What Is Gehenna?
Gehenna is a small valley in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed (Jer. 7:31, 19:2–6).
In rabbinic literature Gehenna is a destination of the wicked. This is different from the more neutral Sheol/Hades, the abode of the dead, although the King James Version of the Bible usually translates both with the Anglo-Saxon word “hell”.
In the King James Version of the Bible, the term appears 13 times in 11 different verses as Valley of Hinnom, Valley of the son of Hinnom or Valley of the children of Hinnom.
The Valley of Hinnom is the modern name for the valley surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City, including Mount Zion, from the west and south. It meets and merges with the Kidron Valley, the other principal valley around the Old City, near the southeastern corner of the city.
Gehenna from Ancient Greek: Γέεννα, Geenna from Hebrew: גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם, Modern: gei ben-Hinnom, Tiberian: gē ben-Hinnṓm, also Hebrew גֵי־הִנֹּם, Modern: gei-Hinnom, Tiberian: gē-Hinnṓm; Mishnaic Hebrew: גהנום/גהנם, Gehinnam/Gehinnom
English “Gehenna” represents the Greek Geenna (Γέεννα) found in the New Testament, a phonetic transcription of Aramaic Gēhannā (ܓܝܗܢܐ), equivalent to the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, literally “Valley of Hinnom”.
This was known in the Old Testament as Gei Ben-Hinnom, literally the “Valley of the son of Hinnom”, and in the Talmud as גהנם Gehinnam or גהנום Gehinnom.
The exact location of the Valley of Hinnom is disputed. Older commentaries give the location as below the southern wall of ancient Jerusalem, stretching from the foot of Mount Zion eastward past the Tyropoeon to the Kidron Valley. However the Tyropoeon Valley is usually no longer associated with the Valley of Hinnom because during the period of Ahaz and Manasseh, the Tyropoeon lay within the city walls and child sacrifice would have been practiced outside the walls of the city. Smith (1907), Dalman (1930), Bailey (1986) and Watson (1992) identify the Wadi ar-Rababi, which fits the description of Joshua that Hinnom valley ran east to west and lay outside the city walls. According to Joshua, the valley began at En-rogel. If the modern Bir Ayyub is En-rogel, then Wadi ar-Rababi, which begins there, is Hinnom.
Child sacrifice at other Tophets contemporary with the Bible accounts (700–600 BC) of the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh have been established, such as the bones of children sacrificed at the Tophet to the goddess Tank in Phoenician Carthage, and also child sacrifice in ancient Syria-Palestine. Scholars such as Mosca (1975) have concluded that the sacrifice recorded in the Hebrew Bible, such as Jeremiah’s comment that the worshippers of Baal had “filled this place with the blood of innocents”, is literal, while Mark Smith has stated that in the seventh century BC child sacrifice was a Judean practice performed in the name of Yahweh. Yet, the biblical words in the Book of Jeremiah describe events taking place in the seventh century in the place of Ben-hinnom: “Because they [the Israelites] have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter”. J. Day, Heider, and Mosca believe that the Molech cult took place in the valley of Hinnom at the Topheth. No archaeological evidence such as mass children’s graves has been found; however, it has been suggested that such a find may be compromised by the heavy population history of the Jerusalem area compared to the Tophet found in Tunisia. The site would also have been disrupted by the actions of Josiah “And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.” (2 Kings 23). A minority of scholars have attempted to argue that the Bible does not portray actual child sacrifice, but only dedication to the god by fire; however, they are judged to have been “convincingly disproved” (Hay, 2011).
The concept of Gehinnom
Main article: Hebrew Bible
The oldest historical reference to the valley is found in Joshua 15:8, 18:16 which describe tribal boundaries. The next chronological reference to the valley is at the time of King Ahaz of Judah who sacrificed his sons there according to 2 Chron. 28:3. Since Hezekiah his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest, succeeded him as king, this, if literal, is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines. The same is said of Ahaz’ grandson Manasseh in 33:6. There remains debate about whether the phrase “cause his children to pass through the fire” meant a religious ceremony or literally child sacrifice.
The Book of Isaiah does not mention Gehenna by name, but the “burning place” 30:33 in which the Assyrian army is to be destroyed, may be read “Topheth”, and the final verse of Isaiah which concerns of those that have rebelled against God, Isaiah 66:24.
In the reign of Josiah, a call came from Jeremiah to destroy the shrines in Topheth and to end the practice Jeremiah 7:31-32, 32:35. It is recorded that Josiah destroyed the shrine of Molech on Topheth to prevent anyone sacrificing children there in 2 Kings 23:10. Despite Josiah’s ending of the practice, Jeremiah also included a prophecy that Jerusalem itself would be made like Gehenna and Topheth (19:2-6, 19:11-14).
A final purely geographical reference is found in Neh. 11:30 to the exiles returning from Babylon camping from Beersheba to Hinnom.
Main article: Targum
The ancient Aramaic paraphrase-translations of the Hebrew Bible known as Targums supply the term “Gehinnom” frequently to verses touching upon resurrection, judgment, and the fate of the wicked. This may also include addition of the phrase “second death”, as in the final chapter of the Book of Isaiah, where the Hebrew version does not mention either Gehinnom or the Second Death, whereas the Targums add both. In this the Targums are parallel to the Gospel of Mark addition of “Gehenna” to the quotation of the Isaiah verses describing the corpses “where their worm does not die”.
Main article: Rabbinic Judaism
The picture of Gehenna as the place of punishment or destruction of the wicked occurs frequently in the Mishnah in Kiddushin 4.14, Avot 1.5; 5.19, 20, Tosefta t. Bereshith 6.15, and Babylonian Talmud b.Rosh Hashanah 16b:7a; b. Bereshith 28b. Gehenna is considered a purgatory-like place where the wicked go to suffer until they have atoned for their sins. It is stated in most Jewish sources that the maximum amount of time a sinner can spend in Gehenna is one year. According to the Talmud, there are also four people who do not get a share in Olam Ha-Ba. Those people are Doeg the Edomite, Ahitophel, Balaam, and Gehazi.
The traditional explanation that a burning rubbish heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem gave rise to the idea of a fiery Gehenna of judgment is attributed to Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13 (ca. 1200 AD). He maintained that in this loathsome valley fires were kept burning perpetually to consume the filth and cadavers thrown into it. However, Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck state that there is neither archaeological nor literary evidence in support of this claim, in either the earlier intertestamental or the later rabbinic sources. Also, Lloyd R. Bailey’s “Gehenna: The Topography of Hell” from 1986 holds a similar view.
There is evidence however that the southwest shoulder of this valley (Ketef Hinnom) was a burial location with numerous burial chambers that were reused by generations of families from as early as the seventh until the fifth century BC. The use of this area for tombs continued into the first centuries BC and AD. By 70 AD, the area was not only a burial site but also a place for cremation of the dead with the arrival of the Tenth Roman Legion, who were the only group known to practice cremation in this region.
In time it became deemed to be accursed and an image of the place of destruction in Jewish folklore.
Eventually the Hebrew term Gehinnom became a figurative name for the place of spiritual purification for the wicked dead in Judaism. According to most Jewish sources, the period of purification or punishment is limited to only 12 months and every Sabbath day is excluded from punishment. After this the soul will move on to Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come), be destroyed, or continue to exist in a state of consciousness of remorse. Gehenna became a metonym for “Hell” due to its morbid prominence in Jewish religious texts.
The Christian religion later borrowed this term “Gehenna” when seeking to describe its new concept of theology. In the synoptic Gospels the various authors describe Jesus as using the word Gehenna to describe the opposite to life in the Christian Kingdom (Mark 9:43-48). The term is used 11 times in these writings. In certain usage, the Christian Bible refers to it as a place where both soul (Greek: ψυχή) and body could be destroyed (Matthew 10:28) in “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43) which is a reference to the belief in eternal damnation of all non-Christians and/or sub-par believers worldwide upon death.
Christian usage of Gehenna often serves to admonish adherents of the religion to live pious lives. Critics have often pointed out that most of the widespread misinformation, superstition, and persecution of the Jewish population over the centuries has been inspired by Jesus’ threats of Gehenna to the Pharisees, the ancient theological ancestors of modern Orthodox Jews. Examples of Gehenna in the Christian New Testament include:
- Matthew 5:22: “….whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into Gehenna.”
- Matthew 5:29: “….it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.”
- Matthew 5:30: “….better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.”
- Matthew 10:28: “….rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul [ψυχή] and body in Gehenna.”
- Matthew 18:9: “It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than with two eyes to be thrown into the Gehenna….”
- Matthew 23:15: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you… make one proselyte…twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves.”
- Matthew 23:33, to the Pharisees: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you to escape the sentence of Gehenna?”
- Mark 9:43: “It is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into Gehenna into the unquenchable fire.”
- Mark 9:45: “It is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into Gehenna.”
- Mark 9:47: “It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna.”
- Luke 12:5: “….fear the One who, after He has killed has authority to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear Him.”
Another book to use the word Gehenna in the New Testament is James:
- James 3:6: “And the tongue is a fire,…and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by Gehenna.”
Translations in Christian Bibles
The New Testament also refers to Hades as a place distinct from Gehenna. Unlike Gehenna, Hades typically conveys neither fire nor punishment but forgetfulness. The Book of Revelation describes Hades being cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). The King James Version is the only English translation in modern use to translate Sheol, Hades, Tartarus (Greek ταρταρώσας; lemma: ταρταρόω tartaroō), and Gehenna as Hell. In the New Testament, the New International Version, New Living Translation, New American Standard Bible (among others) all reserve the term “hell” for the translation of Gehenna or Tartarus (see above), transliterating Hades as a term directly from the equivalent Greek term.
Treatment of Gehenna in Christianity is significantly affected by whether the distinction in Hebrew and Greek between Gehenna and Hades was maintained:
Translations with a distinction:
- The 4th century Ulfilas (Wulfila) or Gothic Bible is the first Bible to use Hell’s Proto-Germanic form Halja, and maintains a distinction between Hades and Gehenna. However, unlike later translations, Halja (Matt 11:23) is reserved for Hades, and Gehenna is transliterated to Gaiainnan (Matt 5:30), which surprisingly is the opposite to modern translations that translate Gehenna into Hell and leave Hades untranslated (see below).
- The late 4th-century Latin Vulgate transliterates the Greek Γέεννα “gehenna” with “gehennæ” (e.g. Matt 5:22) while using “infernus” (“coming from below, of the underworld”) to translate ᾅδης (Hades]).
- The 19th century Young’s Literal Translation tries to be as literal a translation as possible and does not use the word Hell at all, keeping the words Hades and Gehenna untranslated.
- The 19th-century Arabic Van Dyck distinguishes Gehenna from Sheol.
- The 20th century New International Version, New Living Translation and New American Standard Bible reserve the term “Hell” only for when Gehenna or Tartarus is used, despite the Christian Hell having several key differences from the original concept of Gehenna found in Jewish sources. All translate Sheol and Hades in a different fashion. For a time the exception to this was the 1984 edition of the New International Version’s translation in Luke 16:23, which was its singular rendering of Hades as Hell. The 2011 edition renders it as Hades.
- In texts in Greek, and consistently in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the distinctions present in the originals were often maintained. The Russian Synodal Bible (and one translation by the Old Church Slavonic) also maintain the distinction. In modern Russian, the concept of Hell (Ад) is directly derived from Hades (Аид), separate and independent of Gehenna. Fire imagery is attributed primarily to Gehenna, which is most commonly mentioned as Gehenna the Fiery (Геенна огненная), and appears to be synonymous to the Lake of Fire.
- The New World Translation, used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, maintains a distinction between Gehenna and Hades by transliterating Gehenna, and by rendering “Hades” (or “Sheol”) as “the Grave”. Earlier editions left all three names untranslated.
- The word “hell” is not used in the New American Bible, except in a footnote in the book of Job translating an alternative passage from the Vulgate, in which the word corresponds to Jerome’s “inferos,” itself a translation of “sheol.” “Gehenna” is untranslated, “Hades” either untranslated or rendered “netherworld,” and “sheol” rendered “nether world.”
Translations without a distinction:
- The late 10th century Wessex Gospels and the 14th century Wycliffe Bible render both the Latin inferno and gehenna as Hell].
- The 16th century Tyndale and later translators had access to the Greek, but Tyndale translated both Gehenna and Hades as same English word, Hell.
- The 17th century King James Version of the Bible is the only English translation in modern use to translate Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna as though they were synonyms, calling them all “Hell.”
Many modern Christians consider Gehenna to be a place of eternal punishment. Annihilationist Christians, however, imagine Gehenna to be a place where “sinners” are tormented until they are eventually destroyed, soul and all. Some Christian scholars, however, have suggested that Gehenna may not be synonymous with the Lake of Fire, but a metaphor for the horrible fate that awaited the approximately one million innocent Jewish civilians killed in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The name given to Hell in Islam, Jahannam, directly derives from Gehenna. The Quran contains 77 references to the Islamic interpretation of Gehenna (جهنم) but does not mention Sheol/Hades (abode of the dead), and instead uses the word ‘Qabr’.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia