TSP Podcast 2b: Reflections on this Sunday's Readings (Michael Barber & John Bergsma) [right click to download]
For more information on this Sunday's readings, you should look at John's fine post.
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Purgatory in Judaism?
Moreover, in the commentary I mentioned that Jesus often seems to imply that some will endure a divine punishment which will not be everlasting. Here are the precise texts I had in mind:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny." (Matt 5:25–26).In addition, of course, we have the conclusion to this Sunday's reading:
"And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper” (Luke 12:57–59).
"And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:34–35).Of course, troubled by the theological implications, some commentators wish to deny that divine punishment is in view. However, as Hagner explains, it is ultimately hard to resist such a view. On the Matthew 5 passage he writes, "since God’s judgment is in view in vv 21–22, it is impossible to avoid at least the suggestion of the same in the present passage (cf. 18:33–35; cf. too the context of the saying in Luke 12:57–59)” (Matthew 1:118).
Surely Jesus, it is supposed, could not have expected souls to eventually escape the divine judgment. Right?
Well. . . In fact, what is often overlooked is that Jesus' teaching fits well within a Jewish context. What many do not realize is that in certain rabbinic texts it appears that Gehenna is a temporary punishment.
For example, in the Mishna it is stated that divine punishment will be not be eternal for all those who receive it: “[R. Akiba] also used to say: There are five things that endure for twelve months; the judgment of the generation of the Flood endured twelve months; the judgment of Job endured twelve months; the judgment of the Egyptians endured twelve months the judgment of Gog and Magog which is to come shall endure twelve months; and the judgment of the unrighteous in Gehenna shall endure twelve months. . .” (m. Ed. 2.10; cf. also b. Šabb. 33b; b. Roš. Haš. 16b-17a).
Strikingly, this point is recognized by the great scholar, R.H. Charles. In his commentary on The Book of Enoch, he wrote: “Gehenna was regarded as the Purgatory of faithless Jews who were afterwards to be admitted into Paradise, but the place of eternal perdition for the Gentiles” (56).
Joachim Jeremias also speaks of the “purgatorial” dimension of Gehenna in rabbinic literature (“γέεννα,” TDNT 1:658).
Such traditions may also be attested in 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul speaks of those who will be saved through fire, noting that they will “suffer loss” (cf. 1 Cor 3:15: ζημιωθήσεται, αὐτὸς δὲ σωθήσεται, οὕτως δὲ ὡς διὰ πυρός).
Now, while a purgatorial view of Gehenna is typically simply assumed to be a later development that the rabbis mistakenly attributed to earlier teachers, the passages in Matthew 5:26, 18:33, Luke 12:59 and 1 Corinthians 3 suggest otherwise.