In saecula saeculorum
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The Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum expresses the idea of eternity and is literally translated as "in a century of centuries." It is biblical, taken from the Vulgate translation of the New Testament, translating the Greek phrase "εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων" (eis toùs aionas ton aiṓnōn).
The usual English translation is "for ever and ever", but in Ephesians 3:21, the KJV notably has "world without end". Neither translation is literal, as the time span invoked is not literally eternity but multiple aiōnes in Greek, translated as saecula in Latin, and elevated to "aiōnes of aiōnes" or "saecula of saecula". The saeculum in Roman antiquity was the potential maximal human lifespan, or roughly a century, and so another interpretation would be "for a lifetime of lifetimes." The original meaning of aiōn was comparable, and it is so used in Homer and Hesiod. The Hebrew word עוֹלָם (olam) has a similar range of meanings: a human lifespan; the world; eternity.
Some alternative English translations aim at greater literalness in their rendition of Ephesians 3:21: Young's Literal Translation and the Darby Translation have "of the age of the ages", Webster's Revision has "throughout all ages" while the New Living Translation has "through endless ages". In many modern English-language translations of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christian liturgical texts, such as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the phrase is often translated as "unto the ages of ages".
The phrase occurs twelve times in the Book of Revelation alone, and another seven times in epistles, but not in the gospels:
- Galatians 1:5,
- Ephesians 3:21,
- Philippians 4:20,
- 1 Timothy 1:17,
- 2 Timothy 4:18,
- Hebrews 13:21,
- 1 Peter 4:11,
- Revelation 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 10:6, 11:15, 14:11, 15:7, 19:3, 20:10, 22:5.
It is taken up in medieval Christian liturgy, such as in the Tantum Ergo by Thomas Aquinas, in Veni Creator Spiritus, Gloria Patri and numerous other instances. When it is followed by an Amen, the last two words (saeculorum, Amen) may be abbreviated Euouae in medieval musical notation.
In 1541, eight years after the English schism from the Roman Catholic Church, King Henry VIII of England had issued his official standard text translations of many most common Christian prayers and made major modifications to the level of transliteration that was used by the Catholic Church of the era. His translations were based on a heavily Protestant and very English ideological influence. This was done to encourage prayer of the vernacular in England, something that was not looked favourably upon by Rome. His translation of the Gloria Patri (Glory be) was kept intact other than the fact that at the end, he translated the phrase "in saecula saeculorum" to mean "world without end".
The phrase "world of worlds" or "age of ages" does not occur as such in the Old Testament, which uses other expressions for eternity. The Hebrew לעולם ועד (literally "from the world to until" or "from eternity to forever"), which appears in verses such as Genesis 49:2 and Deuteronomy 6:4, was rendered in Greek LXX as εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ ἐπέκεινα, in Latin as in aeternum et ultra "for eternity and beyond", and in English Bible translations usually as "for ever and ever". In Aramaic, however, the same phrase was rendered as לְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּ (lalmey almaya, literally "from the eternity of eternities" or "from the world of worlds") in the Kaddish, an important prayer in the Jewish liturgy.
- Strong's Greek Concordance (s.v. αἰών)
- Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (http://www.goarch.org/chapel/liturgical_texts/liturgy_hchc) Uses the English phrase "to the ages of ages" to translate the Greek phrase "εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων" throughout this next Reference:
- Η ΘΕΙΑ ΛΕΙΤΟΥΡΓΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙΟΥ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΧΡΥΣΟΣΤΟΜΟΥ (http://www.goarch.org/chapel/liturgical_texts/liturgy_hchc-el?set_language=el) Contains the Greek phrase "εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων" 22 times.