Re: Questions about GEENNA

From: Ron Rhoades (
Date: Sun Feb 14 1999 - 02:49:24 EST

James Jackson wrote:
> As a minuscule Greek studying on my own, I have a couple of questions
> concerning the word : GEENNA

The meaning of GEENNA is a subject that interest me also. Since I mostly
only get to lurk, I had hoped to see more posts. Here are some thoughts
that I have gathered from several sources. I would like to see any
additional opinions on any of these points, since I have limited means
to double check their accuracy.

>James wrote: "I know that GEENNA is usually translated "hell" as in >hellfire. Why is it thus translated?...would Greek readers of the Roman >Empire have understood the meaning of this word as relating to Hellfire?

I think it is important to question whether the Greek readers of the
first century would understand GEENNA as meaning "a place of torment."
IMO that the reason for the translation "hell" is a theological one.
GEENNA is associated with fire and judgement, and this fits with the
later theological formulation of a fiery torment by the 4-5th century

>Jim wrote: Well, you need to remember that the earliest Christians were >Jews. As Jews- or as proselytes to Judaism, they most certainly would >have been familiar with the Holy City and its environs- including the >city dump.>

Jim is quite correct. But I doubt that these Jewish Christians would
have associated GEENNA with "torment" (or with HADES). In the first
century it was a place where only *dead* criminals were thrown, not
where live victims were tormented.

"This is a powerful picture of final *destruction*."--The New Bible
Commentary (page 779)

The source texts for Christ's use of GEENNA is not a picture of
conscious torment. It is of a terrible disgrace and total destruction,
the "dead bodies" being consumed by worms, scavenger birds and beasts.
(Isa.66:24, Jer. 7:33; 19:7). The Valley of Hinnom contains no hint of
conscious torment after death. The picture drawn is one of total

>Steven wrote: GEENA is more than just a geographical location. The NT >associations are also found in pseudepigrapha>

Steven is right. It did take on a figurative meaning beyond just the
city dump. But that does not excuse the mistranslation as "Hell".
Gehenna should no more be translated Hell, than should Sodom or

In translation we should ask: "What was the figurative meaning to the
Greek/Jewish readers?"

It became a word which secondarily implied: (1) the severest judgment
which a Jewish court could pass upon a criminal, throwing his unburied
corpse to the fires and worms; and (2) a punishment which never meant an
endless punishment beyond the grave, but possibly meant no chance of a
future life.

Bauer's Lexicon (1979, p.95) gives the meaning "eternal death" with
reference to the Greek phrase in Matthew 10:28 translated "destroy both
soul and body in Gehenna."

Correct me if any of this is wrong, but my notes show that:

Gehenna is never mentioned in the Apocrypha as a place of future
torment. No Jewish writer, such as Josephus or Philo, ever uses it as
the name of a place of torment, as would have done had such then been
its meaning. (Josephus does believe in a place of torment, but he uses
the word HADES.)

The first Jewish writer who ever names it as a place of future
punishment is Jonathan Ben Uzziel (2 C.E.?).

The first Christian writer who calls Hell Gehenna is Justin Martyr who
wrote about A.D. 150.

For Christendom, the idea of "eternal torment" remained in dispute till
the age of Justinian, 530.

(The Jews of a much later date did use the word Gehenna and Tartarus as
a place of fiery punishment.)

So if Christ did not use it in the sense of "fiery torment", should we
translate it with such a totally unrelated word?

"Whatever may be the meaning of the passages in which the word occurs,
'Hell' must be a complete mistranslation, since it attributes to the
term used by Christ a sense entirely different from that in which it was
understood by Jesus' hearers, and therefore entirely different from the
sense in which he could have used it."

Ron Rhoades

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