Torments in Hades

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

Following our illustrations of the absorption of pagan themes into Diaspora Judaism, here is another one. It is from the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, so it claims to be Jewish. King Herod is mentioned, and it dates itself in the 30th year, which according to the parallel 2 Esdras 3:1 means 100 AD, the 30th year after the destruction of Jerusalem. Its depiction of Hades owes little to the Old Testament but much to the Greek understanding of Hades as a place of sticky mud into which the uninitiated and sinners are thrown. The general concept, if not the lurid details, remained part of the content of Catholic Christianity into recent times.

"And the prophet said, 'I wish, Lord, to see the lower parts of Tartarus.' And God said, 'Go down and see!' And he gave me Michael and Gabriel and thirty-four other angels, and I descended 85 steps and they led me down 500 steps.

"And I saw a fiery throne and an old man seated on it, and his punishment was merciless. And I said to the angels, 'Who is this and what is his sin?' and they said to me, 'This is Herod, who was king for a time, and he commanded to kill the infants two years old or under.' And I said, 'Woe upon his soul!'

"And again they led me down 30 steps. And I saw boiling fires there, and a multitude of sinners in them. And I heard their voices, but I did not perceive their forms. And they led me down deeper many steps which I was unable to count. And I saw old men there, and fiery axles were revolving upon their ears. And I said, 'Who are these and what is their sin?' And they said to me, 'These are the eavesdroppers.' And again they led me down 500 other steps. And there I saw the unsleeping worm and fire consuming the sinners. And they led me down to the foundation of Apoleia (Destruction) and there I saw the 12-fold blow of the abyss. And they led me away to the south and there I saw a man hanging from his eyelids and the angels were beating him. And I asked, 'Who is this and what is his sin?' And Michael the archistrategos said to me, 'This man is incestuous; having carried out a small lust, this man was commanded to be hanged."'. (4: 1-24)

The Greek origin of the passage is shown in the use of the name Tartarus, the place of punishment in Hades. Several Greek writers refer to the common idea, held especially in Orphism, that there is a lake of sticky mud for the punishment of sinners. In the Phaedo (69c) Socrates is quoted, "It looks as if those also who established rites of initiation for us were no fools, but that there is a hidden meaning to their teaching when it says that whoever arrives uninitiated in Hades will lie in mud, but the purified and initiated when he arrives there will dwell with the gods."

Such documents as these are part of the case that is now being admitted into public awareness, that the origins of Christianity were very much more complex than was ever supposed, and all available documents must be studied first by historians before they are interpreted by theologians.