Limbo or Paradise?

A poor beggar named Lazarus once died and found himself in "Abraham’s Bosom." What and where is this place?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Rich Man and Lazarus". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

Luke 16 contains a parable about a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. Both die; Lazarus is taken to a place called “Abraham’s Bosom.” What is this place?

One traditional explanation understood Abraham’s Bosom as limbus partum, that is, the “Limbo of the Fathers.” Medieval Christians imagined a place of waiting just on the edge of hell where all the Old Testament saints were penned up and left to wait until Christ’s resurrection. Accordingly, when Christ died, He opened the gates of Limbo and led all the righteous Bible heroes who had lived before Him into heaven.

This explanation created a theological buffer zone between the old covenant and the new covenant. It allowed Christians to maintain that prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus, no one had admittance to Paradise. Critically, the Old Testament heroes were allowed into the new covenant Paradise while most Jews suffered in hell.

Despite the popularity of this teaching, it has never been an official church doctrine. Nevertheless, it survives in Protestant thought. Christ’s “harrowing of hell” remains a common belief among Catholics and Protestants. Some explain the enigmatic resurrection described in Matthew 27:52-53 as the transition point at which the souls of those Old Testament saints were released from “Abraham’s Bosom.”

However, these ideas don’t make sense in the context of first-century Jewish theology. To understand how Yeshua’s original audience would have understood His words, we must understand more about the first-century Jewish conception of the afterlife.

Notice that the parable assumes the existence of man’s immortal soul, one of the basic tenets of Pharisaic theology. Also, in keeping with Pharisaic Jewish thought, Yeshua’s parable assumed that at the moment of death, the undying soul of man leaves his body and departs to one of two possible destinations: reward or punishment.

Souls that departed to the place of reward went to Paradise. The word paradise (pardes) is a Persian loan word that appears in both Hebrew and Greek (and Latin and English) to describe the place of the soul’s reward after death. According to the Pharisees, the souls of the righteous wait in Paradise for the resurrection of the dead, at which point they will be returned to their bodies.

To be in Abraham’s Bosom meant to be with Abraham. In that sense, one might speak of “Abraham’s Bosom” as simply another term for Paradise. In Jewish literature, “going to Abraham” is idiomatic for going to Paradise.

More specifically, the term might refer to reclining at Abraham’s side, like those reclining at a banquet. Each guest reclining around the table leaned on his left elbow, and as two or more reclined beside one another, the head of one man was near the breast of the man who lay behind him. He was, therefore, said “to lie in the bosom” of the other.

The Greek word kolpos, ordinarily translated as “bosom,” can be understood as “lap.” In that case, “Abraham’s Bosom” might mean “Abraham’s lap.” Lazarus took his place with father Abraham like a child who takes his place in his father’s lap.

The term is probably an expansion on the common Biblical Hebrew euphemisms for death: “gathered to his people” and “gathered to his fathers.”

Messianic Jewish pioneer, Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein, points out that the term is synonymous with another common euphemism for death and Paradise: “embrace of the righteous.” It does appear in one passage in the Talmud: “Today he sits in Abraham’s lap.” According to Lichtenstein, Rashi interpreted the talmudic phrase “Today he sits in Abraham’s lap” to mean, “He died that day.”

Rabbinic literature also speaks of angels escorting the souls of the righteous into Paradise: “When a holy man leaves this world, three companies of angels attend him” (Talmud).

As Yeshua described the soul of Lazarus being carried by angels to Abraham’s Bosom, He spoke in the common terms and idioms of Pharisaic theology to describe the death of the righteous. The Paradise to which Lazarus went was not Limbo; it was the same Paradise of which Paul the Pharisee spoke when he said that “to be absent from the body [is to be] at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

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