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Not Giving Heed to Jewish Fables (2)
Abraham in the Underworld

(Bible Study - July 2000)

"Some take exception to Jesus using a false idea of the Pharisees as the basis for his teaching. But it should be noted that the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is immaterial. The lesson conveyed through the story is the intended point" (R. Abel, Wrested Scriptures, pg. 107).

Bro. Ron Abel’s treatment of Luke 16:19-31 is in many ways the starting point for this series of articles. In evidence of the above, Wrested Scriptures pp.107-108 footnotes a passage from Whiston’s edition of Josephus, A Discourse to Greeks Concerning Hades, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Luke 16. Unfortunately, the resemblance is so uncanny because the passage is based on Luke 16. The author is not Josephus but the 4th Century Bishop Hippolytus. At some point, a copying error confused the names and the mistake was not discovered until recently.

In any case, although attribution of the Discourse turns out to be wrong, Bro. Ron Abel’s instinct about the Jewish myth origins of Luke 16 turns out to be right.

Source evidence
Evidence from surviving Jewish texts of the period show that what is described in Luke 16:19-30 is drawn from popular first century teachings concerning a division in the underworld between the fires of Hades and the paradise where Abraham and other patriarchs dwelt:

1. While the NIV has "to Abraham’s side," the literal AV rendering "to the bosom of Abraham" is better. The "Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (papyrus Preisigke Sb2034:11), was a specific concept in contemporary popular belief.

2. Jewish martyrs believed that: "After our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17 in J.H. Charlesworth, The OT Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday 1983).

3. Other early Jewish works describe paradise as being separated from the fires by a river (not substantially different from the chasm of Luke 16). In one apocryphal work this river could be crossed only in an angelic boat: "You have escaped from the abyss and Hades, you will now cross over the crossing place... then he ran to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David" (Apocalypse of Zephaniah 9:2. Charlesworth op.cit.).

4. The same first century Jewish work also shows the popular belief concerning the role of Abraham as intercessor for those in torment in the fiery part of Hades: "As they looked at all the torments they called out, praying before the Lord Almighty saying, ‘We pray you on behalf of those who are in all these torments so you might have mercy on all of them.’ And when I saw them, I said to the angel who spoke with me, ‘Who are they?’ He said ‘Those who beseech the Lord are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’" (Apoc. Zeph. 11:1-2).

5. In another work, Abraham causes some of the dead to return from Hades to life "Then Abraham arose and fell upon the earth, and [the Angel of] Death with him, and God sent a spirit of life into the dead and they were made alive again" (Testament of Abraham ‘A’ 18:11).

From the above it should be clear that the picture of the Underworld given by Christ is not Christ’s own picture, nor drawn from the Old Testament, but from popular Jewish beliefs.

As Ron Abel comments above, when dealing with Luke 16 as "wrested scripture" the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is immaterial. Furthermore, there are other arguments presented in Wrested Scriptures which should show an unbiased inquirer that the story was never meant to be taken as a factual description of the underworld.

But is Luke 16 a parody of the myth? Does it just refer to the myth or does it show the myth to be wrong?

Myth shown to be wrong
For our purpose in this series, which is concerned with the attitude of the New Testament to Jewish myths, the falsity of the story is highly material. The above texts prove that Christ used popular ideas, but we have not yet proved that the Lord’s parable is in any way critical of these beliefs. Many people, even when provided with the historical context, would simply assume that Christ shared the beliefs found in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and so on, and was supporting the teaching. It is not enough to show a connection with Jewish myth, we must also be able to demonstrate that the attitude to these myths was negative.

This we can do. There are several signs in the text that a vein of irony runs through the parable:

1. The previous parable, the dishonest steward, is probably best read as an attack on the writing of divorce notes for financial or social gain (compare 16:6-7 with 17-18). The Pharisees missed the irony and smirked at how the master "commended" his dishonest steward, but Christ rounded on them and made it clear that the parable was about themselves (16:15). If the preceding parable in this sequence of seven parables (Luke ch.14-16) is an ironic attack on Pharisee beliefs and practices, we should not be surprised if the following parable has the same tone or target.

2. The "everlasting habitations" where the steward’s new friends wait for him in 16:9 provide a link to the everlasting habitation which receives the rich man in 16:23. Again the point for us is that there is a heavy negative spin on the afterlife expectations of both the steward and the Pharisees. The stage is being set for the next parable.

3. When Christ puts the word "father" for Abraham in the mouth of the rich man (v. 27), it is despite his own command to call no man "father" and the warning of John the Baptist about Jewish reliance on their ancestry in Luke 3:8. If we consider Jesus’ dialogue with the scribes and Pharisees in John 8:31-59, we can see that Christ is being critical of the rich man’s beliefs to rely on his ancestry for favored treatment. Popular Jewish beliefs contain this same element -- "Our father Abraham" is a common phrase in the Mishnah (e.g. Aboth 3:12, 5:2,3,6,19, 6:10 Taanith 2:4,5 etc.).

4. The purple and fine linen worn by the rich man is a clear reference to priestly garments (Ex. 39:2,24,29) which would suggest a personification of the priesthood. In addition, the mention of "my father’s house" by the rich man (16:27) and "five brethren" (16:28) would make it clear to any first century listener that the target of this parable is none other than the high priest himself. The rich man is Caiaphas, and the rich man’s five brethren are his five brothers-in-law: Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, and the younger Annas. Josephus records, "Now the report goes, that this elder Annas (Caiaphas’ father- in-law) proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests..." (Antiquities, book XX, ch.9, section i, p. 423). While singling out powerful individuals like this is not uncommon in the Old Testament prophets, Christ’s placing of Caiaphas into this parable is unique in the New Testament. While modern sensibilities are squeamish about the idea that Christ could use parody, irony, even sarcasm, the fact is that the Old Testament prophets did so freely. Therefore, this is an acceptable form of rebuke in the Bible. Familiarity with the style of the Old Testament prophets should lead us to accept the use of irony in rebuke (cp. Isa. 14:13 and Ezk. 28:2 with Matt. 11:23).

5. The fact that Caiaphas and the five sons of Annas appear in the parable suggests strongly that the Lazarus named is also a historical figure, namely Lazarus of Bethany. This suggestion is confirmed when we recognize that Luke 16:31 contains a prophecy fulfilled by Annas and his five sons in John 12:10. If this parable is personal to the level of making a prophecy about eight specific individuals, all known to the hearers, it becomes more probable that the beliefs described in the parable have a personal relationship to the Pharisee audience too.

6. Most importantly; the fate of the rich man after death, despite his priestly robes and high religious position, does more than invalidate the rich man’s (and the Pharisees’) contempt for the common people (John 7:49). Having the unclean beggar take the priest’s place in Abraham’s bosom invalidates the whole structure of the religious establishment’s belief.

7. Caiaphas was a Sadducee and we do not know enough about the beliefs of the Sadducees to be sure to what extent they shared the popular view of Abraham in the underworld. One could argue that this is not relevant as the audience was composed of Pharisees, but the NT shows such keen awareness of the differences between the two groups (Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:8) that we should be aware of this aspect. If a distinction is drawn between Pharisee and Sadducee belief in the parable it may be in the mention of angels, 16:22, and the predisposition of Annas and his family to deny the resurrection in 16:31 (not just of the Lazarus in the parable and the historical Lazarus, and ultimately of Christ too). As such the Lord is using Pharisee belief to reprove Sadducee belief. Yet we hardly see any sign of this having been done to please the Pharisees. In fact, the shocking start of the parable with a beggar whose sores are licked by the dogs being taken to the lap of Father Abraham -- thereby making Abraham himself unclean -- would be most offensive to the sensibilities of the Pharisees (cf. G. Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus 1995 pp 75-82). And there is no evidence that when it came to the reality of resurrection (either of Lazarus or Christ) the Pharisees were any more disposed to accept the consequences of their doctrine than the Sadducees. The bottom line then is that the parable contains criticism of the characteristic beliefs of both groups which included the description of the journey of two souls to a divided underworld.

8. Note also how Luke16:26, "neither can they pass," contradicts Apocalypse of Zephaniah 9:2 quoted above. This direct contradiction with the NT text is one evidence that Apoc. Zeph., unlike Hippolytus’ "Discourse concerning Hades," is independent of Luke 16. It is also further evidence that Luke 16 does not condone popular beliefs regarding the bosom of Abraham.

Lessons for us
So what can we say in conclusion?

First, that the story of Abraham in the underworld is drawn on Jewish mythology. Second, that the parable shows signs of parody by which the popular belief is brought into disrepute. A third conclusion might be that the reason Christ couched the parable in this way was because it was so effective in exposing the falseness of "the doctrine of Pharisees and Sadducees."

Now take a step back.

It is hoped that the above historical background was interesting. It may even be helpful. But before losing sight of the forest for the trees, we need to remember that the parable is not just a political cartoon attacking a Jewish high priest. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is first and foremost a lesson that can be understood by anyone from Sunday School onwards. The real fable being debunked is the ancient myth that religious respectability is any kind of guarantee of favor with God. The truly disturbing thing about Luke 16:19-31 is not the traces of Jewish myth, nor the difficulty that the parable presents for us in study and preaching, but that these parables were preserved for our spiritual benefit, to warn us as individuals. There is a danger that if we solely concern ourselves with the application of Christ’s parables to others (either others in the first century or others today) the day might come when the Lord turns to us and repeats his rebuke:

And he said unto them "YE ARE THEY which justify yourselves before men..." (16:15).

Certainly the first century application to Jewish teachers and their myths is important, but what is the twenty first century application? Hopefully not to ourselves.

Steven Cox, Hyderabad, India

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