« Aloysius, Saint, of Gonzaga Alpha and Omega Alphæus »

Alpha and Omega

ALPHA AND OMEGA (Α, Ω): The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. They are used in a symbolic sense in three places in the Book of Revelation. In i. 8 God describes himself as “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” The expression is similarly used in xxi. 6 (cf. Isa. xliv. 6, xlviii. 12). In xxii. 13 the name “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” is the designation adopted for himself by Christ, who is also called “the first and the last” in ii. 8. If, as is apparent from the context, these passages express the same symbolic meaning, that of eternity as unlimited duration, it is plain that the use of this name is intended to guarantee the fulfilment of the prophecies mentioned in the passages. Commentators have referred, in explanation of the expression, to the use of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet (ת א) in rabbinical literature, though the parallelism is not acknowledged by all scholars. A long line of early and medieval writers discuss the passages cited from Revelation. Thus Clement of Alexandria has one or more of them in mind when he says (Stromata, iv. 25): “For he [the Son] is the circle of all powers rolled and united into one unity. Wherefore the Word (Gk. Logos) is called the Alpha and the Omega, of whom alone the end becomes the beginning, and ends again at the original beginning without any break.” As in this passage, so in Stromata, vi. 16, he explains the prophecies with reference to Christ alone. Tertullian (De monogamia, v.) makes a similar use of the name. Ambrose (In septem visiones, i. 8) says that Christ calls himself the beginning because he is the creator of the human race and the author of salvation, and the end because he is the end of the law, of death, and so on. Prudentius, in his hymn Corde natus ex parentis, paraphrases the words of Revelation. The Gnostics extracted from the letters their characteristic mystical play on numbers; the fact that Α and Ω stood for 801, and the sum of the letters in the Greek word for dove (peristera) amounted to the same, was used by the Gnostic Marcus to support the assertion that Christ called himself Alpha and Omega with reference to the coming of the Spirit at his baptism in the form of a dove (Irenæus, I. xiv. 6, xv. 1). Later, Primasius played on the numbers in the same way to prove the essential identity of the Holy Ghost with the Father and the Son (on Rev. xxii. 13). An evidence of the place which these letters held in Gnostic speculation is afforded by a piece of parchment and one of papyrus preserved in the Egyptian Museum at Berlin, both originally used as amulets. On the former the letters are found together with Coptic magical formulas and a cross of St. Andrew; the latter also contains Coptic 137formulas, divided by a cross which terminates at each extremity in Α or Ω.

The letters occur much less frequently in the literary sources of Christian antiquity and of the Middle Ages than in monumental inscriptions. With the various forms of the monogram of Christ and of the cross, they belonged to the most popular symbols of early Christian art, which was never tired of reproducing them on all kinds of monuments, public and private, and in every sort of material. The fact that with but very few exceptions, Α and Ω are found, as far as is known, on these monuments in connection with figures or symbols of Christ—never of God in the abstract or of God the Father—leads to the interesting conclusion that the popular exegesis of the above-named passages of the Apocalypse referred their meaning to Christ alone, and thus affords a proof that the makers of these monuments were indirectly expressing their belief in his divinity. The possibility, however, can not be denied that in certain cases motives of a superstitious nature may have led to the employment of these symbols; but it is much less easy to reason with certainty from the monumental remains than from the literature of the time. Modern Christian art, less given to symbolism, is relatively poor in examples of the use of these letters, though they have reappeared more often in the nineteenth century, as a general rule in connection with the monogram of Christ. Full and detailed descriptions of their early use, with the dates of their appearance in different countries, and classification of their employment alone, with human or animal figures, or (which is much more frequent) with other symbols, may be found in abundance in the archeological works of De Rossi, Garrucci, Hübner, Le Blant, Kraus, and others, and in the Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum.

(Nikolaus Müller).

Bibliography: A vast amount has been written on the subject; the best single article is in Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, fasc. i., cols. 1-25, Paris, 1903, and contains diagrams and very full and definite references to the literature.

« Aloysius, Saint, of Gonzaga Alpha and Omega Alphæus »
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