Jewish Traditions & Hebrews 11: A Lesson in Authorial GivensAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Exegesis, Hebrews, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Septuagint
In light of an insightful comment made by Kevin Burt on my Jesus the Jew and Hanukkah post, I have decided to expand upon his insight in Hebrews 11. Most students realize that the Hebrews’ Writer mined the Septuagint for framing his exhortation. But some do not realize that the Writer mines more than the canonical text but also uses Jewish traditions preserved in what we today call the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books. These allusions are often missed by today’s student because of an unfamiliarity with these traditions but the early church did recognize them.
What follows below is a sampling of those traditions. I have cited the tradition that is in the text and then a source for it.
The Traditions of Hebrews 11
1) Song of our Faithful Ancestors by Ben Sira provides the form and basic structure mined by the Hebrews’ Writer (Sirach 44-50).
2) The Akedah (Heb 11.17-19) or “Binding” of Isaac was an important part of Jewish liturgies especially New Year’s. Pre-Hebrews allusions to the story are in Wis. Of Sol. 10.5; Sirach 44.20f; 4 Macc. 13.12; 16.20; etc.
3) “Quenched the fury of fire” (Heb 11.34). This refers to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3.13ff (of the LXX). Specifically what is now called “the Prayer of Azariah.” In this we read:
“Now the king’s servants who threw them in kept stoking the furnace with napththa, pitch, tow, and brushwood. And the flames poured out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and spread out and burned those Chaldeans who were caught near the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace . . .” (Azariah vv. 23-26).
4) Tortured and refused to be released (Heb 11.35). The Seven Brothers of 4 Maccabees 5-16; especially 15.12-15, 20; 16.14.
“Nevertheless, though so many factors influenced the mother to suffer with them out of love for her children, in the case of none of them were the various tortures strong enough to pervert her reason. But each child separately and all of them together the mother urged on to death for religion’s sake. . . This mother, who saw them tortured and burned one by one, because of religion did not change her attitude. She watched the flesh of her children being consumed by fire, their toes and fingers scattered on the ground, and the flesh of the head to the chin exposed like masks. . . When you saw the flesh of children burned upon the flesh of other children, severed hands upon hands, scalped heads upon heads, and corpses fallen on other corpses, and when you saw the place filled with many spectators of the torturings, you did not shed tears . . . because of her faith in God . . .
O mother, soldier of God in the cause of religion, elder and woman! By steadfastness you have conquered even a tyrant, and in word and deed you have proved more powerful than a man. . .
5) Sawn in two (Heb 11.37). The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah 5.11-14:
“And they seized Isaiah the son of Amoz and sawed him in half with a wood saw. And Manasseh, and Belkira, and the false prophets, and the princes and the people, and all stood by looking on. And to the prophets who we were with him he said before he was sawed in half, ‘Go to the district of Tyre and Sidon, because for me alone the LORD has mixed the cup . . . Beliar did this to Isaiah through Belkira and through Manasseh, for Sammael was very angry with Isaiah from the days of Hezekiah . . . And he did as Satan wished.”
6) They went around as animals and hid in caves (Heb 11.37-38). The Maccabean martyrs in 2 Maccabees:
“But Judas Maccabeus, with about nine others, got away to the wilderness, and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do; they continued to live on what grew wild, so they might not share in defilement” (2 Macc 5.27)
“Others who had assembled in the caves nearby, in order to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves in view of their regard for that most holy day.” (2 Macc 6.11)
“during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals” (2 Macc 10.6).
Regardless of how one feels about the canonicity of these sources, a knowledge of them can certainly help us see the NT text clearer than before.
I have a whole series that I have done in the past on the Apocrypha and recommend a deep study of them for any one who seeks to understand NT Christianity or the early church.
Another lesson that is driven home through such study is that even such a writer as the one to the Hebrews’ was Jewish and thought like a Jew. Even as he contrasts the new and older covenant he does so using distinctly Jewish ideas … rather than repudiating his heritage he lives and breathes that heritage. We Gentile Christians have much to learn from him.