Here is the research proposal that I sent in to various funding agencies hoping to get a leave for next year – including the National Humanities Center, which has given me a fellowship . As you’ll see, it is closely tied to the trade book I am working on about the origins of the Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but it deals with a specific issue at considerable depth.   For the fellowship application I called the prospective book “The Invention of Heaven and Hell” – which sounds too much like my trade book (“The Invention of the Afterlife”) but it was all I could come up with at the time.  I wanted to give it a scholarly title, something like “Anabasis Traditions in Early Christianity,” but was strongly advised not to make the title technical.  There’s no telling what it will be called when it eventually gets written, but here is what I say about it when describing in my applications for fellowships.


In the winter season of 1886-87 a French archaeological team digging in a necropolis in Akhmim, Egypt made one of the most intriguing textual discoveries of modern times.   In a tomb thought to belong to a Christian monk, they found a 66-page book, in Greek, comprising a small anthology of texts, one of which was eventually identified as the Apocalypse of Peter.   This work provides the first surviving Christian account of a guided tour of heaven and hell, told in the first person by Jesus’ own disciple Peter.  In the account, Peter describes, briefly, the ecstasies of the elect and, at greater length and more graphic detail, the torments of the damned.   Peter sees that sinners are punished according to their most characteristic transgressions: blasphemers, for example, are hanged by their tongues over eternal flames; adulterers are hanged by their genitals.

The publication of the apocalypse led to a …

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