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 Ezra, and the Greek Apocalypse of Mary—Henning demonstrates how the Matthean rhetoric of Hell is worked into new material. These texts belong, of course, to a very different genre—that of “tours of Hell”—but in their geographically conditioned descriptions of punishments, they develop Matthew’s ethical guidelines and community boundaries using techniques similar to the Greco-Roman materials (202–16). Henning’s argument is persuasive and nuanced, and offers fresh insight into the implicitly pedagogical function of Christian “tours of Hell.”
Henning brings a biblical scholar’s eye for detailed exegesis and a genuine love of historical detail to every text she reads. Generally, her penchant for detail serves her well, though in the case [End Page 300] of Christian apocalypses, her reading is weaker. For example, she dates the Apocalypse of Paul to 400 ce and neglects the ascetic context of this text (177–78), despite being cognizant of Jane Baun’s work on Byzantine Apocalyptic, which argues persuasively for a third-century ascetic Sitz im Leben. Since the communities and contexts of texts matter very much to Henning (and rightly so), it seems that with these later texts she is less sure of herself. In a similar vein, perhaps Henning could have saved for elsewhere the rather perfunctory section on “the Church Fathers”—which really only concerns John Chrysostom and Augustine and devotes merely two pages to each. Nevertheless, Henning’s study does show that much work needs to be done on Patristic receptions of the Matthean and Apocalyptic rhetoric of Hell.
Educating Early Christians offers scholars of Late Antiquity a view into the soil from which that age’s own rhetorical uses of Hell would grow and a look at its first shoots in apocalyptic literature. One has only to think of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, the tales in John Moschos and the Apophthegmata Patrum, or later Byzantine and Latin apocalypses, to appreciate how much is owed in elite and popular literature alike to Matthean reformulations of Antique and Hellenistic traditions. The values, conceptions, and techniques that fuse in the New Testament find life again in the Apocalypses and in later Patristic literature. Henning has provided us with an excellent study of the bridges formed between Antiquity and Late Antiquity, and I would recommend this book highly to scholars interested in how Christians came to conceive of—and make use of—Hell. [End Page 301]