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The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham (Part 3 of 4)

“At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21).
Read Time: 7 minutes

At the Rich Man’s Gate

As we noted in considering the real Lazarus, when a Jew contracted a disease they became “unclean.” They were at most allowed only into the outer court of the temple. This meant the unclean were no longer allowed to eat from the sacrifices offered in the inner court. In this way Lazarus (Simon the Leper of Bethany?) was barred from eating at the table of Caiaphas in Jerusalem.

There is similar language in Matthew 15 when the Canaanite woman (who was a “Gentile dog” as far as the Pharisees were concerned) said to Jesus, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matt 15:27).1All Scriptural quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

It may be that before he died, Simon the Leper literally did beg outside the temple. But the meaning here is deeper than begging for food. Jesus is saying that the weak, the unclean, and the poor, were all denied spiritual food by the ruling caste of high priests.

The Bosom of Abraham

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” (Luke 16:22).

Now this is where the story starts to become difficult. Nowhere else in the Bible does it say that when men die, they go to Abraham’s side. In older Bibles it reads “the bosom of Abraham,” meaning the lap of Abraham.

…the idea that the dead go to sit “in the lap” of Abraham is something that nobody today believes. But people did believe it in Jesus’ day.Today there are a hundred and one different theories about death. Many people seriously believe when they die, they will go up to the gates of Heaven, to be met by the Apostle Peter. Other people believe countless different things. But the idea that the dead go to sit “in the lap” of Abraham is something that nobody today believes.

But people did believe it in Jesus’ day. Mentions of “the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” have been found in burial papyri in Israel (cf. papyrus Preisigke Sb 2034:11). In early Rabbinical legends and Jewish mythology “the Bosom of Abraham” was where the righteous went (cf. Kiddushin 72b, Ekah 1:85).2References to the “Bosom of Abraham” in Kiddushin 72b and Ekah 1:85 are cited from L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, republished John Hopkins, 1998, Vol. 5, p. 269. It is not in the Bible of course, but it was popularly believed.

While the NIV has “to Abraham’s side,” the literal AV rendering “to the bosom of Abraham” is a better rendering, as the “Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” was a specific concept in contemporary popular belief.

Another source showing what Jews of Jesus’ day believed is a book called 4 Maccabees, which was probably written by Jews in Egypt about a generation after Christ. In this work of fiction Abraham, Isaac and Jacob receive and welcome Jewish martyrs into the world of the dead: “After our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us.” (4 Maccabees 13:17).3Quotations from 4 Maccabees, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and the Testament of Abraham taken from J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols., Doubleday, New York, 1983.

Again, this is not Bible teaching, only popular superstition.

The Rich Man in Hell

The story becomes even more difficult when we read the next verses:

“The Rich Man also died and was buried. In Hell where he was in torment he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus in his bosom. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” (vv. 23-24).

Even with the most fertile imagination it is difficult to believe that from Hell one can see people in Heaven and talk to them. But the story gets stranger still:

“But Abraham replied. ‘Son remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone else cross over from there to us.’” (vv. 25-26).

Nothing else in the Bible prepares us for this description of Hell. Again, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus turns out to be unique.

Which Hell?

We need to clarify what the word “Hell” means here, as in English Bibles, two words have been confused into one.

“Hell” in the English Bible can be one of two words in the original Greek text:

  1.  Hades, the grave, the pit, the place where the dead sleep. In the Hebrew Old Testament, it is known as “Sheol”— (See, for example, Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29,31; Num 16:30,33; Job 14:13; Psa 6:5; 30:3; Eccl 9:10). The Greek Septuagint translates Sheol as Hades. In the Bible all people go to Hades, some awaiting the resurrection (1 Cor 15:55; Rev 20:13). Even Jesus was in Hades for three days and three nights. (Matt 12:39-40; Acts 2:24-32; Rev 1:18).
  2. Gehenna, originally the name of the valley Gehenna on the south side of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament it was known as Ben Hinnom (Jer 7:31). In the New Testament the name is associated with the fire into which the rejected will be destroyed at the last judgment:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:43-47; see also Matt 5:22; 23:15,33; Luke 12:5).

The problem is that in Luke 16:23 the “Hell” described does not fit either of these Bible definitions. In fact, the word is Hades, but it does not fit with the Hades of “silence” (Psa 31:17), where Jesus was laid (Acts 2:25-28, quoting Psalm 16:8-11). There are nine other mentions of Hades in the New Testament, 50 in the Old Testament (as it is translated in the LXX). All these other references present Hades as the grave. Luke 16:23 is the odd one out.

The source for the unusual Hades in Luke 16:23, as with the source for the “Bosom of Abraham” itself, lies outside the Bible in the myths of the First Century. Many Jewish myths survive today (e.g., in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmud, etc.). In these works, a variety of fantastic pictures of Hades are given that have no connection with the Old Testament. One of the closest to the picture given in Luke 16:23-24 is in a work called The Apocalypse of Zephaniah.

False Beliefs About Hades

It needs to be said that The Apocalypse of Zephaniah has nothing to do with the Zephaniah who wrote the book of that name in the Bible. The real Zephaniah lived in the days of King Josiah about 620BC. The so-called Apocalypse of Zephaniah on the other hand, was written by an unknown Jewish author, presumed by many to be a Pharisee, sometime around AD 150. In other words, the book is pseudepigraphal.

It is interesting, however, because the myth shows us what many Jews in Jesus’ day believed. The details are not precisely the same as in Luke 16:23-24. For example, in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah the chasm between the fiery part of Hades and the part given to Abraham has a giant river running through it. In fact, the author recounts the fictional Zephaniah’s journey across the river in a boat steered by an angel:

“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.” (Apoc. Zeph. 9:2).

Another difference is that in Luke 16 only Abraham is mentioned. In The Apocalypse of Zephaniah all three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are in the side of the underworld reserved for the righteous, along with Enoch, Elijah and David.

But the differences are minor, and there are enough common points, and more in many other Jewish myths, to suggest that the content of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable has some relation to contemporary Jewish ideas, and in particular to popular Pharisee teachings.

The Pharisees and the “Sinners”

We have established above that the picture of Hades—the Bosom of Abraham, and the chasm between them—represents the Pharisees’ teaching, rather than Jesus’ teaching.

All this is, however, only half of the Pharisees’ teaching. The other half concerns the Pharisees’ ideas about exactly who would go to be with “Father Abraham” (Luke 3:8), and who would go to the fiery side of Hades.

According to the Pharisees all the “sinners,” meaning publicans, tax-collectors, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, lepers, people with other skin diseases, the insane, and, of course, Gentiles and Samaritans, would burn in the fire.

Only those who followed all the rules of the Law, as did the “righteous”—meaning the rich and respectable, the scribes, the experts in the Law, the rulers of the synagogues, the priests and high priests, and of course the Pharisees themselves would depart to be with “Father Abraham.” “Our father Abraham” is a common phrase in the Jewish Mishnah (e.g., Aboth 3:12; 5:2, 3, 6, 19; 6:10; Taanith 2:4, 5).

What the Pharisees Did Not teach

But note that the Pharisees did not teach that the righteous went to Heaven. Even they knew that “no man has ascended into Heaven.” (John 3:13). Heaven was for God alone (Psa 115:16) and to teach otherwise would have been blasphemy.

The Pharisees also did not teach that Abraham’s Bosom was the final destination of the righteous. The Pharisees taught a resurrection and judgement on earth. Abraham’s Bosom was only a waiting station.

With the above in mind it is surprising that so many people quote the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as proof of the doctrine of heaven going. Not only does the story not mention the word heaven once, this description of Abraham’s Bosom bears no resemblance to any ideas about Heaven taught anywhere.

Steven Cox
(Leicester Westleigh, UK)

Suggested Readings
We have shown that the teaching about Hades and Abraham’s Bosom is not biblical but rather stems from contemporary Jewish superstition.
The parables of the New Testament are not simple stories like the fairy tales that we tell children. They can be, and were intended to be, difficult to understand.
Sometimes in the Bible it is obvious when a parable is a parable and when real events are real events. Sometimes the reader can easily distinguish between things to be taken literally and things to be taken figuratively. But this is not always so simple.
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