Hell in Testament of Isaac 5 (and the Testaments of Abraham and Jacob)

For my daily quiet time, I recently read the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Isaac, and the Testament of Jacob in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha.

According to the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, the Testament of Abraham dates to the first-second centuries C.E., the Testament of Isaac to the second century C.E., and the Testament of Jacob to the second-third centuries C.E. The books could be from the same milieu. The scholars who introduced the works maintain that the Testament of Abraham and the Testament of Isaac were from an Egyptian Jewish context. But the Testament of Isaac has Christian redactions, probably Coptic Christian redactions (according to W.F. Stinespring). In the scholarly introduction to the Testament of Jacob, there is not much information about the Testament of Jacob’s milieu, but it does say that the main manuscripts for the Testament of Jacob are the same as those for the Testament of Isaac (with Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic texts); in addition, the person who put in the side notes of parallel passages mentions the Testament of Isaac a lot, so perhaps the Testament of Jacob drew from it.

In this post, I will talk about the topic of hell in these three Testaments, but I will use as my starting-point Testament of Isaac 5. The translation I will use will be that of Stinespring, for both the Testament of Isaac and the Testament of Jacob.

In Testament of Isaac 5, Isaac sees a man who is torn apart and eaten by lions, only to be ejected out of the lions’ mouths and eaten again, over and over. Isaac inquires of his angelic tour-guide what this person did to deserve this. The angel responds that the man “was in enmity with his neighbor for five hours, and he died without having been reconciled to him.” According to the angel, a man in the afterlife is tormented for each hour that he has been hostile to his neighbor, if he has not repented and reconciled with his neighbor prior to his death. This occurs until the completion of a full year.

Isaac then sees a river of fire, and wisdom is in that fire. The fire was not harming the righteous, but it was tormenting the sinners. At the bottom of the river, suffering a “drastic punishment,” are those who “have committed the sin of Sodom.” An overseer of punishment would tell his helpers to kill the sinners that it might “be known that God exists forever.” Isaac asks the angel how long these people will be tortured, and the angel responds, “Until the God of mercy becomes merciful and has mercy on them.”

Here are some thoughts:

1. Hell here is temporary, or at least it is possibly temporary: there is the possibility that God will have mercy on the tormented sinners and end their torment. Is that consistent with what is in the Testament of Abraham and the Testament of Jacob? In Testament of Abraham (Recension A), there is a reference to the everlasting punishment and destruction of sinners, those who not go through the narrow gate. In Testament of Jacob 5, adulterers, male homosexuals, masturbators, astrologers, sorcerers, evildoers, idol worshipers, and slanders are tormented in a place of outer darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and “fire which will not be extinguished.” In Testament of Jacob 7, we read: “O my dear son, avoid the evil ways of the world, which are anger and depravity and all vicious deeds. And beware of injustice and blasphemy and abduction. For the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God, nor will the adulterers, nor the accursed, nor those who commit outrages and have sexual intercourse with males, nor the gluttons, nor the worshipers of idols, nor those who utter imprecations, nor those who pollute themselves outside of pure marriage; and others whom we have not presented or even mentioned shall not come near the kingdom of God.”

2. Are these texts inconsistent with each other, or possibly consistent? I can understand one answering “inconsistent.” In Testament of Isaac 5, hell is possibly temporary. In Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 11, it is everlasting punishment. In those Testament of Jacob passages, there is the statement that certain sinners will not come near the Kingdom of God, which would arguably be a meaningless statement if hell is temporary, if the sinners spend some time in hell then go to the Kingdom of God. Could the passages be consistent, though? Maybe “everlasting” does not always mean eternal but can mean a very long time that eventually comes to an end. Maybe the sinners do not come near the Kingdom of God while they are still sinners, but their torments in hell cleanse them of being sinners, of being the types of people who would commit those sins (yet I should note that there is nothing in the Testaments about hell being a place of purification for sinners). Do these Testaments contain different concepts or views on hell, or can the temporariness of hell that we find in Testament of Isaac 5 qualify, in some sense, the pictures that are in Testament of Abraham and Testament of Jacob?

3. Are the passages Jewish or part of the Christian redaction? On the one hand, there are parts of the Testament of Abraham (Recension A) that are probably Jewish and that pertain to hell: Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 12 has a concept of God weighing people’s good and bad deeds, and that is similar to what was in rabbinic literature. On the other hand, Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 11 has the concepts of the narrow gate and everlasting punishment, and E.P. Sanders states that v 11 is “[a]pparently conflating Mt 7:13 (‘that leads to perdition’) and Mt 25:46 (‘eternal punishment’).” Sanders also seems to see v 11 as quoting Matthew 7:13. There is a note in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha citing I Corinthians 6:9 beside Testament of Jacob 7, which may indicate that a belief that I Corinthians 6:9 influenced the person who wrote Testament of Jacob 7, or may simply be highlighting similarity, without saying that one source influenced the other. The story of the tormented man in Testament of Isaac 5 reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving man in Matthew 18. In both stories, a man is punished because he did not forgive somebody else. Matthew 18:34 states that this man was punished until he would pay what he owes, and that could imply a temporary hell (though believers in conscious eternal torment would say that the man could never pay what he owed, since it is an incredibly large amount). But there is a difference between the stories. The man in Testament of Isaac 5 is punished specifically for the sin of not making peace with his neighbor, whereas the man in Matthew 18, because he did not forgive his neighbor, is punished for his sins against the king that the king had previously forgiven. The reason this issue could be important is that it could help establish which voice said what in these Testaments. That is relevant to the question of whether the temporary hell in Testament of Isaac 5 should be understood as qualifying the pictures of hell in the other Testaments, or is simply another viewpoint inserted into the text. And that is relevant to the question of whether ancient Jews and Christians, and even the New Testament, could simultaneously call hell everlasting or eternal, while still regarding it as temporary, in some sense.

4. I should also note that Testament of Isaac does have a concept of forgiveness for those who do not know God, those who have never heard. Testament of Isaac 4 reads: “And pardon all your creatures whom you have fashioned, but who have not heard and learned of you.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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