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Meaning of Aeon with regard to gnostic writings


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#1 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 09:19 PM

Hi all --

Hope this is in the right section. I am aware that "eternal life" and other such phrases come from the greek "zoe aeonian," and in my research, I've come upon all sorts of explanations as to its meaning -- some saying, "eternal," or "age-abiding," etc. The latter is in favor amongst universalists. Bear in mind, I am not orthodox, but I am a Christian in search of the True Church and the truth, and I'm trying to understand scripture.

I have run into the term "aeon" in the Nag Hammadi writings quite frequently, and while I can accept that most of these are not canonical -- some outright heresy -- I'm wondering if anyone can shed light on the nature of "aeon" in the gnostic writings, and its relation (historical/etymological or theological) to "aeon" in canonical and patristic usage. Should this non-canonical usage inform our understanding of the canonical usage?

Thanks!
Sean

#2 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 28 January 2012 - 05:37 PM

The gnostic "aeon" is an "emanation", a manifestation of the gnostic "god". They have little or nothing to do with ages, time, etc. The gnostic aeon has no relationship to patristic or Scriptural use. It would be a grave error to attempt to "inform" oneself with Gnosticism, except as an example of dangerous errors.

#3 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 01:59 AM

Thanks -
I'm curious, anyone know how the word "aeon" came to be used in these different ways? One denoting time, the other denoting "emanation"?

#4 Olga

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 08:31 AM

I have no idea how this other meaning fits in, I have never encountered it. In all forms of Greek, including koine and modern, aeon has always meant a long period of time, either defined (as in century) or more figurative.

#5 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 04:08 PM

The use of "aeon" as "emanation" is well documented among Gnostics. Ireneus, for example, used the term a great deal in his exposure of Gnostic heresies. Ptolomy the Gnostic, Valentinus, and Basilides all used the term in their Gnostic doctrines to mean an "emanation" of their "god". Some English translations would use "angel" for "Aeon", since it was probably deemed too confusing to do otherwise.

#6 Jan Sunqvist

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 05:32 PM

I am confused why gnosticism is referred to as a heresy, rather than a different 'religion' altogether misunderstanding the True meaning of the Gospel.
It seems to me that if the Gospels were preached only orally in the very few years of Christianity, then it's far more likely that the Essenes and other gnostic sects which already existed, understood the Gospel from their own frame of reference. Along the lines of how the Gospel has took on a slightly different exposition for the Greeks as supposed to the Jews. In fact, gnosticism is related to Kabbalah strongly and strangely enough, it has remarkable similarities to how the Gospel would be interpreted by say a Hindu...

The issue here again is authority and lineage, and I have never found a good exposition to read on how the Gnostics descend from the Apostles.

Also, what I mean that this area is messy, I mean simply from an academic/historical perspective.


This area is somewhat messy historically I think.

#7 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 09:44 PM

There are both gnostic religions distinct from Christianity and gnostic heresies within Christianity. One can point to non-Christian roots for the modern charismatic Christian sects--essentially an infusion of shamanic ecstaticism.

#8 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 01 February 2012 - 05:01 PM

The Essenes can be considered gnostics? I know little about them.

I can definitely see the connection between kaballa and gnosticism, particularly with regard to emanations etc. The Essenes may or may not have been involved with kabala -- not sure. Maybe that's the connection?

I'm still unclear as to how "aeon" could be used in such different ways by different authors writing about similar topics (albeit in different "styles"). For instance, if aeon can be understood as emanation of God (which I believe are called sefirot in kabala), then "aionion life" is consistent with our understanding of Christ as the fulness of God (Col 1:19). We participate in this fulness, (which is translated from "pleroma," a word you see in gnostic texts).

I haven't yet closed the book on whether or not kabalic ideas were a more acceptable part of Jewish tradition in St. Paul's time. For example, however, while Christ is often called the "logos," there is a corresponding kabala concept "Adam Kadmon," the primordial man, in whom the sefirot (or "fulness,") emanate. This perhaps could have been St. Paul's understanding?

Also: Col. 1:26, where Paul says Christ is the mystery hidden from "aionon" and "geneon" -- translated "ages" and "generations" in my version. But to understand aeons as principalities/powers would be consistent with Christian understandings as well.

Anyway, I've read enough gnostic writings to know that several are way off the mark. I recently read something called "Treatise on the Resurrection," in the Nag Hammadi writings, which didn't seem too bad. Anyone seen this?

#9 Jan Sunqvist

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Posted 01 February 2012 - 06:54 PM

Sean, I don't know the answer to your specific question, but this has little to do with Orthodoxy or Traditional Christianity in general. The gnostic initiation has really only two possibilities. Either it is a completely different religion, more along the lines of ophidian knowledge (in many cultures snake is the symbol of wisdom, but in Orthodoxy it is the original demonic deception), or it was only meant for certain disciples ie Judas, who according to them had a had a special role to play.

In relation to gnostic notions of 'Aeon' it too like in Orthodoxy relates to Time. No one understands Time. The whole creation depends on it but no scientist or mystic can really claim to understand Time fully. In relation to Kabbalah and Gnosticism Time between one level of material creation and another lower or higher one (and there are many) differs from one another as zero does to infinity. So to a gnostic, Christ the logos would mean the One who comes from the Absolute.

As far as I understand in Orthodoxy there is only the Time in which we live here now, and the Eternity in the life to come.

#10 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 02 February 2012 - 11:51 PM

Let me clarify -- in no way do I accept the gnostic teachings about the aeons, nor am I asking whether or not these teachings are acceptable. I think the alternate creation myth involving the 30 aeons (or more) in these writings are exactly the "endless genealogies" that Paul warns against in scripture.

My interest in the definition of "aeon" began with my research into the teaching of universal salvation -- many claim that the word "aionion" often translated "eternal" should be translated "age-long," since aion/aeon ought to be translated as "age." But this creates difficulties -- while they may argue that eternal death or destruction is just age-long death/destruction, on the other side of the field, we have the denigration of eternal life to "age-long life."

I'm interested if the gnostic usage of "aeon" is the same "aeon" because the meaning of the word in gnostic writings is so clearly with reference to "divine emanation" or some aspect of "divine being". A frustratingly uncited source on Wikipedia also states that its original meaning was "life" or "being," which also has a complementary connection with "emanation".

Why would the orthodox/canonical usage be different? Does anyone know of anyone who has written on the hypothesis that the meaning of "aeon" is uniform between these two bodies of work? Again, I think Paul addresses these gnostic heresies in scripture, and uses its language -- aeon, pleroma, kephale -- but curbs it into sound Christological, salvific doctrine. I in no way accept that the gnostic teachings themselves are true.

#11 Jan Sunqvist

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Posted 03 February 2012 - 07:07 AM

I wasn't implying that you accepted these teachings, just merely saying that if you read about it, it's easy to see how emanations of the 'Absolute' from their point of reference really refers to each level of 'life' or 'being', for which Time is relative, ie the life cycle of a Sun versus a planet versus a Tree a cell, atom etc etc. Some say Time in essence would not really exist if it were not for the created world, and this would then mean that Time is only relational between various phemonena etc etc. Again, I am not sure of the meaning of aeon in Gnosticism nor in Orthodoxy. Just pointing out it's easy to see how Time differs for an atom vs say a solar system, if you take these created things as 'emanations' of God. It seems to me that Orthodoxy does not view the created world as emanations of God, but rather sees Him outside of creation... Anyway Im sorry I realise Im not really answering your question, just think that the concept of Time is really relative...

#12 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 07 February 2012 - 09:45 AM

I wasn't implying that you accepted these teachings, just merely saying that if you read about it, it's easy to see how emanations of the 'Absolute' from their point of reference really refers to each level of 'life' or 'being', for which Time is relative, ie the life cycle of a Sun versus a planet versus a Tree a cell, atom etc etc. Some say Time in essence would not really exist if it were not for the created world, and this would then mean that Time is only relational between various phemonena etc etc. Again, I am not sure of the meaning of aeon in Gnosticism nor in Orthodoxy. Just pointing out it's easy to see how Time differs for an atom vs say a solar system, if you take these created things as 'emanations' of God. It seems to me that Orthodoxy does not view the created world as emanations of God, but rather sees Him outside of creation... Anyway Im sorry I realise Im not really answering your question, just think that the concept of Time is really relative...


Thanks Jan, I appreciate the thoughtful response. I found a helpful quote about the meaning of aion which I will share:
(it is from a google book, to be found here: http://books.google....to aeon&f=false"

Ephraem on God's proper name
There is a fascinating twist in St. Ephraem's explanation of the crime of the heretic Bardesanes. It was that he gave God's proper name, Aeon, to several aeons. Ephraem's argument runs thus. God allowed his other names to be given to others: thus he showed his kindness. But he reserved to himself his proper name, Aeon: thus he shower the majesty of his eternal nature. Moreover, Moses made clear God's name when [he reported that God gave "who am" as his name. This name flows from his essence, and since it is his certain and proper name, he never allowed it to become common. He alone is "who is." The Devil, envying the name which God had reserved for the unique honor of his essence, stirred up the betrayers of pure religion, and led them to pretend that their aeons were of the same eternal nature.
What is the twist in the argument? It is explained in the shift from "Aeon" to "who am" or "who is." What seems to an attentive reader of the text to be an incoherence is rather the symptom of the underlying thought of the platonizing tradition. When the Jewish translators of the Septuagint rendered "I am who am" as "I am the Being [masculine participle]" they were shifting from "whom am" to "the Being [participle]." "The Being" is true being: as it was understood in the syncretic platonizing philosophical culture of the time: eternal being, ever being, never becoming.
But whence comes Ephraem's "Aeon"? Most probably it shows the influence of a primitive etymology: "Aion" comes from "aei on [always being]." This is not a matter of conjecture. Ephraem is taking here an ancient etymology. Proclus witnesses to it, for he considers that the very word aionion indicates that it means to aei on.





Thoughts?

#13 Sean Selig McMahon

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Posted 07 February 2012 - 10:01 AM

Also, if anyone else is interested in this topic, I actually just found an almost identical thread on another discussion board from 2006!
http://www.ellopos.n...sp?TOPIC_ID=197

#14 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 08 February 2012 - 02:58 PM

The term 'aeon' is used in many 'Gnostic' writings from the early Christian period, to refer to personified aspects of existence of the divine (e.g. wisdom, truth, power). It is hard to put a singular definition on the term and its usage, since the groups in question have quite different mythologies and cosmic stories for explaining their conceptions of divine things (so, for example, 'emanations' works for some sects, but certainly not for others; but even for such groups where 'emanations' works for their perception of the structure of a divine pleroma, or 'fullness', aeon does not itself refer to the emanation, but to the personified dimension of divine existence).

As to the etymological question of how the term aeon comes to be used in this way, it likely has something to do with the desire by such groups to describe the attributes of divinity in personified form, without ascribing materiality, temporality, etc. -- hence the taking up of a term meant to indicate the timeless, indefinable notion of 'eras', 'ages', 'epochs', etc.

Someone has already mentioned St Irenaeus of Lyons, who talks about various cosmological theories popular in the groups of his day -- including the Valentinian schema of a pleroma of aeons.

INXC, Fr Irenei

#15 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 12 February 2012 - 12:24 AM

Since etymology was brought up, it is speculated that "aeon" and "ever" have the same proto-Indo-European root, *aiw-, which means "vital force, life, long life, eternity". See "The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots".

#16 Owen Jones

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Posted 21 February 2012 - 04:59 AM

I am not a scholar of this or any other theological subject, but in trying to understand gnostic ideas and gnostic systems, whether ancient or modern, one has to look at the primary experience, and the one constant is alienation. If the texts are approached with this in mind, they become much more clear in their meaning. This is not to say that the Christian does not experience alienation. In fact, it would be an odd Christian indeed who did not experience this earthly existence in terms of alienation to some degree. But Christ does not come in order to bring us a system, or a religion, and certainly not one built around alienation. There are always dead giveaways in a gnostic system -- the virtues are not likely present as an essential aspect of the gnostic vision. Whereas the desert fathers, the neptic fathers as they are called, use the term gnostic all the time, but it refers to those who, through obedience to the commandments and the rigorous practice of the virtues acquired certain intuitive or prophetic gifts that can be trusted, and not because the gnosis that they acquire turns them into little gods.

In any case, the problem we confront today is the reverse of ancient gnosticism, which claims to overcome alienation in the world by insisting that the physical world is a total illusion, or worse. The problem today is that heavenly, transcendent realities, God, man, nature and history, have all been immanentized. That's the basis of all modern politics.




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