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On The Supposed Scriptural Expression For Eternity
by [?]


Forty years ago (or, in all probability, a good deal more, for we have already completed thirty-seven years from Waterloo, and my remembrances upon this subject go back to a period lying much behind that great era), I used to be annoyed and irritated by the false interpretation given to the Greek word aion, and given necessarily, therefore, to the adjective aionios as its immediate derivative. It was not so much the falsehood of this interpretation, as the narrowness of that falsehood, which disturbed me. There was a glimmer of truth in it; and precisely that glimmer it was which led the way to a general and obstinate misconception of the meaning. The word is remarkably situated. It is a scriptural word, and it is also a Greek word; from which the inevitable inference is, that we must look for it only in the New Testament. Upon any question arising of deep, aboriginal, doctrinal truth, we have nothing to do with translations. Those are but secondary questions, archaeological and critical, upon which we have a right to consult the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known by the name of the Septuagint.

Suffer me to pause at this point for the sake of premising an explanation needful to the unlearned reader. As the reading public and the thinking public is every year outgrowing more and more notoriously the mere learned public, it becomes every year more and more the right of the former public to give the law preferably to the latter public, upon all points which concern its own separate interests. In past generations, no pains were taken to make explanations that were not called for by the learned public. All other readers were ignored. They formed a mob, for whom no provision was made. And that many difficulties should be left entirely unexplained for them, was superciliously assumed to be no fault at all. And yet any sensible man, let him be as supercilious as he may, must on consideration allow that amongst the crowd of unlearned or half-learned readers, who have had neither time nor opportunities for what is called ‘erudition’ or learned studies, there must always lurk a proportion of men that, by constitution of mind, and by the bounty of nature, are much better fitted for thinking, originally more philosophic, and are more capaciously endowed, than those who are, by accident of position, more learned. Such a natural superiority certainly takes precedency of a merely artificial superiority; and, therefore, it entitles those who possess it to a special consideration. Let there be an audience gathered about any book of ten thousand one hundred readers: it might be fair in these days to assume that ten thousand would be in a partial sense illiterate, and the remaining one hundred what would be rigorously classed as ‘learned.’ Now, on such a distribution of the readers, it would be a matter of certainty that the most powerful intellects would lie amongst the illiterate ten thousand, counting, probably, to fifteen to one as against those in the learned minority. The inference, therefore, would be, that, in all equity, the interest of the unlearned section claimed a priority of attention, not merely as the more numerous section, but also as, by a high probability, the more philosophic. And in proportion as this unlearned section widens and expands, which every year it does, in that proportion the obligation and cogency of this equity strengthens. An attention to the unlearned part of an audience, which fifteen years ago might have rested upon pure courtesy, now rests upon a basis of absolute justice. I make this preliminary explanation, in order to take away the appearance of caprice from such occasional pauses as I may make for the purpose of clearing up obscurities or difficulties. Formerly, in a case of that nature, the learned reader would have told me that I was not entitled to delay him by elucidations that in his case must be supposed to be superfluous: and in such a remonstrance there would once have been some equity. The illiterate section of the readers might then be fairly assumed as present only by accident; as no abiding part of the audience; but, like the general public in the gallery of the House of Commons, as present only by sufferance; and officially in any records of the house whatever, utterly ignored as existences. At present, half way on our pilgrimage through the nineteenth century, I reply to such a learned remonstrant–that it gives me pain to annoy him by superfluous explanations, but that, unhappily, this infliction of tedium upon him is inseparable from what has now become a duty to others. This being said, I now go on to inform the illiterate reader, that the earliest translation of the Hebrew Scriptures ever made was into Greek. It was undertaken on the encouragement of a learned prince, Ptolemy Philadelphus, by an association of Jewish emigrants in Alexandria. It was, as the event has shown in very many instances, an advantage of a rank rising to providential, that such a cosmopolitan version of the Hebrew sacred writings should have been made at a moment when a rare concurrence of circumstances happened to make it possible; such as, for example, a king both learned in his tastes and liberal in his principles of religious toleration; a language, viz., the Greek, which had already become, what for many centuries it continued to be, a common language of communication for the learned of the whole Î�Î�Î�Î�Î�Î�Î�Î� (i.e., in effect of the civilized world, viz., Greece, the shores of the Euxine, the whole of Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Carthage, and all the dependencies of Carthage, finally, and above all, Rome, then beginning to loom upon the western horizon), together with all the dependencies of Rome, and, briefly, every state and city that adorned the imperial islands of the Mediterranean, or that glittered like gems in that vast belt of land, roundly speaking, one thousand miles in average breadth, and in circuit running up to five thousand miles. One thousand multiplied into five times one thousand, or, otherwise expressed, a thousand thousand five times repeated, or otherwise a million five times repeated, briefly a territory measuring five millions of square miles, or forty-five times the surface of our two British islands–such was the boundless domain which this extraordinary act of Ptolemy suddenly threw open to the literature and spiritual revelation of a little obscure race, nestling in a little angle of Asia, scarcely visible as a fraction of Syria, buried in the broad shadows thrown out on one side by the great and ancient settlements on the Nile, and on the other by the vast empire that for thousands of years occupied the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the twinkling of an eye, at a sudden summons, as it were from the sounding of a trumpet, or the oriental call by a clapping of hands, gates are thrown open, which have an effect corresponding in grandeur to the effect that would arise from the opening of a ship canal across the Isthmus of Darien, viz., the introduction to each other–face to face–of two separate infinities. Such a canal would suddenly lay open to each other the two great oceans of our planet, the Atlantic and the Pacific; whilst the act of translating into Greek and from Hebrew, that is, transferring out of a mysterious cipher as little accessible as Sanscrit, and which never would be more accessible through any worldly attractions of alliance with power and civic grandeur or commerce, out of this darkness into the golden light of a language the most beautiful, the most honored amongst men, and the most widely diffused through a thousand years to come, had the immeasurable effect of throwing into the great crucible of human speculation, even then beginning to ferment, to boil, to overthrow–that mightiest of all elements for exalting the chemistry of philosophy–grand and, for the first time, adequate conceptions of the
Deity. For, although it is true that, until Elias should come–that is, until Christianity should have applied its final revelation to the completion of this great idea-we could not possess it in its total effulgence, it is, however, certain that an immense advance was made, a prodigious usurpation across the realms of chaos, by the grand illuminations of the Hebrew discoveries. Too terrifically austere we must presume the Hebrew idea to have been: too undeniably it had not withdrawn the veil entirely which still rested upon the Divine countenance; so much is involved in the subsequent revelations of Christianity. But still the advance made in reading aright the divine lineaments had been enormous. God was now a holy spirit that could not tolerate impurity. He was the fountain of justice, and no longer disfigured by any mode of sympathy with human caprice or infirmity. And, if a frown too awful still rested upon his face, making the approach to him too fearful for harmonizing with that perfect freedom and that childlike love which God seeks in his worshippers, it was yet made evident that no step for conciliating his favor did or could lie through any but moral graces.