19 Dec 2006

Jewish Traditions & Hebrews 11: A Lesson in Authorial Givens

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Exegesis, Hebrews, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Septuagint

The Apocrypha is available in most English Bible versions except the NIV and NASB. I recommend the NRSV, ESV and TEV for good English reading.

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.

Bobby Valentine

14 Responses to “Jewish Traditions & Hebrews 11: A Lesson in Authorial Givens”

  1. Matt Says:

    I had not been made aware of these parallels. I have read Long’s commentary on Hebrews but he didn’t get into any of that. I have heard that Attridge’s Hermenia commentary is outstanding but haven’t had a look at it yet.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Matt, Tom Long’s commentary is helpful but it is not an exegetical commentary. Actually one of the more “helpful” books on Hebrews is Donald Hagner’s book in the “Encountering the Bible Series” published by Baker Academic. They are well done study “guides” for individual books of the Bible rather than commentaries per se.

    I had made my study prior to my encounter with Hagner but I really like his approach. In fact most of my stuff on the Apocrypha is available on the net.

    Bobby Valentine

  3. Gallagher Says:


    Excellent post regarding some extra knowledge. Greater knowledge leads one to greater understanding.



  4. Stoogelover Says:

    Thanks for that offering, Bobby. Very interesting.

  5. mikeexum Says:

    Thanks for the expansion. And AMEN to it.

    I have read very little from these writings. Tobit, Judith, Maccabees. And not all of the Macc.

    I have read most of N.T. Wright. I am astounded at his use of these and many other sources. I could not keep pace with him, but I am ever growing in appreciation of these sorts of texts.

    Actually, I need a lot more time in the OT for that matter…

    More on that another time.

    Many blessings…

  6. preacherman Says:

    Great post
    Sounds like it would be a very interesting study.

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Mike I think we all could stand to be better students of the Hebrew Bible.

    The LXX was the Bible of the early church and the apocryphal books were known in Palestine as well (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Masada prove this). These books weilded a significant influence and we should know them. Some are very good. I have posted the Prayer of Manasseh before on this blog and still think it is among the greatest ever.

    Kenny I am delighted to see you “up and about.” I will continue to pray for you.

    Bobby Valentine

  8. Vonnie Says:

    You really are a wealth of information on the OT or Hebrew Bible. I am looking forward to your classes. I wonder if we could start having podcasts of your sermons. Wouldn’t that be cool.

  9. Mike Exum Says:

    It slipped my mind when I responded before, but I have dedected an allusion to a passage such as 1 Macc 2:40 where a decision is made to fight on Sabbath in Jesus’ question about saving a life or killing on Sabbath in Mark 3:4. I figure the Maccabees sparked an ongoing debate that remained heated throughout the following 2 centuries. I liken it to our current debate in America over abortion, you can quickly take a side with a few obscure remarks on that debate with folks you dont even know. Thus I think Jesus did that in the synagogue as he healed the man’s hand.

    This is just one I have found. Not that I have found many.

    Another great one can be found in Wright’s Challenge of Jesus where he sites Josephus’ use of the phrase “repent and believe” on the lips of Josephus as he attempts to bargain a way out of a rebellion. Jesus uses the same phrase in the Gospels. These earlier uses inform our understandings immeasurably. But it requires more work than we ever imagined.

    Thanks for the post and the feedback. This is awesome stuff. You are handing us golden nuggets on silver platters. I am grateful.

    Many blessings…

  10. Josh Says:

    Great Post… Have a good holiday!

  11. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby, thanks for another great post. (I might make this one required reading for the NT Survey class).

    I don’t think I could or would do anything like this in the midst of so much transition. Btw, are you in WI or AZ now? Best wishes for all of your moving experience.

    About Hebrews, the chapter in L.T. Johnson’s book The Writings of the NT is a really great intro. Matt, Attridge is good. Just be sure to make LOTS of time for it. I haven’t gotten into the Hagner book, but it sounds terrific.

    And those first two chapters of Maccabees go a long way when it comes to understanding the attitudes and actions of the pre-Christian Paul, yes?

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank, I appreciate your very gracious words. At the moment I am still in Milwaukee, I will be leaving on Jan 2. At present I have all my books save a few that I use all of the time are tucked away in 55 boxes.

    I have kept BDAG, B-D-B, Dictionary of Jesus, Dictionary of Paul and the Encyclopedia of the SCM out.

    THE best book in English on the Apocrypha is David A. DeSilva’s INTRODUCING THE APOCRYPHA. This work more than replaces Metzger’s old book … it is leagues superior. With each book he has a section on how this give book influenced NT writers or was used in the early church. On Hebrews especially DeSilva’s Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews is indispensable. DeSilva did a Ph.D. on the use of 4 Maccabees in Hebrews and has written extensively on the book.

    Bobby Valentine

  13. Kevin B. Says:


    Have you seen Lee M. McDonald’s book, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon? He is very thorough, and ends up taking the position that, even if Protestants do not accord the Apocrypha equal status with the Prot. canon, Protestants ought to at least use the Apocrypha more regularly in theological reflection, and perhaps even read from it in liturgical settings.

    He makes a strong case for the Deuterocanon being part of the “Bible Jesus read.” I had only read Metzger until I ran across this book; it is good.

  14. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Roger Beckwith’s book “The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church” is probably the book on the matter … so N.T. Wright says.

    If Metzger’s book is the only one you have read then you owe it to yourself to get DeSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha.

    Yet, I do believe that Jesus certainly read and studied some of the apocryphal books, especially Sirach. There are a number of others that certaily leave “marks” on the NT writers (Wisdom of Solomon and the Maccabean literature). Clearly in the early church there is not quite the hard and fast rule between Hebrew canon and LXX. I think it is also true that in Judaism there were divisions on the canon just as there are now among Christians. We all have heard of the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees but most scholars now believe that the Qumran community had a wider canon as well.

    My personal view is that I do not grant canonical status to these books. But I look at them as part of the story that shaped who we are as Christians. Parts of these books have helped shape liturgy for centuries, Tobit has been used in marriages, Susannah was one of the most commonly painted Christian themes and on we could go.

    Some of the books clearly have major historical blunders but they still are very good “stories” … some of the best. Better reading than the Spiritual Sword I can promise you.

    Even Martin Luther, who is often pointed to as rejecting the books, has some very high praise for Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith and encourages Christians to read and be blessed through them.

    Bobby Valentine

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