I run into this phrase a lot in the Orthodox church, particularly as part of the longer phrase 'and unto ages of ages'. I understand that, generally, this means 'for a long time'. However, what does it mean specifically? Where did the phrase come from and what is its history? Thanks!
The phrase comes from the Bible. It’s a fairly wooden translation of the Greek idiom εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Many English translations instead use “forever and ever” or something along those lines, which is more in line with English idiom.
As for precisely where it originated, I haven’t been able to find any uses in classical Greek, though perhaps someone with better searching abilities can help with that. Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon (a lexicon including classical Greek) discusses several related idiomatic phrases using a double αἰών with various prepositions. Interestingly, all of the examples given there are within the LXX. 1
Εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων itself appears just once in the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures,3 in Psalm 83:52 where it translates really nothing (עוֹד ≈ still or yet), so the idiom appears to be native to Greek. It shows up 18 times in the New Testament (NA-28, including bracketed):
- Galatians 1:5, Philippians 4:20, 1 Timothy 1:17, 2 Timothy 4:18
- Hebrews 13:21
- 1 Peter 4:11
- Revelation 1:6, 1:18, 4:9, 4:10, 5:13, 7:12, 10:6, 11:15, 15:7, 19:3, 20:10, 22:5
All of the examples from the epistles are contained within a doxology, a fitting term because all of them ascribe δόξα (doxa ≈ “glory") to one or more persons of the Godhead, with the basic structure: ᾧ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (“to whom be the glory forever and ever”).
1. Koine Greek witnessed increased laxity in the meaning of prepositions and tended to add them in where classical Greek found the naked cases sufficient, so it’s not especially surprising that the development would go in this direction.
2. Numbering is according to LXX with English in brackets.
3. And once additionally in the Greek 4 Macc 18:4.
A closer-to-original-form translation of unto ages of ages is "into [the] aeons of [the] aeons," from Greek eis tous aionas ton aionon, occurring regularly as part of an ovation formula in the writings commonly called the New Testament of the Bible. The most popular English translations of these writings render the statement into a most imprecise phrase "forever and ever", which implies, for the majority of modern readers, a linear duration of time that goes on without end, generally in some "forward" direction.
In modern English an aeon [or "eon" in the USA] is an immeasurably long period of time, and is, according to the 2012 Digital Edition of the Collins English Dictionary, "the longest division of geological time, comprising two or more eras".
In Ancient Greek an aion, from which, via Latinisation, we get English aeon, is a lifetime, a lifespan or a generation, whether of a human being (roughly several decades), of an animal (such as a housefly, which lives only about a month or so) or of an empire (which could last centuries). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word is cognate with Old Norse ævi, "lifetime," related to Modern English ever.
One way to interpret eis tous aionas ton aionon, therefore, would be "into lifetimes of lifetimes". For some of the few English Bible publications which have opted to render the expression more literally rather than use the "forever and ever" interpretation, these are their versions of a portion of Revelation 1.18 (with my emphases added), in which the writer sees "one who looks like a son of man" who says to him:
I became dead, and lo! living am I for the eons of the eons. (Amen!)
And I have the keys of death and of the unseen.
Concordant Literal Version (CLV)
I became dead, and behold, I am living to the ages of ages,
and have the keys of death and of hades.
1890 Darby Bible
I did become dead, and, lo, I am living to the ages of the ages. Amen!
and I have the keys of the hades and of the death.
Young's Literal Translation (YLT)
I died; but I am now alive until the Ages of the Ages,
and I have the keys of the gates of Death and of Hades!
The 1912 Weymouth New Testament (WNT)
The World(s) in Sæcula Sæculorum
In the English of the late 1300s this Scripture verse looks remarkably different, and would imply something closer to modern quantum physics if we applied 21st-century definitions thereto. In John Wycliffe's 1385 New Testament, it says:
Y was deed; and lo! Y am lyuynge in to worldis of worldis,
and Y haue the keyes of deth and of helle.
“I was dead; and look! I am living into worlds of worlds,
and I have the keys of death and of hell.”
Wycliffe was translating from Latin, from the Vulgate Bible, which renders the expression in question as in sæcula sæculorum. In Roman times a sæculum was a period quite similar to what would we would call an age or a generation. It eventually got attached to the notion of a time-span of this mortal world, and by Wycliffe's time sæculum meant "world," from which we get the English word "secular" and its modern interpretation as "worldly" or "of this world" over against the things which are transcendent, divine or immortal. One translation of in sæcula sæculorum, offered by Wikipedia, is "down to the times of the times".
In the first quarter of the 7th century AD, Isidorus Hispalensis, the Archbishop of Seville in Spain1, published an encyclopaedia called the Etymologiæ, "Etymologies," in which he quotes De catechizandis rudibus, by Augustinus Hipponensis2, from a couple of generations preceding him. There is reference therein to what were considered to be the Six Ages of the World, with a seventh one often interpreted as "the Sabbath Age," the World to Come, so that the ultimate age of the universe ends up being one "divine week" composed of seven days, each day lasting about a thousand years long but with the seventh one being endless.
In Book 5, Chapter 38, Section 5, the Etymologiæ say:
The term 'age' properly is used in two ways:
either as an age of a human – as infancy, youth, old age –
or as an age of the world,
whose first age is from Adam to Noah;
second from Noah to Abraham;
third from Abraham to David;
fourth from David to the exile of Judah to Babylon;
fifth from then [the Babylonian captivity], to the advent of our Savior in the flesh;
sixth, which is now under way, to when the world itself comes to an end.
The succession of these ages through generations and reigns is thus reviewed.
The word translated3 "age" here, is however, ætas4 rather than sæculum, the latter of which is defined in Section 1 of the same chapter as follows:
Saecula consist of generations, and hence the term saeculum, because they 'follow' (sequi 5) one after another, for when some pass away, others take their place. Some call a saeculum a period of fifty years, which the Hebrews call a jubilee.
1. Isidorus, or Isidore of Seville, is venerated as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches; is, in the Occident, considered to be the last of the Church Fathers; and might currently be in the process of officially being recognised as the patron saint of the Internet and of computer programmers, technicians and users.
2. "On Catechising the Uninitiated," by Augustine of Hippo
3. In The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, by Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach & Oliver Berghof, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall
4. From which comes the word æternitas, "eternity," which originally did not mean "endless time."
5. Cf. the English word sequence.
A Poetic Expression
In his book Time and Eternity: A Biblical Study, G.T. Stevenson says that eis tous aionas ton aionon is a polytotonic superlative based on a normal Hebraic or Semitic expression similar to other designations like King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies and Song of Songs.
In a most self-explanatory manner, "Holy of Holies" is also often rendered as "Most Holy Place." Similarly the Song of Songs is, in Stevenson's interpretation of the expression, the finest song.
The Ethiopian Emperor's title was "King of Kings" because he was a king who ruled over a number of provinces on the coast of the Red Sea, each of which had its own king. The Irish High King was a king of or over other kings in Ireland. Within a certain region or empire, therefore, the King of Kings would be the highest or most powerful king. The same goes for a "Lord of Lords."
Age of Ages
Technically, however, each of the above is describing a singular thing. The plural of this is what Ages of Ages represents. If a bunch of emperors got together to hang out, then we would have a meeting of some "Kings of Kings."
Stevenson understands the singular form of the expression in question—Age of Ages (occurring only one time in the Bible, in Ephesians 3.21)—to mean "best Age," which could also be said to be a very good or great Age. (Note how "Golden Age" is a term from Greco-Roman mythology used now to refer to what is considered to be the best times of a certain phenomenon, e.g. the golden age of jazz. In this way "the golden age" is an age of ages : an extremely memorable, nostalgia-inducing time-period).
The Plural (of the Plural)
On the other hand, perhaps it is to be taken quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Just as an empire contains within itself a number of kingdoms so too perhaps an Age of Ages is a larger time-span containing smaller spans. And so the [plural] Ages of [the] Ages would be a combination or collection of these larger time-spans.
In modern Western studies, for example, the 3000-year period of Pharaonic Egypt is commonly divided, broadly, into Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. Each of these three Kingdom periods is then subdivided into dynasties, each referring to the time that a certain family was ruling the empire, which could be as brief as the reign of only one king (such as the 28th Dynasty under Amenirdisu) or as long as the domination of fifteen monarchs (such as the 14th Dynasty, featuring famous characters like Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun).
You might then say that therefore the larger divisions of time in view here are Egypt's Ages of Ages, i.e. the Kingdom periods containing the Dynasty periods. This of course could be extrapolated further downwards (into years of reign, months of those years, weeks, days, hours, etc) or upwards (Pharaonic Egypt into all Ancient Egyptian history and so on) so that you can have ages within ages within other ages.
English, and an Example from an Indian Concept
While the English "ages of [the] ages" might come off quite clunky and generally unintelligible (at least to modern speakers), the word "age" is cognate with ancient Sanskrit yuga, from which we get Modern Hindi yug. In ancient Indian thought a yuga is an extraordinarily long period of time (the current yuga, in which we dwell, will last a total of 432 millennia, according to the most mainstream version of this view) which is composed of smaller time-units, such as a caraṇa, and which is part of a combination of bigger units of time, such as a Mahāyuga, "Big" or "Great Yuga" (composed of four yugas). This forms an extremely elaborate system of time-measurements that make up the history of the universe and which could quite appropriately be called ages of ages in the sense of time-spans within time-units within yet more time-divisions.
The Pavitr Baaibil, a Romanised Hindi translation of the Bible, has, in the Book of Prakashaitavakya [Revelation] 1.18, the "one who is like a son of man" saying that he is alive yuganuyug, commonly interpreted as "forevermore" in English. This, however, is more literally something like "yuga upon yuga" and which grammatical construction is probably as difficult to render smoothly into English as is its Greek original. Besides which, for it to be closer to "[the] ages of [the] ages" it should actually be yugon ke yugon.
Thinking in Syriac and Hebrew
The Assyrian Church of the East uses the Pəšîṭtâ, an ancient Syriac version of the Bible, which contains Semitic expressions quite akin to Hebrew. Its version of the expression "into the aeons of the aeons, amen", also from the Book of Gelyānā [Revelation/ Apocalypse], is quite lyrically poetic:
lə-ālam 'ālmīn 'amīn
This corresponds to the Yiddish and American Ḥasidic way of saying the same thing in Hebrew, such as is employed by Philip Golbe in his Orthodox Jewish Bible:
l'Ol[e]mei Olamim, Omein
The modern usage of both the Syriac ālam and the Hebrew olam imply a concept encompassing both time (age/ yuga) and space (world). This seems to be captured quite roundly in the Jewish eschatological dichotomy between Olam HaZeh, "The World of the Present," and Olam HaBa, "The World to Come."
What does 'ages of ages' mean, specifically?
Galatians 1:5 to whom is the glory to the ages of the ages. Amen. - YLT
Galatians 1:5 To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. - KJV
Galatians 1:5 to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen - ASV
age = aiōn = an age, variable period of time.
The word aion in Greek is a little hard to pin down. I once read that it could be compared to the English word “great” in variability. It can refer to a period of time less than a lifetime, the reign of a king, or even longer.
The word is frequently translated “eternal” in the KJV. However, this may not always be a correct translation. For example, there is dispute over the description of hell as “eternal” or “age lasting” in the English understanding of the word.
The compound usage of aion (age of ages) such as in the Galatians 1:5 usage may approximate a greater period of time even to what we would consider “eternity”.
Care should be used in making such translations from words whose meaning can vary so significantly. Sometimes additional translation help can be derived from associated verb tense and context.
Matthew 13:49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,
Here the word “world” is aion. The idea being that there is a period of time (an “age”) that will end with the events described.
“Ages of ages” could be seen as constituting a collection of these various periods. For example, if God has designated various ages for his plan for earth, then “ages of ages” could be used to describe a period of time reaching over the entire time or even beyond.