Saturday, September 02, 2006

Hebrews 11 and the Old Testament canon

I. Chronological Sequence

How is Hebrews 11 organized? At least up to a point, the arrangement of events is chronological. A few of his allusions are rather open-ended, but most of them can be identified. Based on the standard commentaries, these are the specific individuals and events he refers to in the course of his hortation:

Abel (11:4)

Enoch (5)

Noah (7)

Abraham (11:8ff.)

Isaac & Jacob (11:9ff.)

Jacob & Esau (20)

Joseph (21-22)

Moses (11:23ff.)

Rahab (31)

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha (32a)

David, Samuel, the prophets (32b)

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego (33b)

Daniel (34a)

Maccabean revolt (34b)

Elijah & Elisha (35a)

Maccabean revolt (35b)

Zechariah (37)

So the general progression is from prediluvial history to the Intertestamental period.

More particularly, from the prediluvial period through the patriarchal era, the Exodus, the Conquest, the Monarchy, the Exile, the postexilic era, and the Intertestamental period.

So he is illustrating his point by beginning at the commencement of human history, and taking that all the way up to the brink of the NT era. From ancient history or the distant past to the epoch immediately preceding the time of his audience.

II. Canonical Sequence

What is the source of his relative chronology? The obvious answer is the OT canon, supplemented by the OT apocrypha when he reaches the Intertestamental period.

He sees the events unfolding in a certain historical sequence because the books of the OT canon were arranged in an editorial sequence such that the canonical order parallels the chronological order.

He has OT history mentally laid out before his eyes as he catalogues this honor roll of OT heroes and heroines. And he has this mental picture of events because he has a mental outline of the OT canon.

The individuals and events cited or alluded to parallel the following books of the Bible:

11:4-22 (Genesis)

11:23ff. (Exodus)

11:31 (Joshua)

11:32a (Judges)

11:32b (Samuel)

11:33b-34a (Daniel)

11:35a (Kings)

11:37 (Chronicles)

For the Maccabean revolt, he must, by definition, turn to extracanonical sources since the date of that episode fell inside the Intertestamental period.

III. Literary Sequence

On the face of it, the linear progression breaks down towards the end of the chapter. For the sequence is consistent until we hit v35. Elijah and Elisha obviously antedate the Maccabean revolt, as does the stoning of Zechariah.

But the anachronism may only be apparent. For it depends on the internal divisions within chapter 11.

We have an explicit transition in v32, where the author admits a shift to a more abbreviated summary of events.

Moreover, as one commentator notes, “the present series of terse clauses is broken in vv35-36 by a piece of connected speech that brings the chronicle of the triumphs of faith to a conclusion and effects the transition to the martyology in vv 35b-38,” W. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (Word 1991), 387.

“The long chain of asyndeta in v37 is rhetorically effective,” ibid. 390.

If this analysis is correct, then the presentation is not dischronologous. Rather, the chronology is simply subdivided into shorter literary units, while the overall direction is preserved.

IV. Comparative Sequence

A sidelight of this chapter is that it furnishes a 1C (pre-70 AD) historic witness to the Jewish canon of Scripture.

Of course, the author’s selection criteria restrict his range of reference to the narrative genre, as he cites examples of OT heroes and heroines.

But within the limitations of his selection criteria, an incidental consequence of his chronological scheme is to outline the boundaries of the OT canon from Genesis to Daniel and Chronicles.

This may strike the modern reader as out of sequence, since Daniel and Chronicles are not positioned at or near the end of our Christian editions of the OT.

However, the author’s sequence does correspond to our ancient sources for the Jewish canon (e.g. Josephus, Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome, the Talmud), where Daniel comes before Chronicles, while both belong to the third division of the canon, at or near the end.

For details, cf. R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and its Background in Early Judaism (Eerdmans 1986).

There are other witnesses to the Jewish canon, such as Philo, but they don’t indicate the overall shape of the OT canon—beyond the bare, threefold division of Sirach.

V. Original Sequence

By contrast, the author’s sequence does not correspond to the LXX. This discrepancy is striking since, by all accounts, the author of Hebrews is literarily dependent on the LXX.

The obvious explanation is that our copies of the LXX date to the Christian era. As such, they may not reflect the original content or sequence.

In my opinion, Heb 11 is a neglected witness to the OT canon. And it’s a valuable witness because, on the most likely dating scheme, it antedates (the writings of) Josephus, Jamnia (c. 90 AD), and the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD)—making it our earliest witness to the contours of the OT canon.


  1. Just a quick question for you--is the inclusion of the Maccabean revolt in this passage used to justify the inclusion of the deuterocanonicals as part of Scripture (by, e.g., Roman Catholics), since everything else in his list is Scriptural?

  2. Hi Eric,

    Yes, in traditional RC apologetics, this is an argument for the inclusion of certain OT apocrypha in the canon. There are, however, a number of roadblocks to that strategy:

    1.The Jerusalem Bible, which represents modern Catholic scholarship, admits that “the two books of Maccabees were not in the Jewish Canon of Scripture” (Doubleday 1966), 654.

    It can only justify their inclusion by appeal to raw church authority: “But their inspiration has been recognized by the Church,” ibid. 654.

    2.The Catholic appeal to Hebrews either proves too much or too little, for as F. F. Bruce, has noted, “the writer to the Hebrews probably had the martyologies of 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:41 or 4 Maccabees 5:3-18:24 in view when he spoke of the tortures and other hardships which some endured through the faith (Heb 11:35b-38),” The Canon of Scripture (IVP 1988), 51.

    But although the church of Roman canonizes 1-2 Maccabees, it does not acknowledge the canonicity of 4 Maccabees.

    3.The obvious reason that the author of Hebrews alludes to extracanonical works at this stage of his litany is that he wants to extend his historical review to cover the Intertestamental Period.

    The Maccabean revolt was the last high point in Jewish history prior to the Roman occupation.

    4.Although 1-4 Maccabees are classified as apocryphal, this doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily fictitious or pseudonymous.

    There’s nothing wrong with using extracanonical books as historical sources as long as they’re accurate with respect to the particular claim at hand.

    The Chronicler refers his readers to a number of extracanonical books to supplement his account.

    5.I don’t intend my discussion of Heb 11 to be a self-standing proof for the OT canon. It is simply one piece of neglected evidence.

    There are many other factors which figure in the OT canon.

    The value of Heb 11 in this regard is the way in which it may furnish an outline of the OT canon.

    But as Bruce also points out, “the books of Maccabees—two, three or four in number—form a sort of appendix to the Septuagint; they do not belong to any of its main divisions,” ibid. 48.

    And, as I also noted, the implicit canonical order in Heb 11 does not, in fact, parallel the canonical order of the LXX in our extant copies.

    Conversely, 1-4 Maccabees are missing from our early Jewish witnesses to the OT canon.