2009.09.30. Ramelli and Konstan, Terms for Eternity

Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts
Reviewed by Jan G. van der Watt


  1. David Konstan and Ilaria Ramelli26 September, 2009

    In his review of our book, Terms for Eternity, Jan G. van der Watt expresses his disappointment with our book, and this on several grounds. Since we think that his objections rest on a misapprehension of our method and purpose, we wish to clarify the nature of our argument, and indicate where we believe that Professor van der Watt has gone astray. To begin with, Professor van der Watt finds our treatment of classical and Christian sources to be unbalanced, insofar as we devote more than twice as much space to the latter as to the former. The reason for this disparity, however, lies not in a fault of methodology but in the much greater abundance of Christian literature in which these two terms figure. It is true that we concentrate on the issue of apocatastasis in the Church Fathers, but this is natural enough, given that terms for eternity are particularly prominent, and significant, in connection with the afterlife.
    A deeper complaint of Professor van der Watt's is his concern about how we determined "the meaning of this word in this particular ancient document." "What is offered," he states, "seems to me to be at most impressionistic or intuitive. The word is not considered within the literary and semantic context of the particular document, neither is the philosophical framework of the ancient author taken into account." Indeed, it would be a grave defect if we had failed to consider how each term was used in context. We can only reply that we examined virtually every single use of these terms in all of Greek literature (and indeed, of the corresponding Hebrew terms in the Hebrew Bible), and attempted to infer, precisely from the context, what the word meant. Professor van der Watt's critique becomes increasingly shrill as the review proceeds: "It amazed me," he writes, "that one of the major concepts that forms part of every discussion of eschatology..., namely, that of eternal life and its relation to the present and future, is not really considered in any detail at all.... In all honesty, what is offered here cannot really be taken too seriously." Once again, we can only say that we were not writing a history of the concept of eternal life, but rather of two terms, as the title states. The question we addressed is not what the relationship of eternal life is to the present and future; it is whether a life, or anything else, that is modified by aiônios is to be understood as being of infinite duration, or rather as lasting a very long time; and similarly for aïdios. If the answer were obvious, there would be no disagreement, for example, over whether punishment in the afterlife was considered to be strictly eternal by one or another Greek theologian, or deemed to last only until the end of time, when all would be saved. We do not deny that a closer look at their arguments can shed light on the matter. Indeed, one of us (Ramelli) is preparing a full history of apocatastasis with this aim in mind. Our analysis of the two terms under investigation was propaedeutic: we hoped that a careful assessment of the terminology might help illuminate the question. Professor van der Watt expresses doubts as to whether we made use of computer-based methods of research. We can assure him that we did. Still, we regret that, despite our best efforts, there were some omissions. We take this opportunity to alert readers to a misstatement that was kindly pointed out to us by Ian Mueller. Professor Mueller wrote: "I have enjoyed and profited from reading the book on terms for eternity. But I wanted to call your attention to a mistake, which you may want to correct somewhere. At the top of p. 30 it is said that Simplicius never employs the term aiônios.... [I]n fact Simplicius relies on the distinction between what is aiônios and what is aei or aïdios in his conflict with Philoponus." Had Professor van der Watt detected such errors in our work, we would have been grateful for any corrections. Unfortunately, we have not found his concerns about our method particularly helpful.
    A longer version of this reply is available from the authors.

  2. Jan van der Watt23 November, 2009

    I appreciate the response of the authors to my review. I am however unconvinced by their remarks for several reasons. a) As to the issue of imbalance, mentioned in their first paragraph: I simply invite readers to compare the method, way and depth of discussion and presentation in the first and second parts of the book. I need not say any more, since the point of my criticism will immediately become apparent. b) In the second paragraph they remark that they have examined every term in its context. Again I can only reply: the reader should look for the evidence in the book that this was done; he or she will not find it and will neither be able to determine from the book if and how it was done. I simply warn against the danger of our scientific work deteriorating to ‘I have done it but I am not going to show you’. c) The last reaction to the review refers to a reference to eternal life indicating that they did not want to analyze life as such. They missed the point of my critique. Their aim was to comprehensively describe the use of these two terms in Greek literature. After doing this they came to a rather fixed conclusion. My question is how one can come to such a fixed and inclusive conclusion about the use of a term if you do not consider the full scope of the use of that term. No evidence is found in the text that, for instance, the use in the Johnnine literature was considered in detail. That, to my mind, creates doubt about the validity of the results, especially in the light of the centrality and importance of this term in the Johannine literature. The literature on aiōnios (life) in John is vast and well documented and I have my doubts whether the use in the Johannine literature really supports their view fully. They will have to convince me first, which they have not done, since they did not consider the relevant information. I am sorry that my honest remarks were not regarded as helpful – if they are taken seriously I am convinced that the quality of the book could be improved considerably in a second edition (if that happens, of course).


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