In 1935 the late Alexander Thomason of Edinburgh published a series of articles in which he traced the process by which words derived from Latin came to be commonly employed in translating the Greek scriptures into English. His outline and argument are so convincing the present writer in this chapter presents a brief summary based upon Mr Thomson's work and gladly acknowledges his indebtedness to that author.
It is widely recognized that 'eternity' is not a subject for biblical discussion. One will search in vain for statements such as, 'Let us talk or think about 'eternity' or 'Eternity is endless time or timelessness'. We may go further and suggest that our study of 'olam' and 'aion' has shown that neither of these terms of itself bears our sense of 'eternal' or even 'everlasting'. How then did these terms and the concepts they represent become so common in theology, Bible study and preaching?
It is a common modern practice to contrast time with 'eternity' a line of thought almost , if not entirely, absent from the sacred writings. Jerome, about 380 A.D. in his Vulgate (Latin version of the Bible) translated Rev.10:6, 'Temus non erit amplium', Wycliffe, a thousand years later followed suit with, 'Tyme schall no more be', the A.V. 1611 has, 'There shall be time no longer'. Though the succeeding chapters of Revelation cover a period of over a millennium with major events occurring on earth, uncritical interpretation has frequently treated Rev.10:6 as indicating the conclusion of time absolute and the institution (or restitution) of 'eternity'. Fortunately the more modern versions employ the alternative idea embraced by the Greek 'chronos', 'intervening or waiting time' and therefore have 'Dely shall be no more', a rendering fully in accord with the rush of events that is presented in the succeeding chapters of Revelation. Still even today it is not unusual to find scholars talking about 'time' giving place to eternity - a view of which we have found no suggestion in the scriptures.
In Old English translations produced before the Norman Conquest (1066) we may note the absence of Latin terms:even of the word 'salvation' in the Anglo-Saxon versions of 680-900 A.D. and even in Wycliffe's of 1380 where 'health' is used . Even Tyndale, 1526, has 'salvation' only in John 4:22 ('Salvation commeth of the Jewes'). Similarly for 'aionios' the Old English has not 'eternal' but 'ece'. It seems probable that if the Renaissance with its revival of interest in Greek, had preceded the Norman Conquest, our English Language, and the N.T. in particular, would have contained many Greek terms and English equivalents, instead of the great number of Latin terms resulting from the language of Rome predominating in Europe in the centuries preceding 1500 and in the ritual of the Roman Catholic church even till our own day.
With the Renaissance came a great new interest in Greek; Erasmus issued his first Greek N.T. in 1516; but by that time Jerome's Latin Vulgate dominated Christendom. It was itself an heroic attempt to bring order into the confusion consequent upon the importation of North African versions, largely unchanged since Tertullian, (around 200 A.D.) into contact with the different dialect of Italy and with the Greek manuscripts. For 'aion' Jerome found in the old versions, two Latin words- 'seculum' and 'aeternus'. From these we have derived, 'secular' and 'eternal'. 'Seculum' is commonly defined as 'a generation, an age, world, times, a century'. Secular things belong to this present time or world, usually as contrasted with spiritual matters. Ancient Roman sports were called secular games. Herodian (about 200 A.D.) calls those 'aeonian games'. Other examples of 'secular' meaning 'centuries, age, or period' appear in the decrees of the Council of Trent (1543-63) and in the works of some early fathers. This term seems never to have meant 'eternity'.
In the Vulgate 'aion' is rendered 'seculum' one hundred and one times. 'aeternum' twenty-seven. The plural 'aiones', common in Revelation, Jerome calls 'seculums' and he uses the phrases 'from the seculums, for the seculums, before the seculum, the future seclum, this seculum,, that seculum, the consummation of the seculums, the coming seculum' and so on in a clear and consistent manner. But
his use of aeternum is not so readily understood unless we accept the view that in Jerome's time 'aeternum' did not mean endless infinity. Wycliffe in working from the Vulgate puts 'world' for 'seculum' but for 'aeternum' he has 'for ever'. Thus there appeared in English two distinctly different words to translate the same Greek term 'aion'.
Some examples of Jerome's use of aeternum will illustrate the problems of discordance that appear to arise. In his Gallican version of the psalms from the LXX he usually translates 'eis ton aiona' as 'in aeternum' but where the plural occurs in Psa.61:4 and 72:17 he used 'seculums'. Psa.20:2 in the LXX has 'from the aeon and till the aeon Thou art God. here Jerome uses 'seculum' but for the same phrase in Psa. 103:17 he employs 'aeternum'.
In Exodus 15:18 and Micah 4:5 he has 'for aeternum and beyond'. Many other examples could be produced to show that for Jerome 'aeternum' probably did not represent a concept of absolute infinite duration.
When Wycliffe consistently used 'without end' to translate 'aeternum' he seems to have established a precedent in English for attaching to that word and, through it, to 'olam' and 'aion' the philosophic concept of infinitude. it may be that for periods of known or approximately calculable duration such as century, lifetime, generation or age, Jerome used 'seculum' whereas 'aeternum' served for time spans of unhorizoned extension.
Not only does thought mold language, language largely conditions thought processes. A few of the many important theological and biblical terms derived from Latin through he Vulgate which have powerfully affected doctrine and preaching may be listed:- salvation, perdition, destroy, destruction, damnation, perish, punish, torment, dispensation, priest, propitiation, mediator, redemption, person, reconciliation, oblation, justification, and eternal. Because of the varying degree in which such words differ from the meaning of the corresponding Hebrew and Greek expressions, it behooves the student (and teacher) to examine carefully the terms he meets with and uses, always endeavoring to make his own statements accord with those of the inspired authors as theirs may be discovered by concordant contextual research.
In this way we may approach more closely to an appreciation of the message of the Sacred Scriptures.