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An Early Otherworldly Journey

Back to my scholarly monograph on Otherworldly Journeys.   I pointed out in previous posts that when scholars became particularly interested in these various accounts in ancient Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian circles, they were particularly intrigued with the question of where the idea came from, that a living person could see the realms of the dead.  I then devoted a couple of posts to exploring why, in the 19th century, this was a matter of such interest.

I don’t at all deny that this question of “origins” is important, but I’m not particularly interested in pursuing myself.   There is already enough of that, for my taste!  I’m interested in other things, and am somewhat surprised that other scholars have not wanted to pursue them at greater length.   My book will not be an exhaustive study of the phenomenon – that would require several books, or, for at least a pretense of comprehensiveness, a book of over 600 pages.  And my days of 600-page books are over.

I will instead be picking my spots and pursuing particular points of interest to me, with a focus on the Christian examples of these journeys/visions in light of others in other cultures.  (Recall: these are called “katabasis” traditions; katabasis is a Greek word that means “going down,” and as a technical term it refers to someone going down to view the underworld, and then coming back to describe it.)

At the outset, in the first chapter, I will probably explore, briefly, four different katabasis traditions from four different cultures:  Homer’s Odyssey, book 11 (Greek); Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6 (Roman); The Testament of Abraham (Jewish); and the Apocalypse of Paul (Christian).   The point of that chapter will be …

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Expecting the Apocalypse: My Idea for the Book
The Passion for Origins



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 18, 2019

    Would you count Inanna’s descent into the netherworld as an example of katabasis, or is she disqualified on account of being a goddess?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2019

      Yes, it’s usually seen as one. So too Dionysus in Aristophanes, The Frogs.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  March 18, 2019

    The interesting thing is that basically nobody seems to think death is the end. It’s impossible to find any ancient culture that says there’s nothing after death, though there were probably small pockets of opinion in each that thought so (and almost entirely among those who had a fairly comfortable mortal existence, and had leisure time to philosophize). A diverting stable life can, for a time, make up for the knowledge that it will someday end.

    But most have believed there was something. The variations in what people say will happen seem endless.

    I might just mention that the vain and vengeful Achilles, as depicted in the Iliad, was hardly a good candidate for the Elysian Fields, even if Homer had believed in such a place. Nor were he and Odysseus shown to be particularly close friends. It’s a bit out of character that Achilles doesn’t berate Odysseus for seeing through his womanly disguise, and making him go to war, against his better judgment.

    Question–which would be more fair?

    An afterlife in which one’s condition is decided by his or her deeds in life?

    An afterlife in which everyone is in precisely the same condition, whether miserable, blissful, or neutral?

    Or universal oblivion?

    We claim God (if any God there be) is unjust, but we don’t even agree what just treatment would look like.

    Every other creature on this world meets cruel death–frequently at our hands–without complaint, often after a lifetime of unremitting service to us.

    I’d say fair would be a world where they rule, and we serve.

    The Peaceable Kingdom.

    • Avatar
      nichael  March 19, 2019

      A couple points:

      1] Actually, “Achilles, as depicted in the Iliad” is precisely the sort of character that the classical Greeks would have understood to be a prime candidate for a place like the Elysium Fields.

      While it’s true that he might not fit our modern notion of a “good guy”, to the classical Greeks the fact that Achilles was the paradigm of a “virtuous” (in the original sense of “manly”) and “heroic” character would have made him a prime candidate.

      2] Similarly, “fairness” is not a trait for which the classical Gods were known.

      A good example is in Aeschyus’s “Orestia” in which the characters are basically _commanded_ by the gods to do horrible things (e.g. Agamemnon kills/sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia; his son Orestes is bound by honor to kill his mother and her lover; etc).

      But afterwards they are still held personally responsible for their action and made to suffer the consequences –often by the same gods who told them to do it in the first place.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 21, 2019

        1)Understood (I have read about the Greeks a fair bit), but he is hardly depicted as being without flaw in the Iliad (he wouldn’t be so interesting otherwise). Homer’s values are, in any event, not those of the ‘Classical Greeks,’ of whose values we know a great deal, but rather of the earlier Mycenean culture, of which we know far less. Of course, we have no way of knowing how many different people were involved in the version we now have of those epics. I was not suggesting the Greeks had the same ideas about the afterlife as Christians, though you must admit, many European Christians were deeply influenced by Greek writings, which is how Socrates ended up in Dante’s paradise.

        2)You need to read more carefully, since I was asking a question of my own, and I’m not Greek. 😉

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  March 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am just now getting caught up so my question is about Barabbas.

    I agree with your conclusion that the memory is probably distorted, but this is the issue I am having. I am Ok with the memory being distorted but what bothers me is the audience for whom the author of Mark was writing. Would the readers of this biography not have said, “there is no custom of releasing a prisoner” or “Pilate would have never allowed that”, and therefore hurt the authors integrity and reliability? It seems that would kinda fall into the criterion of unreality! I made that criterion up of course, but you get what I mean. It seems counterproductive for the author to write that if there was not something to it.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2019

      Mark’s readers would not have had any information at all about Pilate himself or the policies governing Judea. We don’t have any indication that anyone ever doubted it — but remember, it was being written to people who were already inclined to believe anything it said about Jesus.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 23, 2019

        No newspapers. No television. No internet. Most people can’t read. Those who can don’t have very much to read, and (unless very fortunate) no libraries, and the libraries that do exist are just repositories of scrolls–there’s no way to look up information by name, subject, or date. No Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, and why would there be, since there is no periodical literature?

        (One reason Christianity succeeded and so many other new cults failed is not given enough attention–it was a religion that produced good books! Something to read, or that you could have read to you.)

        I feel certain at least some people did then wonder why Pilate was willing to pardon Barabbas, but presented with an explanation–an odd custom–just assumed it was real. Truthfully, there have been so many odd customs throughout history (often exaggerated in literature, like All Fool’s Day), it’s not that hard to believe, if you don’t think about it. Stranger things have happened, and still do. But that in itself isn’t proof that it did happen.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  March 18, 2019

    On the other hand one could argue that the two texts aren’t really directly contradicting each other. Rather, they are simply different texts, and they are each stating views that are quite different.

    As noted, in the Odyssey (the story of Life and Family) the view is that “all things must pass”, and even things like fame and glory are transient.

    But in the Iliad (the story of Honor and Conflct) the view is somewhat different; namely it is focused on KLEOS (or fame/glory) as the greatest good. That is, we, as mortals, will surely died; consequently the only thing worth having is this fame/glory. This is the choice that Akhellius is repeated faced with: he can choose to live a quiet life and live to an old age surrounded by wealth and family –but died utterly unknown. Or he can die very young, after having earned great fame and glory –which humankind will remember, and will tell about and honor forever.

    This is as close to immortality as a mortal can get.

    (Shakespeare makes the same point in the final couplet of Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this [i.e. these words] and this gives life to thee.”)

    We can compare this to a lesson that’s been repeatedly underscored on this blog: The way that John describes the role and function of Jesus’s life is very different from the story told by Mark. But the underlying point is not that they’re directly _contradicting_ each other; rather they are each just telling their own, very different, stories based on their own values and set of assumptions.

  5. Avatar
    Kevin@CoJCoLDS  March 18, 2019

    Where and WHEN do we get the tradition that Jesus visited Hades while he was dead? Is there any details on what he was doing there?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2019

      The first full-fledged account is in the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus. But many scholars have suspected that the tradition goes back to that most mysterious of passages, 1 Peter 4:6 (and see Eph. 4:9)

  6. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 19, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It seems to me, that the Iliad was written by a young man from the perspective of what is important to a young man and the Odyssey was written by an old man whose body was ready to ” lose all your strength, power, physical prowess – indeed everything enjoyable, whatsoever”.

    Perhaps Hades is a metaphor for the uselessness of old age and the people Homer sees there are his memories of people he can never touch again. Memories that cannot satisfy him the way those people could satisfy him. That it is better to be surrounded by those one loves and by whom one is loved than to be old and alone with one’s memories. That to have a life as a young man again and the wisdom to know what is truly important is better than being a king in one’s old age, even if it would mean being a slave to a slave.

    Question: Which katabasis tradition do you believe the New Testament story of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, is based on?

    Thank you,
    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2019

      Yes, I’ve wondered recently about the old age metaphorical idea…. I don’t think there is a *direct* literary source for Lazarus and the Rich Man, but it is certainly participating in / using the motif. A couple of scholarly books have been written recently dealing with just this passage in relationship to katabasis.

  7. Avatar
    Seeker1952  March 19, 2019

    Do you think the idea of the dead being shades in Hades is a poetic way of saying that the dead live on in the memories of the living–ie, a very shadow way of the dead continuing to live? I’m inclined to think that’s a major source of the idea of an afterlife, ie, memories of the dead by the living turned into a story or metaphor.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 19, 2019

    “Ugh,” indeed! More than a little depressing. Little wonder that so many people choose to believe in a different kind of afterlife. Too depressing to do otherwise.

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