Where did Purgatory come from?

Okay, I’ve read my Bible, and I can find Heaven, My Father’s House, the Kingdom of God. I can find Hell, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire. But I can’t find a recognizable reference to Purgatory.

Where did the doctrine of Purgatory come from? I was raised RC, and I don’t know. I’ve asked Roman Catholics I know, and nobody could tell me.

Can anyone help me out? I genuinely want to know.

Here’s a start:
The Roots of Purgatory

That’s weird. I heard on a Discovery Channel show that purgatory was invented during the black death to mollify the panicking masses that even though they were dying too fast to all get the last rites, they wouldn’t be condemned to hell because of it.

Your cite seems to assert that purgatory predates Christianity and that the Jews believe in it. Both of those concepts run counter to my understanding of purgatory and Judaism.

The Discovery Channel has been known to air historical, scientific, and journalistic ‘news’ shows that are, how shall we put it… full of crap.

The historical citations given in the above link are unassailable: Prayers for the dead to assist them during some sort of process of purification (from which the theology of purgatory arose) certainly predates the dark ages and even the birth of Christ.


Holy ones of God, pray for us.
Not so holy ones of God, we’re praying for you.

In addition to the answers already provided, we had a similar question last Spring that provided a fair amount of information:

what the hell (or heaven) is purgatory?

While I don’t have a cite for this, I recall that when I was a senior in high school my religion teacher, a Jesuit priest who taught theology at St. Louis University, said that Purgatory was first formalized as a Catholic doctrine in Ireland somewhere around the Fourth or Fifth century A.D. As a link cited above states, a Biblical foundation for it is Second Macabees, which is one of those books which was found in the first edition of the King James Bible but deleted for the second edition; that is, a part of the Protestant Apocrypha.

That’s plainly wrong. Purgatory was a key part of the medieval worldview. Dante’s Divina Commedia included an entire book about Purgatory and was written decades before the plague hit Italy.


The only connection I see in Thunderbug’s links about Jews believing in Purgatory is the reference to 2 Maccabees 12:41-45.

Far from being unassailable, that reference is quite suspect:


Here’s the text of 2 Maccabees 12:41-45

2 Maccabees, chapter 12 RSV

To say that Purgatory is part of Jewish belief because of these lines from the Apocrypha is a bit of stretch.

From Thunderbug’s link I found this:

Matthew 12:32 -
And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the [world] to come.

Matthew 5:25-26 -
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

Both could be the roots of Purgatory. Also the link said the Jews already believed in Purgatory before the coming of Jesus.

Actually, the issue of whether the Jews believed in Purgatory before Jesus, or ever - even today - is highly problematic. Most Rabbis will acknowledge, if directly asked, that mainstream Judaic theology does not believe in an afterlife. It did exist as a folk belief in Judaism from ancient times to the present, and certain sects have accepted it over the millenia, but a life properly lived is its own reward in Judaism.

In fact, according to a Papal pronouncement on July 28, 1999, and other papal statements, hell is not a place, but a state of separation of man and his soul from God, and an internal consequence of rejecting or repudiating God in life - which understandably throws the traditional Catholic notion of purgatory out the window. E.g. (from the above citation):

(I am not sure if any of these are Papal bulls under the Doctrine of Infallibility, because I am not an expert on Catholicism, and he Vatican’s website is unhelpful in this regard)
o understand how little weight a popular, even universally known, folk belief holds in formal theology, think of the Jewish folk belief in golems (inanimate figures of straw wood or clay that are brought to life by sufficiently learned rabbis) or the modern universal Christian familiarity with Santa Claus, among many others. It’s not unthinkable that 30th or 40th century (post-nuclear war) archaeologists will find our widespread Santa Claus artifacts and insist that we believed in him as an article of Dogma.

(Don’t even get me started on the legend of the Christkind [Christ child], who was said [by what would today be called Bavarians and Austrians] to bring gifts to some children on Christmas. Curiously, Saint Nicolaus [= Santa Claus] was a Bavarian bishop, and was seen as a dark punitive figure until the American poem “The Night Before Christmas” invented the modern cheery Santa. Every year around this time, there are grassroots movements to ban displays of (what they call) “the American Santa Claus” in favor of Christkind
displays. Last year, I was told they actually came close to passing an ordinance in some Austrian cities (Innsbruck and Salzburg, IIRC).]

I do not see anyone arguing that a belief in Purgatory actually arose within Judaism. What is put forth is the idea that some portion of the Jewish community prior to the first century believed that it was worthwhile to offer prayers for the dead. The concept of Purgatory was clearly a Christian (and mostly a Western Christian) concept that was developed from that perspective.

As to the Apocrypha: Christians were using those books as Scripture from the earliest days of Christianity and the whole apocrypha/deutero-canonical discussion was a later debate. Protestants can make a case that the books should never have been included as Scripture, based on their understanding of the Jewish canon, but the Catholic and Orthodox traditions indicate pretty clearly that those works were never inserted into Scripture, but were always held to be Scripture.

There have only been two “infallible” papal declarations, and this is not one of them. However, the cited document is very much in line with traditional Catholic teaching. The statement regarding hell does nothing to challenge the concept of Purgatory. The images of hell (from before the first century) and of Purgatory (from later periods) were initially depicted as physical locations, but the theological concepts of states of punishment or cleansing have remained throughout, and, in this context, Purgatory is simply seen as the state of cleansing just as hell is seen as the state of separation from God.


The Christkind is not only said to bring gifts in Bavaria and Austria, but basically all of Germany, including the predominantly Lutheran parts. In fact some of the most famous “Weihnachtslieder” mentioning the “Christkind” are written by Lutherans like Johann Wilhelm Hey who wrote “Alle Jahre Wieder” and good old Martin Luther himself who wrote “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.”.

And Saint Nick was never a Bavarian bishop. He was born in Turkey (near Antalya) in the second half of the third century, and became bishop of Myra (also in Turkey) around 300 AD. He was born to a rich family and was sainted for helping the poor, saving his town from starvation, reviving three dead children, and providing dowries for poor girls (among other things). There is the famous story of him throwing food into the window of a poor family (so as not to be recognized) which may have started the tradition of St. Nikolas as a gift giver. St. Nicolas is the patron saint of:
virgins, lawyers, prisoners, notaries, judges, students, teachers, publicans, fishermen, firemen, apothecaries, farmers, and last but not least: beer brewers :smiley:

In the Netherlands (and parts of Germany) the day of St. Nikolas’s death (December 6th) is still celebrated. In the Netherlands, “Sinterklaas” arrives by steam boat from Spain together with his moorish assistants (“zwarte pieten”) and gives candy and toys to the kids who leave their wooden clogs at the door on December 5th.

Also, “Sinterklaas” is not a jolly fat man, but a tall stately man wearing a bishop’s mitre and robes. It’s just like the Americans to get a whole bunch of stuff mixed up and end up creating the abomination called “Santa Claus”. Especially since every good German child knows the “Christkind” actually arrrives the evening of the 24th, when the bell on the Christmas Tree (originally from Germany) is rung. A few minutes later the children enter the room and are given the presents spread beneath the tree.

Oh, and if anyone ever wants to see the bones of the original St. Nick, they need only go to Bari in Italy, to where they were moved by Italian seafarers in 1087.

For as much information as you would ever want about Saint Nick, Sinterklaas. Sankt Nikolaus, Santa Claus, or whatever you want to call him, try this. Although that site made me curious as to what St. Nikolas has to do with astrophysics :slight_smile:

And no mention whatsoever of the Hogfather for some strange reason. :dubious:

It should be noted that the particular site in question states

The Eastern Orthodox do not and have never had the doctrine of “Purgatory”. Indeed, we have all the same documentary sources as does Rome (except that we do not consider Augustine to be any sort of end-all and be-all, by any stretch of the imagination, so his idle speculations are given little credence by the Orthodox), yet we did not decide that such a thing as “Purgatory” exists.

The Orthodox Church includes Second Maccabees in our Canon of Scripture. We reject the doctrine of Purgatory as an innovation, foreign to ancient Tradition.

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker was Bishop of Myra, yes, but HE NEVER SET FOOT IN TURKEY EVER! There was no such place as “Turkey” during his life. He is no more of “Turkey” than Julius Caesar is “Italian”. St. Nicholas was a Hellene, of the Anatolian Hellenes, not a Turk. He did not speak a Turkic language, nor was he of Altaic culture. His culture was that of the Eastern Roman Empire. His language was Greek. He was not “from Turkey”.

An account of the life of the Holy Hierarch and wonderworker, Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, can be found at http://greekorthodox.home.att.net/stnich.html

Archbishop Nicholas’s Apolytikion:

This passage appears in Thunderbug’s link:

It says clearly that the Jews believed in Purgatory since before the time of Christ.*

I don’t think this is true. I don’t think their citation proves their case. And I don’t think Jews believe in Purgatory today. This is revisionist history of the most dishonest kind.
*And it conveniently fails to mention any of the true roots in pagan beliefs.

The Catholic Encylopedia (1908 ed.) on “Purgatory”.

After sleeping on it, I have to amend my earlier comments about the lack of an afterlife in Judaism.

When I posted earlier, I was responding to the content of some of the material linked eariler (which contined, IMHO, the real meat of the discussion), not directly to any post in this thread, and therefore I may have seemed to be beating a straw man.

However, I was so put off by some of the bald assertions (which, I admit, are a constant challenge for anyone trying to write a brief, comprehensible summary) that I overstated the case in the opposite direction.

Judaism, the religion of “The People of the Law” (as they sometimes call themselves) has a long history of reliance on scholarly debate and interpretation, and there is, indeed, a recurrent rabbinical debate on the nature and role of Heaven and Hell (if any) in Judaism. The two terms most often associated with “Hell” are Sheol and Gehenna (Ge-Hinnom). The concepts embodied in each likely had pre-Judaic “pagan” roots

Sheol is not a Hell in the sense of punishment, but is “The Valley of the Bones”, a place of inactivity and rest, not torment, which many feel is primarily a metaphorical or poetic term. It was translated into the Greek as “Hades” leading to much conflation of two very different visons of what comes after life. I would argue that Hades is an ‘afterlife’ and Sheol is not, except in the sense that the ultimate stillness and isolation of the handfull of Jain Tirtankaras is called an afterlife.

Gehenna was/is a literal place, “The Valley of Hinnom” outside Jerusalem (in that sense, I have been to Hell and back) where a great slaughter of children took place. It became an ancient garbage disposal site, populated by the ‘wailing’ poor and homeless, and filled with the stench of burning rubbish (with a great deal animal hides and other by-products, since wood and paper wastes could be usefully burned in households for heat and cooking) Since the structural proteins of animals gain a great deal of their strength from sulfur-containing amino acids (e.g. cystine/cysteine bonds and bulky histidine residues which inhibit flexion of the peptide secondary structure) this considered the likely origin of the “fire and brimstone” imagery (think of the stench of burning hair)

Gehenna also has a more metaphysical meaning, according to some rabbinal interpretations, which does include possible interpretations consistent with purgatory. It is open to debate whether these are mere justifications of folk beliefs (as I believe they are) or actual tenets of Judaism. In wither case, Gehenna is not Hell in the sense of Eternal Damnation. No one remains in this version of Gehenna forever (some limit the stay to a maximum of a year), and it is often allied with the notion of Gan Eden, which some consider the Jewish Heaven, but others consider a state of nonconscious unity with God. (Some Christian factions see the Christian Heaven as a similar union without consciousness)

To those who take Gan Eden to be a Heaven in which some sort of conscious, self-aware existence of the person or soul is possible, the transient residence in or passage by the ‘torment’ version of Gehenna can be seen as bearing a resemblance to the Christian notion of purgatory, though often this view of Gehenna is seen as more of a ‘tempering and strengthening if the spirit/soul’ in preparation for Gan Eden, than as a punishment. To some, the less adherent and disciplined the person was in life, the longer and more rigorous the ‘tempering’ required.

As regards the German “Christkind”, I admit I got some of my facts confused. I was aware that this is a generally German tradition with less dour imagery, but I was primarily thinking of an interview with one of the leaders of the Austrian “anti-Santa” (American version) movement (they are a not-uncommon human interest story this time of year). That interview (over?)emphasized the differences between the Bavarian/Austrian folk traditions (the ominous Sankt Nicolaus, known more for his lump of coal than his dowries to poor girls) and the American Jolly Old St. Nick. This badly skewed the phrasing and statements of my late night post. My apologies.


You’re right. I had missed that passage in the link. I also agree that that passage is in error.