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In Heb. 1:1-2, the Greek text according to the Stephanus 1550 Textus Receptus states,

1 Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις 2 ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων δι᾽ οὗ καὶ τοὺς αἰῶνας ἐποίησεν

which is translated as,

1 God, after speaking in many parts and in many ways to the fathers by the prophets, 2 spoke to us in these last days by the Son, whom He made heir of all things, by whom He also made the αἰῶνας.

God (i.e., the Father) is said to have made the αἰῶνας by (δι᾽) the Son. The Greek word αἰῶνας is the accusative plural declension of the noun αἰών.

The English translations generally vary in their translation of αἰῶνας.

For example:

  • "ages" (YLT)
  • "universe" (NAB; NIV; NLT)
  • "world" (ESV; NASB1; NET2; RSV)
  • "worlds" (ASV; KJV; NKJV)

In consideration of the verb ἐποίησεν, "he created," which implies the creation of something tangible,3 how can the Greek word αἰῶνας, noting that it is declined in the plural number, be translated and understood in this context?


Footnotes

1 Footnote: "lit. ages"

2 Footnote: Grk “the ages.” The temporal (ages) came to be used of the spatial (what exists in those time periods). See Heb 11:3 for the same usage.

3 BDAG, p. 839, on ποιέω, (1): to produce someth. material, make, manufacture, produce.

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2 Answers 2

Background

Hebrews 1:1-4 sets out a thesis that the rest of the book will unpack by way of encouraging its Christian audience to remain faithful.

The author's constant appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures accounts for the traditional title, "The Letter to the Hebrews", although the book doesn't look much like a letter, and it never identifies its audience as Jewish Christians explicitly. Still, given the content and argument of the book, it's easy to see why this assumption is made.

These very brief comments are a necessary backdrop to the answer to the specific question which follows.

Hebrews 1:2 text

The Greek of the Textus Receptus is provided in the question (δι᾽ οὗ καὶ τοὺς αἰῶνας ἐποίησεν), and it is a little different from the widely adopted critical text found in NA28 and UBS4:

1:2 ... δι᾽ οὗ καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς αἰῶνας

(Note the inverted word order, supported by P46, א, A, B, and others. It really doesn't matter for this answer, though.)

The question is about αἰῶνας, or in its dictionary form, αἰών (aiōn). As the question notes, its "normal" meaning in the Greek NT (and LXX) is an "extent/period of time" (see especially under section II in that entry for biblical citations). There are some contexts and phrases which demand this meaning, but that's not the case in Hebrews 1:2, and the variety of translations is striking, especially extending to "universe, world, worlds", again as helpfully noted in the question.

What can account for this?

The Hebrew counterpart

About 380+ times in the Septuagint (pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), some form of αἰών translates עוֹלָם (ʿôlām), a very natural translation since they can both mean something like "eternity" ("a very, very, etc., long time").

This is almost exclusively the meaning that ʿôlām bears in the Hebrew Bible. However, by the time of the Midrashic literature, in rabbinic usage ʿôlām had taken on the sense of "existence, world" (from Marcus Jastrow's A Dictionary of the Targumim, etc., see the entry occupying most of the left column). Although it could still bear the sense of "eternity", this newer sense of "world" or "universe" became a very common usage.

Here's one example, chosen almost at random out of thousands. Solomon Schechter draws attention to the titles for God in relation to the world,1 noting among others: "the only [unique] one of the world". This is found in Bereshit/Genesis Rabbah 21, 5 which in Hebrew reads: יחידו של עולם (yechido shal 'olam),2 where ʿôlām is translated "world". (This is also very common in Jewish prayers, so not at all unusual.)

It should be starting to come clear where this discussion is going.

Back to Hebrews 1:2

The question about how to translate and understand αἰῶνας in Hebrews 1:2, then, turns on resolving this alternative: [a] is the word being used in its more typical sense of "eternity, long time", etc., OR, [b] is the (anonymous) author aware of and using the meaning of "world" familiar to us from later rabbinic writings, Jewish liturgy, etc., which would be emerging around the time of the composition of Hebrews (so not an anachronism!)?3 We need to factor in, too, the fact that the Greek form in Heb 1:2 is a plural form: does the translation need to reflect this plurality? or is it a stereotyped expression/idiom, in which the plural doesn't really bear semantic value?

That's a fair few questions hiding under the surface, then.

(1) In favour of [a], "ages" , we have the following:

  • this is the "normal" meaning of aiōn; and
  • ... that's about it.

Possibly, if one was reluctant to assign a Jewish-Christian provenance to Hebrews, one would argue that the author would probably be unfamiliar with this nuance/meaning. To my mind, that's a case of a conclusion constraining the evidence (and that's getting it backwards!).

(2) In favour of [b], "universe, world" (this counts as one option in my understanding):

  • this is the only time, I think, that aiōn is the object the verb "to make" (ἐποίησεν) in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament: one thinks more readily of making some thing, than making "eternity";
  • there is a parallel text in Hebrews 11:3 which suggests a consistent usage:

[ASV] By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which appear.
[UBS4] Πίστει νοοῦμεν κατηρτίσθαι τοὺς αἰῶνας ῥήματι θεοῦ, εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων τὸ βλεπόμενον γεγονέναι.

Here again, αἰῶνας is the object of another verb of making (κατηρτίσθαι, "restored, furnished"), and in which "time" would not make so much sense. And as it goes on to speak of things which are "seen", this would seem to require the "visible world", rather than "the ages", or elongated time of some kind. This, to my mind, is a very weighty piece of evidence.4, 5

And singular/plural? I'm not really sure.

Summary

My own sense is that the evidence inclines towards taking αἰῶνας to mean "world/worlds". It would take more time than I have just now to sort out the singular/plural. I only note for those interested that in the Jastrow entry on עוֹלָם linked above, the latter part of it is devoted to the nuances of the plural עוֹלָמִים glossed as "worlds".6

Bonus: One interesting outcome of this almost exclusively linguistic investigation, is that it could contribute to the modern debates about the Jewish context of the book, or at least its author. This conclusion, if persuasive, would add strength to the view that the writer of Hebrews was Jewish, or was in a Jewish milieu. Carrying that trajectory on to his audience would be a tad more tenuous, but an author using Greek αἰών to bear a nuance familiar from later Hebrew עוֹלָם is suggestive, at the least.


  1. Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 26. [It is remarkable that this edition of Schechter's valuable work, first published in 1909, is on Archive.org. Grab the PDF or one of the ebook formats!]
  2. The passage in translation (see for context): Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, p. 222 (near top of page).
  3. Hebrews is typically dated to early to mid 60s AD/CE, because the destruction of the Temple is nowhere reflected in its contents, despite ample opportunity -- indeed, necessity -- had the destruction taken place before its time of writing.
  4. It is noted by many commentators; conveniently, Marcus Dods in Expositor's Greek Testament, in vol. 4, p. 250. His discussion of this issue (takes up almost the whole left column of the page linked) is worth consulting.
  5. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (rev. edn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 47 n. 17, cites LXX Exodus 15:18 (κύριος βασιλεύων τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ ἐπ᾽ αἰῶνα καὶ ἔτι, "The Lord reigns over the world, for ever and ever") as one of many examples of this usage. BDAG includes this as the third meaning in its αἰών entry, and includes 1 Tim 1:17 as a further example.
  6. This plural also occurs 7x in the Hebrew Bible, but normally taken by the Classical Hebrew lexicographers as a plural of intensity (see BDB).
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+1 Good answer, Davïd. Btw, whose is the face in your avatar? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 30 at 8:30
    
Todah. ;) That's Caspar David Friedrich as a young man (much younger than I am now!). –  Davïd Jan 30 at 9:28

The question is, “What does the word αἰῶνας refer to?” The Greek word αἰῶνας is the accusative plural declension of the root word αἰών. The Greek word αἰών is a third-declension, masculine-gender, nasal-stem noun. BDAG defines it as “(1) a long period of time, without reference to beginning or end; (2) a segment of time as a particular unit of history, age; (3) the world as a spatial concept, the world; (4) the Aeon as a person, the Aeon.”

The noun αἰών declines as follows:

Case - Singular - Plural

Nominative - ὁ αἰών - οἱ αἰῶνες

Genitive - τοῦ αἰῶνος - τῶν αἰώνων

Dative - τῷ αἰῶνι - τοῖς αἰῶσι(ν)

Accusative - τὸν αἰῶνα - τοὺς αἰῶνας

Vocative - αἰών - αἰῶνες


Some, wishing to nullify the import of this verse with its clear affirmation of the pre-existence of the Son, assert that the plural αἰῶνας does not refer to material “worlds,” but rather aeons or periods of time. While the Greek word αἰών can certainly be translated as “age” or “aeon” (i.e., a period of time),1 this translation is untenable in consideration of the verb ἐποίησεν. Time is an artificial and intangible construct; however, the verb ἐποίησεν suggests the creation of something tangible.2

In the Greek Septuagint, the Greek word αἰών was used to translate the Hebrew word עוֹלָם.3 In writing to Jews, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews was referring to the creation of the manifold worlds which the Jews believed existed according to their tradition. By “worlds,” I mean not other galaxies, but rather, the Jews divided the world we inhabit into different parts.

For example, in the Jewish commentary Tzeror ha-Mor (צרור המור), Avraham ben Ya'akov Saba refers to “the three worlds” (הג' עולמות): “the lower world” (העולם התחתון), “the middle world” (העולם האמצעי), and “the upper world” (העולם העליון).

Tzeror ha-Mor, Folio 3b

The same three worlds (הג' עולמות) are mentioned by Ya'akov Luzzatto in Sefer Kavonot ha-Agudot (ספר כונות האגדות).5

Sefer Kavonot ha-Agudot, Folio 79a

The upper world (העולם העליון) is also known as “the world of the angels” (עולם המלאכים), for it is the domain of the angels as well as God. The middle word (העולם האמצעי) is also known as “the world of the spheres” (עולם הגלגלים), which includes the moons, planets, and stars. The lower world (העולם התחתון) is also known as “the world below” (עולם השפל), which is the world we inhabit.

Sefer Kavonot ha-Agudot, Folio 90a

Accordingly, in Heb. 11:3, it is written,

Πίστει νοοῦμεν κατηρτίσθαι τοὺς αἰῶνας ῥήματι θεοῦ εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων τά βλεπόμενα γεγονέναι

By faith, we discern the worlds to have been prepared by the word7 of God, so that visible things did not come into existence out of things that appear.8

Clearly, in Heb. 11:3, like Heb. 1:2, τοὺς αἰῶνας refers to the created world, as Heb. 11:3 is a reference to Gen. 1:1 in which the heaven (sky) and earth were created.


Footnotes

1 BDAG, p. 32; Thayer, pp. 18-20

2 BDAG, p. 839, on ποιέω, (1): "to produce something material, make, manufacture, produce."

3 Thayer, p. 19, §2

4 Folio 3b

5 Folio 79a

6 Folio 90a

7 or “decree”

8 or “phenomena”


References

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Avraham ben Ya'akov Saba (עברהם בן יעקוב סבע). Tzeror ha-Mor (צרור המור). Venice: Giorgio di Cavalli, 1567.

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889.

Ya'akov ben Yitzchak Luzzatto (יעקב בן יצחק לוזאטו). Sefer Kavonot Ha-Agudot (ספר כונות העגדות), also known as Kaftor veFerach (כפתור ופרח). Amsterdam: Asher Anshel ben Eli'ezer Chazan, 1709.

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It looks like we're thinking along much the same lines. :) How sure are you that the 16th C. mystical texts you cite inform what the author of Hebrews had in mind? Jastrow's entry gives some earlier citations, which are either more simple (e.g., two worlds: this world, and the world to come), or more effusive ("three hundred and ten worlds", Sanh. 100a). Marcus Dods associates the end of Heb 1:2 (citing several others) as resonant with Philo, which is appealing chronologically, of course. –  Davïd Jan 30 at 8:19
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Davïd, just fyi, your answer was superb. I might not mention that in the future for all your answers, but just to let you know, you consistently supply great answers. As for these texts, you may (or may not) agree that the Jews have a long oral tradition. Now, it's certainly a possibility that this notion of "three worlds" was invented after the first millennium, but it may just as well have been passed down for millennia. I do believe Philo and Heb. 1:2 share much, much, MUCH in common. I'll have to see if he mentions anything about multiple worlds. :) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 30 at 8:25
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Davïd, as for olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba, I actually think that is better translated as "this age" and "age to come" (referring to a time period) rather than "this world" and "world to come" (refer to the world as a spatial concept). –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 30 at 8:27
    
As for Dods, if you mean that Philo consistently describes the λόγος as having a hand in creation, I definitely noticed that. I wrote a brief passage on it if you get the time. simply-a-christian.com/discourse/… –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 30 at 8:38
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P.s. Interesting that in Tzeror ha-Mor, it's עולמות rather than עוֹלָמִים. I see both forms of the plural are cited in Jastrow - I hadn't noticed before. –  Davïd Jan 30 at 9:36

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