Summer School for Latin Language and Culture (Zadar, 2022): Reflection

Last week I was a guest lecturer at the Summer School for Latin Language and Culture in Zadar – a town worth visiting. We had a lot of fun, and I’m really happy to be a part of that beautiful story. You can learn more about it here: . Hopefully, some of you will join the school next summer! I gave a lecture about the origins of the Christian belief in Heaven and Hell. Since I already wrote two posts about it (see: here, and here), I won’t go into the same discussion here. Instead of that, I’ll just reflect on the lecture itself.

When Petar invited me, I had to come up with a topic that is both interesting and educational. Everybody has some sort of an opinion about the afterlife and a lot of people believe in Heaven and Hell. For example, roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded. So, the topic of Heaven and Hell was a good choice. Nevertheless, it has its own disadvantages. Up until two days before the lecture, I wasn’t sure I should speak about that. Even though it’s an interesting topic, it is quite controversial. It speaks to the core beliefs of people and it can get tricky in a second. Looking at the lecture in retrospect, I have to confess I did not emphasize enough a few key points. First of all, I’m a historian of early Christianity – which means I don’t deal with universal truths and metaphysical points. To put it more bluntly, my lecture in Zadar wasn’t about whether you should believe in Heaven and Hell or not. I only gave my opinion about the structure of that belief: how did it emerge, why, and in what circumstances. What did the first Christians (after Jesus) believe regarding the afterlife? What do Homer and Virgil have to do with the development of the Christian notion of heaven and hell? What kind of role did the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) have on the belief in heaven and hell among the first Christians? What does it mean to say that Jesus probably didn’t believe in the separation of the soul and body? As you can see, all of those things are related to the description of the past reality. I was merely analyzing the origins and the development of a particular concept (belief in heaven and hell) – I wasn’t trying to convince anybody that this concept is real. I wasn’t even trying to convince the audience that this concept isn’t real. My job and my passion is to investigate historical questions with respect to the basic methodological tools used by (more or less) all historians on this planet – whether they study early Christianity or World World 2. Needless to say, I have my own (philosophical and theological) views about the afterlife – but that’s a private thing and I’m not comfortable sharing private beliefs with the broader audience. When I think about it: I’m not comfortable in sharing these beliefs with friends either! Strange, I know!

But besides that, during the Q&A section, several people shared some concerns about the possibility that the Gospels aren’t 100 % (from A to Z) correct representation of the life of Jesus and his followers. As I mentioned in one of the earlier posts (see: here), I don’t think that the Gospels are without historical discrepancies (e.g. the death of Judas) and I’ve read hundreds of articles and who knows how many books on this precise question. I’ve read the Gospels numerous times and most of the synoptic Gospels I’ve read in Greek. Does that mean I’m infallible? Of course not! Be free to question my conclusion and do your own research. Maybe I did miss something, maybe that thing I missed is actually enough for a paradigm shift. Who knows?! Anyways, some people in the audience did have a particular problem with my assessment of the Gospels as historical documents. I’m happy to say that don Josip Krpić (co-organizer of the summer school and participant in the discussion) joined the discussion noting that the authors of the Gospels weren’t writing investigational reports (in a modern sense of that word) – they were trying to convey a deep theological message: Jesus is the resurrected Son of God whose redemptive death closed the bridge between God and people. And they have done that in different ways – If I may add that! Do the discrepancies in some details of Jesus’ life negate that theological message? Of course not. And I agree with don Josip 100 % on that one! Whether Jarius’ daughter was already dead when her father came to Jesus or she died afterward (compare Mk 5,21-43 and Mt 9, 18-26) isn’t that important to your salvation (if you are a Christian). Well, it isn’t important at all. So, you shouldn’t be concerned about the historical investigation of the Gospels – if you are, you should rethink the way you look at your religion. In the end, I can only quote one of the greatest historical Jesus scholars Dale Allison (Princeton University) with whom I had numerous correspondences. At the end of his latest book about historical Jesus (see: here), Dale wrote powerful words worth quoting in full: “While I am proudly a historian of early Christianity, I must confess that history is not what matters most. If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope, and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible“.

P.S. If you really want to know more about the historical origins of the belief in Heaven and Hell here are several books worth reading:

  1. Jan Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife
  2. Alan Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West
  3. Erwin Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks
  4. Bart Ehrman, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
    1. Ehrman thinks (among other things) that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t preach the existence of hell – as a place where sinners are punished forever. In his opinion, Jesus believed that the Good was going to punish all sinners on Judgment Day by annihilating them forever.
  5. Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters
    1. For a different view see the chapter “Problem of Gehenna” in Allison’s book where he argues that Jesus likely had some sort of doctrine of hell or Gehenna, which would not be in line with annihilationism.

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