‘Eternal life’, the theologizing mistranslation of a political notion

The ζωή αἰώνιος (dzōē aiōnios) notion is frequently used in the New Testament. The literal translation of ζωή αἰώνιος is ‘life of the age’, but traditional translations consistently render it as ‘eternal life’. Below I will try to show that ‘eternal life’ is a theologizing mistranslation of a political notion, a notion that is part of the equally political ‘kingdom of God’ concept which is the key messianic concept of the New Testament.

Important elements of this kingdom of God concept are:

• A liberated Israel that is ruled by God himself, with the messiah as His representative on earth.

• A final war to be waged against the oppressor in the ‘last days’ of the current evil age. The pivotal ‘day of the Lord’ (also ‘day of wrath’ in Paul or ‘day of revenge’ in the DSS) that closes the current age and marks the beginning of the messianic age.

• The perspective of the future golden age which is characterized by peace, joy, abundance, wealth and all other kinds of blessings.

Just as the overarching concept of the ‘kingdom of God’ could not be overtly described in a Rome-controlled world as the future rule of a Jewish emperor, God’s representative on earth, instead of the Roman emperor, so the life of the great period ahead could not be described as splendid life during the future Essene golden age of world dominion. The wording of the overthrow of the Roman empire and the power switch to Essene world dominion had to be encoded if the movement which aimed at this power switch was to survive.

The occurrences of ζωή αἰώνιος in the synoptic gospels can easily be read as encoded political messages. Matthew 19:16-17, for example, combines ζωή αἰώνιος and ζωή (without αἰώνιος), both with the same political meaning, while 25:46 contrasts future punishment for the evil nations (Rome and its vassals) with the blessings of the messianic age for the good nation (the Jewish, Essene-dominated nation).

Mark 9:43-48 combines ζωή αἰώνιος (verse 43) with ζωή in verse 45 and the ‘kingdom of God’ in verse 47. Mark 10:30b, which can be literally translated as ‘and in the future age the life of the age’, can be decoded as ‘and in the future [messianic] age the [splendid] life of the [golden] age’. In Luke the question of what to do to participate in the ‘life of the age’ arises three times (10:25, 18:18 and 18:30). John’s wording is more exalted; nevertheless, 12:25b gives a good summary: ‘he who hates his life in this world [under Roman oppression] will keep it for the life of the [golden Essene messianic] age’.

Revelation 14:6 doesn’t mention ζωή αἰώνιος but εὐαγγέλιον αἰώνιον (euaggelion aiōnion). However, the tenor is identical: Then I saw another angel flying in the middle of the sky, with the gospel of the [messianic] age to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people. (The following verse discusses the hour of God’s judgment and the start of the age of His worship.)

In the eyes of the propagators of the messianic age this new era would be everlasting in contrast with limited periods of dominion of the empires of the past (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Ptolemaic, Seleucid) and after the overthrow of the Romans, whose reign would at that moment become temporary just like those of their predecessors. Therefore, the ‘eternal’ connotation is not completely alien to the ‘golden age’ notion, but it is not at its core. The ‘eternal life’ translation is alienated from what the authors intended with their encoded political message.

This future golden age is discussed more openly in several apocalyptic Old Testament pseudepigrapha. As far as I know, the most explicit and exalted description can be found in 2 Baruch chapter 29.