uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Black Saturday: Satan, Hades, and Greco-Christian Syncretism

Oft forgotten amid the Holy Week observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the day Jesus supposedly lay in the tomb after his crucifixion on Friday and prior to his resurrection on Sunday.

But this day worked on the imagination of early Christians in fantastic ways. In the Apostles' Creed is the statement that Jesus "descended into Hell" as it is often translated into English. But in the Greek it is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, or "going down into the lowermost parts," and in Latin something almost identical, descendit ad inferos, or "he descended to the lower ones/places." This is not necessarily Hell, because such a concept was not fully worked out yet, but rather the netherworld or underworld of Greco-Roman mythology, the conception of which would eventually provide us with the imagery most commonly associated with Hell.

The most fascinating account of Jesus going down to the underworld has been handed down in the  Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal work that includes the Acts of Pilate (yes, that Pilate, whose ahistorical contrition in the Gospels is later elaborated to the point that he becomes canonized in some Christian sects) and Christ's Descent into Hell. The older, out-of-copyright translation by M.R. James is available in many places online. But the more updated and much less baroque translation by J.K. Elliot is far superior.


This tale, probably from about the fifth or sixth century (though its dating is not without dispute), is a fascinating example of Greco-Christian syncretism -- that is, the mythological blending of Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. The modern nature of Hell and the afterlife in general has been the product of such syncretism, as Dante's version has embedded itself in our culture, much of it taken from Vergil's Aeneid Book 6, where the hero descends into the underworld (as all good heroes must) and witnesses the punishments of the wicked.

In Christ's Descent, transmitted to us in a number of manuscripts that boil down to one Greek version and two Latin ones, Satan has not yet fully blended with the Greek Hades, the god of the underworld. The two have now merged to the point that Hades is almost always presented as blackened and evil in popular movies such as Disney's Hercules or Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, though he was not necessarily so in pre-Christian mythology. Indeed,  he isn't really evil in Christ's Descent either, but rather the keeper of the underworld, who appears at times more powerful than Satan himself. The two are distinct in this tale, and have recurring conversations about Jesus prior to and after his arrival in Hades. A personification of the underworld and death itself, Hades, "the insatiable one" questions Satan as to how they will withstand Jesus when he appears to be able to raise the dead at a single word. Indeed, Hades muses on the fact that Lazarus had recently up and walked out. He then orders Satan to go out to the gates and contend with Jesus "if you can."

When Jesus does come and free the souls (which include an all-star cast of Biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaiah, David, and even Adam), he has the angels bind Satan and hands him over to Hades to be held until his second coming. The god of the underworld then poetically rebukes the angel of darkness: "O Beelzebub, heir of fire and torment, enemy of the saints, through what necessity did you contrive that the King of Glory should be crucified, so that he should come here and strip us naked? Turn and see that not one dead man is left in me, but all that you gained through the tree of knowledge you have lost through the tree of the cross."

Satan has thus not yet become the overlord of Hell, as he often is now in the Christian imagination. Rather, the Christians of this period still saw Hades as the god of the underworld, or at least the embodiment of death and the unblessed afterlife (the work goes on to show the few folks who are in heaven: Enoch and Elijah, and the "good thief" crucified with Jesus).

This interesting work then serves as yet another reminder that Christianity arose in the Greco-Roman world, absorbing much of its aesthetic along the way, and passing it to us in a wonderfully blended concoction. It also problematizes present-day visions of fiery eternal punishment, from the Left Behind series to the disturbing Hell Houses that crop up in fundamentalist circles every Halloween. The truth is that our visions of Hell are the product of a long process -- not a neatly transmitted one -- that blended Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and other mythologies. Christians are reinventing them today as much as they did two millennia ago.

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