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Today is Black Saturday (or Holy Saturday) in the Christian tradition. It's the day between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. It's the day that many Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist denomination (not anymore). And, we heard quite a bit about heaven, and even more about hell. But, how did these beliefs (or traditions) come about. John Shore (of the NALT Christians project) tweeted a link to an article this morning which helps explain it. It is written by Don M. Burrows, and it's quite interesting. Therefore, I'll reproduce some of it below.

Mr. Burrows is completing his Ph.D in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. He is a United Church of Christ member.

Oft forgotten amid the Holy Week observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the day Jesus supposedly lay in the tomb after his crucifixion on Friday and prior to his resurrection on Sunday.

But this day worked on the imagination of early Christians in fantastic ways. In the Apostles’ Creed is the statement that Jesus “descended into Hell” as it is often translated into English. But in the Greek it is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, or “going down into the lowermost parts,” and in Latin something almost identical, descendit ad inferos, or “he descended to the lower ones/places.” This is not necessarily Hell, because such a concept was not fully worked out yet. It was rather the netherworld or underworld of Greco-Roman mythology, the conception of which would eventually provide us with the imagery most commonly associated with Hell.

As is always the case, it is good to go back to the original language (Koine Greek) to try and get a better understanding. He goes on to give us some interesting information from the Gospel of Nicodemus.
The Gospel of Nicodemus serves as yet another reminder that Christianity arose in the Greco-Roman world, absorbing much of its aesthetic along the way, and passing it to us in a wonderfully blended concoction. It also problematizes present-day visions of the fiery eternal punishment that we are everywhere served up, from the Left Behind series to the disturbing Hell Houses that each Halloween crop up in fundamentalist circles. The truth is that our ideas about Hell are the product of a long process — not a neatly transmitted one — that blended Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and other mythologies. Christians are reinventing them today as much as they did two millennia ago.
You can read the column in its entirety here.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Fascinating (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    librarisingnsf, MsGrin, ZedMont

    I wonder if any religion is less understood by its millions of adherents than Christianity is. I think it's due to the selectivity of what is and isn't read among the Scriptures.

    Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat Apr 19, 2014 at 03:58:46 PM PDT

  •  Well, hell. Just when you think you've got (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    damnation down, it turns out it's subject to evolution just like everything else.  

    Ted Cruz president? Pardon my Vietnamese, but Ngo Pho King Way.

    by ZedMont on Sat Apr 19, 2014 at 05:08:39 PM PDT

  •  It comes from Ephesians 4:9 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I suspect it's an instance of early Christian assimilation of the myth of Orpheus' descent into hades.

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Sat Apr 19, 2014 at 05:49:32 PM PDT

  •  Part of the trouble with current Christian (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thinking on a lot of issues is that the proclaimers of those views  may be acting in good faith in not proclaiming what was proclaimed in the first sixty to a hundred years of the Church, when there were still folk around who had some recall, from Grandma or whatever, of the actual events.

    The History Channel has, however badly, been running a series this weekend about banned books of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and explaining what some of them apparently said and why that may have gotten them axed as the institutional church decided what it was going to believe and why, in a manner in which the History Channel explanation of Midrash makes clear. It's worth a look, a long look as it has many installments. As a place to start guided  reading.

     That History Channel  version of Midrash  claims the function of Midrash was to fill in the blanks in Torah and also in prophetic writings where the language was such that it made no sense as it stood, and an explanation was needed, as in "If Adam and Eve's children were all males, where did the next generation come from?" and the like. A New Testament example is "Who in heck are all those people named as Jesus' brothers and sisters, being described and waved at right here in this passage, if He was a virgin birth." Which is where, among other things, we discover the English word for what Mary was is 'virgin' but the original word was merely 'young woman', a genuine difference.

    I am being charitable in writing this. Not just to the History Channel either. And yes, the seminary I went to made us read some of this stuff so as to come up with an explanation that worked about how the current Bible was accumulated, and why, when we would be asked and asked.

     A lot of people died for being on the wrong side of the arguments that produced much of current Christian doctrine, long before the Reformation and its wars about saints and praying to them and to the Virgin and the like.  We probably do not remember the point in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries in the Eastern Med  churches when all women were identified as a part of doctrine as beasts without souls , who therefore could not participate in Church anything and had to be subordinated, obedient and silent no matter what the story had been of women of wealth keeping the church going, or Phoebe the first female deacon, or . . . . .  There was also a huge dispute in Britain in the Seventh Century or so about whether the Irish and English and Scottish  church should follow Celtic practice or Roman Practice, and Rome won, and the Celtic practice vanished as heresy, tagged to druids.   But  there were many versions of the faith in various places and the history and the doctrine we have was written by the winners, not necessarily set out as part of the actual life and ministry of Jesus and his first few followers.

    Of course, churches are wedded to to such long decided doctrine, and it can be very difficult for a modern mind after tracking down and reading a goodly bunch of, for example, the popular books and writings not included in the New Testament as we have received it when further dickered with by translation of it into English,

    We forget, for example, that one of the brawls was one in which the question of including OT at all was at issue, and Marcion lost that one, despite the proclamation of a "New Covenant.'

     Or John Calvin agreeing to the notion that some souls were predestined from before their birth  to be saved, but who could not bring himself to say of a God who supposedly loved all people that the corollary of this was that God intended from before the rest of us not to be saved were born, that we never would be saved and would go to Hell, with no way ever to change that, no matter what we did.

    The best I can say is to refer to verses in the NT which point out that the book was composed not to be an accurate history of events but in order that people might believe.

    The irony of hell is that  Death and Satan were severed from one another in the popular mind in Britain at least  by the Thirteenth Century or so, when the Mystery Plays began to be composed and performed on High Holy Days, particularly when dealing with the Harrowing of Hell, what goes on in that place on Holy Saturday. Death's brief was straightforward, to round up and collect all the dead souls and get them to  the  place of dead souls, or not as he was ordered. Satan was the one who carried on about watching Our Lord go down, and wailing when Our Lord came back up and was not alone when He did it. I have  read the manuscripts and have often imagined Death watching the proceedings while resting and smoking a cigarette and watching the Devil wave and shout in outrage at the Ascention out of Hell of our Lord and many others following him, without, of course, saying where those others were going next., as if the devil were a total idiot.  And, of course, in those days the scripts and productions directions made the devil Black, Green or Blue and not the red we are sure is the correct depiction.

  •  Not a fan (0+ / 0-)

    The author makes some good points but neglects to adequately explore the traditional Christian concept of hell and the "descensus," probably because he doesn't explore Catholic and Orthodox sources with the minds of those faith traditions.

    "Hell" in the Creed traditionally refers to "limbo." No, not the place for unbaptized babies. That place has been oft-speculated as a means of reconciling the necessity of Baptism with a merciful God.

    The "limbo of the fathers," which Dante illustrated (non-Magisterially) as the outermost layer of hell, is the "hell" of the Creed. It is the place of the Old Testament prophets, patriarchs, etc., and the place of virtuous pagans who sought the truth before Christ. They experienced perfect natural happiness and no suffering, so the "Harrowing of Hell" was never seen as Christ descending into a place of torment, but as a glorious awakening of the just that had been long-awaited.

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