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  • Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium
  • The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Liturgy, and Art
  • Online publication date: January 2017
  • pp 9-14


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One The Invention of Traditions: Jewish and Christian Apocrypha

Jewish Apocalyptic Literature

The traditional understanding of sheol, which was simple and unadorned, is eschewed by Jewish apocalyptic literature, which tends to revel in detailed descriptions of the afterlife of souls.1 Many elements found in these texts would become standard in Christianity, including a provisional judgment, an intermediate state in which the souls await the Last Judgment, and a hope for the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous.

The most important Jewish apocalypse is 1 Enoch, which, along with Daniel, has been characterized as the formative document of Jewish apocalyptic tradition.2 1 Enoch is a compilation of distinct works composed from the third century BCE to the first century CE.3 Each layer of 1 Enoch recounts revelations made by angels to Enoch, a Biblical patriarch whom God “took” in Genesis 5:24. The first part and oldest part (chs. 1–36, dating to the late third or early second century BCE), known as the Book of Watchers, includes in its twenty-second chapter a description of the temporary residences of the souls – deep pits (κοιλώματα) in which human spirits (πνεύματα) await the final day of judgment.4 Souls are separated according to their righteousness and various degrees of wickedness, and rewarded or punished accordingly.5 Such a separation implies some sort of provisional judgment that determines which souls go where. Enoch also sees the fiery prison of the fallen angels (19, 21) for whom he had tried to intercede unsuccessfully (13, 15), as well as a valley reserved for those who are eternally accursed (27:2) – both places being precursors of the Christian conception of hell.

A detailed account of a provisional judgment, along with a description of an intermediate state is provided by a later text, the fragmentary Apocalypse of Zephaniah, composed likely in Egypt sometime between the first century BCE and the first century CE.6 An angel escorts Zephaniah’s soul and shows him how angels write down in manuscripts the good deeds and the sins of men (3). Zephaniah sees angels who are repulsive in appearance carrying off the souls of the ungodly (4). A terrifying demon sets up court and presents Zephaniah a scroll on which all his sins are recorded. The text, lacunose at this point, likely included the description of a corresponding scroll with Zephaniah’s good deeds held by the angel Heremiel.7 Zephaniah is eventually vindicated (6–7). He mentions the weighing of one’s good and bad deeds on a balance (8), then visits the place where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah, and David reside (9), and sees the souls of the ungodly being tormented at the bottom of Hades (10). Saints intercede on behalf of the damned (11). The expected final judgment (10, 12) signals an intermediate state of the souls.8

These ideas about the afterlife are not original, or even particular, to Judaism.9 Many motifs, including a judicial process after death, a dangerous journey through gates guarded by terrifying creatures, an examination of records, and the weighing of deeds, are present in Egypt through the Roman period.10 The Homeric Hades also has many similarities with sheol. In time, the Greeks developed notions of punishment and reward in the afterlife, seen most notably in the Orphic traditions and in Plato’s Gorgias and the Republic. At the end of the latter text, for example, Socrates recounts the myth of Er, in which the souls of the dead are subject to judgment based on the scrutiny of the records that the souls carry with them (10.614–10.621). Such concepts continued through the Hellenistic and Roman periods; a work like the Book of Watchers is the product of a thoroughly Hellenized context.11 Other ideas in Judaism may be the result of influences from the Ancient Near East and Persia.12 However, the mechanics of such exchanges between the Jews and surrounding peoples are difficult to trace.13

Antecedents notwithstanding, the Jewish apocalyptic adaptation and reformulation of these concepts were the primary influence on Early Christian and, consequentially, Byzantine beliefs.14 1 Enoch is quoted in the epistle to Jude (1:14–15, with an allusion to Enochic material in v. 6). Other New Testament authors, including Mark, Matthew, and Paul, seem to be familiar with it. The text was also known to some apologists, such as Justin and Athenagoras, and to other Church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Epiphanios.15 Furthermore, some Jewish apocrypha circulated much later. 1 Enoch was used by Christian and Byzantine chronographers, especially George the Synkellos (d. after 810), who included some extracts in his work.16 The Apocalypse of Zephaniah is mentioned by later sources, including the so-called Stichometry of patriarch Nikephoros I (d. 828), a catalogue of works appended to his chronography.17

Setting the Stage: The Apocalypse of Paul

Early Christian apocalyptic texts draw heavily from these Jewish antecedents.18 All the traditions of the provisional judgment and the intermediate state are seminally contained by the third- or fourth-century Apocalypse of Paul, upon which later authors would elaborate.19 The apocalypse was written in Greek, likely in Egypt, and was translated into several languages, including Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic. Its vision of the afterlife was very influential, particularly in the West. In fact, the Latin translation (L1) is the closest to the original; the surviving Greek is an abbreviated version.20

The Apocalypse of Paul elaborates on the apostle’s heavenly journey mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:2.21 The text’s main goal is evident at the beginning: Avoid sin and repent. So the Lord instructs Paul to tell his people to repent (3). Paul sees angels bringing to God “the deeds of men, whatever each did from morning till evening, whether good or evil” at the end of the day (7).22 As Paul ascends with an angel who serves as his guide, he notices various beings under the firmament:

I saw in the same place power, and there was there oblivion which deceives and draws down to itself the hearts of men, and the spirit of detraction [slander], and the spirit of fornication, and the spirit of madness [wrath], and the spirit of insolence, and there were there the princes of vices (11).23

Paul also sees some terrifying angels, those dispatched to the souls of the sinners at the time of death (11), and other angels whose faces shine like the sun. The latter wear golden girdles and carry awards (βραβεῖα). They are dispatched to the souls of the righteous (12).24 When Paul expresses his desire to see how both the sinners and the righteous leave the world, his angelic guide obliges, starting with the soul of a righteous person:

And behold, all his deeds stand in front of him at the time of his need. And both benevolent and wicked angels came to his side. And the wicked ones found no place in him, but the benevolent angels took possession of the soul of the righteous man and said to it, “Know the body from which you exited, because you should again return to it at the day of resurrection, so you can receive what God promised the righteous” (14).25

In the Greek version the soul immediately ascends to the place prepared for the righteous. In the Latin, however, the soul’s guardian angel joins the benevolent angels. They all advise the soul to be courageous. Their upward journey is interrupted by a (wicked) angel who says: “Where are you running to, O soul, and do you dare to enter heaven? Wait and let us see if there is anything of ours in you; and behold we find nothing in you.”26 At last, the soul is brought to worship God. After a brief presentation of the soul’s virtues, God instructs Michael to take it to the paradise of joy. The angelic beings sing hymns and glorify God in his justice (14).

Predictably, Paul sees the wicked angels take the sinner’s soul. The guardian angel runs in advance of the cortège, lamenting the outcome and reminding everyone that he was the one recording the person’s sins every day.27 In a passage that is preserved only in Latin, the soul is again stopped by the powers:

A burden was imposed upon it, above all other burdens: error and oblivion and murmuring met it, and the spirit of fornication, and the rest of the powers, and said to it, “Where are you going, wretched soul, and do you dare to rush into heaven? Hold, that we may see if we can find any of our characteristics in you, since we do not see that you have a holy helper” (16).28

The guardian angel takes the soul to God, who judges it and gives it to the angel Temelouchos29 to be cast out to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.30 The angelic beings again proclaim God’s exact justice (15–16).

After a subsequent courtroom scene in which another soul is condemned (17–18), the angel takes Paul on a tour of the abodes of the righteous. The pair first arrives at a gate, on top of which are two plaques inscribed with the names of those still alive who are righteous and who serve God (19).31 When they pass through the gate, Enoch welcomes them and embraces Paul (20). The angel then shows Paul the land of the meek (ἡ γῆ τῶν πραέων), where the souls of the righteous are kept (αἱ οὖν ψυχαὶ τῶν δικαίων ἐν τῷ τόπῳ τούτῳ φυλάττονται). It is filled with bountiful trees (21). Paul then sees the lake Acherusia, where the archangel Michael cleanses the souls of sinners who have repented (22). Paul and the angel proceed to the City of God, which the angel later explains (29) is the Heavenly Jerusalem. The city is enclosed by twelve towers and four rivers (23). Outside of it stands a group of weeping monks. They are there, the angel explains, because of their pride; when Christ returns to the city, those coming with him will intercede on their behalf and they will enter as well (24). Inside the city, Paul sees the prophets, the patriarchs, and various righteous people (25–28).32 There is an altar in the middle of the city near which David sings and plays the harp.

The angel then shows Paul the fate of the damned. Paul describes several grotesque punishments for a variety of sinners, including sinful clergy, fornicators, slanderers, and thieves (31–42). Paul weeps bitterly in response. The archangel Gabriel33 then arrives with his angels and the tormented souls ask him to intercede (43). Christ appears and, due to the intercessions of Gabriel and Paul, agrees to offer respite to the tormented on Sundays (44). After this, the angel takes Paul on a tour of paradise, where Adam and Eve lived. He meets several people there, including Mary, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other notables (45–51). After Paul encounters Elijah, both the Greek and Latin versions end abruptly.

Thus, the Apocalypse of Paul offers a comprehensive picture of the afterlife. It contains nearly all the elements that would become standard in later accounts of the afterlife, and it presents these events in a sequence that would become canonical:34 at the time of death both benevolent and wicked angels appear; the dying person is presented with his or her deeds; angels carry the soul upward; on the way, demonic powers stop the soul to see if it owes them something; the soul is presented in the tribunal of God; Hades is a place of vicious punishment; the locations – for there are more than one – of the saints and righteous are brilliant, architecturally defined, and lushly planted; finally, the intercession of saints and angels offers respite to those in Hades.

Paul is clearly indebted to Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, the New and Old Testaments, and related texts for its descriptions of the departure of the soul from the body, its ascent and judgment, the intermediate state, and the description of the promised land and paradise.35 Its description of the torments is heavily influenced by the Apocalypse of Peter, a second-century text that recounts a vision granted to the Apostles of their brethren in the next world and of their rewards, as well as the punishments in hell. Ultimately this text traces its origins to Greek and Jewish tours of hell.36 However, Paul contains some peculiarities, such as the process of judgment. One’s destiny is decided essentially at the deathbed. Benevolent angels are sent to the righteous, and the wicked to sinners. In both cases the dying person sees all of his or her deeds. The names of the righteous that are inscribed above heaven’s gate also point to a predetermined fate, at least for some. The sequence of events after one’s death – the passing through the powers of the air and God’s pronouncement of judgment – reinforce the original verdict and are, in reality, superfluous. The reason for such redundancy is rather simple: The author of the apocalypse attempted to harmonize, somewhat unsuccessfully, various existing traditions. Judgment at deathbed and subsequent delivery to either benevolent or wicked angels depending on the outcome is found in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah. The soul’s passing through the powers of the air stems from the Christian exegesis of Ephesians 2:2 and related passages.37 Finally, descriptions of judgment at the throne of God are based on New Testament imagery, such as Matthew 25:31–46, and its many Jewish antecedents.

The Apocalypse of Paul sets the stage for later developments that have not yet been fully investigated. The text was known to patriarch Nikephoros I, who condemned it.38 However, two very popular Middle Byzantine texts, the Apocalypse of the Theotokos and that of Anastasia, both composed between the ninth and eleventh centuries, are its offspring.39 As Jane Baun argues, both the patriarchal censure and the two apocalypses indicate a surge of interest in the Apocalypse of Paul in the ninth and tenth centuries.40 This, however, implies neither a direct connection between this apocalypse and later related texts – although there might have been one – nor a linear development of concepts from the third century into the Byzantine period. Paul, rather, is a convenient combination of what were at the time the dominant traditions concerning provisional judgment. Subsequent authors made use of the same or similar traditions, developed them to suit their agendas, and created, as we shall see, a mosaic of dizzying variety.