The Bible contains words that belong to an ancient mythological language rather than to biblical. Tartarus, hades and lake of fire are examples. It is interesting that these noticeable examples all refer to what Christians call hell.
One word in the NT caught my attention some time ago. That word is ‘Tartarus’ which is found in the original text of 2 Peter 2:4. It made me ask why the author of 2 Peter made use of this particular word having probably some other words that would be more in tune with other parts of the NT. The whole subject of borrowing words and concepts from neighbors by NT authors is broad. While considering this, something interesting caught my attention. It turns out that NT authors borrowed words and concepts that mainly address eschatological themes. ‘Sheol’ obviously comes from the Near Eastern context but no single source could be identified as the primary source. ‘Hades’ is borrowed from the Greek language and bears some mythological concepts with it. ‘The Lake of Fire’ comes from Zoroastrianism and appears only in The Book of Revelation. ‘Tartarus’ is a more specific word than those mentioned above and it seems to be connected not only to a particular culture but also to a very specific myth of semi-divine creatures imprisoned in lurk dungeons beneath the ground. Furthermore, while ‘Sheol’, ‘hades’ and ‘The Lake of Fire’ seem to be just key words that help the reader imagine the picture better and are more of a metaphor, I cannot help but have the impression that in the case of the Tartarus the degree of literality is much larger. Sheol is the name of the underworld in which people continue to exist after physical death, but within the OT anthropology one can hardly think of it as a literal region. Monism – one of the most basic feature of OT anthropology – does not allow any part of a person to survive death. Sheol thus, must be thought more of a poetic way to describe death. It makes one think that this word in the OT usually appears in poetic books, in most other cases it is almost always paralleled with ‘the grave’. ‘Hades’ in the NT would be an equivalent of OT ‘Sheol’. But again, we do not find any hints in the NT that ‘hades’ is some kind of underworld in which souls are waiting for the Judgment. Hades should be rendered as ‘a state of death’. In spite of verbal connection with Greek myths we do not believe in the river Styx, the Cerberus nor personified death. ‘The Lake of Fire’, is another phrase that was borrowed from alien concepts but its meaning was adjusted to John’s purposes. Not many Christians though are aware that the Lake of Fire has its origins in Zoroastrianism – a mysterious religion which invaded Babylon while the Israelites were there. In its original setting ‘The Lake of Fire’ was a literal lake upon which there was a thin bridge. A soul which passed that bridge and did not fall into the lake survived. The one who did not, ceased to exist. In the Apocalypse of John, death, the devil and his cohort hell will be thrown into this Lake of Fire, and they will also cease to exist. The metaphorical sense is obvious, as I assume here and it proves that biblical authors were using them as long as they were helping to shape the general picture they were trying to paint.
But this is not the case with the ‚Tartarus’. Something literal and real is assumed here, despite the fact that Greek myths are regarded as pure fiction. Tartarus sends us back to the myth of the Titans that after a rebellious war against Zeus were chained and imprisoned in an underworld chamber. No matter how improbable it sounds, 2 Peter refers to it as a real incident. More interestingly, a book that parallels much of the material that we can find in 2 Peter, Jude, seems to identify the picture referred to by 2 Peter with that which happened just before the Deluge. Shall we thus suppose that the myth of Titans and the Tartarus are Greek renditions of the Hebrew story of angels marrying human women and subsequently being punished by God? A satisfactory answer would be ‘yes’ because this would clear 2 Peter from accusations of referring to pagan mythology in spite of orthodox history.
If the incident of which 2 Peter and Greek mythology mention really took place, it would be an important one and therefore would put a stamp on both the literature and theology of biblical authors.
Studying this subject took me further than I expected and made me realize that the Bible did not emerged out of nowhere (although I have already been taught that) but it was a product of specific times and needs. More importantly, the Bible as we have it today was not finally formed in the latest ancient times. Individual books have been circulating and taking final forms. Some were selected as ‘inspired by the Spirit’ and some not. But in the process of writing, mutual intrusions took place. Some motifs, words and characters are shared between canonical and non-canonical books. We can find traces of this sharing in the Bible. The intrusions took place not only between biblical authors but also between the Bible and the sacred texts of surrounding cultures. Traces of that are also clearly visible. Themes of Titans and Tartarus are only an excuse to investigate the problem of the composing of the Bible and the problem of the origin of evil that was an incentive for biblical authors.
Let us begin with a short analysis of 2 Peter where the word Tartarus can be found. After the problem has been identified we will chronologically run through the historical treatments of this subject. Although, as far as I know, no one has studied this subject in the way I am proposing, parts of the subject are well analyzed and presented in books and articles.