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Descent into Hell


(1a) GPet 10:41-42
(1b) Matt 27:52-53
(2) HermSim 9.16:5
(3) IgnMag 9:2
(4a?) 1Pet 3:19-20;
(4b?) 1Pet 4:6



(1) The Cross Gospel

(1a) GPet 10:41-42

/10.1/ Now when these soldiers saw this, they roused the centurion from his sleep, along with the elders. (Remember, they were also there keeping watch.) /2/ While they were explaining what they had seen, again they see three men leaving the tomb, two supporting the third, and a cross was following them. /3/ The heads of the two reached up to the sky, while the head of the third, whom they led by the hand, reached beyond the skies. /4/ And they heard a voice from the skies that said, "Have you preached to those who sleep?" /5/ And an answer was heard from the cross: "Yes!" [Complete Gospels]

(1b) Matt 27:52-53

/52/ The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. /53/ After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.


(2) HermSim 9.16:5

/1/ "Show me still more, sir," I said. "What do you want now?" he said. "Why sir," I said, "did the stones rise from the depth, and were placed in the building [of the tower], having borne these spirits?" /2/ "They had to rise through water," he said, "in order to be made alive. In no other way could they enter the reign of God, unless they put off the deadliness of their [first] life. /3/ So too, those who have fallen asleep received the seal and [entered the reign of God]. Before bearing the name of [the Son of] God," he said, "a person is dead. But upon receiving the seal, the person puts aside deadliness and takes on life. /4/ So the seal is the water. Into the water they go down dead and come up alive. The seal was proclaimed to them, and they profited from it to enter into the reign of God." /5/ "Why sir," I said, "did the forty stones rise with them from the depth already having the seal?" "Because," he said, "these are the apostles and teachers who proclaimed the name of the Son of God, who, having fallen asleep in power and faith of the Son of God, even proclaimed to those who had previously fallen asleep and gave them the seal of the proclamation. /6/ They descended with them into the water and came up again, except that these descended alive and came up alive. /7/ Because of them, these others were enlivened and came to know the name of the Son of God. This is why these others also arose with them, and together were fashioned into the building of the tower, and were made to dwell with them without needing trimming. They fell asleep in justice and great purity, except that they did not have this seal. So you have the explanation of these things." "Yes, sir, I have it," I said. [Hermeneia]

(3) IgnMag 9:2

If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death - whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master - how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. If, then, those who were conversant with the ancient Scriptures came to newness of hope, expecting the coming of Christ, as the Lord teaches us when He says, "If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me;" and again, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad; for before Abraham was, I am; " how shall we be able to live without Him? The prophets were His servants, and foresaw Him by the Spirit, and waited for Him as their Teacher, and expected Him as their Lord and Savior, saying, "He will come and save us." Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for "he that does not work, let him not eat." For say the [holy] oracles, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread." But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, "To the end, for the eighth day," on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ, whom the children of perdition, the enemies of the Savior, deny, "whose God is their belly, who mind earthly things," who are "lovers of pleasure, and not lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." These make merchandise of Christ, corrupting His word, and giving up Jesus to sale: they are corrupters of women, and covetous of other men's possessions, swallowing up wealth insatiably; from whom may ye be delivered by the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ! [ANF]


(4?) 1 Peter

(4a) 1Pet 3:19-20;

/3:18/ For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, /19/ in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, /20/ who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

(4b) 1Pet 4:6

/6/ For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.




This cluster seems to relate in some way to two others: 68. Hidden from Demons [1/2] and 223. Demons Silenced [2/1]. What they share is a common interest in the world as inhabited by demonic powers who are themselves deceived and defeated by Christ. It is not clear that these three clusters are consistent with one another, but they may be seen as different attempts to work with the same set of ideas in exploring the significance of Jesus' ministry and death.


Raymond E. Brown

In The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave. (2 vols. Anchor Bible Reference Library. Doubleday, 1994), Brown suggests that Matthew draws on "diverse popular traditions" (p. 1128) for the various apocalyptic signs deployed here, and he acknowledges that the resurrection of the saints is "a Matthean development" that goes beyond any older traditions that he may be using (page 1120).


John Dominic Crossan

Item: 29
Stratum: I (30-60 CE)
Attestation: Multiple
Historicity: ±

Crossan discusses the "Harrowing of Hell" briefly on [Historical Jesus, 387-89] as part of his treatment of the death and burial traditions.

He notes that the harrowing of Hades was a major theological issue in early Jewish Christianity since it was "in Sheol, Hades, or Hell, that the souls of holy and righteous, persecuted and martyred Jews awaited their final and promised deliverance." In the account of Jesus' suffering, his death was necessary both as an historical fact that could not be avoided and as a theological device to allow Jesus to enter the house of "those that slept," the dead.

While barely mentioned in the NT and soon marginalized as an embarrassment to developing classical theology, the harrowing of hell remains an important theme in Eastern iconography. It also survives as the brief statement within the Creed: "he descended into Hell."

Crossan suggests four reasons for this theological theme being pushed to boundaries of Christian belief:

    1. It was an intensely Jewish theme, and the Christians were increasingly non-Jewish in character.
    2. It was intensely mythological, and involed three related motifs: "a deception in whichthe demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent that was the actual reason for his death and burial; and a despoiling whereby Jesus, as Son of God broke open the prison of Hell and released both himself and all the righteous who had preceded him there."
    3. It created many theoological problems as Christianity developed: was repentance required of them? were they baptized? etc
    4. If Jesus was manifested to the dead and led them in triumph directly to heaven how was it possible for him also to be manifested to the apostles between resurrection and ascension? What of their mandate from the risen Jesus? Crossan notes how the tradition sought to resolve that dilemma in the Shepherd of Hermes, Similitude 9.


Jesus Seminar

The only published voting data relevant to this cluster concerns the earthquake described in Matthew's account of the crucifixion. In the inventory of events listed in The Acts of Jesus, the tradition of the earthquake and the resurrection of the sleeping saints is not identified separately but is simply treated as part of Matthew's account of the death of Jesus.






W Avg

Matt 27:51b-53







The commentary on page 264 of The Acts of Jesus notes that Matthew has the revived saints confined to their tomb cells until after Jesus himself has been raised from the dead, since they could not pre-empt Jesus by appearing in public prior to his own resurrection.


Gerd Luedemann

Luedemann [Jesus, 248] suggests "the tradition in Matt. 27.52-53 could be combined with the tradition preserved in Paul of Jesus as the firstsfruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15.20). Accordingly, Jesus' 'resurrection' is the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead. But Matthew fits this tradition to his view that Jesus was raised on the third day and therefore the resurrection of the righteous from their tombs which is mentioned could take place only after the resurrection of Jesus and not on the day of Jesus' death."


John P. Meier

Meier does not address this cluster in the first three volumes of Marginal Jew.


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