The Vale of Abraham

by David Bentley Hart

I may be entirely mistaken here, I confess it; that is why, in my footnotes for the tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, in my recent translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press), I freely state that mine is a speculative rendering.  But, if I am wrong, mine is an honorable error.  The text of Luke 16:22-23 reads thus: ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ· ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη. καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ, ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις, ὁρᾷ Ἀβραὰμ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν καὶ Λάζαρον ἐν τοῖς κόλποις αὐτοῦ.  My version of the passage reads thus: “And it happened that the poor man died and was carried off by the angels into the Vale of Abraham; but the rich man also died and was entombed.  And lifting up his eyes in Hades, being in torment, he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales.”  The issue, obviously, is my eccentric choice to render κόλπος not as the conventional “bosom,” but as the aggressively unconventional “vale.”  N.T. Wright, for instance, in an article in The Christian Century, complained that I had perversely chosen the metaphorical meaning of the word over the literal, and in so doing had ignored the ancient Jewish idiom of “Abraham’s bosom.”

Actually, neither meaning is either more literal or more metaphorical than the other, but it is true that “bosom” might have been the more common meaning in the first century; and, were Luke merely a common writer rather than quite an educated one, that would be an extremely significant consideration. As for the ancient Jewish idiom to which Wright so cavalierly alludes, it never existed as far as we know; it is entirely his invention. There is, it is true, a fragment of papyrus from Alexandria, probably from about the same general era as Acts, that mentions the κόλπος of the three patriarchs; but, of course, that does not tell us how the term or the image is to be understood there either. In what sense could three men share a single bosom, after all? Surely one should assume the phrase means “their midst,” or “among them,” or “their special place,” or “their sheltering care,” or even (to risk a wild conjecture) “their vale.” Then, from some centuries after the time of Acts, there is a single Mishnaic phrase that might refer to the same image, in the tractate Kiddushin (72b), where the third-century figure Adda bar Ahava is described as seated within “Abraham’s bosom” (presumably not a metaphor). But this, it is generally believed, is a usage without deep roots in antiquity, perhaps borrowed from the Christians and entirely unilluminating as to what the Greek phrase used by Luke back in the first century really meant. It is possible, I happily grant, that κόλπος should be taken as simply equivalent to the Hebrew cheyq—the breast, or the fold in a man’s garment located at the level of his chest—and understood literally. But Luke did not write in Hebrew or Aramaic, and he lived in a Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world, and he used its language, and he conceived of reality in the terms common to his time.

This is all very important to keep in mind, because Wright had an odder complaint to raise against my treatment of the parable: he objected truculently to my observation, in my footnote to the episode, that the rich man and Lazarus are depicted as occupying two distinct regions of the one realm of the dead (Hades or Sheol). Apparently, he is of the opinion that the story instead places the rich man in something like the hell of later Christian imagination, and Lazarus in something like its heaven. This is, as it happens, extravagantly anachronistic. In fact, there is nothing here to debate at all. All good scholars of late antique Judaism, Christianity, or paganism are aware that, in the first century, the common picture of the afterlife shared by practically everyone was of a region of the dead in which there are places both of torment and of beatitude. The κόλπος of Abraham—however one translates the phrase—is something like the Elysian fields of Greek myth, a place of repose for the good and the just, located in the postmortem realm of souls. This is, after all, very much the picture provided by 1 Enoch, which first century Jews and Christians alike tended to regard as a truly prophetic work, and which exercised an immense influence over Christian belief in the first few generations of the church (but I shall come to that presently).

First, though, it is worth noting that one of the stranger features of Luke’s story is that, whereas verse 22 speaks of Abraham’s κόλπος (in the singular, that is), verse 23 speaks instead of his κόλποι (in the plural). For me, at least in terms of tone and consistency of imagery, this shift in number militates against any preference for a physiological rather than a topological understanding of the term. “Inward parts?” Perhaps, but that is not quite the same thing as the image of Lazarus resting his head upon the chest and within the embrace of father Abraham. And here one has to understand that the word κόλπος really did have an enormous range of uses, almost none of which were metaphorical, strictly speaking, but some of which were nonetheless situated at the more poetical end of the rhetorical spectrum. A κόλπος was originally something folded or enclosed, and as a physiological designation could be used for just about everything from breast to viscera to uterus to…well, other aspects of anatomy. It could also, however, mean a purse or a fold in fabric; and as a word for the pectoral fold in a man’s garment, in which he might carry money or papers, it acquired its association with the chest or bosom on which a head might tenderly be laid. Then again, it could also mean a lap, so perhaps we should think of Lazarus sitting in the lap of Abraham, or (for that matter) of the divine Son sitting in the lap of the Father (John 1:18). In either case, the image is a fetchingly sweet one, I suppose.

But the word also meant other kinds of enclosed spaces, like bays or gulfs or valleys, especially when employed for evocative effect. Luke was clearly a man of refined literary tastes and education, surely with some training in rhetoric, and there would have been nothing outlandish in his giving his narrative a touch of—well, whatever the first-century equivalent of “Tennysonian” would be…Theocritan, perhaps—color by using the somewhat more ornate phrase. He is relating a fable about the lands of the dead, after all. Certainly, for the educated the word had a long literary pedigree. One thinks of Pindar, for instance, speaking of the victory that came “to Epharmostos in the Valley of Nemea”: Νεμέας Ἐφαρμοστῷ κατὰ κόλπον (Olympian Odes 9.87). Or of Thucydides: καὶ ἔτι καὶ νῦν Πιερικὸς κόλπος καλείται, “and even now it is still called the Pierian Valley” (Peloponnesian War 2.99). In particular, the plural form used in verse 23 is reminiscent of Sophocles speaking of “the Valleys of Eleusinian Demeter, common to all,” παγκοίνοις Ἐλευσινίας Δηοῦς ἐν κόλποις (Antigone 1121). Still, truth be told, none of this would have prompted my choice of translation if not also for my belief that I recognize the source of Luke’s imagery.

Which brings me back to 1 Enoch. It is difficult to exaggerate how influential the intertestamental “Noachic” literature was for the Jews and then Christians of the first century. On the whole, too many New Testament scholars over the years have neglected properly to assess not only the three centuries of Hellenistic culture in which Jewish culture had been steeping by the time of Christ and the apostolic church, but also the profound importance for the early church (quite explicit at numerous places in the New Testament) of the angelology, demonology, cosmology, and eschatology of texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees. Too often in the past, the first-century Judaism of pious New Testament and early church studies has been a fantastic abstraction, decocted from equal parts the biblical prophets and later rabbinic Judaism, while the pervasive Greek and Persian and apocalyptic and other influences of that remarkably and gloriously culturally promiscuous age have been ignored or treated as extraneous minor features of late antique Judaism, as well as (of course) corruptions. Yet no one who knows how intermixed the cultures of the Hellenistic world really were should be surprised by the suggestion that Luke’s picture of the realm of the dead looks very much like the one that was, by his time, common to just about every Mediterranean and Near Eastern culture. Much less, however, should it surprise anyone to learn that Luke’s imagery resembles that of the Book of Enoch (from which, I think it likely, it was at least partially drawn).

To see this, one must consult what remains of the original Greek text, since the complete Ge’ez translation preserved in the Ethiopian Bible contains a number of errors that obscure the picture (most consequentially, the Ethiopian translator regularly confused the adjective κοῖλος with the adjective κάλος). But in chapter 22 of the Greek text of the book’s first section, “The Book of the Watchers,” we are granted a vision of the realm of the dead. It is depicted as a region set among a chain of mountains and comprising four “hollows” or “vales” (τόποι κοῖλοι, κοιλώματα) that have been entirely separated (ἐχωρίσθησαν) from one another; one of these vales is full of light and flowing water, while the other three are dry, deep, and dark. Here the dead await the judgment, the righteous in the place of light with its refreshing springs of water, the various classes of the unrighteous in the various places of suffering and darkness. Here too, I believe, or in some topography of Hades very similar to it, Luke has placed Lazarus and the rich man: the one in the Vale or Vales of Abraham, the other in a dark, dry, fiery valley of suffering. This does not prove my translation correct; but it does prove it sufficiently plausible, and perhaps more plausible than most alternatives.


David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian and author of a dozen books. His translation of the New Testament was published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.