The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 2, The Vale of Abraham

In Luke 16 there is the famous parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. After their deaths, the Rich Man finds himself taken to Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus is taken to the "bosom" of Abraham.

In David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament, he gives us this translation of Luke 16.22-23:

And it happened that the poor man died and was carried off by the angels into the Vale of Abraham; but the rich man also died and was entombed. And lifting his eyes in Hades, being in torment, he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales.

Bosom or Vale? 

The Greek word in question is kolpos, which carries a general meaning of "fold." This fold can be about the body, like a bosom or a womb. It could be folds of clothing, like a pocket. Or it could also refer to a fold in the land, like a bay or a valley.

Obviously, Hart translates kolpos as a valley, using the word "vale" to give that valley some otherworldly spookiness. Hart offers two reasons for this translation. 

The first is that the word kolpos appears twice in the text, the first use in 12.22 is singular, and the second use in 12.23 is plural. As seen above, Hart translates the second use as a plural: "he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales." Most modern translations, by contrast, just ignore this change, keeping the second use of the plural word as a singular, Lazarus sitting at Abraham's "bosom" or "side." 

Hart's second reason for translating kolpos as "vale" goes to the point of this series, his highlighting the cosmological strangeness of the New Testament imagination, in this case how it imagined the Realm of the Dead. As Hart writes in the postscript of his translation:

Fully to appreciate all the ways in which the late antique vision of reality differed from ours today, one must look not only to the physical and spiritual features of the living world as it was then imagined but also at those still more mysterious dimensions lying beyond the borders of life, in the region of death or in the Age of the world that is coming. If I may dilate upon some remarks I made in my footnote to Luke 16:22-23...My most obvious departure from convention here is the choice to render κόλπος (kolpos) not as the familiar "bosom" but as the aggressively unusual "vale."... It is possible, I grant, that Luke uses kolpos here as an equivalent to the Hebrew cheyq, which is to say either the breast or the fold in a man's garment located at the level of his chest. But Luke did not write Hebrew or Aramaic, and he lived in a Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world, and he used its language, and he conceived reality in the terms common to his time. And, seen within that picture of things, the rich man and Lazarus after their deaths should not be regarded as occupying, respectively, the hell and the heaven of later Christian imagination. Rather, they occupy two distinct regions of the one realm of the dead (Hades or Sheol). As all good scholars of late antique Judaism, Christianity, or paganism are aware, in the first century the most common picture of the afterlife, shared by practically everyone, was of a region of the dead in which there are places both of torment and of beatitude.
Hart then goes on to make a connection between Luke's vision of the realm of the dead with the book of Enoch. As Hart comments,

It is difficult to exaggerate how influential the intertestamental "Noachic" literature was for the Jews and then Christians of the first century. On the whole, too many New Testament scholars over the years have neglected to assess properly not only the three centuries of Hellenistic culture in which Jewish culture had been steeping by the time of Christ and apostolic church but also the profound importance for the early church (quite explicit at numerous places in the New Testament) of the angelology, demonology, cosmology, and the eschatology of texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees...No one, however, who knows how intermixed the cultures of the Hellenistic world really were should be surprised by the suggestion that Luke's picture of the realm of the dead looks very much like the one that was, by his time common to just about every Mediterranean and Near Eastern culture. Much less, however, should it surprise anyone to learn that Luke's imagery resembles that of the Book of Enoch (from which, I think it likely, it was a least partially drawn)...In "The Book of the Watchers," the first section of Enoch, chapter 22 describes the region of the dead as being set among a chain of mountains and comprising of four "hollow places" or "vales"...entirely separated...from one another; one of these values is full of light and flowing water, while the other three are dry, deep, and dark. Here the dead await the judgment, the righteous in the place of light, with its refreshing springs, and the various classes of the unrighteous in the places of suffering and darkness. Here to, I believe, in some very similar topography of Hades, Luke has placed Lazarus and the rich man: the one in the Vale or Vales of Abraham, the other in a dark, dry, fiery valley of suffering.

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