ἐγὼ τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
These words may look familiar – a quotation from Jesus in the very final chapter of the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Particularly striking is the use of the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe Jesus. What is going on here? This seems like an interesting question to explore in the middle of the festive period. (Readers who want to pursue the question further might be interested in reading the articles given in the references below, which I have used in the preparation of this post.)
It might not be particularly surprising to find terms like ‘first and last’ and ‘beginning and the end’ being used in statements describing who Jesus is. After all, we are used to statements like ‘In the beginning was the Word’, John 1, where ‘Word’ is identified with Jesus. However, the use of letters of the alphabet is noteworthy, as for its value it must rely on a pre-existing understanding of what these letters can be used to mean.
Perhaps the most obvious first approach, at least for a speaker of modern English, would be to take the title ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ as we might use the term ‘A-Z’ — as for instance in the context of an eponymous series of maps. This could suggest that the expression ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ asserts a view of Jesus as somehow the sum of all things, perhaps that he is somehow the rationale that governs reality. In this sense, the first and last letters of the alphabet are taken to stand for the alphabet as a whole, which is in turn taken to represent all things, since (following a certain logic) all things can be named. Underlying this understanding would be the view that to name something in writing, that is, to spell something out, is somehow to account for it.
Such an understanding of the relationship between writing and the reality/realities in which we live has roots in the thinking of no more illustrious a thinker than Plato, who in his dialogue the Theaetetus, uses the example of being able to spell out the first syllable of the name ‘Socrates’ in a discussion on epistemology, or how we can know things. It is suggested that to ‘know’ something is to be able to give an account (Greek logos) of it, and in the case of the first syllable of ‘Socrates’, this would be the sequence sigma, omega, or Σ and Ω.
David Lincicum suggests another intriguing solution, that underlying the title ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ is the Greek spelling of the divine name YHWH (as it is often rendered in English), which is on occasion found in Greek as ΙΑΩ. Now you may be wondering how this can help much with alpha and omega, since the formulation starts with an iota. However, if you identify the first letter with the first letter of Jesus in Greek, i.e. iota from ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, then ΙΑΩ would stand for ‘Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega’. Accordingly, when Jesus uses the term of himself, he could simply say that he is ‘the Alpha and the Omega’. Such a use stands in the context of the use of vowels in particular as symbolic of the divine name in magical texts (see Aune 1987).
At the heart of the issue here, then, is what we think we are doing when we use letters. Now, in our rational and computerised age, our first instinct may be simply that in using letters we seek to convey information, ideally by the most straightforward and efficient means. Seeing matters in this way, the invention of the alphabet has often been seen as a vital step forward, since it dramatically reduced the number of signs that needed to be learned in order to become proficient at writing, thus making the process much more efficient.
Now, apart from the fact that things may not be quite as straightforward as this (e.g. that having fewer letters may increase the number of characters needing to be written per word, compared to a syllabic script for example), there is another issue, highlighted in the case of the divine name(s): people in the ancient world need not have thought that they were doing exactly the same thing that we think we are doing in the use of letters. Uses of individual letters, sometimes but not necessarily as abbreviations for whole words, could vary conceptually. Not least, they were potentially symbolic not merely of sound units, but of the much broader and expansive metaphysical reality in which they lived, and which perhaps we, perhaps unconsciously, in part still inhabit.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)
Aune, David E. 1987. “The Apocalypse of John and Graeco-Roman revelatory magic.” New Testament Studies. 33.481—501.
Lincicum, David. 2009. “The origin of ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’ (Revelation 1.8; 21.6; 22.13): a suggestion.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. 6.128—133.
Thomas, Rosalind. 1992. Literacy and orality in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, esp. ch. 5.