The Anatomy of an Odd Biblical Phrase
The other day I heard a pastor reading from the latter part of Ephesians 3 in the King James Version, and I was struck with the quaintness of a phrase found at the end of verse 21: “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end” (emphasis added). Quaint and, frankly, obscure in meaning. Certainly not contemporary English. I decided to trace the origin of this peculiar English phrasing to satisfy my own curiosity.
I could not with Strong’s concordance locate this phrase anywhere else in the KJV, though I did discover through other sources that this is the translation found at Ephesians 3:21 in three English versions preceding the KJV, namely the Great Bible (1540 edition; also known as “Cranmer’s Bible,” though Miles Coverdale was the chief laborer in this revision of Matthew’s Bible), the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 (1602 edition) and the Roman Catholic Rheims NT of 1582, so the KJV’s rendering is neither unprecedented nor unparalleled.
Other early English versions read as follows (wording in question in italics):
- “to all the generations of the world” - Wycliffe
- “throughout all generations from time to time” - Tyndale, Cranmer 1539
- “throughout all generations forever and ever” - Coverdale 1535 NT, and 1538 Diglott Latin-English NT
- “throughout all generations forever” - Geneva
(For these versions, I consulted The English Hexapla [London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1841] and The New Testament Octapla, edited by Luther A. Weigle [New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, n.d.] with direct consultation of facsimile reprints in a few cases. The text of Coverdale 1535 is that found at www.studylight.org.)
Later English translations rather consistently choose the same early rendering as Coverdale 1535/1538: “forever and ever”—ERV, ASV, NIV, NASB, ESV, and HCSB—though a few retain the old Great Bible/Bishops’/Rheims/KJV rendering, including the American Bible Union (Baptist) revised NT of 1867 (though not the later “improved edition” of circa 1891) and, rather surprisingly, the NKJV.
I checked both the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s 1534 Bible, each of which often influenced the phrasing of English versions in the 16th and 17th centuries, and each of which was early enough in date to have potentially influenced the Great Bible in its (apparently) precedent-setting translation of the phrase in Ephesians 3:21. Both the Vulgate and Luther’s 1534 Bible give literal translations of the Greek phrase in question, and can be categorically excluded as the source of the Great Bible’s wording.
The Oxford English Dictionary does have an entry—which takes no note of the Great Bible reading—for the phrase “world without end” (on pp. 3,821-2 of vol. II of The Compact Edition). We discover there that the phrase is of considerable antiquity in English, with the earliest citation from a document dating AD 1305. After some 15th century citations, we are informed of its presence in the 1548-49 edition of Anglican Book of Common Prayer (no doubt that is the source of its wide dispersal and persistence in English, given the book’s near universal use in Anglican Church services for subsequent centuries).
It is to be noted that the Book of Common Prayer’s Bible readings from the NT were taken from the Great Bible, the earliest Bible with the translation in question at Ephesians 3:21, until a change of translation was made in 1662, at which time the KJV was substituted (see A. S. Herbert, Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961, p. 25). It is small wonder, then, that this quaint phrase, made familiar to millions through exposure to the Book of Common Prayer, persisted in those Bible revisions made under the auspices of, with the sponsorship and sanction of, and for the express use of the Anglican Church—the Bishops’ Bible (1568) and the KJV (1611).
The phrase “world without end” is reportedly to be found in Shakespeare, Milton, and even later into the 18th and 19th centuries, but with increasing indications of its obsolescence. The OED gives for its meaning, as an adverbial phrase, “endlessly, eternally”; as an adjectival phrase, “perpetual, everlasting, eternal”; and as a substantival phrase “eternal existence, endlessness, eternity.”
The Greek phrase here (no variants among printed “textus receptus,” “majority” and “critical” Greek texts) is “eis pasas tas geneas tou aionos ton aionon,” literally “unto all the generations of the age of the ages,” a Greek idiom, one of several found in the NT, meaning “forever, endlessly,” etc. This precise entire phrase does not occur in its totality, as far as I can discover, elsewhere in the NT. Indeed, nowhere else in the NT can I find the singular “age” followed by the plural “ages” as occurs here. Rather, we find two singulars, literally, “unto the age of the age” (uniquely at Hebrews 1:8) or two plurals, “unto the ages of the ages,” as it is some five times in Paul’s writings, and sixteen times elsewhere, including all thirteen occurrences in Revelation. (I must forego here a wider search into the Septuagint, early Christian literature, and secular Greek for other occurrences.) I can discern no semantic difference among these and similar, phrases in the Greek NT, all meaning “forever.”
In summary, “World without end” is a quaint and now obsolete phrase first found in the English Bible in a Great Bible edition of 1540. It was perpetuated and popularized by the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1548-49 and later, which used the Great Bible for its Scripture text), and accordingly was retained in the Bishops’ Bible (1568) and the KJV (1611), with adoption by the Catholic translators of the Rheims New Testament (1582) as well. The great majority of recent English versions have opted to return to the still-current English Coverdale translation, “forever and ever,” first introduced into the Bible in English in 1535.