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Luke 16:19-31 (ESV):

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

The setting / backdrop of the Parable includes the following elements:

  • Hades / Sheol.
  • Some notion of immediate judgement right after death (probably distinct from the final judgement on Judgement Day?)
  • Angels carrying the spirits of dead people to Hades / Sheol.
  • Two compartments: one for the righteous and one for the wicked.
  • A chasm separating the two compartments.
  • The presence of Abraham in the compartment for the righteous.
  • The capacity of disembodied spirits to be conscious, think and speak.
  • The experience of comfort in the compartment for the righteous.
  • The experience of torment ("anguish in this flame") in the compartment for the wicked.
  • The belief in the possibility of the resurrection of the dead.
  • And any other relevant elements I may have overlooked.

Question: What is the ultimate origin of each element present in the setting of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man?

  • Was everything grounded in reality because Jesus was recounting a real incident that actually happened?
  • Were these original ideas that Jesus came up with at that moment?
  • Were these beliefs that were widely held by the Jewish culture at the time?
  • Were these well-established doctrines according to the Rabbis at the time?
  • Were these ideas understood to be supported by contemporary sacred scriptures (see Hebrew Bible)? In other words, can we find evidence supporting any of these ideas in the Old Testament?
  • Were these ideas imported from pagan cultures? If so, which cultures? Can we trace back the first sources?

Note: if this question is off-topic here, feel free to migrate it over to Christianity Stack Exchange.


Related: Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man - literal, allegorical or a mixture of both?

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    You left out one possibility in your bullet-point list : that Jesus was recounting the incident from a real incident that actually happened .
    – Nigel J
    Feb 8, 2022 at 9:19
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    @NigelJ - you are absolutely right, I added that as the first bullet-point below the question
    – user38524
    Feb 8, 2022 at 12:01
  • Thank you. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 8, 2022 at 12:02

3 Answers 3

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+50

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus has a large number of story elements that have no backdrop in the OT. However, there are numerous precedents for these elements in various myths of the ancient world such as:

The bosom of Abraham appears to recall that described here is Jewish mythology beginning about 500 BC but not before. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosom_of_Abraham

In First Temple Judaism, Sheol in the Hebrew Old Testament, or Hades in the Septuagint, is primarily a place of "silence" to which all humans go. However, during, or before, the exile in Babylon ideas of activity of the dead in Sheol began to enter Judaism.[7][8]

During the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE–70 CE) the concept of a Bosom of Abraham first occurs in Jewish papyri that refer to the "Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob".[9] This reflects the belief of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: "after our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17).[10] Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm. In the pseudepigraphical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but replaced by an angel. On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham : "You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place... to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David."[11] In this story Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham, he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.

Immortality of the Soul and consciousness after death

The whole idea of separateness of a disembodied spirit/soul from the body (as distinct from the unity of soul and breath in the Bible) comes from ancient Egyptian doctrine of death which was inherited by Platonic philosophy as famously expressed in Plato's "Phaedo" (part of his series on conversations with Socrates). In this ancient work, the doctrine of the soul and its immortality is most clearly expressed and later influenced Jewish thinking as expressed in some of Josephus' works in the subject.

This is notable very different from the OT writings on the same subject which always depicts She'ol/Hades as a place of silence and darkness and unconsciousness. See Ps 13:3, 76:5, Job 14:12, Dan 12:2, 1 Kings 1:21, etc, which all talk about the "sleep of death".

Hades

Hades as a place of torment for the wicked comes directly from Greek mythology as per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hades [The same word, Hades, translates the Hebrew Sheol in the LXX and in the OT, sheol is always the underworld, the place of the dead, a places of silence and darkness from which people never returns.]

Angels carry Lazarus to Bosom of Abraham in Hades

The carrying of people after death to Hades directly recalls the myth of Hades and ferryman, Charon, who ferries the dead across the river styx.

This is not the only time the NT strongly alludes to pagan mythology - see appendix 2 below for more examples. [Note - If I write to a friend with a joke or some didactic lesson based on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, this does not suggest I believe either are real, but simply draws on the common mythology of the times.]

Thus, Jesus' parable appears to be a midrash of numerous elements taken from mythology of both Greek and Jewish sources over the previous 400 years.

APPENDIX 1 - Extract from https://theos.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2741

The earliest version of the story seems to have originated in ancient Egypt. In this story, a man named Si-Osiris is reincarnated from the realm of the dead so as to deal with an Ethiopian magician who was upstaging his Egyptian counterparts. Si-Osiris is miraclously born to a childless couple and, before he is old enough to accomplish his purpose, he and his father share an interesting dialogue after observing the funerals of a rich man and a pauper. When the father suggests his hope to have a life and death like the rich man, Si-Osiris corrects him by taking him on a tour of the realm of the dead. There it is learned that the pauper has been elevated to a high position and the rich man is left on the outside looking in.

APPENDIX 2 - Greek Mythology in the NT

Here is a sample of Greek myths used for didactic purposes but are not intended to be taken literally:

  • John 4 - Jesus as the living water appears to be an allusion to the Roman God Mithras (very popular in 1st century) who is supposed to use water, especially holy water as a spiritual cultic cure for many things
  • John 15:1-15 - Jesus is the true vine is a direct allusion (ie, polemic against) the Greek god Dionysos, who was worshiped in association with wine, drinking, grapes, and vines. In John 2 Jesus turned water into wine.
  • In John 1:4 and 8:12 Jesus calls Himself the light of the world - the true light in opposition to Apollos who was the Greek god supposed to light the world
  • Rev 1:1-18 - the description of Jesus is strikingly similar to the Greek god Hecate who was the savior and in charge of angels and the soul world, and was three-fold, etc.
  • Rev 2:13 - Jesus says to the church in Pergamum that He knows where they live - the seat of Satan; this allude to the cult of Zeus that was popular there.
  • Rev 12 contains a description of a seven headed monster that is a visual midrash of a dragon and hydra (who spews water from its mouth, V15)
  • Rev 13 contains another beast that is a clear Greek chimera, lion, bear, leopard, etc.
  • The great prostitute of Rev 17 is reminiscent of many an enchantress and their magic potions that bewitch those that drink them
  • The Logos of John 1:1-18 has very deep connections with Greek philosophy and is presumably the reson John was inspired to use the term to appeal to both Greeks and Hebrews familiar with the word "debar" in Hebrew.
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    A corollary to this is, as C.S. Lewis has said, Christianity is the myth that is true. By that reckoning there was once one whole mythology/philosophy/theology that was fractured when languages were confused. When Scripture, therefore, appears to draw from these things in the surrounding cultures ( such as Hecate or Logos)) it actually refers to those aspects that are true and have survived the devastation of Babel. Feb 9, 2022 at 3:27
  • @MikeBorden - interesting idea that has some merit!
    – Dottard
    Feb 9, 2022 at 3:49
  • I like your point about Santa Claus & the Easter Bunny -- I have in fact personally used Harry Potter in sermons on multiple occasions Feb 15, 2022 at 20:54
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If one accepts that Jesus was recounting an incident of which he, himself, was cognisant, then no further research is required.

The fact that Jesus names one of the participants suggests that this is not as his parables, wherein he describes functions, such as a sower spreading seed, such as a woman losing a coin and so forth.

Naming a participant with a real name, not a generic name, indicates that this is a real person.

In this case, all of the 'elements' within the proscribed incident can be directly related to the persons stated : either the rich man or Lazarus.


The rich man is in a condition of disembodiment. His corpse is in the grave, his soul is in hades (sheol). We know that the incident is pre-the general resurrection of all humanity as his brothers are yet on earth.

We know that he has no eyes : they are rotting in the skull which is buried in the earth or sited in the catacombs beneath Jerusalem. Wound with linen and heavily spiced, nevertheless the eyes soon deteriorate in death.

We know that he has no tongue or throat : they are likewise in the grave.

He has no brain : the axons and dendrites . . . . likewise.

Thus what he thinks, in his disembodied state, is expressed in metaphor, so that we can empathise with his condition.

He 'sees' 'Abraham' and Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. Inside himself, he is aware of what he did in life : remembers how he treated the beggar at his gate. Privileged, he, to have gates to distance himself from the public. Privileged, he, to eat sumptuously every single day of the week. Privileged, he, to have the health so to do ; to have the wealth necessary.

Unshared. Secreted. Horded. Indulged.

While the dogs gave Lazarus the only medication he received for the sores on his body : their saliva.

The rich man was still aware, within himself, of his past. And aware of where Lazarus would be. And the rich man addresses, within himself, the only person he knows, religiously, as 'father'.

Abraham.

For the rich man knew not God as Father. All he knew was his ethnic parentage. And he imagines Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.

In reality, Lazarus was in the bosom of the Father. Jesus states that angels carried Lazarus into Abraham's bosom and I suggest (it is a suggestion) that this discourse being addressed to 'publicans and sinners' in the hearing of Pharisees and scribes, Luke 15:1, he expresses only what they would, up to that point in progressive revelation, be able to assimilate.

It was to the disciples, privately, that Jesus spoke of the Father in intimate terms. (I suggest.)

And the rich man is aware of 'flame'. Not yet the actual and external sulphurous (brimstone) flame of the lake of fire not yet kindled. (Gehenna.)

That condition he yet will suffer, in the future, when time ends and Christ returns to gather his own from off the earth, to be with him for ever and the wicked are retrieved from both hades and earth to be taken to the only logical place which, resurrected, they may be : the conflagration of the old creation, a plasma now - energy in 'elemental' form, see 2 Peter 3:10. A lake of fire (no fuel, just flame) that can never be quenched that is the fourth form of matter : elevated heat, dissociated particles, and indestructible.

But for the rich man, presently, this is the condition of a disembodied soul in hades : heat.

And he senses 'thirst' : not physical ; but a yearning, a craving, a gasping, within his disembodied soul.

Oh, that Lazarus could but put a finger in water and slake my craving, gasping, searing dryness !

No moisture. No Holy Spirit. No flowings from a Head in heaven.

Dry.

But his thoughts, his soul-sensations, tell him that this cannot be. It is as though Abraham talks to him (this figment of his imagination that is as close as he ever came to someone to pray to).

His blurred sensations, his muddled thoughts, his meandering mind in the midst of a craving 'thirst' ; they conclude, within his tormented soul, that the reason he feels no respite, despite such longings, is - a great gulf, fixed.


And there he still is.

Two thousand years have passed since Jesus informed us of his condition.

Kingdoms have risen and fallen. Inventions and gadgets have covered the earth. The world has laughed and cried and slept and waked and eaten and drunk and married and given in marriage : and gone to the grave like he.

He knows nothing of it.

Still, he thirsts.

Still he remorses, incessantly, as to his past life.

Still, he craves.

And still these words are in scripture, given us by Jesus of Nazareth, who alone could communicate such factual data from within his own unique knowledge.

Words to warn every soul of man of what will happen if they follow such a course on earth.

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    I love how Jesus calls Lazarus by name, who's headstone, if he had one, would probably be marked as "unknown."
    – Nhi
    Feb 8, 2022 at 15:15
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    I like the first section a lot, but the remaining sections contain significant extrapolations from the Scripture. For example, we do not have any reason to believe that a soul in sheoul was unable to see, hear, speak, and feel pain because the person lacked a body, and plenty of reason to think they can: the Scripture describes the rich main in this way. I don't think anything is added by arguing against the Scriptural account without anything to base that view on. That said, again I agree with the first section, and also I wholeheartedly agree with the last line:
    – bob
    Feb 8, 2022 at 16:27
  • To me, it always sounded like people in hell, including the rich man, had bodies - just that their bodies were for perdition and were distinct from the bodies they left on the surface of the earth. Feb 8, 2022 at 20:35
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    A cogent exposition of an oft maligned view. Feb 9, 2022 at 3:21
  • You have taken most of the elements and re-interpreted what you claim is a literal story as metaphoric/symbolic elements. By what means do you choose which elements of the story are literal and which are symbolic? From the outside, this appears to be rather inconsistent! Lastly, how does a disembodied spirit/soul feel heat or any other sensation without a body?
    – Dottard
    Feb 14, 2022 at 10:48
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Much has been said about this parable and thought I'd add a few more thoughts.

In Scripture fire is literal and sometimes it is metaphorical.

Which is it in this case of the parable? This is a question I will add to your other questions and add an answer at the end of this comment.

Is Abraham alive according to this parable or is he dead according to other Scripture?

Is Abraham alive receiving people into his bosom in Hades? We know from many other scriptures that have been mentioned the dead are dead and know nothing.

Abraham purchased a tomb to bury him and his people in. Genesis 24:20

Abraham lived a total of 175 years. 8And at a ripe old age he breathed his last and died, old and contented, and was gathered to his people. Genesis 25:8

Abraham died in faith and has not yet been resurrected. Heb. 11:14

This part of the parable then it's only metaphorical. It is used to get another point across… Not to give a new doctrine on the dead being alive in Hades.

Jesus is speaking again to the Pharisees; showing them once again that just because they are born from Abraham does not mean they are the offspring of promise.

We have to remember that these Pharisees were the teachers of Israel at that time, and Jesus is showing them and others their true colors. Most of the people put their faith in them. They were the leaders of Israel at the time. These Pharisees had no idea of their spiritual poverty. Their Total dependence was being born from Abraham. Jesus shows them that their father Abraham can do nothing to save them from their torment. Their trust in him was shattered when Abraham could not even help the one suffering or help to warn their brothers.

"Abraham is our father,” they replied. “If you were children of Abraham,” said Jesus, “you would do the works of Abraham. 40But now you are trying to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. 41You are doing the works of your father.” John 8:39-41

God had said to him, (Abraham) Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned. Heb: 11: 8.

Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. Heb.:11 11:19

The great gulf between them is their belief and unbelief in the true God who Abraham believed in. God would raise the dead and that was the God of Abraham.

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews learned that Jesus was there. And they came not only because of Him, but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11for on account of him many of the Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus. John 12:10

Lazarus is probably a name all Israel knew about… They knew he had been raised from the dead by Jesus. These leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and scribed are blinded by their jealousy and hatred of Jesus because Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus. What more sign do they need?

Jesus whole point of this parable is to show the Pharisees that their dependence on Abraham is not going to save them or their brothers out of torment. (Perhaps later some came to believe that and put their faith in Jesus).

Now onto the fire in Hades… Is it literal or metaphorical?

Here is a parallel verse back in the Old Testament that has to do with fire in Sheol.

a fire has been kindled by My anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol; it consumes the earth and its produce, and scorches the foundations of the mountains. Deuteronomy 32:22

(One has to ask when Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth was He burned by fire?)

This fire is so deep, and so strong it is being played out in the next verses of what it looks like. It is not a literal fire that is consuming the people but many earthly judgments against them.

First look a chapter 32 in Deuteronomy to see why these judgments

One can see what the fire looks like in the verses that follow. Judgments and punishment follows because of all the things that were mentioned in previous verses in chapter Deuteronomy 32

I will heap disasters upon them; I will spend My arrows against them. 24They will be wasted from hunger and ravaged by pestilence and bitter plague; I will send the fangs of wild beasts against them, with the venom of vipers that slither in the dust....

We all know fire purges through suffering and His judgments are given after His long suffering has endured for a long time with their behavior. We see this over and over in regards to Israel and they're worshiping of false gods.

Fire indeed can be the judgments of God felt in the flesh.

A judgment certainly awaits these Pharisees, but it has not yet happened. God warns people first.

These parables started in Luke 15 when the Pharisees as well as the scribes were grumbling as well as the scribes saying that this man is receiving sinners and eating together with them. Of course their attitude was thank God they were not like the rest of them.

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