The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Rabbinic and Early Christian Conceptions of Hell

This paper argues that early rabbinic understandings of Gehinnom depart sharply from prior Second Temple conceptions, in which the notion of Hell first emerges in the third-century BCE text of the Book of the Watchers. While this and other pre-rabbinic texts (such as Epistles of Enoch, Qumran’s Rule of Community, and the works of Josephus) understood consignment to Hell as lasting forever and serving a punitive function only, the early rabbis (70 CE – 250 CE) sought not only to limit the duration of Hell’s suffering but also, in some circumstances, regarded Gehinnom as serving a positive reparative function. Inversely, the near-unanimous early Christian position (as exemplified by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian) insisted that damnation to Hell is eternal and punitive (Origen being a notable exception). Remarkably, this means that early Christian theology—at least in this respect— evinces stronger continuities with prior Jewish teachings than early rabbinic Judaism. I propose that this revolutionary rabbinic break from earlier Second Temple traditions of Gehinnom can be attributed to the influence of Greco-Roman culture (e.g., the writings of Plato, Virgil, and Plutarch) which developed, over time, a more moderate and nuanced understanding of the underworld. My argument, then, will complicate the standard scholarly assumption that Christianity—but not early rabbinic Judaism—broke sharply from Second Temple Jewish traditions under the influence of Greco-Roman culture. This paper concludes by highlighting how later rabbinic conceptions of Gehinnom became harsher under the impact of Christian eschatological discourse.