dianoigo blog

Sunday 24 May 2020

Place Settings at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John

In John 13:1-30, we have the Fourth Gospel's account of the Last Supper. The account differs differs significantly from those in the Synoptic Gospels—for instance, the words of institution of the Eucharist do not appear, and it may not be understood as a Passover meal. Nevertheless, the level of detail concerning the events at the meal are consistent with the writer's claim to present eyewitness testimony (cf. John 19:35).

When we picture the Last Supper, many of us imagine a scene inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, with Jesus and the apostles seated on one side of a long table.

A masterpiece, to be sure, but anachronistic in its depiction of the dining arrangements. In the early days of the Roman Empire, the typical dining room layout was as pictured below.

Figure 1: Plan of a Roman Triclinium1

Each of the rectangles is a large couch (Latin: lectus), arranged as three sides of a square. On each couch, diners (represented above by arrows) would recline on their left elbow at an angle to the table (Latin: mensa) in the centre, to which food and drink were brought by servers. (For a depiction of a triclinium with men reclining on it, see here.) The three-couch setup (Latin: triclinium) typically accommodated nine diners. At the Last Supper, there were apparently thirteen (Jesus and the Twelve).2 Dalby notes that 'More than nine diners could squeeze in, especially if some were sitting rather than reclining.'3 Thus, it is plausible that all thirteen men could have fit onto a triclinium, though space would have been limited.4 Four participants in the meal are named explicitly: Jesus himself, the Beloved Disciple (BD),5 Judas Iscariot, and Simon Peter.

Dunbabin informs us that the three couches 'were designated summus, medius, and imus (highest, middle, lowest), the three places on each couch numbered in turn, and strict rules of precedence dictated the positions of the guests'.6 According to first-century Roman custom, the host reclined at position 1 on the lectus imus (toward upper left in the diagram), while the highest-ranking or most honoured guest reclined at position 3 on the lectus medius (top left in the diagram), adjacent to the host.7 This position was referred to as locus consularis (the Consul's place). The Roman philosopher Plutarch gives a detailed account of dining conventions in the Table Talk portion of his Moralia.8 He describes arbitrating a disagreement between his brother, who allowed guests to seat themselves, and his father, who believed that the host should seat the guests to ensure that hierarchical order is strictly preserved. He also speculates on the reasons why the third position on the middle couch had become the most honoured.9

How were the participants in the Last Supper (as described by the Gospel of John) arranged around the table? We have no information on the location of anyone but the four explicitly named participants: Jesus, BD, Judas, and Peter. Scholars have proposed various configurations of these individuals around the table, and there is no universal consensus for anyone's position. Some scholars have followed Whiteley's argument that BD was the host of the meal and Jesus the guest of honour,10 while others have Jesus as the host and one of the other three as the guest of honour.11 While certainty is not possible, I think the most likely scenario is that Jesus was in the host's position, Judas in the guest of honour's position, BD to Jesus' right, and Peter to Judas' left, as depicted below.12

Figure 2: Proposed Positioning of Participants at the Last Supper in John 13

The evidence for positioning the men is as follows. First, BD was reclining 'in Jesus' bosom' or 'in Jesus' lap,' a position from which he could lean back against Jesus' chest (John 13:23-25). Dunbabin explains that diners on a triclinium 'lie diagonally across the couches, almost in the lap of their neighbour.'13 The typical diagonal positioning requires that BD reclined to the right of Jesus (notice at lectus imus in the diagram how the head of the person in position 2 would be adjacent to the chest of the person in position 1). This rules out Whiteley's hypothesis that BD was the host and Jesus the guest of honour, because then Jesus would have had no one to his right, 'in his bosom.' Plutarch states that the position below the host (i.e., position 2 on lectus imus) typically 'belongs either to his wife or his children'.14 Thus, it is a logical location for the disciple described as 'beloved' by Jesus. Thus, we can be fairly certain of the positions of Jesus (host) and BD (to his right).

It has sometimes been assumed that Peter reclined in the position of the guest of honour, as the highest ranking of the Twelve. This makes sense in principle, but it does not accord with the statement that Peter 'nodded to' BD to find out from Jesus who the betrayer was. If Peter was in the locus consularis position, he would have been closer to Jesus than to BD. It is absurd to envision Peter leaning around Jesus to make eye contact with BD in order to induce BD to ask Jesus a question.15 Thus, Peter could have been anywhere on lectus medius (apart from position 3) or on lectus summus.16 It has been argued that since Jesus' ethic inverted the roles of master and servant (as per John 13:4-17 and Luke 22:24-27), there was probably no hierarchical arrangement at the Last Supper.17 This is possible, but unlikely. Jesus does not dispute that he is in fact the Master (John 13:13), so the servant ethic is not about eliminating hierarchical order. Jesus' saying in Luke 14:7-11 presumes knowledge of hierarchical positioning at a banquet, and in Luke 22:24 an argument breaks out at table at the Last Supper over which apostle is greatest—a topic possibly precipitated by concern with their positions around the table. In John 21 (as well in sayings in other Gospels, such as Matthew 16:17-19) Jesus seems to give special authority to Peter, and so it is plausible that his location at the table reflected this. Position 2 on lectus medius is one of the positions of honour mentioned by Plutarch other than the locus consularis, and he notes that the Persians held it to be the most honoured position.18 From this position Peter could easily have attracted BD's attention and signaled him with a nod. He would not have been too far from Jesus, but any private conversation with Jesus would have been overheard by the guest in the corner between them.

This leaves the position of Judas. In John 13:26, Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one to whom he will hand the morsel after dipping it. He then hands it to Judas. Although it is not impossible that Jesus rose from the table with the morsel and took it to Judas at another couch, this is unlikely. Such a move would have been very conspicuous, whereas Jesus' signal to BD was clearly intended to be subtle. It is most likely, therefore, that Judas was within reach of Jesus' position. With BD to his right and Peter (perhaps) in position 2 on lectus medius, the only remaining position within Jesus' reach is position 3 on lectus medius, the locus consularis. But why should Judas recline in the position of the most honoured guest? Two possible reasons may be suggested. First, the Gospel of John is emphatic that the events of Jesus' betrayal and Passion fulfill the biblical prophets (John 15:25; 17:12; 18:9; 19:24; 19:28; 19:36). In John 13:18, Jesus alludes to his betrayer as fulfilling a scriptural quotation from Psalm 41:10, which states, 'Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me' (NABRE). There is irony in Jesus' pointing out his betrayer by handing him a morsel (an act of kindness and friendship); the irony of Jesus' betrayer being among his closest followers would have been heightened by Jesus placing his betrayer in the position of highest honour at the meal. Second, when Plutarch speculates on why the third position on the middle couch came to be the most honourable place (chosen by highest officials), one of the reasons he gives is that
this place seemed to have peculiar advantages for the transaction of business'... there the space made at the corner where the line of couches turns between the second and third enables secretary, servant, bodyguard, or messenger reporting conditions at camp to approach the consul, speak with him, and learn his will without any of the guests annoying the consul or being annoyed by him.19
Thus, the locus consularis position was conducive to discretion, a requirement of those who might need to engage in important business during the meal. This aligns with Judas' status as treasurer of the group (John 12:6; 13:29). Indeed, when he left the meal, the others assumed that Jesus had sent him on some financial errand.

There is no way to be absolutely certain of the positions of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. We can place Jesus and the Beloved Disciple with very high probability in positions 1 and 2 on lectus imus. Judas was probably within reach of Jesus' position, and Peter was not in the place of highest honour, but was somewhere else on lectus medius or on lectus summus whence he could motion to BD. It is thus highly plausible that Simon Peter was in the middle position on lectus medius and that Judas Iscariot was in the position of highest honour, which was in fact 'in the bosom of' Simon Peter.

  • 1 This diagram is my own, but adapted from W. Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 279. Similar diagrams can be found in Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43; Gil P. Klein, 'Torah in Triclinia: The Rabbinic Banquet and the Significance of Architecture', Jewish Quarterly Review 102 (2012): 333.
  • 2 John 13 refers to those at the supper merely as 'the disciples' without giving their number. Luke 22:11-14 describes those at the meal both as 'the disciples' and 'the apostles'; Matthew 26:17-20 and Mark 14:14-17 as 'the disciples' and 'the Twelve'. The Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptic Gospels that there was a group of close disciples known as 'the Twelve' (John 6:67-71; 20:24), but never provides a complete list of their names. By comparing John 6:70 ('Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?') with 13:21 ('one of you will betray me'), we can surmise that the same 'you' are referred to, i.e., the Twelve.
  • 3 Andrew Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves,' in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (ed. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau; West Sussex: Wiley, 2015): 199.
  • 4 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Fourth Gospel gives no details on the venue for the meal. Mark (14:15) and Luke (22:12) describe the venue as a large upper room that is furnished; the furniture presumably refers to the triclinium, table, cushions, etc.
  • 5 The Beloved Disciple is the main source of much of the narrative of the Gospel of John. He is traditionally identified with John the son of Zebedee, but since the Gospel never names him, we will just call him BD.
  • 6 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39.
  • 7 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39-40; Fowler, Social Life, 279; Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves', 199.
  • 8 Table Talk I.2-3, in Moralia, Volume VIII, 615c-19a. For text and translation, see Paul. A. Clement and Herbert B. Hoffleit (trans.) Plutarch’s Moralia (16 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1969), vol. 8.
  • 9 For other ancient primary sources that describe a Roman banquet, the reader may refer to Satire VIII in Horace's second book of Satires and to the Dinner of Trimalchio (chapters 27-78 of Petronius' Satyricon, Volume II), which date from the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E. respectively. Aristophanes' play The Wasps (lines 1122-1264), though much earlier, gives a humorous account of a son dressing his father for a banquet and trying in vain to teach him the etiquette.
  • 10 D.E.H. Whiteley, 'Was John written by a Sadducee?' Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.25.3 (ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995), 2481–2505. I was not able to access this work but its argument is described in detail by Brian J. Capper, '‘With the Oldest Monks...’: Light from Essene History on the Career of the Beloved Disciple?', Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1998): 1-55. Those convinced by Whiteley's argument, besides Capper, include Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 15 n. 15.
  • 11 E.g., Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 72-73 n. 65.; Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostles? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 5-6 n. 17.
  • 12 This seems to be close to Raymond Brown's view, apart from his less precise placement of Peter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions I am not currently able to access Brown's commentary in the library, so I am relying on a second-hand description of his comments by Henry J. Shea, 'The Beloved Disciple and the Spiritual Exercises,' in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesus 49 (2017): 6.
  • 13 Roman Banquet, 40.
  • 14 Moralia, Vol. 8, 619d; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47.
  • 15 So Capper, 'Light from Essene History', 14-15; Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John, 73 n. 65.
  • 16 We should also note the sequence of events in John 13:5-6: Jesus 'began to wash the disciples' feet' and then 'came to Peter.' This suggests that Peter was not the first disciple whose feet Jesus washed, which he would have been if he were in the locus consularis position and Jesus moved around the triclinium in a clockwise fashion.
  • 17 So Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2:606.
  • 18 Moralia, Volume VIII, 617d, 619b.
  • 19 Moralia, Vol. VIII, 619de; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47, 49.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Review of 'Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife' by Bart D. Ehrman

I learned recently through social media of Bart Ehrman's essay in Time Magazine entitled What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell. The provocative headline and claims within had the intended effect: they induced me to buy Ehrman's new book (on which the Time essay is based), Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. For readers unfamiliar with Ehrman, he is one of the world's leading New Testament scholars, specialising in textual criticism (efforts to reconstruct the original Greek text using analytical methods). He is also a former Evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic, and through his many popular-level books (and some public debates with leading Christian scholars), has emerged as a leading spokesperson for contemporary post-Christian critics of the historical and theological claims of classical Christianity.

Ehrman has had several previous bestsellers, such as Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God, and in all likelihood Heaven and Hell will follow suit. The book follows a template similar to his previous works: it makes a few provocative and controversial claims, but in fact about 80% of the content represents an introduction some area of biblical and historical scholarship. That is, Ehrman expends most of his ink not defending his headline-grabbing theses, but describing uncontroversial findings of modern scholarship. Thus, Misquoting Jesus is an introduction to textual criticism, How Jesus Became God to historical Christology, and Heaven and Hell to historical 'individual eschatology'—beliefs about the afterlife. Ehrman's writing style is accessible, engaging, and cheeky. He manages simultaneously to entertain and inform the reader, which is probably what has made him so successful in writing popular books.

With that said, I can recommend at least 80% of the content of Heaven and Hell, apart from a few attempts at humour that overstep my threshold of good taste. My opinion of the other 20%, in which Ehrman defends his own controversial interpretations of the biblical and historical record, requires more nuance.

Overview of the Book

Heaven and Hell's most distinctive thesis is that belief in a literal heaven and hell—places of reward and punishment to which people go after death—does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity'; 'cannot be found in the Old Testament and they are not what Jesus himself taught' (p. 14). These ideas, so central to classical and contemporary Christian theology, are post-Jesus innovations.

The book consists of fourteen chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to some of the more fanciful descriptions of the afterlife in early non-canonical Christian literature. Having seen in these works the seeds of 'belief in a literal heaven and hell' as espoused by most contemporary Christians, Ehrman proposes to go back and see where these ideas came from. He thus embarks on a journey through the ancient history of ideas about death and afterlife. Chapter 2 takes us all the way back to the Ancient Near East (the Epic of Gilgamesh). Chapters 3 and 4 look at Greek thought from Homer down into the Christian era. Chapters 5 and 6 consider the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 7 summarises developments in Jewish thought between the Hebrew Bible and the time of Jesus. Chapter 8 looks at the beliefs of historical Jesus, insofar as they can be reconstructed (primarily from Mark and Matthew). Chapter 9 looks at Paul the Apostle, and chapter 10 delves into the later Gospels (Luke, John, and certain noncanonical gospels), which he regards as preserving post-Jesus Christian developments. Chapter 11 analyses the Book of Revelation, and chapters 12 to 14 study Christian beliefs about the afterlife in the patristic period, up to the time of Augustine (early fifth century C.E.) My appraisal below will focus largely on the biblical literature, i.e. on chapters 5 to 10.

Appraisal of Ehrman's Historical Claims

Hebrew Bible

I found Ehrman's treatment of the Hebrew Bible to be both satisfactory and uncontroversial. With most modern scholars, he maintains that the Hebrew Bible does not, for the most part—on a purely historical reading as opposed to Christian theological interpretation—witness to any belief in an afterlife. He thinks that Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is largely synonymous with the grave, denoting 'a complete diminution of life, to the point of virtual nonexistence' (p. 80). Death marks the end of all that can be called life, with a few curious exceptions such as Samuel (recalled by the witch of Endor), Enoch, and Elijah. The Hebrew prophets, in oracles such as Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37, use language of resurrection to metaphorically predict a restoration of Israel's national fortunes. Such language eventually inspired the notion of individual resurrection to eternal life, an idea attested in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Daniel (the last book of the Hebrew Bible in terms of date of composition).

Subsequent Jewish Literature

Ehrman describes subsequent developments in early Jewish thought as attested in other literature from the Second Temple period. He notes that some texts witness to belief in rewards and punishment immediately after death, others witness to belief in resurrection at the end of time, and sometimes both ideas occur together in the same text. He correctly notes the diversity of Second Temple Jewish ideas, though of course he cannot do justice to the topic in a short chapter.1

What is odd about Ehrman's description of these texts is that it contradicts his own central thesis that belief in a literal heaven and hell does 'not go back to the earliest stages of Christianity.' For instance, writing about 1 Enoch 22 (from the Book of the Watchers), Ehrman describes how 'the souls of those who have died are held until the Day of Judgment' in different hollows within a high mountain (p. 102). One hollow holds the righteous as they await the resurrection. A second 'holds the souls of sinners who did not receive their punishments on earth; these are being tormented in their temporary dwelling place in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, when they will be assigned to eternal torment.' This sounds a lot like later Christian ideas, as Ehrman acknowledges: 'In comparison with later texts such as the Christian Apocalypse of Peter, these destinies are rather vague and lacking in graphic specificity. But the basic ideas are here' (p. 103, emphasis mine). If Ehrman recognises that the Book of the Watchers—which predates Christianity by two centuries or more—contains the basic ideas of postmortem rewards and punishments and eternal torment that the terms 'heaven' and 'hell' convey, how can he maintain the thesis that these ideas do not 'go back to' earliest Christianity?2

The Historical Jesus 

As is fitting for a historical study, Ehrman is interested in the historical Jesus as opposed to the canonical Jesus. He reconstructs the beliefs of Jesus from that subset of Gospel sayings that, by standard critical methods, he considers to be historically reliable. For him, this largely entails using sayings from Mark and Matthew, and not from Luke and John. There are relatively few sayings that he discusses even from Mark and Matthew,3 but from those he does discuss, he paints the following picture:
Jesus did not teach that when a person died they would go to heaven or hell. He taught that the Day of Judgment was soon to come, when God would destroy all that is evil and raise the dead, to punish the wicked and reward the faithful by bringing them into his eternal, utopian kingdom. (p. 130)
a close reading of Jesus's words shows that in fact he had no idea of eternal torment for sinners after death. Death, for them, is irreversible, the end of the story. Their punishment is that they will be annihilated, never allowed to exist again, unlike the saved, who will live forever in God's glorious kingdom. (p. 132)
I will comment on three of Ehrman's key arguments. First, in Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus declares that
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NRSV)
Ehrman observes that the passages says nothing about torment, and asks, 'What will happen to [those on the outside]?' His answer: 'Jesus doesn't say. Do they simply end up dying, and that is the end of their story?' (p. 131) This question and answer presuppose that being thrown into the outer darkness is a prelude to punishment and not the punishment itself. However, the passage in no way suggests this. A more natural reading is that being thrown into the outer darkness is the punishment. Note the antithetical parallelism: some are rewarded by being welcomed into the kingdom; others are punished by being thrown out of the kingdom, into another 'place' characterised by darkness and weeping.4 Ehrman emphasises that this passage makes no mention of eternal fire, but other Matthaean texts about the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth do make this connection.5

Second, Ehrman quotes several passages that use the Greek verb apollumi or noun apoleia (particularly Matt. 7:13-14 and 10:28) and infers from them the notion of 'annihilation,' reduction to non-existence. He translates Matthew 10:28b as, 'fear the one who can annihilate both the soul and body in Gehenna', adding, 'It is important to note that Jesus here does not merely say that God will 'kill' a person's soul: he will "annihilate" (or "exterminate") it. After that it will not exist' (p. 135). Now, in Ehrman's 2003 translation of the Apostolic Fathers,6 when the verb apollumi is used in the active voice of the ultimate fate of humans, he consistently translates it 'destroy.'7 Why now has Ehrman departed from his own precedents, and from the practice of most English translations and lexical authorities, by translating apollumi by 'annihilate' rather than 'destroy'? One searches in vain for a lexical argument, or even (since this is a popular-level book) a footnote referencing an argument he has made elsewhere. He simply asserts without argument that apollumi and apoleia convey the specific idea of annihilation, of reduction to non-existence, rather than the more general idea of destruction.8

Third, Ehrman discusses at some length the 'sheep and goats' saying of Matthew 25:31-46. He argues that the 'eternal punishment' spoken of there is simply death, since it is contrasted with 'eternal life.' As for 'eternal fire,' he reasons that 'it is the fire that is eternal, not the sinner in the fire. The fires never go out' (p. 140). Yet, in a footnote, he acknowledges that the text says the fire was prepared for the devil and demons 'who, since they cannot die, will indeed burn forever.' On what basis does he make this sharp distinction between the nature of 'eternal fire' punishment for humans vs. superhumans, when the text makes no such distinction?

Finally, it is worth noting that, despite generally finding Matthew to be a reliable source of historical Jesus sayings, Ehrman says nothing about the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), which ends with the protagonist being 'handed...over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt' (NRSV), followed immediately by Jesus' warning, 'So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' Thus, Jesus here appears to depict eschatological punishment in terms of torture of indefinite duration. A noteworthy omission, to say the least! For further commentary on eschatological punishment in the Synoptic Gospels, see here.

The Apostle Paul

I find little to disagree with in Ehrman's treatment of Paul. He offers a good overview of Paul's teaching on resurrection, and also rightly acknowledges Paul's belief in a disembodied intermediate state, as attested in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:20-24. He thinks Paul understood the fate of the wicked to be annihilation, and there is little—at least in those letters of Paul that are universally accepted as authentic—that would suggest otherwise.9

The Later Gospels

Ehrman finds the view of the afterlife presented in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (widely assigned to the same author) to be strikingly different from that of Jesus himself. In particular, 'unlike the historical Jesus himself, Luke maintains that eternity begins immediately at a person's death. Like Paul, but even more emphatically, Luke thinks that when believers in Jesus die, they go straight to heaven' (p. 160). He bases this on such texts as Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59, and I think his interpretation is sound.

Ehrman spends a couple of pages on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which he considers to be 'the only place' in the Bible where the notion of eternal punishment for the wicked is suggested (p. 167). He does not think this story is attributable to the historical Jesus (I find his argument unconvincing),10 and he thinks the message of the parable is more about how people should live in the present than what will happen after death. I agree that this is the parable's emphasis, but I think it's a both/and, not an either/or. Outi Lehtipuu's monograph on the parable has shown convincingly that the story was believable within the parameters of its cultural world, and so there is no reason to think the afterlife imagery was not meant to be taken seriously.11 The clincher is the striking similarity between the afterlife imagery in this parable and that in Luke 13:27-30.12

Ehrman argues that the 'realised eschatology' of the Gospel of John, in which eternal life is already attainable in this life, and the wrath of God already abides on the disobedient in this life, represents a de-apocalypticising development of the message of the historical Jesus. I think this claim is basically accurate, though it is important to acknowledge—as Ehrman does—that references to eschatological resurrection are still present.

Other Early Christian Literature

For the sake of brevity, I won't discuss Ehrman's treatment of the Book of Revelation or of early patristic literature. He maintains that Revelation teaches a heavenly intermediate state only for a few martyrs, and teaches the annihilation of the wicked; I think he has overlooked the important evidence of Revelation 22:15.13

Ehrman spends his final three chapters on early patristic literature, and the various theological ideas that emerged concerning the nature of resurrection (resurrection of the flesh vs. of the spirit), the possibility of purgatory, universal salvation, etc. Attempts to systematise what would become established as orthodox Christian eschatology can be found in Tertullian in the early third century and in Augustine two centuries later. The fundamental teaching here is of immediate postmortem rewards and punishments, followed eventually by the resurrection, which ushers in embodied eternal life for some and eternal torment for others. After describing what became the orthodox view, Ehrman states, 'Some observers might consider the views to be a kind of natural development of what the "founders of Christianity" thought, or even as inevitable' (p. 201). He then insists that they were not inevitable, since other competing views existed that did not finally carry the day. However, he does not address the question of whether the orthodox view is a natural development from ideas of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers. This is the Catholic Church's claim (made most famously by Cardinal Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine): that the systematisation of doctrine in the patristic era is but the natural growth and development of the seeds contained in divine revelation.

Ehrman's Theological Message

In the preface, Ehrman insists that he has no theological axe to grind: 'In this book I will not be urging you either to believe or to disbelieve in the existence of heaven and hell' (p. 14). However, he still arrives at the existential inference that 'even if we do have something to hope for after we have passed from the realm of temporary consciousness, we have absolutely nothing to fear' (p. 18). He elaborates in the afterword at the end: we may have something to hope for because a beatific afterlife is at least possible (though he is inclined to think death is the end of existence). We have absolutely nothing to fear because hell can be ruled out on rational grounds; eternal torment would imply that God is 'some kind of transcendent sadist' (p. 235). It would be disproportionate to subject people to 'indescribable torments, not for the length of time they committed their "offenses," but for trillions of years—and that only as the beginning'.

I would make three brief points in reply to Ehrman's rationalistic critique of the doctrine of hell. First, as with transcendent rewards, no one alive knows exactly what transcendent punishment will be like. The biblical language of light, gardens, food and drink, banqueting, peace, life is all analogical, as is that of darkness, fire, banishment, torment, destruction, death. All such language is attempting to describe, 'in a glass, darkly,' the unknown quantities beyond our world in terms of the known quantities within our world. Without knowing exactly what eschatological punishment might be like, we are not well positioned to rule on whether it is just or disproportionate. Second, our lack of knowledge extends not only to the nature of the punishment but to its duration. The expression 'trillions of years' assumes that, for those in the transcendent realms, time passes and is experienced just as now on earth. Why should that be true? Heaven and hell are not material objects making trips around the sun. Many philosophers regard eternity as somehow beyond time rather than simply an unending, linear interval of time. Third, I have always found it curious that people simply assume that annihilation is a merciful and moderate alternative to eternal punishment. Ehrman describes annihilation in almost pleasant terms, like a very deep sleep. Non-existence is in some ways a more horrifying prospect than unending punishment. Besides, if annihilation is the eschatological equivalent of capital punishment, then hell is the eschatological equivalent of life imprisonment without parole. In the human domain, which of those is considered the more severe penalty? To be sure, hell is not a pleasant idea. Those who affirm this doctrine do so with sorrow but with firmness because they have received it from the Church, which (they maintain) received it from the apostles, who (they maintain) received it from the Lord.

Pros and Cons

As stated in the beginning, one great pro of Ehrman's book is that he succeeds in telling the history of ideas about the afterlife in a way that is concise and accessible yet informative and engaging. A second major positive, specifically for a Christian audience, is that he has called out the modern Church for having lost sight of the resurrection and placed all the emphasis on what is really only the interim state: going to heaven after death. For instance, Ehrman quotes from Justin Martyr (died c. 165 C.E.), who wrote that those should not be considered real Christians who assert 'that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the moment of their death' (Dialogue with Trypho 80.4).14 Ehrman 'wonders how many twenty-first century Christians would escape this charge' (p. 197). Hopefully, those who recite the Creed thoughtfully do escape it, since they 'look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.' However, how many either conflate resurrection with what happens to the soul at death, or are ignorant of resurrection altogether? Ehrman's critique is a welcome and much-needed one.

The cons, for me, lie in questionable exegesis at certain points (particularly the Matthaean texts about eschatological punishment), as well as a tendency to overstate the significance of differences between Jesus and the New Testament writers, among the New Testament writers, and between the New Testament writers and subsequent proto-orthodox theologians. Yes, there is diversity, but it follows a natural developmental trajectory that converges on orthodoxy.

  • 1 For my own discussion of eschatological punishment in the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Jewish literature, focusing mainly on 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, see Part 1 of my review of Edward Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 2 Perhaps Ehrman would justify his thesis by noting that 1 Enoch's geography of the afterlife—various hollows in the same high mountain—is very different from the cosmic picture of heaven above and hell beneath that later emerged in Christianity. However, the fundamental issue is not the precise 'where' of transcendent abodes, but the 'that' of righteous and wicked going to separate abodes after death.
  • 3 Those he does discuss are Matt. 3:10; 5:22, 29-30; 7:13-14; 8:10-12; 13:36-43, 47-50; 25:31-46; Mark 9:42, 47-48; 12:18-27
  • 4 No noun meaning 'place' occurs in the Greek, but the adverb ekei ('there'; 'in that place') implies a specific location.
  • 5 The formula, 'In that place (ekei) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' occurs in Matthew six times. In three of them, the place is called 'the outer darkness,' in one, 'with the hypocrites,' and in two, 'the fiery furnace' (Matt. 13:42, 50). The fiery furnace, for Matthew, is obviously synonymous 'fiery Gehenna' (5:22; 18:9), which in turn is synonymous with 'the eternal fire' (18:8; 25:41).
  • 6 Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 e.g., in 1 Clement 57.7,  Barnabas 12.5; 20.2, Hermas, Mandates 2.1, 12.6.3, Similitudes 8.6.6, 8.8.5, 9.23.4, 9.26.3.
  • 8 I have not myself undertaken a close lexical study of apollumi. However, it appears that when used in the active voice, it can take meanings akin to 'lose,' 'kill,' 'destroy,' 'ruin.' It certainly does not intrinsically convey the cessation of all existence, just as 'destroy' does not in English. For instance, if we say that Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, we are not suggesting that Hiroshima ceased to exist, but that it was devastated, ruined.
  • 9 Ehrman considers only those letters that are universally accepted as authentically Pauline, so we do not get to hear his views on 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, which is the most detailed passage about eschatological punishment in the Pauline corpus. For my own brief discussion of Paul's views, see here.
  • 10 Ehrman thinks that the ending of the story is a 'dead giveaway' that it was not told by Jesus (p. 165). He reasons that Abraham telling the rich man that his brothers would not believe even if someone were raised from the dead alludes to Jesus' own resurrection, and thus postdates it. However, this argument only demonstrates that the ending of the story has been edited or shaped in light of Jesus' resurrection. It is possible that the original story ended with v. 26, or that the whole story dates back to Jesus but that the language of 'rising from the dead' in v. 31 reflects post-Easter editing.
  • 11 Outi Lehtipuu, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007). I have discussed the matter previously here and here.
  • 12 The afterlife scene in the parable has the rich man in a place of torment where he can see Abraham attending a banquet. That Lazarus was 'in Abraham's bosom' refers to reclining with his head on Abraham's breast, 'a position dictated by ancient banqueting practice' (BDAG 556-57). In Luke 13:27-30, a place is described (using the adverb ekei) of weeping and gnashing of teeth, from which people will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, where they will 'recline at table.'
  • 13 For my take on eschatological punishment in Revelation, see here, in Part 2 of my review of Edward W. Fudge's book, The Fire That Consumes.
  • 14 For my comments on this text and Justin's individual eschatology more widely, see here and here.