Interpreting the Bible is a tricky business at the best of times. Those encountering nativity plays or Hollywood epics such as Exodus: Gods and Kings will no doubt spot errors, ranging from innocent inaccuracies to outright liberties.
Historically, the source of many misinterpretations has not been artistic license or straightforward naivety, but the various translations made of the original source texts. The business of translation is never without its dangers and pitfalls, but in the case of translating the Bible it has the potential to produce a problem of, well, biblical proportions. And in at least one case it did exactly that.
For a few centuries one of the most puzzling philosophical problems was that of how all the humans who had ever lived could simultaneously fit into the valley of Jehoshaphat. This problem is relatively unknown now (trivia buffs might ask a related question, whether all the humans who have ever lived could simultaneously fit into the Grand Canyon), but in medieval and early modern times it was considered to be very pressing indeed. Quite literally, as we shall see.
The question arises because of the belief, common to the three Abrahamic religions, that at some future time there will be a general resurrection in which everybody who has ever lived will be brought back for the Last Judgement. In medieval times it thought that the scene of the Last Judgement was the valley of Jehoshaphat. The source of this belief is the Old Testament Book of Joel, where it says:
Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side. (Joel 3.12; see also 3.2)
Unfortunately the writer of Joel did not say whereabouts the valley of Jehoshaphat is to be found. If such a place did exist when the book was written then all knowledge of it was subsequently lost. But in the 4th century AD, an anonymous pilgrim gave the name “valley of Jehoshaphat” to the valley which lies east of Jerusalem, between the city and the Mount of Olives. As a result, in the centuries that followed, this valley was routinely identified as the scene of the Last Judgement.
As the tradition of identifying this valley as the site of the Last Judgement gradually took hold, concern began to develop about its suitability for this purpose. One writer noted that the valley “is of no great size”, while another stated that it is “comparatively as big as the palm of your hand”.
A glance at a map confirms these assessments: although the valley between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives runs for many miles, all the way to the Dead Sea around 20 miles away, historically only the portion separating Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives has been recognised as the valley of Jehoshaphat.
And, this small portion, while steep, is very narrow, at less than a mile wide. Its length is scarcely any greater. So it takes no great effort of imagination to spot a degree of tension between the relatively small area afforded by the valley, and the belief that it has been chosen as the site at which all the humans who have ever lived will be gathered together.
This gave rise to what we might call “the Jehoshaphat problem”. Concern over this problem led to the practice among medieval pilgrims of laying a stone in the valley to reserve one’s space on the day of Judgement (unfortunately we do not know what was thought to be the fate of those who had not reserved their place).
The scale of the problem – and the stakes involved – led to a number of ingenious attempts at a solution. Some scholars attempted to demonstrate mathematically that the valley in question is in fact large enough to accommodate everyone. The figures however could only be made to work by treating some of the area around the valley as overspill to accommodate those who could not fit into the valley itself.
Others claimed that the valley would be extended in size at the time of the Last Judgement so as to be able to accommodate all. Most creative was the suggestion – made more than once – that some humans (and perhaps all) would gather in the air above the valley rather than in the valley itself.
Efforts to resolve the Jehoshaphat problem continued well into the 17th century – and then very rapidly tapered off. The reason for this is that over the course of the 17th century, European scholars increasingly opted to read the books of scripture in the languages in which they were originally written. This was fuelled by concerns about the accuracy of the translations on which they had previously relied.
Those who did return to the original languages quickly realised that the Jehoshaphat problem was based on a huge misunderstanding. They spotted that, in Hebrew, “Jehoshaphat” means “the judgement of the Lord”. This led many to suppose that, by “the valley of Jehoshaphat”, the author of Joel meant nothing more than the place the Lord will choose for judgement (wherever that might be).
So the phrase “the valley of Jehoshaphat” in Joel doesn’t denote any specific geographical location, but rather somewhere indeterminate. So in the end no complicated theological or philosophical or mathematical solution was required. On close inspection, by those with the requisite linguistic skills, the Jehoshaphat problem turned out not to be a problem at all.