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

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
  • 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

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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