connotation between αἰών and κόσμος as indicating a moral order. In the Gospel and Epp. of John αἰών is never used in this sense, but κόσμος is employed instead; e.g. ‘Now is the judgment of thin world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (Jn 12:31, also 15:19 etc.), ‘If any man love the world’ (1 Jn 2:15 etc.). They are almost, if not altogether, synonymous in ‘Where is the disputer of this world (‘age,’ αἰών)? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world (κόσμος)?’ (1 Co 1:20). That St. Paul recognized a distinction between them is evident from the phrase κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κὸσμου τούτου, which is translated both in AV and in RV ‘according to the course of this world’ (Eph 2:2). Plainly αἰών describes some quality of the κόσμος. We have no term to express it exactly, but our phrase ‘the spirit of the age’ comes very near to what is required.
- This ‘world’ or ‘age’ as a moral order includes the current epoch of the world’s life. It is an epoch in which the visible and the transitory have vast power over the souls of men, and may become the only objects of hope and desire. It is described simply as αἰών, ‘the world’ (Mt 13:22, Mk 4:19), and its end is emphatically affirmed (Mt 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20). But more frequently it is referred to as in contrast to a coming age. It is described as ὁ αἰὼν οὗτος, ‘this world’ (Mt 12:32, Lk 16:8, Ro 12:2, 1 Co 1:20, etc.); as ὁ νῦν αἰών (1 Ti 6:17, etc.); as ὁ αἰὼν ὁ ἑνεστώς, ‘the present … world’ (Gal 1:4). The future age is described as ὁ αἰὼν μέλλων, ‘the world to come’ (Mt 12:32, He 6:5); ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ‘the world to come’ (Mt 10:30, etc.); and as ὁ αἰὼν ἐκεῖνος, ‘that world’ (Lk 20:35). The present ‘age’ has its God (2 Co 4:4), its rulers and its wisdom (1 Co 2:6, 8), its sons (Lk 16:8), its fashion (Ro 12:2), and its cares (Mt 13:22). Men may be rich in it (1 Ti 6:17), and love it (2 Ti 4:10). It is an evil age (Gal 1:4), yet it is possible to live soberly, righteously, and godly in it (Tit 2:12), and it has an end (Mt 13:40). In the future ‘age’ there is ‘eternal life’ (Mk 10:30, Lk 18:30). Those who are counted worthy of it ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage, neither can they die any more’ (Lk 20:35f.). It has ‘powers’ that may be ‘tasted’ in the present age (He 6:5).
The contrast is regarded as that which is described in Jewish writings as עוֹלָם הַוִּה and עוֹלָם הַנְּא, ‘this age’ and ‘the age that is to come.’ These are identified with the age before and after the coming of the Messiah. There is much uncertainty as to the time when this contrast first arose. Dalman says that ‘in pre-Christian products of Jewish literature there is as yet no trace of these ideas to be found’ (The Words of Jesus, p. 148). It is difficult to believe that a nation which expected as much from the advent of the Messiah did not form some idea, at a date before the days of Jesus Christ, of the vast changes vast would be produced when He did come, and look upon the age which was so marked as one to be contrasted with the age in which they were living. We cannot follow Dalman when he says: ‘It is not unlikely that in the time of Jesus the idea of “the future age,” being the product of the schools of the scribes, was not yet familiar to those He addressed’ (ib. p. 135). Dalman apparently doubts whether Jesus used the term Himself, but says: ‘The currency of the expressions “this age,” “the future age,” is at all events established by the end of the first Christian century.’ He makes the reservation that ‘for that period the expressions characterised the language of the learned rather than that of the people’ (ib. p. 151).
- Among the Gnostics (see Gnosticism) the Æons were emanations from the Divine. But this meaning of the word belongs to a time when the Gnostic ideas and terminology were more fully developed than in the first century of the Christian era. It is enough to quote the opinion of Hort in his Judaistic Christianity, ‘There is not the faintest sign that such words as … αἰών … have any reference [in the NT] to what we call Gnostic terms’ (p. 133, also p. 146).
Literature.—G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, Eng. tr. Edinburgh, 1902, pp. 147ff., 162ff.; HDB, art. ‘World’: Westcott, Com. on the Epistle to the Hebrews, in locis; F. Rendall, Expositor, 3rd ser., vii.  266–278; Wilke-Grimm, Clavis Novi Testamenti, s.v.; ERE, art. ‘Æons’ and ‘Ages of the World’; F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity, Cambridge and London, 1894, pp. 133, 146; H. B. Swete, Gospel according to St. Mark, London, 1902, pp. 65, 217; J. T. Marshall, ExpT, x. [1898–99] 323; Lightfoot, Com. on Colossians and Philemon3, London, 1879, p. 73ff.; C. Geikie, Life and Words of Christ, do. 1877, p. 625; J. Agar Beet, Last Things, do. 1913, pp. 70f., 132f.; Sanday-Headlam, Romans5 (ICC, 1902).
TR Textus Receptus, Received Text.
EV English Version.
RV Revised Version.
AV Authorized Version.
RVm Revised Version margin.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
ERE Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.
ICC International Critical Commentary.