Is “hell” in the bible a real place? I’ve read that it was a misunderstanding of the word “gehenna” by the editors of the KJV.

The New Testament scholar who most recently covered this topic was Bart Ehrman: If you want a read his shorter blog about it, here’s a link. Most of his stuff is behind a firewall, but I think this one is free: If you have trouble accessing it, I have a subscription. Ehrman enjoys a reputation as an iconoclast. Here’s a funny interview with him from the old Colbert show:

You are correct that Gehenna was a kind of suburb of Jerusalem where garbage burned. Jeremiah calls it “cursed” because it was the place where kings of Judah sacrificed their children (yes, that was a thing!) By the way, “cursed” is one of several Hebrew words designating bad behavior:

Sin, Abomination, and Other Stuff

Anyway, Gehenna is the word used in the New Testament for hell, as it was understood at that time.

In the Hebrew Bible, the word for where the dead go is Sheol or “the pit,” which was a little different from Gehenna (see below). But the KJV of the bible translated both words as “hell,” a concept that was still evolving in the early Christian period. (The medieval Jewish Talmud had also equated them). Some texts just used “gathered to his ancestors” or “bosom of Abraham” to talk about death. Others were more familiar with debates in Daniel, in apocryphal texts like Enoch, and in classical literature about where the dead go. Enoch brought us the concept of the war in heaven and the place where the devils got thrown into after that war. But these ideas hadn’t yet coalesced into the hell we think of today.

What did the ancient Jews mean by “Sheol”? The Hebrew sheol, in the sense of  a place where the dead go, is just a return to dirt, although the fact that witches could contact the dead suggested they maintained some kind of low-level existence. They certainly weren’t being tortured in the early references to it. They had other similar words, like Abaddon (“ruin”).  Here are some quotes that describe Sheol:

“The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; you will look for me, but I will be no more. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more.” – Job

“I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.” – Psalm 88

The Greeks translated sheol as their version of Hell, Hades. While Homeric poets absolutely did believe in an afterlife, it was just Hades, a place  Achilles told Odysseus to avoid if he could. Ancient Greeks didn’t believe in a heaven or in resurrection. Later Greeks adopted a Minoan concept called Elysium, which was the place where the war heroes went after dead, and Virgil added that the poets and statesmen to this place too (he also allowed that these people could be reincarnated.) Virgil’s Aeneid gave the place a couple of divisions and a geography.  If you’re wondering who Virgil is, he wrote an Eclogue in which he predicted “the birth of a boy, a supposed savior, who—once he is of age—will become divine and eventually rule over the world.”(1st c. BCE)–I’m quoting Wikipedia on Virgil.  Most thought he predicted the coming of Caesar, but Christians thought he was predicting the coming of Jesus, and for that reason plus his poetry cred, Dante chose him as guide in his epic about the Christian afterlife.

Anyway, it’s pretty clear that the Christian idea of hell is a blend of a few ideas–Hades, Elysium, Daniel’s resurrected faithful, and a few other concepts. As I mentioned above, the KJV of the bible uses “hell” to translate both Gehenna and Sheol. “Hell” is an Anglo-Saxon word whose origin means “cover” or “hiding place.” Other related words (cognates) are helmet, cell, cellar, hall, hole, even the mythic Valhalla.

Interesting enough, in the rabbinic tradition of the middle ages, Gehenna was more like purgatory. In the Kabbala, which is the medieval Jewish mystical tradition, Gehenna was like a holding place for all the dead before they moved on. (That’s according to the Wikipedia–I know little about the Kabbala)

Elaine Pagels wrote a great book called the Origin of Satan; I talk about that later in the semester. Needless to say, Satan in ancient Hebrew texts is not the devil, as he is in the New Testament. The devil concept came from the Persians, and Satan gradually merged with that figure. For the ancient Jews, he was just another one of God’s “host” or “court,” as mentioned in Genesis and Job, among other places.

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