Gehenna in J.A. Alexander's Matthew Commentary

Joseph Addison Alexander was writing a commentary on Matthew at the time of his death in 1860, and the work was left incomplete. Here, Alexander's enlightening comments on some of the references to Gehenna from that work are brought together. 

The Gospel According to Matthew
by Joseph Addison Alexander (1864)

Matthew 5:22
Matthew 5:29
Matthew 5:30
Matthew 10:28

p. 134.


22. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire.

Having stated the traditional or Pharisaic gloss upon the sixth commandment, which restricted it to actual malicious homicide, our Lord now gives his own far wider and more stringent exposition of the same law, reaching beyond the overt act to the malignant dispositions out of which it springs. But I say unto you, in opposition not to the Mosaic precept, but to this unauthorized confinement of its prohibitions to the ultimate result of murderous affections. Whosoever is angry, or retaining the peculiar form of the original, every (one) angered (or enraged). The qualifying adverb (...) usually means in the New Testament in vain, i.e. without effect, to no purpose (Rom. 13,4. 1 Cor. 15,2. Gal. 3,4. 4,11) ; but in one other place at least (Col. 2,18), it has the sense in which Polybius and Xenophon employ it, to wit, idly, inconsiderately, causeless, unreasonably. The Vulgate and its followers omit it here entirely, in which they are sustained by the latest critics, who suppose it to have been introduced by certain copyists, in order to avoid an absolute condemnation of all anger, which is inconsistent both with apostolic precept (Eph. 4,26) and with Christ's example (Mark 3,5). It would seem to follow, therefore that the limitation is implied if not expressed, which makes the textual variation exegetically unimportant. The truth, however, is that the question here is not between a groundless and a reasonable anger, but between all anger, as an inward affection of the mind, and its outward manifestation in unlawful acts of violence. As if he had said, men are to be judged, not only by their murderous acts, but by their murderous feelings. This is directly stated in the first clause, and then indirectly in the others, where instead of anger itself, we have natural and usual expressions of it in abusive and contemptuous language. This essential import of the terms is not affected by the specific sense attached to each, although the obvious and common explanations are no doubt the best. Racha (which Wiclif renders fy) is probably an Aramaic word (... or ...), meaning vain, empty, which occurs in the later Jewish books as an expression of contempt. Fool is used for the same purpose in all languages, evincing pride of intellect to be an universal passion. There is no need, therefore, of attaching to the term the peculiar sense ascribed to corresponding Hebrew words, in which wickedness and folly seem to be identified. The whole question as to the specific import of these terms is without exegetical importance, as the meaning meant to be conveyed is simply, that the sixth commandment, as interpreted by Christ, forbids, not only the extreme act of murder, but the anger which impels to it, and the words by which that anger is betrayed, whatever be their primary or proper meaning. The disposition to insist upon that meaning is connected with an ancient and an almost universal notion of a climax in this sentence, which has led to many forced constructions, and obscured if not perverted its whole meaning. According to this usual assumption, we have here three gradations of unauthorized and sinful anger, with as many measures or degrees of punishment assigned to them respectively. The first degree of sin is simple anger (or according to the common text, unreasonable, groundless anger) not expressed at all; the second the expression of such anger by the use of the word raca; and the third, by the use of the word fool. The first or lowest form of punishment, attached to these offenses is the judgment, which is commonly explained to mean the local or inferior tribunal which existed in all Jewish towns, composed of three or seven judges. The next is the council, or synedrion, the Greek term commonly applied to the supreme court or national tribunal of the Jews (see below, on 10,17. 26,59). The third is the fire of hell, or more exactly, the gehenna of fire, a later Jewish name for the place of future torment, being really a Greek word made up of two Hebrew ones, originally meaning the Valley Hinnom. As a local designation, it described the valley on the south side of Jerusalem, famous of old as a favourite place of idolatrous worship, and especially of the horrid service paid to Moloch by causing children to pass through the fire (Lev. 18,21. 20,2. 2 Kings 23,10. 2 Chr. 33,6. Jer. 10,2. 32,35). Hence in times of reformation, and especially under Josiah, the last good king of Judah, this valley was defiled, probably by being made a place of deposit for the refuse and offal of the city (2 Kings 23,10). It is often added that to consume this refuse fires were kept perpetually burning; but there is no sufficient evidence of this fact, and the latest writers suppose the sacrificial fires of Moloch to have given rise to the peculiar usage of the Gehenna, to denote the place of future torment, or what in modern English is called hell. This view of the passage, though entitled to respect from its antiquity and general reception, is unquestionably open on some serious objections. In the first place, it assumes a gradation in the sin condemned, which is not readily suggested by the terms employed. Interpreters have found it so impossible to show the greater guilt of calling a man fool than raca, or of saying either than of cherishing a silent but malignant anger, that they have been forced to put the most unnatural constructions on these words; without effect, because the difficulty still remains essentially the same, whatever be their meaning. In the next place, there is an offensive incongruity in coupling two degrees of Jewish criminal proceedings with eternal torments as the third degree of the same scale. However palliated or disguised, the transition here is felt to be a salto mortale. It is really an indirect acknowledgement of this, that some propose to make the judgment and the council, although properly denoting human courts, mere figures for inferior degrees of what is afterwards called hell-fire. How gratuitous and arbitrary this is, may be gathered from the fact, that others just reverse the process, and make hell-fire a strong, Oriental figure for the worst or highest form of punishment in this world. Feeling the difficulties which attend the supposition of a climax, yet unwilling to renounce it, some have recently proposed to substitute an anti climax by reversing the gradation both of sin and punishment, or, what may be regarded as the furthest possible extreme in this direction, to assume a climax in the one case and an anti-climax in the other. Such diversities of judgment and extravagant inventions on the part of wise and learned men imply an error in the principle or basis of the exposition, which can only be rectified in this case by discarding the idea of a climax altogether, and explaining the three clauses as substantially equivalent though formally dissimilar expressions of the same idea, namely, that the law of God forbids not only murder but malignant anger and its oral manifestations. 'So far is this commandment from relating only to the act of murder, that it makes internal anger an offense deserving punishment. Yes, even such a word as raca, if expressive of an inward spite, may be a crime, obnoxious to the highest censures; and the use of the word fool may spring from such a state of mind, that he who utters it may be condemned to endless torments.' Retaining this as the essential meaning, there is some room for latitude of judgment as to the particular expressions. It is even admissible, though not so natural, to understand the judgment and the council as denoting human censures, while the fire of hell denotes the wrath of God, provided these unequal sanctions be connected, not with different degrees of sin, but with the same, as making men obnoxious both to present and to future, both to human and divine retributions. Into hell-fire, i.e. liable to be thrown into it. The lesson taught then as to murder is, that the law against it would be far more rigidly interpreted and executed under the Messiah's reign than under the Mosaic law, as expounded and enforced by the contemporary Scribes and Pharisees.


It seems that the meaning of Gehenna is clarified here, as being another step in a series of proceedings, like those of courts of law, where a person is charged, and witnesses are brought forward, and a sentence is passed by the judge.

Jesus mentioned three conditions: (1) anger; (2) saying "Raca" to a brother; (3) calling him a fool. Apparently in the opinion of scholars, there was not much difference between the abusive terms mentioned in (2) and (3), but while (2) indicates a person was brought before a council of elders, in (3) the sentence was pronounced, that of being cast into Gehenna, picturing rejection from Christ's kingdom.

The point would be that the issue was one of the spirit, and that is what has to be addressed.

I think the words salto mortale used above mean "fatal leap."

p. 141.


29. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast (it) from thee: for it is profitable tor thee that one of thy members should perish, and not (that) thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Here again, as in v. 23, the plural pronoun is abruptly changed into the singular, as if the object of address were no longer the whole multitude, or even the disciples who formed part of it (v. 2), but some one individual hearer. The design of this change, which the English reader is too apt to overlook from his habitual confusion of the numbers in colloquial usage, is in either case to give a pointed, personal directness to the practical advices which now follow, and to render it impossible for any one who hears or reads the words to treat them as mere barren generalities. As if he had said, 'Such is my interpretation of these two commandments, which I state to all of you collectively; and now I will tell each one of you how he ought to act in consequence.' In this respect our Lord affords a model to his ministers, who ought neither to neglect the general exhibition of sound doctrine, nor to pretermit its practical and personal enforcement. The advice itself is similar, in form and substance, to an exhortation which has been preserved by Mark (9,43-48), as uttered on a subsequent occasion, and by Matthew himself (18,8. 9), perhaps upon a third, a striking instance of our Lord's didactic method of repeating the same lessons more or less modified, to different assemblies. Of the three forms in which this exhortation is recorded, that before us is the briefest. and most probably the oldest, thus exhibiting the theme, of which the others are majestic variations. Common to all, because essential to his purpose, is the solemn warning against being tempted and betrayed into sin by any thing belonging to themselves, however highly valued and however fondly cherished. This idea he expresses in a manner which may be described as characteristic of his teaching, i.e. by assuming an extreme case and supposing that a man's own members, even those which he particularly prizes, and to lose which would be little less than death itself, are incurable, incorrigible causes or occasions of transgression against God. The case is not presented as a real one, or one in which there is reason to anticipate in actual experience; but if it should occur, if the only alternative presented to a man were deliberate habitual transgression or the less of his most valuable members, what would be his choice? If he prefer his bodily integrity and purchase it at such a price, he has reason to believe himself a reprobate. But if in the extreme case here supposed, he would be ready to choose mutilation rather than a life of sin, that choice includes all minor cases, as the whole includes the part, and as the greater comprehends the less.

In the verse before us, the antithesis presented is between the loss of one eye, with salvation or admission into heaven, and the use of two eyes, with perdition or the everlasting pains of hell. That this is the original connection or occurrence of this striking passage may be gathered from the otherwise unimportant circumstance, that the eye, which stands last in the other cases (Matt. 18,19. Mark 9,47) here stands first, in obvious and beautiful connection with the previous condemnation even of an unchaste look as virtual adultery. We thus learn, as it were, the very genesis or origin of this divine injunction, as developed in the natural succession of our Saviour's thoughts and words in his organic or inaugural discourse, and afterwards repeated in an amplified and finished but essentially unaltered form on different occasions. The right eye seems to be particularly mentioned as commonly reckoned the most valuable, either from in natural difference or one produced, in all the double members of the body, by more constant use. Offend, not in the ordinary modern sense of displeasing or alienating in affection, but in the Latin and old English sense of stumbling or being made to stumble. The nearest root or theme to which it can be traced in classic Greek, denotes a trap or snare, but in the Hellenistic dialect a stumblingblock or any hindrance in the path, over which one may fall. In like manner the derivative verb means to make one fall or stumble, a natural figure both for sin and error, and often representing both as commonly connected in experience. 'If thy very eye, and that thy right eye, incurably betrays thee into sin.' The present tense (...) brings the supposition home with great force to the hearer's actual experience. Not 'if it should so do hereafter,' but 'if it is so doing now.' Cast it from thee, with abhorrence and contempt, not only as a small price to be paid for your deliverance from sin, but as intrinsically hateful on account of its supposed abandonment to sin itself. It is profitable (or expedient, as the Rhemish Bible renders it), i, e. comparatively, as appears from the remaining clause, but is not expressed in the verb itself, though so translated in the older English versions (better it is, Tyndale, Cranmer, Geneva). Perish, or be lost, suggesting the idea of perdition or eternal misery, though strictly inapplicable to an amputated or exscinded member. And not, i.e. not expedient, profitable, good for thee, conducive to thy happiness. Cast, the same word that was previously applied to the eye, and thus suggesting the immense disparity of loss and gain, the disproportion between voluntary rejection of a single member and coercive or compulsory rejection of one's self forever. Hell, an English word originally meaning the unseen world, or the world of spirits, or the state of the dead, and thus corresponding to the Greek word hades (see below, on 11,23. 16, 18), but in later usage limited to the place of future torment, and employed to represent the Greek gehenna, which has been explained already. (See above. on v. 22.)

p. 143.


30. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast (it) from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not (that) thy whole body should be cast into hell.

The same supposition is then made as to the right hand, with an exhortation to cut it off (or more exactly out, which is a stronger expression) in the case assumed, to wit, if it cannot be retained without a certainty of sinning against God. The remainder of the verse is an exact repetition of the twenty-ninth, except that the conjunctive particle (...) with which it opens indicates the close connection and resemblance of the two, whereas that at the beginning of the verse preceding (...) rather introduces an addition somewhat different in form, or marks the transition from our Saviour's doctrine to its application. It is not necessary to repeat that this is no formal rule of duty, or provision for a case to be expected in real life, but the strongest possible expression of the principle which ought to govern even the extremest case conceivable, much more the usual emergencies of every-day experience. That principle is simply the unsparing and indignant sacrifice of any thing, however dear and to appearance indispensable, which necessarily incites to sin. The special reference in this connection is, of course, to all indulgences, however lawful in themselves, which experience has shown to be promotive of unhallowed passion.

p. 295.


28. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul ; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

A second reason for not fearing even the most cruel and malignant human enemies, is that their power extends only to the body, leaving the nobler spiritual part in which the personality resides, uninjured and untouched. Soul is the word correctly rendered life in 2, 20. 6, 26, but here determined to mean soul by the antithesis with body. But lest this should be understood as meaning that the soul is in no sense destructible, the last clause guards against this error, by expressly teaching that the soul may be destroyed, and that he who has the power of destroying it is properly an object of our fear. Another error here precluded is that of supposing that the body will escape in the destruction of the soul, whereas soul and body must eventually perish together. Besides this careful guarding against natural and common errors, there is great precision in the choice of terms, the term kill being only used in reference to the body as distinguished from the soul, while that employed in reference to the soul, even when reunited to the body, is destroy. Hell, the place of future torment. (See above, on 5,22.) This last clause does not mean indefinitely, fear one who can do what these enemies cannot do, without implying that there is such to being. This is forbidden by the definite expression, the (one) able. It is a very old opinion that the person here referred to is the devil; but an exhortation to fear him would be irrelevant and out of place in this connection; and the power here ascribed to him he only possesses as an instrument or agent of the wrath of God, who must be reckoned therefore as the ultimate destroyer. The exhortation to fear him is really an exhortation to avoid displeasing him by disobedience, and is here peculiarly appropriate. As if he had said, 'instead of shrinking from your duty through fear of what these enemies can do to your bodies, be afraid of incurring God's displeasure by neglecting it.'


Referring to "hell" (identified previously with Gehenna) Alexander says "This last clause does not mean indefinitely." He evidently taught "future torment," but that it was not necessarily endless.

Also See

Relation of the Old to the New Dispensation, by J. A. Alexander


The Psalms Vol I
The Psalms Vol II
The Psalms Vol III

Commentary on Acts Vol 1
Commentary on Acts Vol 2

Joseph Addison Alexander's Works  


Copyright 2009 by Douglas E. Cox
All Rights Reserved.

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