Concepts of the Hereafter

World to Come. Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, with Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).

The Talmudic believer also has choices: "There are two ways before me; one leading to Gan Eden (Paradise), and the other to Gehinnom (Hell)."[1] With emphasis on the "two ways" of ethical behavior, the Treatise of the Two Ways, a Jewish Christian moralistic code for guidance in this world, states: "There are two ways in the world, over which are placed two angels, one of righteousness and the other of iniquity." These teachings are part of the Didache, the earliest known record of "Church Orders," and are based on Jewish catechesis such as the biblical excerpts below. They reflect Jewish and Christian dualistic concepts of morality related to eternal life (good) and death (evil): "I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil" (Deut. 30:15). Also "For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish" (Ps. 1:6): and the "way that leadeth to destruction" and the "way which leadeth unto life" (Matt. 7:13-14). Light (life) shall brighten the way of the virtuous and darkness (death) shall be the lot of the transgressor: "But the path of the just is as the shining light" and "The way of the wicked is as darkness" (Prov. 4:18-19) is reflected in Paul's mission from Jesus to the Gentiles "to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God [that they may receive forgiveness of sins)" (Acts 26:18).[2]

"Two ways" or two ethical choices imply reward and punishment. The Lord admonishes: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God… and a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God" (Deut.11:26-28). Chapters 12-30 of Deuteronomy are devoted to the "right way" for the Israelites, and the benefits to be derived from adhering to it.[3] In the New Testament counterpart, abiding in Jesus who is "the way and the truth and the life," and thus keeping his commandments, is the only approach to God (John 15:4, 10; 14:6).[4] To the rebellious children of Israel, a forgiving Lord declares that they shall hear "a word … saying, this is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left" ... and promises "rivers and streams of water" (Is. 30:21, 25).

Fig. 1. DAPICS n. 2988.

Fig. 1. Carved on a Roman sarcophagus, Jesus separates the sheep (the righteous and blessed) who will enjoy "life eternal" from the goats (the uncaring and cursed) who "shall go away into everlasting punishment". Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1924. Those who are in Christ Jesus" and who "walk not after the flesh (or selfish interests] but after the Spirit [of God] and are spiritually minded will enjoy "life and peace," while "to be carnally minded is death" (Rom. 8:1, 6--see also Gal. 5:16; 6:8). Again, in Paul's teachings "A man is justified [through redemption that is in Jesus] by faith [in Jesus] without the deeds of the law"' (Rom. 3: 28 and Gal. 2: 16). Moreover, in a direct correlation with vegetation and its need for water, the faithful follower of the Lord will thrive like "a tree planted by waters" whereas the impious "shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness" (Jer. 17:5-8). In the same vein, to the faithful devotee who keeps his commandments the Lord promises that he "will give rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit" (Lev. 26: 3-4).

The ruler of Israel who can discern justice from injustice will also be rewarded: "Thou lovest righteousness and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness … (Ps. 45:7); just as Jesus is described in Heb. (1:8-9). In an earlier parallel from the Coffin Texts, the deceased Egyptian describes the "great judge" (the Sun-god): "He loves righteousness and hates evil, upon his favorite ways of righteousness whereon the gods lead."[5] In guiding instructions to his children included in a poem on his mortuary stele, an official of King Amenemhet III, affirms punishment for transgressors of the will of the divine pharaoh, and creation and abundance for those who "tread his path."[6]

As already suggested, perhaps the carving on the early Near Eastern cylinder seal depicting the sharing of a communal drink represents the imparting of divine wisdom to a devotee. This thought evokes the attributes of Ea, the Mesopotamian god of wisdom as well as the god of the "watery deep," (which gives rise to all earthly sweet water). The thirst for wisdom is compared to the thirst of those who drink water and still thirst for more (Sirach 24:21).

The power of God-given waters for eternal life is described in the New Testament: "I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely" (Rev. 21:6). Like the spring spurting forth from the rock, the "well of the wilderness" represents spiritually the Torah, Wisdom, the Logos (or God's Word). "Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it" (Prov. 16:22). Wisdom personified as mother and wife "will give him [that taketh hold of the Torah and feareth the Lord] the waters of knowledge to drink" as well as "the bread of understanding" (Sirach 15:1-3). The Word which Jesus has spoken to them is God and Jesus (John 1:1, 14), and "cleans" the faithful (John 15:3)--signifying baptism, and recalling the Babylonian purifying "lord of the holy incantation who restores to life the dead".[7]


The name "Paradise" comes from the Greek Paradeisos, a word adapted from the Persian by Xenophon to describe the luxurious parks of the Persian kings. The Classical image of a lush garden, filled with a variety of plants and animals, came to represent the idea of heaven in Jewish and Christian art.

"And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly, the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven… And God created great whales… and made the… cattle after their kind… And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden" (Gen. 1:20, 21, 25; 2:8).

In Akhenaten's hymn to the Sun god, his dedication to The Whole Creation sings his praises: "How manifold are thy works! they are hidden from before (us), O sole God, whose powers no other possesseth. Thou didst create the earth according to thy heart (or understanding, intelligence) While thou wast alone: Men, all cattle large and small, All that are upon earth, That go about upon their feet; [All] that are on high, that fly with their wings."[8] A biblical close parallel glorifies the Lord: "O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts… there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein" (Ps. 104:24-26). The image of a fish with a large "cord" and a second with another object perhaps a "hook" in its mouth recalls the reference in Job 41:1 to leviathan.

Fig. 2. DAPICS n. 1604.

Fig. 2. The Flora and Fauna of Paradise. Colored drawing of the mosaic floor in the main room of a 6th century Synagogue at Hammam Lif (ancient Naro), Tunisia. It was drawn by Corporal Peco, after the excavation by his superior, Captain Ernest de Prudhomme who was stationed there.[9] A veritable oriental carpet enlaced with Jewish and Christian symbols for salvation, borrowed from Greco-Roman motifs, described a paradisiacal Eden for the righteous. The drawings of this synagogue floor (now no longer visible in its entirety) present a microcosmic view of the creatures and vegetal life, biblical or legendary, which the ancients believed they would find in Paradise, the equivalent of the Garden of Eden for the Jews.[10] The handiwork of God's labor is enclosed in exuberant foliate lozenges and ovals sprouting from vines in fanciful acanthus leaf vessels.[11] According to Goodenough and F.M. Biebel, the spikes pictured on the badly damaged upper section of the central panel may signify the creating hand itself.[12]

Familiar themes from the catacombs, such as aquatic birds, high stepping barnyard fowl, and baskets perhaps containing first fruits, possibly bread and fruit, are enclosed in the arabesques of the left panel of the mosaic. As in the catacombs of Vigna Randanini, ducks and fish (the large fish might qualify as leviathan) are neighbors in the living waters; they might have been guided by the encircled star, a common oriental celestial motif toward the now fragmented hallowed lands. In the lower central panel, those familiar symbols of salvation and heavenly bliss, two peacocks, are perched on a vessel resembling a volute krater, from which a fount of symbolic water gushes. Trees of Life--the usual fecund palm trees, each bearing two clusters of hanging dates--frame the scene laterally; palm branches, doves, and tulip-like roses decorate the field.

Fig. 3. DAPICS n. 0075 (also nn. 0139, 1790).

Fig. 3. Three Views of Paradise. The flora and fauna of the realms of heaven surround the victorious. Vault painting. Cubiculum I, catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome.

Fig. 4. DAPICS n. 0658.

Fig. 4. Similar residents of Eden encircle the Good Shepherd. Vault painting. Cubiculum of the Velata, catacomb of Priscilla.

Fig. 5. DAPICS n. 0011 (also nn. 0010, 0020-21, 0043-44).

Fig. 5. The bounty of an exuberant nature and a caring deity is well represented here, not only in the central image in the "Dome of Heaven" but also in the surrounding "satellites, “all painted in an impressionistic fashion. Vault painting. Cubiculum II, catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome.


Celestial pastoral scenes in funerary art were recognized as symbols of the kingdom of heaven, and promised idyllic peace and plenty for the faithful beyond the grave. The familiar animals and vegetation in the scenes not only represented the abundance of nature, but sometimes the laws of nature, just as they were metaphors for rebirth and a life in Paradise. From time immemorial, Near Eastern deities and monarchs have been considered shepherds of their flocks, dispensing divine guidance and succor. In that bucolic tradition, when David the shepherd, like Orpheus tamed the wild and domestic beasts with his music, he evoked an earlier Judaic version of Paradise--the anticipated harmonious messianic kingdom, Jerusalem reborn. It would be when "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain"(Isa. 11:6-7, 9).

Much like these early kings, the redeeming Lord was also envisioned as the caring shepherd. Of the redeeming Lord: "For thus saith the Lord God… As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among the sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day" (Ezek. 34:11-12)."He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (Isa. 40:11) and "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… He restoreth my soul" (Ps. 23:1, 3). In the New Testament there are parallel passages such as "Our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep" (Heb. 13:20); Jesus said: "I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).

Fig. 6. DAPICS n. 0137.

Fig. 6. (DAPICS nn. 0212-13, 1104) The Vanished Pastoral Scene. On the vandalized rear wall are the vestiges of a barely visible scene. It was composed of one horse (and probably another facing it), with the top of a man's head in between, all set in an arboreal landscape. The content of this fragment led some scholars to conclude that this fresco had depicted Orpheus in a pastoral setting, a theme not uncommon in Christian catacombs where the musician, soother of untamed beasts, served as a prefiguration of Jesus. Cubiculum II, Vigna Randanini catacomb.[13]

Fig. 7. DAPICS n. 0687 (also 2918).

Fig. 7. Elysian Fields. A reclining bovine-looking sheep munches placidly in a flowering meadow with possible mountains looming in the background. On the right side of this badly damaged fresco only three slender legs and the upper torso, apparently a sheep, are visible. Lower vault painting, double arcosolium. Near frescoed cubiculum, upper catacomb of Villa Torlonia, Rome.

Fig. 8. DAPICS n. 0321.

Fig. 8. Pastoral Scene. A shepherd tends his flock in an idyllic bucolic landscape with intimations of the heavenly hereafter. His musical instrument, the syrinx, is suspended from the bough of a tree. He could be an allusion to Orpheus. Painting on the lower front of the rear arcosolium in Cubiculum F, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome. This scene appears to be very similar to the badly damaged preceding one, although executed with more skill; it hints at the possible content of the painting in the Torlonia catacomb when it was intact. Perhaps this was a very popular composition at the time (2nd quarter of the 4th century); it might indicate that these two catacombs were contemporary or were inspired by the same model.

Fig.  9. DAPICS n. 0779.

Fig. 9. Shepherd-Musician-King. An enthroned David, originally crowned and nimbed, and attired in sumptuous Byzantine royal garb, charms his rapt listeners with the strains of his music: these are a serpent, a lion-cub, and a "giraffe." The name David is printed in Hebrew above his lyre. Mosaic floor with geometric patterned border of swastikas alternating with concentric squares. Early 6th century synagogue at Gaza.

"And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd… And ye my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men and I am your God" (Ezek. 34:23, 31).

Fig. 10. DAPICS n. 1002 (also n. 1001).

Fig. 10. David the Intrepid Hero. In his defeat of Goliath with only sling and stone, the youth embodied the righteous hero doing battle against a wicked and more powerful foe than the lion and bear he had overcome as shepherd of a flock (I Samuel 17:42-51: 34-36). Vault painting. Cubiculum of David, catacomb of Domitilla, Rome. This was a representation that was easily understood in Christian iconography as a symbol of the triumph of Jesus over the forces of evil. The age-old theme of the struggle of good against the powers of the wicked had its pagan counterparts in the labors of Heracles that were represented in the Catacomb of via Dino Compagni. David assumed another role as the shepherd who soothed his flocks with his music. This related him to Orpheus and later to Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Fig. 11. DAPICS n.1473 (also 0657-8).

Fig. 11. The Good Shepherd. A dominant symbol of the Christian catacombs is shown in short tunic and thigh-high leggings among members of his beloved flock and flanked by age-old sacred symbols of doves atop two trees. Vault painting. Cubiculum of the Velata, catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.

Fig. 12. DAPICS n. 0051 (also nn. 0049-50).

Fig. 12. (DAPICS nn. 0049-51.) The Pastoral Aspect of the Sheep. In yet another role, the sheep could represent a departed soul, and the caduceus of Hermes, supported by the emblematic stump or abbreviated pillar, signals the arrival of its shepherd -messenger-psychopomp proprietor. Right wall of Cubiculum I, catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Rome.

The Lord as shepherd will redeem his dispersed sheep: "… and will bring them to their own land… I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be" (Ezek. 34:13-14).

Fig. 13. DAPICS n. 1259

Fig. 13. A Descent to a Throne. A muscular Hermes leads the way in the abduction of Persephone by Hades, sovereign of the underworld--still another metaphor for the rape of the soul from the body, this time heading in the opposite direction. In the myth that explains the cycle of the seasons, the earth goddess Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter Persephone so deeply that the earth remained barren until her return for spring, summer, and autumn each year. Mosaic floor in mausoleum I, Vatican necropolis.

Fig. 14. DAPICS n. 0868.

Fig. 14. Hermes, Conductor of Souls. An analogous theme, painted in reverse on the wall of an arcosolium in the interesting small hypogeum of Vibia. In this burial ground are interred Christians as well as pagan followers of Sabazios, a Phrygian nature deity combining attributes of Zeus and Dionysus in an ecumenical conflation.[14] Once more in shepherd's tunic and laced leggings, Hermes is about to step into the yawning mouth of Hades. In the role of psychopomp he guides the deceased Vibia and her abductor. The painted legend tells of her seizure and descent. The site adjoins the catacomb of Pretestato, and is contemporary with the catacombs.

Fig. 15. DAPICS n. 2499 (also 2500).

Fig. 15. Reader in Pastoral Setting. An image sometimes identified as that of Jesus, as teacher with his flock. Wall painting in Cubiculum III in the pagan-Christian hypogeum of the Aurelii, Rome. Mid-3rd century. "And Jesus, when he came out, saw much and was moved with compassion toward them, because they sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them people, were as many things" (Mark 6:34)."

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, 28 B, and Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (Chicago: Regnery, 1964), p. 142.

[2] Allusions to light as the equivalent of life and darkness as the symbol of death are expressed in Job 38:19-20: "Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof… that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?" The followers of Jesus "shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (John 8:12).

[3] Like Leviticus 17-26, they are an expansion of the original Decalogue and ordinances of the Covenant (the latter adapted from existing Near Eastern agricultural laws) set forth in Exodus 20 23.

[4] The Sermon on the Mount is the code of conduct for Christianity (Matt.5:3-7:27) as is a briefer segment in Luke 6:20-39, which is based on Matthew's Gospel.

[5]  James Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 253-254.

[6] Dynasty XII, Middle Kingdom. From James Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 327 f., no. 747.

[7] Breasted, Ancient Records, p. 326.

[8] George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1925), p. 427, n. 7.

[9] Giovanni Battista de Rossi, Revue archeologique, SER.III, Vol. III (1884), plate VII/VIII.

[10] Fragments are in the Brooklyn Museum: E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols of the Greco Roman Period, v. 12 (New York: Pantheon, 1965), p. 48.

[11] Goodenough refers to it as a wheel: see Jewish Symbols, v. 2, pp. 95-96.

[12] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, v. 2, p. 95. Debra Rockoff pf the Hebrew University Department of Archaeology, and project assistant for Vaults of Memory, suggests that these spikes could represent the edge of a wing.

[13] Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, v. 2., pp. 19-20 and notes.

[14] Pasquale Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, 2d. ed. (Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), p. 152 and Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, v. 2, p. 45.