Alpha and Omega in Jewish Theology and Christian Usage
Alpha and Omega. IN JEWISH THEOLOGY. —When God passed before the face of Moses on Sinai the great Lawgiver of Israel called out: "Jehova, Jehova, kind and merciful God, of long-suffering, and full of goodness and truth" (Ex., xxxiv, 6), in the Douay Version, "O the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, patient and of much compassion, and true"]. God's being is fullness of goodness and truth—Plenitudo veri et boni, Hebrew: HSD VAMT. They are foremost among God's moral attributes. They are the immediate outcome of His Divine operations. For God is an infinitely pure spirit. His being is Intellect and Will. Truth is the final object of the intellect, and goodness is that of the will. In the Psalter they are praised and invoked by the poet with holy and loving fondness, e.g. Pss., xxiv, 10; xxxix, 11, 12; lvi, 4, 11; lxxxiv, 11; lxxxv, 15; cxvi, 2. Of the two perfections truth and goodness, the former ranks higher. Truth is the first of all perfections. The Hebrew word for truth is Emeth Hebrew: AMH. It is composed of three letters: Aleph =Alpha, Mem= My, and Thaw =Theta. The Aleph and the Thaw are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet as the Alpha and Omega are of the Greek. Thus the term Emeth (truth) begins with the first letter of the alphabet and ends with the last. This led the Jewish sages to find in this word a mystical meaning. The Aleph or the first letter of Emeth (truth) denotes that God is the first of all things. There was no one before Him of whom He could have received the fullness of truth. The Thaw, or last letter, in like manner signifies that God is the last of all things. There will be no one after Him to whom He could bequeath it. Thus Emeth is a sacred word expressing that in God truth dwells absolutely and in all plenitude. Emeth, as the Jewish divines truly say, is the signaculum Dei essentice (see Buxtorf's Lexicon). In Yoma 69b., and Sanh. 64a., the following is related: "The men of the great synagogue prayed to God to remove from the earth the Evil Spirit, as the cause of all trouble. Immediately a scroll fell from heaven with the word Truth written thereon, and thereupon a fiery lion came out of the sanctuary. It was the spirit of idolatry leaving the earth". "This legend shows", says Hanina "that the seal of God is truth". (Jewish Encyclopedia.)
IN CHRISTIAN USAGE.—The manner of expressing God's eternity by means of the first and last letters of the alphabet seems to have passed from the synagogue into the Church. In place of the Aleph and Thaw, the Alpha and Omega were substituted. But the substitution of the Greek letters for those of the Hebrew tongue inevitably caused a portion of the meaning and beauty in thus designating God to be lost. The Greek letters Alpha and Omega have no relation to the word Truth. Omega is not the last letter of the word aletheia (truth), as Thaw is of the word Emeth. The sacred and mystical word Truth, expressing in Hebrew, through its letters Aleph and Thaw, God's absolute and eternal being, had to be sacrificed. Hebrew: TA or Alpha and Omega signify an absolute plenitude, or perfection. It is a Jewish saying that the blessing on Israel in Lev., xxvi, 3-13, is complete because it begins with Aleph and ends with Thaw. Jehovah's absolute perfection is expressed in Is., xli, 4; xliv, 6, by the phrase, "I am the first and the last". Plato, "De Legibus", IV, 715, describes God in the same manner: archen te kai teleuten kai mesa ton onton apanton echon, and quotes this phrase as a palaios logos. Cf. also Josephus, C. Apion., II, xxiii. The phrase fitly expresses the idea that God is eternal, the beginning and end of all things. The fourth Gospel, after stating that the "Word was God", says, "and the Word dwelt among us full of grace and truth". Grace stands for goodness. The phrase is identical with Ex., xxxiv, 6, "full of goodness and truth". We have here the two great divine attributes, Truth and Goodness, assigned to Christ in all their fullness. What Moses has said of God, the Evangelist says of Christ. In the Apocalypse the Alpha and Omega taking the place of TA occur in the first chapter to designate God, i, 8; but in the last two chapters to designate Christ. It is an argument that its author believed in the divinity of Christ. In the earlier ages of the Church the Alpha and Omega were used as the monogram of Christ. These letters became His crest. The poet Prudentius says, "Alpha et Omega cognominatus, ipse fons et clausula omnium quae sunt, fuerunt, quxque post futura sunt" (Cathemer., 9 11). The AO were written under the arms of the cross within a circle or triangle. (Fig. 1). Sometimes the A is found on the right and the O on the left to indicate that in Christ the beginning and the end are joined into one. (Fig. 2). This crest is found on the coins of the Emperors Constans and Constantius (Martigny, 458-459). (Fig. 3). The early Christians had the two letters engraved on their signet rings, [Fig. 4 (Vigouroux, Biblical Lexicon)]. Sometimes the Alpha and the Omega are written in the nimbus, or halo, of the Lamb; for instance, in the paintings of the Catacombs of Petrus and Marcellinus, third century. We further find these two letters in frescoes and mosaics of several ancient churches; for instance, in the chapel of St. Felicitas, and in San Marco in Rome; in the world-famed mosaics of Ravenna, in Galla Placidia, St. Crisologo, St. Vitale. In the course of time Alpha and Omega ceased to be used as the monogram of Christ for church paintings and ornaments. During the last centuries the letters I. H. S. (see Ecclesiastical Abbreviations) have completely taken their place. Recently, however, on tabernacle doors and antependia the older device is again met with.
C. VAN DEN BIESEN