ALPHA AND OMEGA
These are the first and last letters of the Gr. alphabet; cf. Heb. ‘Aleph to Tau’; Eng. ‘A to Z.’ The title is applied to God the Father in Rev 1:8; 21:5, and to Christ in Rev 22:13 (cf. 2:8). The ancient Heb. name for God, יהוה, has been very variously derived, but its most probable meaning is the ‘Eternal’ One—‘I am that I am’ (Ex 3:14). This idea of the Deity, further emphasized in Is 41:4; 43:10; 44:6, is expressed in the language of the Apocalypse by the Greek phrase ‘Α and Ω,’ which corresponds to a common Heb. expression ‘Aleph to Tau,’ of which the Talmud and other Rabbinic writings furnish many examples. R. H. Charles adduces similar phrases in Latin (Martial, v. 26) and Greek (Theodoret, HE iv. 8) to express completeness. To those who believe in a Jewish original for the NT Apocalypse, its presence there will cause no surprise, and its application to Christ will constitute an instance of the Christian remodelling which that book has undergone. Moreover, Jewish writers (e.g. Kohler) have given another explanation of its use as a title for God, calling it the hellenized form of a well-known saying, ‘The Seal of God is Emeth (אֱמֶת = ‘truth’), a word containing first, middle, and last letters of the Heb, alphabet (cf. Gen. Rab. lxxxi.; Jerus. Sanh. i. 18a; Sanh, 64a; Yoma 69b). Josephus (c. Apion.) probably refers to this saying (cf. also Dn 10:21 בִּכְתִב אֱמֶח, ‘the writing of truth’). Similar is the use of Justin (Address to Greeks, xxv.). Whatever may be the origin of the phrase, its chief significance for Christians lies in its constant application to Christ, of which this passage in the Apocalypse supplies the first of countless instances. Charles and Müller agree that Patristic commentators invariably referred all these passages to the Son, and in so doing they plainly claimed the Divine privilege of eternity for the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and established the claim set forth in the later creeds that the Word of God was equal with God.’
Not only was this the universal opinion of the earliest commentators, as of the Christian author or editor of the Apocalypse; it was an opinion deeply rooted in the convictions of the Christian congregations. We hear of no attempt to dispute it; and, relying on this as an established fact, the Gnostic teachers sought to deduce by various means and numerical quibbles the essential identity of all the Persona of the Trinity (cf. Iven. adv. Hœr, I. xiv. 6, xv. 1). Among others, Tertullian (Monog. v.), Cyprian (Testimon. ii, 1, 6), Clem. Alex. (Strom. iv. 25, vi. 16), Ambrose (Exp. in septem Vis. i. 8), emphasized this view of the matter; and, before the last persecution of Diocletian was over, many inscriptions had been put up on tombstones, walls of catacombs, etc., in which these two letters stood for the name of Christ, At a subsequent period the practice became universal all over the Christian world, and countless examples are still extant to prove the general popularity of this custom.
In most cases the letters are accompanied by other symbols and titles of the Master, e.g. ⳩; in a few examples they stand alone as a reverent way of representing the presence of the Redeemer. Most numerous in the period from a.d. 300–500, they decline in number and importance during the early Middle Ages, and are rare, at least in the West, after the 7th and 8th centuries. It is significant to note that in none of those hundreds of examples do the letters (often rudely scrawled by poor peasants) refer to any one but Jesus Christ. It is hard to conceive of any fact more suited to emphasize the deep-rooted belief of the early Christians in the true Divinity of their Lord and Master, who had created the world, existed from the beginning, and was still alive and ready to succour His faithful followers.
Literature.—R. H. Charles, art. in HDB; B. W. Bacon, art. In DCG; K. Kohler, art. in JE; W. Müller in PRE3 (full account of extant inscriptions); C. Schoettgen, Hor. Heb., Leipzig, 1733.
- St. Alban Wells.
HE Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).