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). Continue Reading…