Did Jews and Greeks Have a Common Understanding of Life After Death?

I’ve already told you how Sheol typically gets translated into English. In the second century BC the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is referred to as the Septuagint (in Latin, “The Seventy”). The name refers to the tradition that seventy Jewish scholars produced the translation. How this group chose to translate “Sheol” is interesting. They chose the word “Hades”. It is “Hades” that appears several times in the New Testament to refer to Sheol.

Hades, of course, is a name from Greek mythology. At first, the choice seems alarming. Is this an endorsement of Greek myths? Is it syncretism (a combining of religions)? It is neither.   This choice was just a way to help Greek readers understand. Whenever a translation choice like that is made it is an attempt to connect a concept with something the reader already knows about. There is a danger, however. The danger is that the reader bring too much of the word’s baggage with him.

Hades was the Greek god of the underworld, but also was used to refer to the place he ruled, which was the abode of the dead. Hades was a place where people consciously, if unhappily, existed. This much is like at least a part of Sheol.

Hades was also a place with different areas. This seems to be true of Sheol as we will see. The name of one area of Hades, Tartarus, also finds its way into the New Testament. That about ends the points of comparison. There is no god reigning over Sheol. There is no river to cross to get there. The rest of the Greek myth does not apply. Still, it is understandable why the Seventy chose “Hades” as a translation of “Sheol” into Greek, and why it remained the word of choice in the New Testament.

The word choice has proved to be a mixed bag. While the word may have been a bridge to understanding, as we will note in several places, Greek religious ideas have come to taint several Christian teachings over time. Whether a different translation choice could have prevented this is unknowable.

The use of the word Hades does adds some clarity for us. If Sheol simply meant “grave” in context, the translators would never have used “Hades”. Sheol is not a grave. If Sheol meant different things in different contexts, the Seventy, would have used different words in those contexts. With the exception of compound words, they didn’t. Sheol is a place and they translated it with a place name.

Next Time:   We will take a short break from our discussion of Sheol and cover something that has recent personal relevance to me–the process of dying.

Author: tdwenig

Tom is the Senior Pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Evansville, IN. He has served his congregation since 2000. He has a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

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