- Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell: “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth” as Paideia in Matthew and the Early Church by Meghan Henning
Hell has always been more interesting than Heaven. With the notable exceptions of John’s Revelation and Dante’s Paradiso, hardly ever does eternal beatitude receive as much calibrated description as Hell. Odysseus sees tormented Titans, but not the Elysian fields. Aeneas watches an array of tortures applied to Titans and transgressors alike, while the “Blessed Groves” receive only a few lines. Hell, that is, is full of wildly varied punishments while Heaven is seldom finely differentiated. One explanation for this graphic asymmetry is that humans more naturally imagine suffering than happiness. In Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, Henning reframes this notion by arguing that the vividness of Hell provided ancient writers with a uniquely potent pedagogical tool. To put it differently, Henning shows how early Christian authors utilized the voyeuristic urge to define group membership and establish ethical guidelines for nascent Christian communities.
Henning is a biblical scholar by training, but in this dissertation-turned-monograph, she crosses traditional scholarly boundaries to take in Greco-Roman literature, Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and early Christian Apocalypses. With such different literatures come a range of presentations of death and the afterlife, from the rather vague Sheol and Homeric Hades to the finely [End Page 299] graded Hades of Virgil and fiery Gehenna. Henning manages her broad reading and its range of conceptions of the afterlife by focusing on the rhetoric of death and judgment, both in its formal and purposive aspects. Formally, Henning looks for ekphrasis, broadly conceived as making an object of discussion visible, and enargeia, or vivid description, as its means. How is Hades/Sheol/Gehenna/Hell (hereafter “Hell”) presented in visual terms, and how vivid are those terms? Purposively, Henning consistently asks to what end any given author presents Hell so vividly? What is the point of an ekphrastic rhetoric of Hell?
Henning attempts to show that in early Hebrew literature the variety of attitudes toward death and the dead are reflected in variegated portrayals of death (41). She argues—perhaps forcing the case—that rhetorically vivid references to “the pit” regularly carry ethical implications, as Hebrew authors sort the dead according to their expectations of behavior in the community (25–26). She then moves to Greco-Roman literature, beginning with a lengthy discussion of rhetoric as paideia, and now introduces ekphrasis and enargeia as primary diagnostic categories (58–60). With these in mind, Henning combs Plato’s Republic, the Aeneid, and Lucian’s Menippus. She concludes that these works all used vivid descriptions of Hades as a place of punishment to advance educational programs intended to inculcate Hellenistic cultural values. Henning does much the same with Jewish “tours of Hell” and a range of New Testament literature, before turning to the Gospel of Matthew and early Apocalypses.
Matthew’s Gospel is crucial for Henning’s argument. Matthew, she observes, recasts a range of Hebrew ideas about Hell, without an eye for consistency, and develops them using techniques of enargeia consonant with Greco-Roman literature (156). Moreover, Matthew stitches his Gospel together with references to “outer darkness,” “Gehenna,”and “fire.” Each of Jesus’ ethical discourses includes some imagery of Hell. Henning argues quite convincingly, therefore, that Matthew, more than other early Christian authors, deploys Hell for educational purposes. This education, Henning continues, is not primarily individualized, but communitarian: Matthew seeks to give direction to his Christian community by marking off its acceptable behavior from that of other Jewish or Christian groups (167–173). For Matthew, that is, Hell is a boundary marker—everything that his community should not be is found in Hell, and every behavior he wishes them to avoid tends toward it.
Turning finally to several early Christian apocalypses—the Apocalypse of Peter, the Vision [Apocalypse] of Paul, the Greek and Latin Apocalypses of...