Metropolitan Ephraim - The Orthodox Christia n Scriptures ― Part Two
- Christ is risen!THE NEUTRALIZATION OF THE NETHERWORLD
The Orthodox Christian Scriptures ― Part Two
By Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston
"Isn't that what Adolph Hitler did to Holland in World War II?"
This, indeed, is the sort of reaction you might expect to get if you were speaking to
someone about the "neutralization of the Netherworld." He really wouldn't know what
you were talking about. On the other hand, if you were to refer to it as the "Harrowing of
Hell," people might or might not understand. Orthodox Christians know it as the
"Descent into Hades." Most "Bible-believing" Americans nowadays, however ― even
those living in the so-called Bible Belt ― would probably look at you quizzically if you
were to mention it ―despite the fact that it is cited in the Holy Scriptures (I Peter 3:18-20).
Indeed, this is what happened on one occasion at our monastery in Boston. Perhaps
thirty or so years ago, a Protestant minister and his wife were visiting the monastery and I
was assigned to give them "the tour." We had seen the work-shops, the refectory, the
chapel and finally came to the area where the icons were on display, and I was telling the
couple that the monastery was self-supporting. "One of the ways we support our
monastery is by producing and selling these icons," I explained to them. They knew
about the traditional use of the holy icons in the Orthodox Church, so they were
somewhat familiar with what they were seeing. Since it was the Paschal season, the icon
of the Descent into Hades was in a prominent place of honor on the analogion and,
therefore, caught the eye of the minister's wife. "Oh, what is that icon?" she asked. "That
depicts our Saviour's Descent into Hades," I responded.
"What's that all about?" she asked, incredulously.
Embarrassed by his wife's reaction, the minister glanced at me nervously, and then
back at his wife, and said, "Why yes, dear. You know about that, of course. It's
mentioned in one of the Epistles of Peter."
Ah! if looks could kill, the minister would have been charged with homicide! Talk
about awkward moments.
It became obvious that the teaching about our Saviour's descent to Sheol, the place of
the dead, is not a prominent feature in Protestant Sunday schools.
Yet, as we mentioned above, it is clearly cited in the New Testament:
For Christ also hath once suffered for our sins. He, the just,
suffered for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. In the
body, He was put to death; in the spirit, He was brought to life.
And in the spirit He went and preached to the spirits that were
imprisoned, who formerly had not obeyed….
(I Peter 3:18-20)
Furthermore, this event is also clearly prophesied in the Old Testament. In the
Church's services, one prominent element is the "Polyeleos" of Matins. One portion of
the Polyeleos is a selection of verses from the Psalms of the Prophet David appropriate
for each major feast. For the Feast of Thomas Sunday, the Resurrection of Christ is the
major event being celebrated, of course, and these are some of the Psalmic verses that we
hear in the Polyeleos:
As for them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Fettered with beggary and iron.
They cried unto the Lord in their affliction.
And out of their distresses He saved them.
And He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death.
For He shattered the gates of brass.
And brake the bars of iron.
And He delivered them from their corruption.
And their bonds He brake asunder.
To hear the groaning of them that be in fetters.
To loose the sons of the slain.
"He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death." All these Old Testament
verses refer to our Saviour, "the fierce Man of war" spoken of in the Wisdom of Solomon,
who "leaped out of Heaven" into a "land of destruction" to redeem mankind and lead the
captive souls in Hades "out of darkness and the shadow of death."
In the Book of Job, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind and asks him:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? tell me
now, if thou hast knowledge, who set the measures of it, if thou
knowest? Or who stretched a line upon it?....Or did I order the
morning light in thy time?...Or didst thou take clay of the earth, and
form a living creature, and set it with the power of speech upon the
earth?...And do the gates of death open to thee for fear; and did the
gate-keepers of Hades quake when they saw thee?
The text is vivid and striking.
But there is a problem here: this last portion of the quotation from the Book of Job is
quite different in the Protestant text. In the Revised Standard Version, for example, it
reads as follows: "Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the
gates of deep darkness?" Very different indeed, and not much of a "prophecy" of the
actual event. One might say that, as a prophecy of our Saviour's descent into and
destruction of Sheol, it has all the vigor and verve of an overcooked noodle.
In the article "Honour the Physician," I recounted how my mother would not
allow me to attend my playmate's Protestant Bible class when I was a youngster in
California. The reason she gave me for not allowing me to go was that "the Protestants
had a different Bible" than we did. At the time, I thought she was just trying to find an
excuse for not letting me go to the Bible class. But, as I wrote in that article, it turned out
that she was right, and I came to understand this as I learned more about our Orthodox
Christian faith. I wrote also in that article that there were two differences between our
Holy Scriptures and the Scriptures that the Protestants use: 1) the books that we have in
our Holy Scriptures are different, and 2) the interpretations that the Protestants give are
different from the interpretations of the Church Fathers.
However, it turns out, there is also a third difference.
Even within the books that we share in common with the non-Orthodox, the texts are
different, as we can see, for example, in the above-mentioned quotation from the Book of
Job. One of the major reasons for these differences is that the Orthodox Church uses the
Septuagint text of the Old Testament [see below], which was also the text used by the
holy Apostles in the time of our Saviour.
The subject of the Descent into Hades ― the "neutralization of the Netherworld" ―
is of vital importance. The implications of that event in Christ's work of salvation has
been sorely underestimated in the West; but that is a subject that will require yet another
article. So, stay tuned.
The Septuagint Text
― A Footnote ―
What many people do not realize is that, as long as we can determine, there have
been variants in the Scriptural texts as they have come down to us. Our readers will note
that we have pointed out that the texts of the Old Testament that the Protestants and
Roman Catholics use today are different from the Septuagint text that the Orthodox
Church has used since the time of our Saviour. Why?
Some history may be useful here. By royal decree, the Septuagint text was prepared
in the third century before Christ in Alexandria Egypt by the best Jewish scholars of the
day.* At the time, Alexandria was the greatest center of learning in the known world, and
its library was famous for its completeness and the valuable manuscripts it contained. The
Septuagint translation was an occasion of great celebration, and a special day was set
aside to commemorate this event in the Jewish community, which, for the most part, no
longer spoke Hebrew, especially in the diaspora. (In Palestine the Jews spoke only
Aramaic.) Now, with the Septuagint translation, the rabbis could instruct their people
again easily in a language most of them spoke (Greek), but, in addition, they could make
their faith more readily accessible to the pagan world around them. Consequently, the
Septuagint was held in great esteem, and in the time of our Saviour, it was in wide use in
the Jewish community (as the many quotations from it in the New Testament testify).
What is also noteworthy is that Philo, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of antiquity,
was also one of the foremost apologists for the Jewish religion among the pagans.
Through the many tracts he wrote (all of them based on the Septuagint text), he led many
thousands of pagans to convert to the Jewish faith. Yet, Philo, a contemporary of our
Saviour, could not speak Hebrew. He knew only Greek.
With the appearance of Christianity, however, things began to change. The many
thousands of pagans who formerly had converted to Judaism now began turning to the
Christian faith. In addition, thousands of Jews also converted to Christianity. Through
the work of the holy Apostles, the evangélion, the "good news" of our Saviour and His
triumph over mankind's last enemy ― death ― began spreading like wildfire throughout
the Mediterranean world and beyond. Furthermore, the Apostles were armed with proofs:
the Old Testament prophecies that foretold of our Saviour's coming. Thanks to the
Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, those prophecies were in a language
almost everyone could understand.
In the meantime, the whole Jewish world was shaken with a terrible catastrophe —
the fall and complete destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 by the Roman legions. This
*We say "by royal decree" because, initially, the Jews were opposed to having their sacred texts "defiled"
by having them translated into a Gentile language. So, it required a decree by Ptolemy to have this work
accomplished. According to ancient sources, the text used for the work of translation was supplied by the
High Priest in Jerusalem.
event, prophesied by our Saviour, caused utter consternation in the Jewish community,
because, not only had the political center of the country vanished amidst inhuman
atrocities and barbarity, but the Temple itself was gone! Literally, no stone was left upon
a stone; the very center and heart of the Jewish faith had been ruthlessly cut out by the
Romans, and even the Jewish priesthood was exterminated. The few shreds left of the
city's population were banished and the Jews began a long exile.
In an attempt to restore some order out of this total devastation, around A. D. 90 or
100 a prestigious school of rabbis in the city of Jamnia (or Jabneh), which is some
thirteen miles south of Jaffa, constituted a new Sanhedrin and discussed and determined
the canon of the Old Testament. In view of the fact that the Septuagint was being used so
extensively (and effectively) by the "new faith" (Christianity) in winning many thousands
of converts from paganism and from the Jewish people themselves, it was resolved by the
rabbinical school to condemn the Septuagint text and forbid its use among the Jews. The
day which had been formerly been set aside as a day of celebration commemorating the
translation of the Septuagint was now declared a day of mourning. Philo's valuable tracts
in defense of the Jewish faith were renounced as well, since they were based on the
The text used today by non-Orthodox Christians is the Masoretic text, which was
prepared by Jewish scholars in the centuries after Christ. When they picked among the
many variant texts to prepare their own version of the Old Testament, these Jewish
scholars, as might be readily understood, had an already decided bias against any
Scriptural variant that might lend itself to a Christian interpretation. As the centuries
passed, those variant texts not used by the rabbis fell by the wayside, or were usually
destroyed, and thus, about a millennium after Christ, these scholars finally arrived at what
is now known as the Masoretic text.
With the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the middle of the twentieth century,
however, the numerous ancient variants in the Hebrew sacred texts came to light again,
and, in many cases, the Septuagint text proved to reflect the original Hebrew text better
than the text that has come down to us in the later Masoretic version.
Also, many ancient Hebrew words cannot be understood or even pronounced any
longer. They can be translated and understood only with the help of the Septuagint.
Thanks to the Dead Sea scrolls, the Septuagint text is now held in far greater esteem
among non-Orthodox scholars than it was even a few years ago. The Septuagint text may
have its own problems, but it represents an ancient and authentic Hebrew tradition. For
centuries, it was beloved and celebrated by the Jewish people, and that is one of the
reasons why it was, and still is, espoused and revered by the Christian Church.