The purpose of this article is to examine John Chrysostom’s (ca. 349–407 CE) understanding of paradise. The following question is asked: According to John Chrysostom, what is the nature and function of paradise? After some introductory remarks, the article provides an overview of some ancient interpretations of paradise (Gen. 2:8) up to the 4th century CE, in order to better understand Chrysostom’s frame of reference. Attention is especially given to the historical and literary development of the concept of paradise in the Hebrew Bible and later sources from early Judaism. Then the New Testament and early Christian conceptualisation of paradise is discussed, focusing on, among others, Philo, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Ephrem. Thereafter the views of Chrysostom are analysed in detail. Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis receive special attention. It is shown that there is a direct correlation between Chrysostom’s view of paradise, his approach to the Bible, and his belief regarding the resurrection of the flesh.
We read in Gen. 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (New Revised Standard Version). The Hebrew term used to refer to the garden is gan-‘Eden. Later in history the garden of Eden also came to be known as “paradise”, a term which comes from the Persian word pairi-daeza, which can mean “park” or “garden”. In the LXX the Greek word paradeisos is used, which became the common term used by the early Christians. Views about the nature and function of paradise have changed through the centuries. In Jewish-Christian tradition paradise is considered, on the one hand, as the sinless golden age of human existence, and the point where evil and sin entered the world; on the other hand, it is considered to be a new and blessed eschatological reality. The narrative events of paradise still continue to influence how many people define gender roles and how they understand the nature of evil, and for some paradise is even a preview of or precursor to heaven and the afterlife.
However, probably from its early inception, the notion of the garden of Eden, or paradise, has had some ambiguity to it. Even in the original Hebrew text of Genesis the term gan-‘Eden may contain a double entendre. While it does seem to be a toponym, the name of the garden might also be related to the Hebrew word eden, which means “pleasure” or “opulence”. The LXX translators and early Jewish and Christian commentators noted and sustained this possible double meaning of paradise. In some later traditions of the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism paradise does indeed gain a second, more transcendent meaning. Deutero-Isaiah uses “paradise” in a prophetic-eschatological sense, for instance. Most importantly, 1 Enoch 28–32 speaks of paradise as the place to which Enoch went; in this text the literary and more “spiritual” natures of paradise intersect. In the New Testament, paradise is almost exclusively a near-heavenly eschatological reality.
The tension between paradise as a physical place and a heavenly eschatological reality remained in later interpretations. Even authors who were renowned for their allegorical interpretations of Scripture, like Philo and Origen, seem to rely on the notion of paradise as having had some type of physical nature. Tertullian, along with some other early North African Christian writers, began to conceive of paradise as a type of liminal waiting place for the saints, especially the martyrs. Tertullian initially thought that paradise was one division of Hades, the underworld, which was separated from hell by a large wall. Later, however, he changed his view and paradise became a heavenly place (either heaven itself or very close to heaven). In the 4th century the idea of paradise as a heavenly reality – accompanied by allegorical readings of paradise – became more and more popular. The Cappadocian Fathers, Ambrose and Ephrem follow this line of interpretation, while Augustine hoped to accommodate a view that paradise has both physical and spiritual or heavenly attributes.
As a 4th-century author traditionally located in the Antiochene school of biblical interpretation (although this classification is dated and not always accurate), John Chrysostom typically rejects the allegorical interpretations of paradise for a more literal reading. Chrysostom emphasises that paradise is not heaven, and that paradise is without a doubt a place somewhere on earth. An important intertext in this regard is the words Jesus spoke to the bandit on the cross in Luke 23:42: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (NRSV). The dilemma which Chrysostom, and many other interpreters, faced was that these words were spoken to the bandit before he experienced the resurrection. This led some to believe that there is no resurrection of the flesh. Chrysostom directly counters this argument – which he ascribes to the Manichaeans – by constructing paradise as a physical place on earth where saints await the resurrection of the flesh.
The study concludes by noting that Chrysostom’s understanding of the nature and function of paradise is, in fact, a double-edged sword. An author’s views of paradise said a great deal about his view of Scripture and his theological orientation, especially regarding eschatology and resurrection. Chrysostom’s literal understanding of paradise further functioned as a strategy to define his and his followers’ identity over and against others, like the Manichaeans.
Keywords: allegory; early Christianity; garden of Eden; Genesis; heaven; John Chrysostom; paradise; patristics