Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Bosom of Abraham
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The Bosom of Abraham
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In the Holy Bible, the expression "the Bosom of Abraham" is found only in two verses of St. Luke's Gospel (xvi, 22, 23). It occurs in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the imagery of which is plainly drawn from the popular representations of the unseen world of the dead which were current in Our Lord's time. According to the Jewish conceptions of that day, the souls of the dead were gathered into a general tarrying-place the Sheol of the Old Testament literature, and the Hades of the New Testament writings (cf. Luke, xvi, 22 in the Gr. xvi, 23). A local discrimination, however, existed among them, according to their deeds during their mortal life. In the unseen world of the dead the souls of the righteous occupied an abode or compartment of their own which was distinctly separated by a wall or a chasm from the abode or compartment to which the souls of the wicked were consigned. The latter was a place of torments usually spoken of as Gehenna (cf. Matt., v, 29, 30; xviii, 9- Mark, ix, 42 sqq. in the Latin Vulgate)- the other, a place of bliss and security known under the names of "Paradise" (cf. Luke, xxiii, 43) and "the Bosom of Abraham" (Luke, xvi, 22 23). And it is in harmony with these Jewish conceptions that Our Lord pictured the terrible fate of the selfish Rich Man, and on the contrary, the glorious reward of the patient Lazarus. In the next life Dives found himself in Gehenna, condemned to the most exeruciating tor ments, whereas Lazarus was carried by the angels into "the Bosom of Abraham", where the righteous dead shared in the repose and felicity of Abraham "the father of the faithful". But while commentators generally agree upon the meaning of the figurative expression "the Bosom of Abraham", as designating the blissful abode of the righteous souls after death, they are at variance with regard to the manner in which the phrase itself originated. 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. II Kings, xii, 2; III Kings, iii, 20; xvii, 19; Luke, xi, 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. But 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. Matt., viii, 11 sqq.), and of the highest form of that reward as lying in "Abraham's Bosom". Since the coming of Our Lord, "the Bosom of Abraham" gradually ceased to designate a place of imperfect happiness, and it has become synonymous with Heaven itself. In their writings the Fathers of the Church mean by that expression sometimes the abode of the righteous dead before they were admitted to the Beatific Vision after the death of the Saviour, sometimes Heaven, into which the just of the New Law are immediately introduced upon their demise. When in her liturgy the Church solemnly prays that the angels may carry the soul of one of her departed children to "Abraham's Bosom", she employs the expression to designate Heaven and its endless bliss in company with the faithful of both Testaments, and in particular with Abraham, the father of them all. This passage of the expression "the Bosom of Abraham" from an imperfect and limited sense to one higher and fuller is a most natural one, and is in full harmony with the general character of the New Testament dispensation as a complement and fulfilment of the Old Testament revelation.
FRANCIS E. GIGOT