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Literally, this phrase (found originally in the New Testament of the Vulgata) is translated as "into [the] ages of [the] ages". It's supposed to be an expression of eternity, and it's commonly translated in English as "forever and ever". In Spanish it is much more literal than in English: "por los siglos de los siglos". But neither the Spanish nor the literal translation of the Latin seem to me to explicitly convey the meaning of eternity. In a way, the expression itself doesn't make sense. Why "of ages"? What is "an age of an age"? More clear is in aeternum, which is used at least 223 times in the Vulgata (including in the Old Testament).

Is it possible to make sense of the literal meaning of "in saecula saeculorum"? Or must we be content with some figurative meaning, derived from that intended by the author of the phrase?

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    As is typical with the Bible, I believe the answer is "because that's idiomatic in Hebrew (or Greek)". But I'll have to leave writing up an answer to someone who actually knows their stuff. – Joonas Ilmavirta Feb 4 '19 at 20:35
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(Please ignore my previous answer; it's incorrect.)

As fdb mentions, this is a Semitic idiom. But in fact it goes back farther than that—it's an Afro-Asiatic idiom, so we also see it in e.g. Egyptian.

Afro-Asiatic, as best I can tell, had no comparative or superlative morphology ("bigger", "biggest"). So the standard way to express a superlative idea was to use the genitive: instead of "greatest", they would say "great one of the great ones". For example, from the Eloquent Peasant (Egyptian):

jmy-r pr wr, nb=j, wr n(y) wrw
High overseer, my lord, great [man] of the great [men]

This does make some literal sense: the "greatest" person is the one who is great compared to other great people.

The same construction shows up in the famous Akkadian title, šar-šarrāni "emperor", literally "king of kings". Here it also makes some literal sense: the emperor rules over other rulers (that is, the rulers of individual city-states).

This idiom came into the Greek of the New Testament a few different sources, including most notably Hebrew and Aramaic, but also e.g. Persian (they called Mithridates II the Βασιλευς Βασιλεων, probably descending originally from the Akkadian). Thus Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not just because of the Hebrew/Aramaic but also because it was a recognized term for an emperor.

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  • I have a problem with “the famous Akkadian title, šar-šarrāni”. As far as I can see this title is never used for Babylonian or Assyrian kings, but only for foreign rulers, notably in the Babylonian versions of the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, where it translates the Old Persian title “king of kings”. The evidence is that “X singular of X plural” is an Iranian parlance borrowed into Aramaic and Hebrew in the Achaemenid period. – fdb Mar 22 at 15:35
  • @fdb Isn't it attested from the thirteenth century BCE, well before the Achaemenid empire? For example, this Middle Assyrian inscription (weird source I know but it's the first one I found) starts "Tukulti-Ninurta, king of the universe, strong king, king of Assyria, king of kings, lord of lords, rulers of rulers, prince, lord of all, conqueror of the rebellious…" – Draconis Mar 22 at 15:44
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It is a Semitic idiom, as in “king of kings” or “vanities of vanities”. “X-singular of X-plural” means “X to the highest possible degree”. This particular expression (“eternity of eternities”), is Aramaic (ʻālam ʻālmayyā), not Hebrew, as here in Daniel 7:18:

But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.

וִיקַבְּלוּן מַלְכוּתָא קַדִּישֵׁי עֶלְיֹונִין וְיַחְסְנוּן מַלְכוּתָא עַד־עָלְמָא וְעַד עָלַם עָלְמַיָּא׃

Suscipient autem regnum sancti Dei altissimi, et obtinebunt regnum usque in sæculum, et sæculum sæculorum.

καὶ παραλήψονται τὴν βασιλείαν ἅγιοι ὑψίστου καὶ καθέξουσι τὴν βασιλείαν ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος τῶν αἰώνων

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  • Notice the phrase is found with saecula, which is plural. So it doesn't exactly fit into the Hebrew idiom. There is no instance of saeculum saeculorum in the NT Vulgata. – luchonacho Feb 5 '19 at 10:05
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    @luchonacho. But there is in the Vulgata of Dan 7:18 (as quoted in my answer). – fdb Feb 5 '19 at 10:39
  • Indeed, but the versions in the NT are with plural, so I don't see exactly how the expression has a Hebrew origin. Draconis suggests it is of Greek origin. Is there a relation between the Greek and the Hebrew? Maybe Jerome used his NT saecula to build the OT saeculum? In that case, the causality is reversed from that suggested in your answer. – luchonacho Feb 5 '19 at 10:51
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    The Greek is calqued on the Aramaic (not Hebrew), not the other way round. – fdb Feb 5 '19 at 10:53
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    @luchonacho FWIW, in modern Hebrew the plural version le-olamei olamim, lit. "to worlds of worlds", is an idiomatic phrase meaning "forever". I would have assumed it came from Biblical Hebrew, but oddly enough I'm not finding it in the Old Testament. If it is attested somewhere, that would be an obvious source for Jerome's phrase. – TKR Feb 6 '19 at 2:27
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[This answer is incorrect; see the new answer below instead.]

This construction is found in particular in the New Testament, so while the answer to Vulgate questions is usually "because that's how the Hebrew of the Old Testament works", this one is slightly different: "because that's how the Greek of the New Testament works"!

In this case, saeculum is being used as a translation for Greek αἰών. The most general meaning of both words is "lifetime" or "generation"; in Latin, it also gained the meaning of "century", because that's a nice round number and also close to the maximum human lifetime. In Greek, on the other hand, it gained a meaning of "a clearly-delineated length of time" and thus "existence/the world".

So the literal meaning of this in Greek is, "for the total lifetime of all generations", or "for the total lifetime of all worlds". It's a kind of figurative/poetic term for eternity. In Latin, it also means "for the centuries of the centuries", which doesn't make much sense; that's not the intended reading, Jerome was just sticking to the Greek as closely as possible.

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    Are you sure this is a Greek idiom? I've never seen it in non-NT writings. – brianpck Feb 6 '19 at 2:57
  • @brianpck I know it's an idiom in NT Greek, but unfortunately the majority of my knowledge is NT and Aristophanes, so I don't have a large sample size. – Draconis Feb 6 '19 at 3:04
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    Hmm...could you clarify your statement in the first paragraph that this is a feature of Koine Greek at large, and not specifically NT Greek? As fdb's response suggests, I'm pretty sure this is a Semiticism. – brianpck Feb 6 '19 at 13:58
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    @brianpck Altered – Draconis Feb 6 '19 at 16:28
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Not a linguist but saeculum is a well-known term that most frequently refers (in Latin) to an 'age,' i.e., the amount of time a person could ever expect to live, or, more applicably, the amount of time it would take for everyone who was alive at a certain time (the beginning of a saeculum) to have died. If saeculum is accepted that way--as an age--saecula (plural) saeculorum would be 'ages of ages.' In other words, take an age--a whole maximum human life span, after which everyone who had been alive is dead--and imagine each one of those ages as, itself, only a mere interval in an even larger way of conceiving of time. This idea of the saeculum goes back centuries BC; it came to the Romans, and into Latin, from the Etruscans. The Roman had Saecular celebrations originating from a notable year. For example, the founding of Rome, itself. The amount of time that a saeculum was understood to represent depended not only on a given culture but even on what individual was taking the initiative to mark a date and establish a counting from that date. Most frequently, and of most validity, was 110 years--pretty fair assessment of how long the most aged people could be expected to have lived; though nowadays, probably 120 would be better--but sometimes 90 years was chosen, or 100. In fact, the French, siecle, which means 'century' is derived from saeculum. '

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