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The Passion for Origins

After I had engaged for a couple of months doing some real research and thinking seriously about my scholarly book on visions of and journeys to the realms of heaven and hell (tentatively entitled, for now, Otherworldly Journeys: Katabasis Traditions in Early Christianity), I thought I might start it all by doing a kind of history of research.   This is how scholarly books commonly used to start – especially books of German scholarship and American dissertations.  Chapter one would be a discussion of what all the other scholars had said about a topic, and use that history of scholarship to set up what the author him/herself wanted to explore, argue, and say that was different – whether it involved new data or new interpretations of old data, etc.

That way of preceding was always highly informative (and often seen as essential: my dissertation advisor insisted on it!) but not always scintillating, and most books today are more driven by scintillation.   So I certainly was not planning, for this book, on giving a blow-by-blow account of everything everyone had ever said about Katabasis in ancient writings, from Gilgamesh to Homer to Aristophanes to Plato to Virgil to Lucian to Jewish apocalypses to Christian apocalypses etc. etc.   Too pedantic.

But I was struck by a particular feature of the great bulk of this research, and thought I might devote a chapter to it.  As I pointed out in the previous post, scholars who started studying the Christian versions of afterlife journeys seriously, with the discovery of the Apocalypse of Peter in 1886-87, were obsessed with the question of where the idea of a journey to heaven and hell came from.  Where did Christians pick it up?

Was it from …

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Who Cares How It All Started?
The Original Obsession with Trips to the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    JoshuaBl  March 11, 2019

    Would not JZ Smith’s “Drudgery Divine” be the first port of call?

  2. Avatar
    john76  March 11, 2019

    I think things like etymology can be a helpful window into how the people that coined the word understood the concept. But you need to be a detective. For instance, with the alpha privative, we have the Greek word for Truth as “a-letheia,” literally “un-hidden.” It pairs nicely with a saying of Heraclitus: “physis kryptesthai philei,” “Being loves to hide.” So, there is going to be something in the Greek interpretation of “Truth” that is going to be a disclosing out of hiddeness. Of course, there are entire books written as to what this entails. The point is that it is important to study etymology here because perhaps there is something in our understanding of truth as correctness and certainty that has lost a more originary understanding of the matter that the Greeks had. As verum became certum, following a tradition paved by Thomas, Luther, and Descartes, the most important ideal, certainty of the salvation of the soul, transferred over from theology to the understanding of truth as certainty, free from doubt – because what had to be free from doubt was the salvation of the soul. Our understanding of truth as “certainty, free from doubt,” was basically an historical accident – and it covers over more original understandings: e.g., ‘True’ Friend; The Great ‘Truths’ Of The Human Condition; etc.

  3. Avatar
    James Chalmers  March 11, 2019

    J.L. Austin’s Plea for Excuses, 1956-1957 Presidential Address to the Aristotelian Society
    Trailing clouds of etymology.-It is these considerations
    that bring us up so forcibly against some of the most difficult words in the whole story of Excuses, such words as “result”, “effect ” and ” consequence “, or again as ” intention “, purpose ” and “motive”. I will mention two points of method which are, experience has convinced me, indispensable aids at these levels.
    One is that a word never-well, hardly ever-shakes off
    its etymology and its formation. In spite of all changes in and extensions of and additions to its meanings, and indeed rather pervading and governing these, there will still persist the old idea. In an accident something befalls: by mistake you take the wrong one: in error you stray: when you act deliberately you act after weighing it up (not after thinking out ways and means). It is worth asking ourselves whether
    we know the etymology of ” result ” or of “spontaneously”, and worth remembering that ” unwillingly ” and ” involuntarily ” come from very different sources. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/sterneshakespeareshelley/PleaExcuses.pdf

    • Avatar
      The Agnostic Christian  March 25, 2019

      So how would he have explained that in the KJV “let” means forbid, yet the word still retains something of its original meaning?

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    fishician  March 11, 2019

    The KJV-only concept of many people is so odd to me. Clearly the meanings of words and phrases change over time, but also as soon as you translate it into another language you have to make choices about how to translate it to have the same meaning in the new language. For example, I have a Russian New Testament that uses the word “christen” in place of the word “baptism,” a choice I would argue that is not a good one. So, what is the God-authorized translation in Russian? Or Spanish? Or Chinese? Ultimately the idea of a single “authorized” version is just silly to me.

    • Avatar
      Duke12  March 13, 2019

      Presumably many Orthodox in Russia would consider their “God Authorized Translation” to be the Old Church Slavonic.

  5. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  March 11, 2019

    Whatever its origins, once loose in the world, the concept of afterlife will never be lost. it’s just too attractive (seductive?).

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 11, 2019

    I think Popper talks about this in “the Open Society and its Enemies”, how this historicist tradition, the obsession with origins, starts with Plato, is elaborated by Aristotle and then pops up over and over again in history.

  7. Avatar
    Pattylt  March 11, 2019

    My favorite example of words changing their meaning…imagine coming across Middle English talking about silly Mary, mother of God. Silly used to mean blessed! Nowadays many folks might just get a wee bit upset with the insult to Mary! I’m fascinated with etymologies of words and the development of English from old to modern.

  8. Avatar
    lmabe10  March 11, 2019

    I have two unrelated questions.

    First, what do you prefer to be called? Professor Ehrman? Bart? Dr. Ehrman?

    Second, the Greek word “zoe,” refers to life and is often translated as “eternal life.” Is this an accurate translation in your opinion? Where would a layperson go to find straight definitions of ancient Greek words? All the sources I find seem to be by religious organizations and that makes me question their biases.

    PS I’m really looking forward to “Heaven and Hell!”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2019

      On this blog, Bart is fine. No, zoe itself does not imply “eternal.” Only when it has the adjective itself does it mean that, or in contexts where it is clear that this is the point. The best place for straight definitions would be a Greek lexicon (Liddell and Scott, e.g.). But it would mean learning the Greek alphabet to look up the words. Still, that’s only a few hours work.

  9. Avatar
    DennisJensen  March 11, 2019

    George Lamsa’s translation of the Bible from the Aramaic Peshita is available as an eBook for $2 (according to BookBub). Is this of value for exegesis or textual criticism? Any thoughts on this translation? I wonder how works like this my affect one’s study in etymology or how it relates to your discussion.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2019

      Yeah, not really I”m afraid. The Syriac (not Aramaic) Peshitta was a translation made out of the Greek. So if you want to know the original meaning of a passage, you’re better off sticking with the Greek. (And translations of the Greek; not translations of translations of the Greek)

      • Avatar
        DennisJensen  March 12, 2019

        Amazon’s description of the book says it’s a translation of the “Aramaic (Syriac).” Evidently Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic.

  10. Avatar
    bradseggie  March 11, 2019

    There is a similar thing in ancient fiction. Knowing the true name of a being was considered very important and to know its name was to hold power over it.


  11. Avatar
    Seeker1952  March 11, 2019

    As a scholar, what’s your view of the historicity of Jesus’s last seven words/sentences from the cross? And what did the authors consider to be the theological meaning of those words? Finally, can you suggest an article (preferably online) or book that addresses these questions from the standpoint of the historical-critical scholar?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2019

      The “seven last words” are not found in any of the Gospels — but are taken by combining what each of the Gospels says. Critical scholars generally think that there’s no way to know what Jesus had actually said at the time. Our sources are decades later, by people who weren’t there, and didn’t know anyone who was there — assuming there *were* people there, apart from a few Roman soldiers, an assumption that may itself be unlikely. But I don’t know of an article or book on the precise question. It would be an interesting one to have!

  12. Benjamin
    Benjamin  March 12, 2019

    good luck!

  13. Avatar
    drumbeg  March 12, 2019

    Awful…to be filled with awe for God…I think that is how that word started or one of its “incantations.”
    To be filled with awe for God could be thought of as awful, in the same way that Zeus revealed himself in his full power before Semele. Who can look on the divine? And that sort-of idea.

  14. Avatar
    Eric  March 12, 2019

    For those members interested in etymology and linguistics, may I recommend Bart’s colleague (in the Great Courses), John McWhorter, who like Bart is a scholar capable of reaching the intelligent trade-book reader with style (his topics are linguistics, and, perhaps oddly, also American History).

  15. Avatar
    mannix  March 12, 2019

    Your example of dandelions concludes with the idea that knowing the etymology of a word would not affect how one uses it. Well put. However, there may be exceptions. The common female hormone PREMARIN (estrogen) is a trade name which actually tells the source of the hormone: PREgnant MARe urINe. One may wonder how many women would have readily consumed that popular medication had that etymology been widely known!

  16. Avatar
    rdrstarbase@gmail.com  March 17, 2019

    Just say’n, I would think of another title for the book.The current working title is not very inviting–too academic and obscure.

  17. Avatar
    Zak1010  May 23, 2019

    I read an article about a group of early Jewish-Christians known as the Nazerines that fled the Byzantines in Palestine seeking refuge in the Sassanid empire. They were welcomed and granted safe haven by the Sassanids. Makes sense due to the centuries of war and conflict between the Roman and Sassanid empires. The Nazerines were labeled heretics by the Church or early church fathers. My question is : are these Nazerines related to the Ebionites?
    Also, in the same region , there is a group known as Yezidi. Do you know if they are descendants of Seth?
    Both have very interesting beliefs that are logical and palatable. Also, could clear up some questions that linger.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      The study of early Jewish-Christian groups is very complicated becaue of the problem of sources. But if you’re talking about events in the Byzantine period, that would be after my time of expertise. (There were allegedly groups called the Nazarites; the Ebionites; the HEbrews; etc. They are often seen as distinct groups with overlapping theological interests, located in different places)

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