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Bosom of Abraham

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Kievskaya psaltir avraam 05

The Bosom of Abraham, illumination from the Kiev Psalter, 1397. Abraham is depicted seated amid the foliage of Paradise. (Russian National Library, Saint Petersburg.)

The phrase "Bosom of Abraham" refers to the place of comfort in sheol (Greek: hades) where the Jews said the righteous dead awaited Judgment Day. The phrase "Bosom of Abraham" occurs in the Bible only in the New Testament in Luke 16:22-23 in Jesus' story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Origin of the phrase

Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis 001

The Story of Lazarus and Dives. Lazarus and the rich man are shown during life in the top register, in the middle is Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham, and at the bottom Dives is suffering in Hades. Illuminated manuscript, Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035-1040. (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg.)

The phrase likely arose either from the concept of comfort which is afforded by being held next to the bosom (chest) (See Isaiah 40:11 ) and the common belief that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would greet new entrants into heaven (See Matthew 8:11 ), or the Second Temple period practice of reclining and eating meals in proximity to other guests, the closest of whom physically was said to lie on the bosom (chest) of the host. (See John 13:23 )

While commentators generally agree upon the meaning of the "Bosom of Abraham", they disagree about its origins. Up to the time of Maldonatus (A.D. 1583), its origin was traced back to the universal custom of parents to take up into their arms, or place upon their knees, their children when they are fatigued, or return home, and to make them rest by their side during the night (cf. 2 Samuel 12:3; 1 Kings 3:20; 17:19; Luke 11:7 sqq.), thus causing them to enjoy rest and security in the bosom of a loving parent. After the same manner was Abraham supposed to act towards his children after the fatigues and troubles of the present life, hence the metaphorical expression "to be in Abraham's Bosom" as meaning to be in repose and happiness with him.

According to Maldonatus (In Lucam, xvi, 22), whose theory has since been accepted by many scholars, the metaphor "to be in Abraham's Bosom" is derived from the custom of reclining on couches at table which prevailed among the Jews during and before the time of Christ. As at a feast each guest leaned on his left elbow so as to leave his right arm at liberty, and as two or more lay on the same couch, the head of one man was near the breast of the man who lay behind, and he was therefore said "to lie in the bosom" of the other.

It was also considered by the Jews of old a mark of special honour and favour for one to be allowed to lie in the bosom of the master of the feast (cf. John 13:23), and it is by this illustration that they pictured the next world. They conceived of the reward of the righteous dead as a sharing in a banquet given by Abraham, "the father of the faithful" (cf. Matthew 8:11 sqq.), and of the highest form of that reward as lying in "Abraham's Bosom".

Abode of the righteous dead

in Judaism

In First Temple Judaism, Sheol in the Hebrew Old Testament, or Hades in the Septuagint, is primarily a place of "silence" to which all men go. However during, or before, the exile in Babylon ideas of activity of the dead in Sheol began to enter Judaism. [1] [2]

During the Second Temple period the concept of a Bosom of Abraham first occurs in Jewish papyri which refer to the "Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" [3]. This reflects the belief of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: "after our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17 [4]. Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm. In the pseudepipraghical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but replaced by an angel. On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham : "You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place... to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David" [5]. In this myth Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham, he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.[6].

Later rabbinical sources preserve several traces of the Bosom of Abraham teaching.[7] Rabbi Abraham Geiger suggested that the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 preserved a Jewish legend and that Lazarus represented Abraham's servant Eleazar [8]

The Book of Enoch describes Enoch's travels through the cosmos and divides Sheol into four sections: for the truly righteous, the good, the wicked awaiting judgment at the resurrection, and the wicked that will not even be resurrected.

in the New Testament

The Bosom of Abraham occurs in one New Testament passage (cf. Luke 16:22, in the Gr. 16:23) where the destination of leprous Lazarus after death is contrasted with the destination of a rich man who is carried by angels to Hades. Though it is possible that both the fiery side and the cool side, and the chasm between them are counted as parts of Hades in this parable. This parable corresponds closely with documented 1st century C.E. Jewish beliefs, that the dead were gathered into a general tarrying-place, made equivalent with the Sheol of the Old Testament. In Christ's parable, the righteous occupied an abode of their own which was distinctly separated by a chasm from the abode to which the wicked were consigned. The chasm is equivalent to the river in the Jewish version, but in Christ's version there is no angelic ferryman.

The fiery part of Hades is distinguished from the separate Old Testament, New Testament and Mishnah concept of Gehenna which is connected with the Last Judgment.Matthew 5:29-30; 18:9ff, Mark 9:42.

In the Latin Vulgate sqq. in the Latin Vulgate)- the other, a place of bliss and security known under the names of "Paradise" (cf. Luke 23:43) or "the Bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:22-23).

The happy part of the afterlife as portrayed in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus fits this concept of the Bosom of Abraham.

in early Christianity

In the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome referred to Abraham's bosom as the place in hades where the righteous await judgment day in delight.[9] Due to a copying error a loose section of Hippolytus' commentary on Luke 16 was misidentifed as a Discourse to the Greeks on Hades by Josephus and included in William Whiston's translation of the Complete Works of Josephus.

Augustine of Hippo likewise referred to the righteous dead as disembodied spirits blissfully awaiting Judgment Day in secret receptacles.[10]

Since the righteous dead are rewarded in the bosom of Abraham before Judgment Day, this belief represents a form of particular judgment.

in relation to Christian heaven

Icon second coming

Eastern Orthodox icon of All Saints, c. 1700. Christ is enthroned in heaven surrounded by the ranks of angels and saints. At the bottom is Paradise with the "Bosom of Abraham" (left), and the Good Thief (right). (Private collection.)

Among Christian writers, since the 1st century AD, "the Bosom of Abraham" has gradually ceased to designate a place of imperfect happiness, and it has generally become synonymous with Heaven itself, or the Intermediate state. Church fathers sometimes used the term to mean the limbo of the fathers, the abode of the righteous who died before Christ and who were not admitted to heaven until his resurrection. Sometimes they mean Heaven, into which the just of the New Covenant are immediately introduced upon their demise. Tertullian, on the other hand, described the bosom of Abraham as that section of Hades in which the righteous dead await the day of the Lord.[11]

When Christians pray that the angels may carry the soul of the departed to "Abraham's Bosom", non-Orthodox Christians might mean it as heaven; as it is taught in the West that those in the Limbo of the Fathers went to heaven after the Ascension of Jesus, and so Abraham himself is now in heaven. However, the understanding of both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy preserves the Bosom of Abraham as distinct from heaven.

The belief that the souls of the dead go immediately to hell, heaven, or purgatory has largely replaced the original concept of the Bosom of Abraham. Historically, however, many religious traditions have described something similar.

The belief of soul sleep holds that the dead (righteous and unrighteous) rest unconsciously while awaiting Judgment Day.

in Islam

In Islam, the righteous dead are said to await Judgment Day resting blissfully in their graves, much like the righteous dead rest in the Bosom of Abraham. The unrighteous, meanwhile, wait in torment.

In Christian art

Reims Cathedrale Notre Dame 014 last judgment

Abraham holding little figures of souls in a cloth, representing the "bosom", as angels bring additional figures. Reims Cathedral

In medieval Christian art the phase was illustrated literally: images of a number of miniature figures, representing souls, held on the lap of a much larger one occur in a number of contexts. Many Gothic cathedrals, especially in France, have reliefs of Abraham holding such a group (right), which are also found in other media. In a detached miniature of about 1150, from a work of Hildegard of Bingen, a figure usually described as "Synagogue", of youngish appearance with closed eyes, holds a group, here of Jewish souls, with Moses carrying the Tablets above the others, held in the large figure's folded arms.[12] In the Bosom of Abraham Trinity, a subject only found in medieval English art, God the Father holds the group, now representing specifically Christian souls. The Virgin of Mercy is a different but somewhat similar image.

In Literature

In William Shakespeare's play Henry V, after the death of Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Quickly asserts confidently that "He's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom." Quickly, an uneducated innkeeper, has presumably confused the Christian idea of Abraham's bosom with the legend of King Arthur.

See also


  1. Gen.37:36, Ps.88:13, Ps.154:17; Eccl. 9:10 etc.
  3. F. Preisigke, Sammelbuch Griechischer Urkunden aus Aegypten 2034:11
  4. J.H. Charlesworth, The OT Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday 1983
  5. Apoc. Zeph. 9:2. J.H. Charlesworth, The OT Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday 1983
  6. Apoc. Zeph. 11:1-2
  7. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews
  8. Jüdische Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft und Leben Vol.VII 200. 1869
  9. Hippolytus of Rome, Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe, §1. As to the state of the righteous, he writes, "And there the righteous from the beginning dwell, not ruled by necessity, but enjoying always the contemplation of the blessings which are in their view, and delighting themselves with the expectation of others ever new, and deeming those ever better than these. And that place brings no toils to them. There, there is neither fierce heat, nor cold, nor thorn; but the face of the fathers and the righteous is seen to be always smiling, as they wait for the rest and eternal revival in heaven which succeed this location. And we call it by the name Abraham's bosom." Ibid.
  10. Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book XII
  11. Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 7.
  12. Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 800-1200, p. 282 (with illustration), 1993, Yale UP, ISBN 0300064934


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