The two ages.
World history in two acts in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought.
The Hebrew word for the idea of an age is עולם, the Greek word for the same concept is αιων, and the Latin is usually saeculum. Of these three very important words the Greek αιων gives us our English noun eon (archaically spelled ćon), while the Latin saeculum gives us our English adjective secular. (English has ancestral roots in both Greek and Latin, unlike Hebrew, which gives us only loanwords or proper names borrowed straight from the pages of the Old Testament.)
I am concerned here mainly with the Hebrew and Greek. The Latin earns its importance mainly in the study of some later Jewish texts, such as 4 Ezra, upon which I will touch only briefly in this piece.
Refer also to my discussion of expressions of eternity.
A careful investigation into the meaning of the Hebrew word עולם and its preferred Greek translation αιων across the pages of the Old Testament, the intestamental literature, and the New Testament will bring to light, I think, a basic two-phase development of belief amongst the ancient Jews. These two phases are, quite simply:
That way of phrasing the first phase may be misleading. I do not claim that any ancient Jew necessarily insisted on only one age. Rather, the most ancient texts of the Hebrew scriptures simply seem unaware of any more than one age. It was one age by default, not necessarily by conscious rejection of other models.
That second belief, on the other hand, is phrased perfectly. There were many Jews later on who would insist on exactly two ages, as we shall see.
Between these two phases we will note a transition of sorts, a few texts that do not necessarily address the two ages directly, but nevertheless speak to an end or consummation to the present age, thus indirectly speaking to something to follow that does not belong to this present age.
These phases, and the transition between them, are linear only in the broadest sense. We can identify a time when one age was, so far as we can tell, the only view on the table. We can also identify a time when the two ages were fully in place as a workable model of history, though some Jews still held to only one age. The times between these poles are more difficult to pin down. Which is why I discuss a transition time separately between these clear phases.
In the roughest terms, the first phase covers the Old Testament from the mists of prehistory to the time of the exile to Babylon, and well into the postexilic period. We begin to see the transition in some postexilic works and in the intertestamental literature. By the time we reach the days of the New Testament, the second phase is rather firmly in place, with both ardent supporters and firm detractors.
One eternal age.
The greater portion of the ancient Hebrew scriptures shows no awareness of any more than one age in time.
By far the most common use of the Hebrew word עולם and its Greek translation αιων is in expressions of eternity, id est, to say forever. The usual expression for eternity past is מעולם (from the age). The usual expression for eternity future is לעולם (to the age) or עד־עולם (until the age). And the term is almost always singular in the Hebrew scriptures.
Only twelve times in the Hebrew scriptures does the word עולם appear in the plural...:
...and all of these instances are most easily regarded as the kind of hyperbole that is typical in expressions of eternity. Something that is supposed to last unto the ages (plural) is not necessarily going to endure any longer than something that is supposed to last unto the age (singular). The former is merely the hyperbolic formulation of the latter, and nothing more.
More to the point, nowhere in the preexilic and early postexilic books do we read any apocalyptic speculation on the two ages. So far as we can tell, only one age was ever in view throughout this most ancient period.
The Old Testament promises an eternal duration to quite a few things, of course, but the two most important, as we consider later Jewish thought, were the everlasting land promise to Abraham and the everlasting kingdom to David.
Genesis 13.15 (Masoretic and LXX):
2 Samuel 7.16 (Masoretic and LXX):
Both the land and the kingdom were promised to Israel for the age. But something happened. The course of the age went terribly wrong. 2 Kings 25.1-30 and 2 Chronicles 36.15-21 describe what transpired. Babylon conquered Jerusalem and led its inhabitants away into exile. The land was gone. The kingdom was gone. The times had turned a corner, and it became painfully obvious to all that the everlasting land promise and the everlasting kingdom were not going to last forever... at least not in this age....
The great consummation.
There are passages in some of the postexilic writings that begin to envisage an end, or consummation, of the times. A particular point is imagined at which the times will change their character, the age will come to a climax, and two basic things will happen: The restoration of Israel to its land and kingdom, and the resurrection of the dead.
The consummation is restoration in Tobit 14.5:
The exact sequence of expected events is not at all obvious from this passage alone, but what is undeniable is that, when the times of the age are fulfilled, Israel will be restored completely, and both Jerusalem and the house (that is, the temple) of God will be rebuilt. The consummation, as it were, of the age is the complete restoration of the Jewish people.
The consummation is resurrection in Daniel 12.1-4, 13 (Masoretic and LXX):
Daniel clearly links the consummation of days with a resurrection of the just and the unjust.
So in Tobit the fulfillment of the times of the age is the restoration from exile, while in Daniel the fulfillment of the consummation of days is the resurrection from the dead. What is the connection? Are these just two miscellaneous events randomly associated with the end of the age and with each other?
Not at all. It takes no great leap to connect the dots. N. T. Wright has dedicated many pages to the connection between the restoration and the resurrection. I leave him to explain in it his own words....
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, page 332 (emphasis mine):
The old metaphor of corpses coming to life had, ever since Ezekiel at least, been one of the most vivid ways of denoting the return form exile and connoting the renewal of the covenant and of all creation. Within the context of persecution and struggle for Torah in the Syrian and Roman periods, this metaphor itself acquired a new life. If Israel’s god would ‘raise’ his people (metaphorically) by bringing them back from their continuing exile, he would also, within that context, ‘raise’ those people (literally) who had died in the hope of that national and covenantal vindication.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pages 331-332 (emphasis mine):
Why did the belief in resurrection arise, and how did it fit in with the broader Jewish worldview and belief-system which we have sketched in the preceding chapters? Again and again we have seen that this belief is bound up with the struggle to maintain obedience to Israel’s ancestral laws in the face of persecution. Resurrection is the divine reward for martyrs; it is what will happen after the great tribulation. But it is not simply a special reward for those who have undergone special sufferings. Rather, the eschatological expectation of most Jews of this period was for a renewal, not an abandonment, of the present space-time order as a whole, and themselves within it. Since this was based on the justice and mercy of the creator god, the god of Israel, it was inconceivable that those who had died in the struggle to bring the new world into being should be left out of the blessing when it eventually broke upon the nation and thence on the world.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 205 (emphasis mine):
But it remains the case that resurrection, in the world of second-Temple Judaism, was about the restoration of Israel on the one hand and the newly embodied life of all YHWH’s people on the other, with close connections between the two; and that it was thought of as the great event that YHWH would accomplish at the very end of ‘the present age’....
This transition period between the two phases that I am tracing, then, is the belief that things as they stand will change for the better for the Jewish people, in two key respects. Living Jews will be restored to their land and sovereign kingdom, and dead Jews will be resurrected to join them.
I have one more text on this great consummation to present. The first 36 chapters of the first book of Enoch are called the Book of the Watchers, though sometimes that title is reserved for chapters 6-11 alone. Fragments of this section have been found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran. The first 32 chapters are available to us in Greek translation of the presumably Aramaic original. 1 Enoch 16.1 tells us that the present age will come to a distinct termination point:
Along the same lines, we find in the gospel of Matthew several instances of the expression συντελεια του αιωνος, or consummation of the age, in 13.39-40, 49; 24.3; 28.20.
All of the elements are now in place for the division of history into two great ages. We have this present age, which has turned against the people of God in that they have been dragged away from their promised land into exile. We then have a consummation of this present age, in which affairs will turn around, wrongs will be righted, and the people of God will be restored and resurrected back to their land of promise, their Davidic kingdom and Abramic inheritance.
But as yet we have seen no text that pointedly speaks to the future age that is implied in those elements.
This age and the age to come.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pages 299-300:
One of the central ways of expressing this hope [of Israel] was the division of time into two eras: the present age and the age to come. The present age was a time when the creator god seemed to be hiding his face; the age to come would see the renewal of the created world. The present age was the time of Israel’s misery; in the age to come she would be restored. In the present age wicked men seemed to be flourishing; in the age to come they would receive their just reward. In the present age even Israel was not really keeping the Torah perfectly, was not really being YHWH’s true humanity; in the age to come all Israel would keep Torah from the heart.
I turn to Wright again because he has most recently and most clearly written on this central Jewish concept of the two great ages.
The section of the first book of Enoch that covers chapters 37-71 is called the Similitudes, or Parables. It was probably written just at the beginning of the Christian era, as James Charlesworth informs us on page 98 of The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research:
The main question concerns the date of the second section, chapters 37-71, which contains the Son of Man sayings. J. T. Milik (esp. no. 755) has shown that this section, which is not represented among the early fragments, is probably a later addition to 1 Enoch; but his contention that it was composed around A.D. 270 (no. 755, p. 377) is very speculative. If, as most specialists concur, the early portions of 1 Enoch date from the first half of the second century B.C., chapters 37-71 could have been added in the first century B.C. or first century A.D.
This section survives only in Ethiopic translation. I do not know Ethiopic, so can offer the following excerpt only in the translation by R. H. Charles. 1 Enoch 71.14-16:
And he came to me and greeted me with his voice, and said unto me,
By the time we reach the New Testament texts, the two ages are firmly in place.
Matthew 12.32; Mark 3.28-29; Luke 12.10:
Notice the three distinct ways of denying forgiveness to him who blasphemes the spirit. Matthew says that he has no forgiveness in this age or in the age to come. Mark says that he has no forgiveness unto the age, that is, he never has forgiveness (as most translations put it). Luke says that he will not be forgiven. All three are simply saying that eternity future will hold out no forgiveness for this kind of blasphemer.
Matthew 13.22; Mark 4.18-19; Luke 8.14:
What Matthew and Mark call the care(s) of the age Luke simply calls cares. Why? Because this age is the one that has gone terribly wrong. The next is the age in which all will be set aright. The next age is free of such cares.
Matthew 19.29; Mark 10.29-30; Luke 18.29-30:
Mark 10.30 and Luke 18.30 both set in contrast a period that they call this time and a period that they call the age to come. What, then, is this time? It is none other than the present age. We see this same phenomenon of calling the present age simply this time in the book of 4 Ezra.
Matthew 22.30; Mark 12.25; Luke 20.34-36:
Neither Matthew nor Mark explicitly tells us what is happening to the ages at the resurrection of the dead. Luke makes the connection more explicit, perhaps with a gentile readership in mind. For he calls ordinary humans the sons of this age, but resurrected humans, he says, are those who have been considered worthy of the next age. These will not be raised unto eternal destruction and damnation. They are the worthy ones, raised up as full participants in the blessings of the age to come.
We find the two ages taught plainly in the Pauline writings, too, of course. The actual phrase the age to come is not as common as what one might expect, but the repeated mention of this present age makes a future age inevitable. Where there is a this there must at some point be a that. I begin with 2 Corinthians 4.4:
Why is Satan called the god of this age? Because he will have no part in that age.
On to Pauline books of more debated authorship. Ephesians 1.20-21:
Jesus Christ will reign forever. That is, he will reign for the rest of the present age, and throughout the age to come, as well. The sum of both ages is eternity.
One of those phrases unique to the pastoral epistles is ο νυν αιων (literally the now age, but more gracefully translated the present age). As it happens, it occurs exactly once each in the three pastoral epistles. 1 Timothy 6.17a; 2 Timothy 4.10a; Titus 2.12b:
In all three of these passages the great turnaround destined to take place in the coming age is implicit. Those rich in this age might not be so well off in the next. To love this age is to forsake the next. And it is necessary to live a godly life because the next age will bring reward or punishment on the basis of how we have lived in this age.
The blessings of the age to come have started coming in early, according to this text. We can already taste of its powers in the holy spirit and in the word of God.
This survey is far from exhaustive. Suffice it to say that there is no writing in the whole of the New Testament that denies or detracts from the doctrine of the two ages. Every word on the topic serves to support the Jewish apocalyptic expectation that we have seen so far.
Finally, to round matters off, we may glance briefly at the concept of the two ages in 4 Ezra, which was probably written at about the turn of the first century. 4 Ezra 7.112-113:
As I demonstrate in part 3 of my piece on the ages in 4 Ezra, the present time and the future time correspond respectively to the present age and the future age, just as in Mark 10.30 and Luke 18.30. So it is here affirmed that the future age is immortal. Unlike this present age, it will never come to an end.