GE – OIKOUMENE – AION – MELLO
Hidden below the surface of our Bible translations are 4 Greek words that have been instrumental in changing the eschatological landscape for centuries. Unbeknownst to most Christians, the Greek to English translations have had a paradigm-shifting effect.
No, I don’t believe there has been a conspiracy afoot. Nor do I think intentional dishonesty was at play. Rather, it seems that the translation decisions which have skewed reader’s eschatological perspectives, are simply due to translator biases. No one interprets the Bible in a vacuum. So, I don’t fault these diligent scholars, nor will I disparage their incredibly valuable work which I am forever grateful for. Though I believe their decisions have altered underlying assumptions affecting eschatological expectations, their choices have not changed the Gospel, nor have they served to undermine our ability to form foundational theological doctrines.
Regarding these biases, years ago a pastor friend included the following powerful J.I. Packer quote in a sermon.
We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. . . . It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, or “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, by J.I. Packer. [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958.] pp. 69-70)
One of the first steps in attempting to interpret the Bible with precision, is to recognize our tendencies to read into (eisegete) rather than take out of (exegete) the Text. And that’s far easier said than done. But what we need to understand is that it’s not just Bible readers who have presuppositions. The truth is that the interpreters are no less susceptible to their preconceived conclusions and how they impact the way in which words are translated.
With that as a backdrop, let’s consider how these 4 seemingly inconsequential Greek words have had such a dramatic impact on one’s eschatological view.
For example, most reading “world” in the King James Version (KJV) are not aware that there are three Greek words all translated world. So if you don’t realize that every time you see “world” used in the KJV that they may not originate from the same Greek word. And this can severely skew one’s understanding of a passage. Let’s look at three examples in Jesus’s prophetic Olivet Discourse.
(Matthew 24:3 KJV) And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
(Matthew 24:14 KJV) And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
(Matthew 24:21 KJV) For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
The above 3 verses contain “world”. However, if you are not aware that the underlying Greek word is different in each case, your conclusions will be altered.
Consider Matthew 24:3. If you think the disciples were asking about the “end of the world” you would be grossly mistaken. The reality is that the word translated “world” is the Greek word aion, which actually means age… not world. In every verse where the KJV refers to the “end of the world” it should actually be rendered “the end of the age.”
So, over the past 4 centuries since the origin of the KJV, it has been inculcated into our psyche the idea that the world is destined to end. And it has also had a dramatic impact on the way other earth-ending apocalyptic passages like Mt 24:29, Acts 2:20, Rev 6:12-14 and 2 Pet 3:10-12 are interpreted or perhaps misinterpreted. I’ll leave apocalyptic, de-creation language for another day, but suffice it to say, translating aion as world has caused many to make grossly errant assumptions. For phrases like “the end of the world” and “the end of time” to be so deeply engrained, I was shocked when I realized both phrases are assumed to be biblical but neither can be found in the Bible.
So, Jesus, instead of prophesying about the end of the world as most think, was actually referring to the end of the age. And that’s a very different matter. He was speaking about the end of the Old Covenant age which the author of Hebrews penned was “growing old and ready to disappear.” (Circa AD 62) The last days (AD 30-70) were at the end of the Old Covenant age.
Now let’s take a closer look at Matthew 24:14. Again, “world” was used by the translators but this time the Greek word is neither kosmos nor aion. Rather it’s oikoumene. This might appear like a minor detail but I think you will find that it’s actually a very big deal. .
In order to drill down into Mt 24:14, we need to consider other usages of oikoumene to help determine its meaning.
(Luke 2:1 KJV) And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world [oikoumene] should be taxed.
It’s rather clear that Caesar Augustus did not tax the Chinese or the Aboriginals.
The word oikoumene can be translated “inhabited earth” but more specifically it should be rendered “Roman Empire.” But the question is, how would you know that without a Lexicon? And why would you look, assuming that every usage of “world” is from the Greek word “kosmos.” When we read “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world”, what are we to conclude other than the Gospel must be preached to everyone everywhere. And, since that has not been accomplished, people incorrectly assume that the fulfillment of Mt 24:14 has not been fulfilled. For an in-depth study on this largely misunderstood verse consider, “Has the Gospel Been Preached to All the World?”
It should be noted that the NASB translated oikoumene in Luke 2:1 as “inhabited earth” but they curiously failed to make that distinction in Mt 24:14 although they do provide a footnote “inhabited earth”. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) and the NIV are the only translations I found that translated oikoumene as the “whole empire” and “Roman World” respectively. Both the NKJV and ESV used “world.”
Do you see who this could skew people’s perceptions? Oikoumene is used 15 times in the KJV, 14 times as “world” and one time as “earth”.
Another one of the 15 is Acts 24:5. In the HCSB it reads, “For we have found this man to be a plague, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the Roman world [oikoumene], and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes!”
Translating oikoumene “Roman world” makes perfect sense since the dispersed Jews were neither in China nor South America but rather in regions controlled by the Roman Empire. So how do you think the NASB, the KJV, the NKJV, the ESV and the NIV translated Acts 24:5? Without exception they rendered it “throughout the world.” So, unless you read 7 translations and consult the lexicon of your choice, you would have been misled. And though this is not a colossal error in Acts 24:5, it does create serious interpretational issues in Mt 24:14.
At this point, the question we should ask is what about the context would lead the translators to choose “world” over “Roman world?” Could it be presuppositional bias?
Consider the target audience. Peter addressed his first epistle to: “those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” And regarding the gathering at Pentecost, Luke records, “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven…9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, (Acts 1:5; 9-10) We should remember that the Bible is Israel-centric.
In the parable of the weeds, again the KJV renders “aion” as world. (Matthew 13:40 KJV) As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. It’s very misleading to say the least. I’m not castigating the 16th century translators who perhaps viewed the end of the age as the end of the cosmos. They’ve done the heavy lifting which has made the Bible accessible to the commoner. However, when attempting to form eschatological conclusions, you can begin to see how easily we can go awry if we are not aware of the underlying Greek. However, when attempting to form eschatological conclusions, you can begin to see how easily our perceptions can go awry if we are not aware of the underlying Greek words.
Pick up any modern translation and you will find “the end of the age” in Matthew 13:40. And in the vast majority of verses where aion is found, you will find the same. But prior to 1960, the KJV and derivatives were the only game in town. So, over the years presuppositions had been built to the point that even when Christians read “end of the age” which was corrected in the NKJV, they have latent connections to the “end of the world.” And, as I mentioned earlier, although “the end of the world” isn’t found in the Bible, many think the writers of the New Testament regularly referred to the world’s end.
Now let’s turn our attention to the Greek world “ge” which was translated “earth” 181 times and land 42 times in the KJV. Remember, context controls meaning. Let’s again look for presuppositional bias among the translators.
(Matthew 2:20 KJV) Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land [ge: G1093] of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
The above is an example of 181 times “ge” was translated as “land” instead of earth since in this instance “earth of Israel” would make no sense. Now let’s look at a verse which translated “ge” as earth, and ask yourself why they didn’t also translate it “land”.
(Matthew 24:30 ESV) Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth [ge] will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
(Matthew 24:30 NASB) And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth [ge] will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
In not one modern translation will you find “all the tribes of the land.” Why? Jesus was clearly speaking to His disciples living in the land is Israel, and given the number of times He specifically referenced them (Jews), it is imperative that we read the text in that light. Though it may seem obvious, sometimes we forget that Jesus wasn’t speaking directly to you or me. Read through the Olivet (Mt 24; Mk 13; Lk 21) and notice how many times Jesus referenced “you” (them). It’s striking when you encounter the impact of audience relevancy for the first time. Western 21st-century Christians are egocentric to the point where we believe that everything in the New Testament is about us, in our world. And that causes grave interpretational issues.
So, the context should make clear to whom it was that would mourn when their Messiah returned. John the Baptizer’s resounding warning of impending judgment? “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt 3:10) It was “all the tribes of the LAND” that would feel the wrath of God. To Caiaphas the High Priest, Jesus profoundly proclaimed, “You have said it yourself. But I tell YOU, from now on YOU will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mt 26:64 NASB)
Approximately 22 years later as Jewish persecution began to increase, Paul encouraged the beleaguered Christ-followers at Thessalonica. “For after all it is only right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us, when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with [His mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess 1:6-8) This judgment wasn’t to come upon the entire globe. Rather, those who killed Jesus and His prophets were the targets of God’s wrath. (Mt 23:34-36)
When you read “tribes of the earth”, you may be tempted to think that the entire globe is in focus. As mentioned, keeping the context in view, this is referring to the tribes of Israel. In verse 34 of chapter 24 Jesus said, “This generation would not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.” Verse 34 constrains Jesus’s “coming on the clouds” to those living within a generation of His proclamation. His focus is the Jewish temple (Mt 24:3) and the wicked and perverse, Christ-killing first-century generation (Mt 23:34-36). It was a local judgment!
Josephus, a Jewish General turned historian during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, wrote concerning that adulterous generation which crucified Christ.
It is therefore impossible to go distinctly over every instance of these men’s iniquity. I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly: – That neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world. Josephus – War of the Jews, Book V, Chapter X, Section 5 (Entire)
Another reference to the tribes lamenting Jesus’s coming is in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Three plus decades after the Olivet, Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father in His preincarnate glory, revealed “the things which were about to take place … for the time is near”. (Rev 1:1,3)
(Revelation 1:7 ESV) Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
Upon reading the above verse, would you not immediately conclude that Christ’s judgment was worldwide in scope? Except, again notice the phrase “all the tribes” which refers to the tribes of Israel. Every modern translation I checked refers to “all the tribes of the EARTH”, except one, the Youngs Literal Translation (YLT).
(Revelation 1:7 YLT) Lo, he doth come with the clouds, and see him shall every eye, even those who did pierce him, and wail because of him shall all the tribes of the land. Yes! Amen!
It’s clear that Jesus was hearkening back to Matthew 24:30 i.e. “all the tribes of the land”. This has nothing to do with Africa, South America or the new world. The Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. And also consider the phrase, “even those who pierced him” (which is a direct reference to the Jews who handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities). This could be translated, “that is, those who pierced Him.” This is yet another example of audience relevance pinning fulfillment to the Christ-rejecting generation. No one in the 21st century pierced the Messiah.
Let’s look at one more verse which contains two of the 4 Greek words in this study.
(Revelation 3:10 KJV) Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come [no imminence] upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
“All the world” and “upon the earth” imply that the entire globe is in view. But let’s look under the hood and see if that’s the case. Can you guess which Greek words are translated “world” and “earth” in the above verse?
Oikoumene = world
Ge = earth
So, when reading Revelation 3:10 the immediate conclusion is that it sounds global. “Which shall come upon all the world” and “that dwell upon the earth”. Not to further muddy the waters, but it’s necessary to highlight one more Greek word in this verse that the translators notoriously ignore: mello. It means “about to be”. I would have to devote an entire study just on “mello” . For the sake of brevity let’s shed a few rays of light. Mello (and its derivatives) alone, if neutered of its imminence, can drastically affect your perceptions. Let’s check in with the NASB’s translation of Revelation 3:10 to see an example.
(Revelation 3:10 NASB) Because you have kept My word of perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of the testing, that hour which is about to come [MELLO] upon the whole world, to test those who live on the earth.
Notice the imminency of expected fulfillment. The hour was “about to come”. Suffice it to say, the above verse, without presuppositional bias, should be translated:
[Revelation 3:10 CWC] Because you have kept My word of perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of the testing, that hour which is about to [mello] come upon the whole Roman Empire [oikoumene], to test those who live in the land [ge].
Audacious you say? Who am I to quibble with renowned experts? I don’t know Greek nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express. But, in our collective defense, you would be surprised how far diligence, common sense, some intellectual honesty and the ability to handle online Bible tools, will take us. We all need to take control of our own views, do the work, and come to well-reasoned conclusions. No longer must we be held under the thumbs of self-proclaimed gatekeepers who think we’re not intelligent enough or spiritually illumined enough to employ Sola Scriptura.
But let me be clear, I’m not saying that studying the biblical languages is of little value. There is significant advantage in being able to read a Greek New Testament fluently. However, an expert who is beholden to their eschatological worldview as well as their creedal commitments, is just as likely to succumb to their strong biases as the laity. And that has been demonstrated above.
Whatever your eschatological view, I can assure you that originally mine were significantly skewed simply because of the way these Greek words were translated. They set a subliminal tone that is difficult to overcome. They set a subliminal tone that was difficult to overcome. And only after I began considering the overwhelming imminence associated with Christ’s coming, did I learn of their existence.
In conclusion, my exhortation is to consult many different translations, lexicons and Bible dictionaries when you are studying the Scriptures. I primarily use the ESV for memorization, but I find either the NASB or the NKJV are a tad more readable. And if you want a more literal word for word Bible, though somewhat clunky to read, the YLT (Youngs Literal Translation) is an excellent choice.
And it should be noted that the NKJV has corrected a few of the more obvious KJV errors such as translating aion “age” instead of “world.” I think you would be shocked at how many times the imminence of a verse has been silenced by the interpreters. The majority of mello’s 110 usages in the New Testament have been largely ignored. And this one word alone, if translated “about to be” would force honest Bible students to reconsider their conclusions. And If GE, AION, OIKOUMENE AND MELLO are translated as intended, they may very well threaten the popular eschatological conclusions of our day.
In the light of the above, reconsider the Packer quote: “we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world.”