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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Alpha and Omega (2)

ALPHA AND OMEGA.—A solemn designation of divinity, of Jewish origin, peculiar to the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 1:8 it is applied to Himself by ‘the Almighty,’ with obvious relation to Exodus 3:14 (cf. Exodus 3:4) and Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 44:6 (for the LXX Septuagint rendering of צִבָאוח יהוה by παντο by παντοκράτωρ, cf. Amos 3:13; Amos 4:13). In Revelation 21:6 also the epithet is applied not to the Son but to the Father, as shown by the context (cf. Revelation 21:3 ‘a voice out of the throne,’ Revelation 21:5 ‘He spake that is seated on the throne,’ Revelation 21:7 ‘I will be his God and he shall be my son’). In Revelation 22:13 it is placed in a derived sense (i.e. ‘I, the primary object and ultimate fulfilment of God’s promise’) in the mouth of the glorified Jesus. This transfer of a Divine title to the Son furnishes a problem of great interest for the early development of Christology; for, as R. H. Charles points out (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. p. 70), ‘although in Revelation 1:8 [add Revelation 21:6] this title is used of God the Father, it seems to be confined to the Son in Patristic and subsequent literature.’

1. Origin and Significance.—(a) The simplest and most primary use of this figure, derived as it is from the first and last terms of the alphabet, which with Greeks and Hebrews were also those of numerical notation, is common to several languages. Thus in English we have the expression ‘from A to Z.’ Schoettgen (Hor. Heb. i. 1086) adduced from Jalkut Rubein, fol. 17. 4, ‘Adam transgressed the whole law from א to ח’; and 48. 4, ‘Abraham kept the law from א to ח.’ As Cremer shows (Theol. Worterbuch, p. 1), this has no bearing on the case except linguistically. In Rub. 128. 3, God is said to bless Israel from א to ח (because Leviticus 16:3; Leviticus 16:16 begins with א and ends with ח), but to curse only from ו to מ (because Leviticus 16:14-34 begins with ו and ends with מ). R. H. Charles (.c.) adds examples of this (general) use from Martial (v. 26 and ii. 57) and Theodoret (E [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica.] iv. 8).

(b) In the later, more philosophical, period of Hebrew literature similar expressions are applied to God, as indicative of His omnipresence and eternal existence. God, as the Being from whom all things proceed and to whom they tend, is thus contrasted in Deutero-Isaiah with heathen divinities (Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 43:10 [cf. Exodus 3:14] Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 48:12). Here the best example is the Kabbalistic designation of the Shekinah as אח, according to Buxtorf = ‘principium et finis’ (. Chald. Talm. [Note: Talmud.] et Rabb.).

But a threefold designation of God as the Eternal is also employed. The Jerusalem Targum on Exodus 3:14 so interprets the Divine name (‘qui fuit, est, et erit, dixit mundo’), and the Targ. [Note: Targum.] Jonathan on Deuteronomy 3:29 (‘ego ille est, qui est, et qui fuit, et qui erit’). So also, according to Bousset (ad Revelation 1:4), Shemoth R. iii. f. 105. 2, Midrash Tillim 117. 2, Bereshith R. on Daniel 10:21 (the ‘writing of אמח—truth = the seal of God.’ See below). Thus in Hebrews 2:10 God is both end and means of all things (διʼ ὄν, διʼ οὖ τὰ πάντα); in Romans 11:36 ‘Of him, through him, and unto him are all things’; cf. Revelation 1:4.

Instances of expressions of like implication applied to the Deity (ὁ θεός), or to individual divinities, are naturally still more common in Greek philosophical literature, so that, as Justin says (ad Graecos, xxv.), ‘Plato, when mystically expressing the attributes of God’s eternity, said, “God is, as the old tradition runs, the end and the middle of all things”; plainly alluding to the Law of Moses.’ The tradition was indeed ‘old’ in Plato’s day, but there are many more probable sources than Exodus 3:14 for Plato. We need refer only to the song of the Peleiadae at Dodona: Ζεὺς ἧν, Ζεὺς ἔστιν, Ζεὺς ἔσσεται (Paus. x. 12. 5); and the Orphic saying, Ζεὺς πρῶτος γένετο, Ζεὑς ὕστατος ἀρχικέραυνος, Ζεὺς κεφαλή, Ζεὺς μέσσα, κ.τ.λ. (Lobeck, Aglaophamus, 521, 523, 530 f.). Similar attributes are applied to Athene and Asclepius in examples quoted by Wetstein. Notoriously the Jewish apologists had been beforehand with Justin Martyr in ascribing to Moses the larger and more philosophical conceptions of Deity enunciated by the philosophers; and from these writings of the period of Revelation and earlier it is possible to demonstrate the existence of a Jewish kerygma (formula of missionary propaganda) defining the true nature of the Deity and of right worship, wherein Isaiah 44:6 ff. with the expression borrowed in Revelation 1:8; Revelation 21:6, or its equivalent, is the central feature. Josephus (circa (about) Apion. ii. 190–198 [ed. Niese]), contrasting the law of Moses on this subject with heathenism, calls it ‘our doctrine (λόγος) concerning God and His worship.’ What he designated ‘the first commandment’ is easily recognizable as part of such a kerygma, and seems to be derived from the same Jewish apologist pseudo-Hecataeus (circa (about) 60 b.c.) whom he quotes in circa (about) Apion. i. § 183–204, and ii. 43. It is traceable already in the diatribes against idolatry in the Ep. of Aristeas (132–141) and the Wisdom of Solomon (chapters 13–14). The Proœmium of the oldest Jewish Sibyl (Sib. Or. v. 7–8, 15) has: ‘There is one God Omnipotent, immeasurable, eternal, almighty, invisible, alone all-seeing, Himself unseen.… Worship Him, the alone existent, the Ruler of the world, who alone is from eternity to eternity.’ It appears again in Christian adaptation in Acts 17:24-31 (cf. 14:15–17, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, Romans 1:18-32, Wisdom of Solomon 11:23; Wisdom of Solomon 13:6; Wisdom of Solomon 13:10; Wisdom of Solomon 14:12; Wisdom of Solomon 14:22-27); in the fragment of the Kerygma Petri, quoted in Clem. Strom. vi. 5. 39–43 (Frags. 2 and 3 ap. Preuschen, Antileg. p. 52: εἰς θεός ἐστιν, ὃς ἁρχὴν πάντων ἐποίησεν καὶ τέλους ἐξουσίαν ἕχων, κ.τ.λ.): in the Apology of Aristides; Tatian’s Oration iv.; Athenagoras, Leg. xiii., and the Ep. to Diogn. iii. It begins in Josephus: ὅτι θεὸς ἔχει τὰ σύμπαντα παντελὴς καὶ μακάριος, αὐτὸς αὐτῷ καὶ πᾶσιν αὐτάρκης, ἀρχὴ καὶ μέσα καὶ τέλος οὗτος τῶν πάντων—‘He is the beginning and middle and end of all things’ (circa (about) Apion. ii. 190).

On the other hand, the apologetic and eschatological literature, which Rabbinic Judaism after the rise of Christian speculation more and more excluded from canonical use, shows a marked tendency to offset these heathen demiurgic ascriptions by similar ones applied not directly to God but to a hypostatized creative Wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-36, Wisdom of Solomon 7:21; Wisdom of Solomon 8:1; Wisdom of Solomon 9:4; Wisdom of Solomon 9:9, Sirach 24:9; Sirach 24:28, Baruch 3:9-37), or to an angelic Being endowed with the same demiurgic attributes (2 Esdras 5:56 to 2 Esdras 6:6).

The statement of Rabbi Kohler (Jewish Encycl. i. p. 438) is therefore correct regarding the phrase in Revelation 1:8; Revelation 21:6 if not in 22:13: ‘This is not simply a paraphrase of Isaiah 44:6 “I am the first and the last”, but the Hellenized form of a well-known Rabbinical dictum, “The seal of God is Emet, which means Truth, and is derived from the letters א מ ח, the first, the middle, and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things.” ’ In other words, we must realize the metaphysical development of Jewish theology which had taken place between Deutero-Isaiah and Revelation. The passages adduced by Kohler from 69 and . 64, and in particular Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Jeb. 12:13a, Gen. [Note: Geneva NT 1557, Bible 1560.] R [Note: Redactor.] . lxxxi., show the early prevalence of this interpretation of Daniel 10:21 ‘I shall show thee what is marked upon the writing of truth (בכחב אמת), as the signum of God; for, says Simon hen Lakish, “א is the first, מ the middle, and ח the last letter of the alphabet.” ’ This being the name of God according to Isaiah 44:6, explained Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Sanh. i. 18a, ‘I am the first [having had none from whom to receive the kingdom]; I am the middle, there being none who shares the kingdom with me; [and I am the last], there being none to whom I shall hand the kingdom of the world.’ It would seem probable, however, considering the connexion with Isaiah 44:6 (‘first and last,’ the passage is a commonplace of early Christian-Jewish polemic), that the Kabbalistic form אח is the earlier, the middle term having perhaps been inserted in opposition to Jewish angelological and Christian cosmological speculation. Cf. Revelation 11:17; Revelation 16:5 with Revelation 1:4; Revelation 4:8; and 2 Esdras 6:1-6 (where Uriel, speaking in the name of the Creator, says, ‘In the beginning, when the earth was made … then did I design these things, and they all were through me alone, and through none other: as by me also they shall be ended, and by none other’) with Hebrews 2:10.

In 1 Corinthians 8:6 we have a significant addition to the two-term ascription, ‘One God, the Father, of (ἑξ) whom are all things, and we unto (εἰς) him.’ St. Paul (or his Corinthian converts) adds, ‘And one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him.’ This addition marks the parting of the ways for Jewish and Christian theology, implying a mediating hypostasis identified with Christ, that is, a Wisdom-Logos doctrine. That in Revelation 1:6; Revelation 21:6 the phrase is still applied in the purely Jewish sense to God the Father alone, is placed beyond all doubt by the connected ascriptions, especially ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος (not = ἐσόμενος) connecting Revelation 1:8 with Revelation 1:4.

Why, and in what sense, the term ΑΩ is applied in Revelation 22:12 by the glorified Christ to Himself, is the problem remaining; and this independently of the question of composite authorship; for to the final redactor, whose date can scarcely be later than a.d. 95, there was no incompatibility.

(c) Besides the metaphysical or cosmological development, which we have traced in connexion with the Divine title ΑΩ from Deutero-Isaiah through Wisdom and pseudo-Aristeas to its bifurcation in Jewish and Christian theology contemporary with the Book of Revelation, we have a parallel development of eschatological character. Jehovah is contrasted with the gods of the heathen in Isaiah 41:26-27; Isaiah 42:9; Isaiah 43:9-10; Isaiah 44:6-7; Isaiah 44:26; Isaiah 45:21; Isaiah 46:9-10; Isaiah 48:3; Isaiah 48:5; Isaiah 48:12, also, and indeed primarily, as ‘first and last’ in the sense of director of all things to the fulfilment of His predeclared purpose, i.c. confirmer and fulfiller of His promise of redemption (Isaiah 44:7). And I manifestly the development of this idea of Jehovah as ‘first and last’ in the redemptive or soteriological sense, would be more congenial to Hebrew thought than the metaphysical, although cosmology plays a great and increasing part in apocalyptic literature. In the substitution of ὁ ἐρχόμενος for the anticipated ὁ ἐσόμενος in Revelation 1:4; Revelation 4:8 (cf. Revelation 11:17, Revelation 16:5) recalling Matthew 11:3 and Hebrews 10:37, we have evidence of the apocalyptic tendency to conceive of God by preference soteriologically.

But the final redemptive intervention of Jehovah is necessarily conceived as through some personal, human, or at least angelic (Malachi 3:1, 2 Esdras 5:56) agency, even when creative and cosmological functions are still attributed to Jehovah directly, without any, or with no more than an impersonal, intermediate agency. Hence, while in Revelation 1:8 as in Revelation 1:4 and Revelation 21:6 Jehovah Himself, ‘the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,’ is also ὁ ἐρχόμενος, there is no escape for any believer in Jesus from transferring the title in this soteriological sense to Him as Messiah. This will be the case whether his cosmology requires a Logos-doctrine for demiurgic functions, as with St. Paul, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Fourth Evangelist, or not. (The only trace of a true Logos-doctrine is the very superficial touch Revelation 19:13 b). Thus in Revelation 1:17; Revelation 2:8 the Isaian title ‘the first and the last’ is applied to Christ, and in Revelation 3:14 He is called ‘the Amen … the beginning of the creation of God.’ The titles are combined in Revelation 22:13, where we should perhaps render (Benson, Apocalypse, 1900, p. 26), ‘I, the Alpha and the Omega (am coming), the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ As Hengstenberg maintained (on Revelation 1:8), ‘In this declaration the Omega is to be regarded as emphatic. It is equivalent to saying, As I am the Alpha, so am I also the Omega. The beginning is surety for the end’ (cf. Philippians 1:6). For this reason it is perhaps also better to connect the words Ναί, Ἀμήν of Revelation 1:7 with Revelation 1:8 ‘Verily, verily, I am the Alpha and the Omega’ (Terry, Bibl. Apocalyptics, 1898, p. 281).

The true sense, and at the same time the origin and explanation of this application of the Divine title, is to be found, as before, in the Epistles of St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 the promises of God, howsoever many they be, are said all to have their Yea in Christ. And, because this is so, it is further declared, ‘the Amen is also through him.’ The conception that Christ is the Amen or fulfilment of all the promises of God, as ‘heir of all things’ and we ‘joint heirs with him’ (Romans 4:13; Romans 8:17, 1 Corinthians 3:22, Hebrews 1:2, Revelation 21:7), is comparatively familiar to us. It represents the significance of the term Ω in the eschatological application. We are much less familiar with the idea expressed in the A, though it is equally well attested in primitive Christian and contemporary Jewish thought. In Pauline language it represents that the people of Messiah were ‘blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, inasmuch as God chose them in his person before the foundation of the world … and foreordained them to be an adoption of sons,’ Ephesians 1:4-5; cf. Isaiah 44:1-2; Isaiah 44:7, Wisdom of Solomon 18:13, Hebrews 2:5-10, Revelation 21:7, and the doctrine of the apocalyptic writers, Jewish and Christian, that ‘the world was created for the sake of man’—resp. ‘Israel,’ ‘the righteous,’ ‘the Church’ (Assump. Mos. 1:12–14: 2 Esdras 6:55-59; 2 Esdras 7:10-11; 2 Esdras 9:13; Hermas, Vis. ii. 4:1 etc. The doctrine rests on Genesis 1:26 f., Psalms 8:4-8, Exodus 4:22 etc.). Harnack has shown (History of Dogma, vol. i. Appendix 1, ‘The Conception of Pre-existence’) how pre-existence is for the Jewish mind in some sense involved in that of ultimate persistence. The heir ‘for whom’ all things were created was in a more or less real sense (according to the disposition of the thinker) conceived as present to the mind of the Creator before all things. Thus in Rabbinic phrase Messiah is one of the ‘seven pre-existent things,’ or His ‘soul is laid up in Paradise before the foundation of the world.’ Apocalyptic eschatology demanded a representative ‘Son,’ the ‘Beloved,’ chosen ‘in the beginning’ to be head of the ‘Beloved’ people of ‘sons’ in the end, with at least as much logical urgency as speculative cosmology demanded an agent of the creation itself. It is this which is meant when St. Paul says that ‘however many be the promises of God, they are in Christ Yea.’ This is ‘the mystery which from all ages hath been hid in God who created all things … according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus.’ In Pauline language, Christ ‘the Beloved,’ the ‘Son of his love,’ is the Yea and the Amen of the promises of God. Cosmologically, He is the precreative Wisdom, ‘the firstborn of all creation, in whom all things were created’ (cf. Revelation 3:14, Proverbs 8:22). But it is not only that ‘he is before all things, and in him all things consist’ (cf. Sirach 24:9, Wisdom of Solomon 1:7), not only that ‘all things have been created through him,’ but also eschatologically ‘unto him’ (Colossians 1:15-17; cf. Hebrews 1:2-3 and Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-27), logically subsequent to Him because made for His sake. In Revelation we have only the latter. The cosmological ‘through’ Him practically disappears. It is only in the eschatological sense that Christ becomes the original object and the ultimate fulfilment of the Divine purpose and promises, ‘the Yea, the Amen,’ ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

2. The Later History.—It is doubtless from Revelation that the use of the term in Patristic literature and Christian epigraphy is mainly derived, though its popularity may well have been partly due to oral currency in Jewish-Christian circles before the publication of Revelation. The eschatological interest is still apparent in the hymn of Prudentius (Cathem. ix. 10–12), wherein the first line contains a reference to Psalms 45:1 Vulgate (‘Eructavit cor meum Verbum bonum’), treated as Messianic by the Fathers—

‘Corde natus ex Parentis

Ante mundi exordium

Alpha et Ω cognominatus

Ipse fons et clausula

Omnium quae sunt, fuerunt

Quaeque post futura sunt.’

But in Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] (Strom. iv. 25 and vi. 16) and Tertullian (de Monog. 5) the cosmological predominates. Ambrose (Expositio in VII visiones, i. 8) presents a different interpretation. In Gnostic circles speculative and cosmological interpretations are unbridled. Thus Marcus (ap. Irenaeus, Haer. i. xiv. 6, xv. 1) maintained that Christ designated Himself Α Ω to set forth His own descent as the Holy Ghost on Jesus at His baptism, because by Gematria Α Ω (= 800 +1) and περιστερά (= 80+5+100+10+200+300+5+100+1) are equivalent.

Literature.—For the great mass of later epigraphic material the reader is referred to N. Muller in Herzog-Hauck’s Realencykl. i. pp. 1–12, and the article ‘Monogram’ in Smith and Cheetham’s Dict. of Christian Antiquities. Besides the works already cited, articles on Α and Ω may be found in the various Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias. Its use in Revelation 1:8; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:13 should be studied in the critical commentaries. On Divine epithets and the doctrine of hypostases see Bousset, Religion des Judenthums, iv. chs. 2 and 5 (1903). Older monographs in J. C. Wolfe, Curae Philolog. et Crit. on Revelation 1:8.

B. W. Bacon.

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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Alpha and Omega (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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