Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.16
Ilaria Ramelli, David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: aiônios and aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007. Pp. viii, 257. ISBN 9781593336943. $103.00.
Reviewed by B. N. Wolfe, Wolfson College, University of Oxford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The work under review, by two distinguished scholars whose combined fields of interest cover nearly all of the Classical and Late Antique periods, examines two Greek adjectives meaning 'eternal'. Where 'aïdios' is a philosophical term strictly meaning "eternal" (with subtler connotations dependent upon the philosophy in which it is employed), 'aiônios' can have a range of meanings, mostly connected to 'aiôn', "lifetime, age, epoch".
According to the introduction, this study was undertaken as a tangent from work by Ramelli on apocatastasis, the doctrine of eventual universal salvation. It has been widely noted that while eternal life is called 'aïdios' in the early Fathers, the future punishment of the wicked is never termed anything but 'aiônios'. Does this provide evidence for the apocatastatic view that punishment (viewed as corrective, not retributive) will come to an end, and those punished will also pass into eternal life? Or is some other point being made (for example, that the punished could simply lose their property of being altogether)? Or is it mere co-incidence?
The question turns on the meaning of the words, which may be determined in two ways. First, the composition of the forms may provide some clue, and secondly, the deployment of the words in other authors may indicate if there are any strict differences between 'aiônios' and 'aïdios'. Ramelli and Konstan dispose of the formal question quickly (p. 5). 'Aiônios' is derived from the noun 'aiôn'; the adverb 'aiei' "always" gives rise to 'aïdios'. The rest of the book is occupied with the second approach, cataloguing and excerpting every use of either word in Classical (Archaic to Hellenistic, pp. 6-36), Biblical and contemporary (pp. 37-70), Early Church and contemporary (pp71-128), and post-Origen Patristic (pp. 129-236) authors. The volume's conclusion is less than three pages long. For real conclusions, readers will have to await the findings of Ramelli's larger investigation.
Evidence such as that in 'Terms for Eternity' is difficult to present at the best of times. Since providing the context of each use of the word is among the chief aims of the exercise, the material does not lend itself to charts or tables. Any organization beyond author and chronology imposes some kind of hypothesis on the material, which Ramelli and Konstan seem keen to avoid. Still, this volume would have stood better on its own if its authors had categorized the usages in at least some way, even if only in a cross-referenced appendix.