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Hebrews 11

  1. Others were tortured and refused their release, so that they might gain a better resurrection.
  2. Still others endured mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
  3. They were stoned
  4. they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword.
  5. They went around in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, oppressed, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them.
  6. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and hid in caves and holes in the ground.

Who are these people? Are they in the bible? Or should we look in history books to learn who they are?

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Who is in mind?

The great prophets of old, this subject is made clear in the passage itself:

32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— (Hebrews 11:32, NRSV)

All of these people, while not authors of a Prophetic Book, are Prophets in that they were receivers of the Holy Spirit (ie Jephthah, Judges 11:29) and with coming upon of the Holy Spirit comes a certain Prophetic designation (ie Saul 1 Samuel 10:10-11). Our list of suffering saints follows this mention of "the prophets" and reads:

...the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice... (Hebrews 11:32d-33a, NRSV)

Very clearly, all the people in our list down to verse 38 are contained within the overall title "prophets".


But can we be certain of this conclusion?

Upon further examination we see that this passage is explicitly speaking of Prophets who had a special connection with God, a revelatory connection such that they even knew of the coming of Jesus:

39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40, NRSV)

All these people, whoever they are, are prior to the coming of Christ and are spoken of as living significantly before the life of Christ. Yet hoping in the coming of Christ. Now this isn't just an isolated claim or some literary device. All over the New Testament, people claim to have known of special revelations (not always recorded in Scripture) that Old Testament Prophets had which pointed to Jesus. The originator of this tradition, that certain Prophets saw the coming of Christ (in a vision or something) is none other than Jesus. Consider the words of Christ:

56 "Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56, NRSV)

In John, what follows Jesus' extraordinary claim is an attempt on His life. Jesus' claim to have been present when Abraham received this revelation (and to know of it) was not something that the Jews of the day took kindly too. And thus is not something we should look for within Jewish writings of the period.

This passage is not merely recounting hagiographical snippets of martyrs, but recounting the sufferings of prophets who held on to the testimony of the Word of God in the face of extreme opposition. That testimony was the testimony of Jesus. This idea that the prophets foresaw, in the Holy Spirit, the days of Christ (and that the Church had exclusive access to this knowledge over their Jewish contemporaries) is central to Early Christian claims:

18 "In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer..." 24 And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. 25 You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ 26 When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (Acts 3:18, 24-26, NRSV)

So we see this is not just an isolated list of suffering saints. But it is a fragment of a much larger theological tradition belonging to the early Church. Embedded in this recounting of the sufferings of holy men is this idea that Christians are inheritors with them, that the Christian is incorporated into the ranks of the suffering prophets. The people in this list, are not Maccabean Martyrs, they are specifically mighty men of faith who communed with the Holy Spirit. A Spirit that the early Church claimed Christians had access to, a Spirit that revealed knowledge.

Clearly said, this passage is part of a much broader claim that the Church inherits the legacy of the Prophets. This legacy has two parts, a legacy of faith in Christ (or "faith in what was promised" Hebrews 11:39) and an unjust suffering for that faith.

Now that we know who we are talking about, we can ask where we can find information on these people.


Where to look for Information

Based on this interpretation we can look in the Old Testament, and perhaps in Jewish Traditions to find information on the lives of the Prophets. Unfortunately there are no truly verifiable and authentic accounts of the lives of the Prophets of the Old Testament outside of the Old Testament. Therefore, we are left only with the canonical 22 books of the Hebrew Bible. Thankfully, many of these specific details we can tie to certain biblical texts, with that we return to the citations in question coming from Hebrews 11:

Others were tortured/beaten and refused their release, so that they might gain a better resurrection.

Resembles Micaiah who chose to prophesy destruction on Ahab and face prison, 1 Kings 22.

Still others endured mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.

Resembles Jeremiah 20, 38 and the other sufferings of Jeremiah

They were stoned

Resembles Zechariah, 2 Chronicles 20:22-24, possible reference by Jesus in Matthew 23:35, gives weight to this identification.

they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword.

It is hard to say who this refers to, but the common identification with Isaiah is unlikely given the late date of the source, (The Ascension of Isaiah 5:14. This line we are completely in the dark about.

They went around in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, oppressed, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and hid in caves and holes in the ground.

We can link these to Elijah and Elisha, though we don't have descriptions of them, because of the emulation of John the Baptist, see Luke 1:17, 1 Kings 19 etc.

Now though we can account for some of this list, we can't account for all of it. It should be clearly stated that the Old Testament Prophets are seen to have terminated with the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (given the chronology of the Book of Twelve and the closing of the Hebrew Canon). This Prophetic Tradition according to the New Testament resumes with John the Baptist who reveals the One whom all the Prophets of old spoke of, Jesus Christ. There is no reason to think that there are any references to Maccabees here or to any Apocryphal Literature, but what is probably in mind are some proto-Christian traditions that come directly from Jesus regarding prophetic continuity. Consider Luke 24:26-27, Acts 1:1-3, 1 Peter 1:10-12 and Mark 12:36, Matthew 22:43, Acts 1:16, Acts 4:25 and 2 Peter 1:21. These are our earliest sources on this tradition, a tradition which soon disappears and does not come up in the Church Fathers. It is a tradition with strong roots in the teachings of Jesus, consider Luke 20:9-18 and its parallels as a representative text of this tradition, as well as passages like Luke 11:49-51.

One of the hardest things in Biblical Studies is realizing how much the Bible leaves out, while hinting at (ie 1 Chronicles 29:29). It is wholly impossible to reconstruct the full knowledge and mind of someone we meet in regular day-to-day conversation, much more so someone who wrote a Book of the Bible almost 2000 years ago. But, what we can glean is that this author is not writing in isolation, he is part of a broader tradition seeing a unity between the Prophetic Tradition of the Hebrew Bible and that of the Church. Perhaps as he was writing this list he had in mind the suffering of Christian saints, people like St. Stephen, St. James and St. Paul, that paralleled the experiences of this Prophetic Tradition (and thus validated their place as successors of it).


Can we still find some of these traditions? And where did they come from?

Unlikely. It seems impossible to find this information today, some things are just lost in the sands of history. The Bible is our only potential witness to this broader tradition. Where did this knowledge come from? It's hard to guess, but we reasonably conclude that in the time of Christ there was knowledge on how Habakkuk, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Amos, Jonah etc. died. Among who knows what other variety of traditions and legends. Though these knowledges and traditions do not survive today, we see their fingers in the New Testament, perhaps a prophetic tradition on Elijah influenced the unique lifestyle of John the Baptist. Additionally, when you allow for the ecstatic/prophetic nature of the early Church (visions, dreams, divine revelations), who can limit their potential sources - not to mention their proximity to Jesus who could claim to even know the secret prophetic visions of Abraham (John 8:36).


Conclusion

In closing. From a textual perspective we see that the people in mind are the Old Testament Prophets who had a knowledge of the coming of Jesus and held fast to those promises. This is a unifying theme in the New Testament, that the Church inherits the authoritative Jewish Prophetic Tradition that Jesus was the fulfillment of. Who specifically is in mind in these verses is unknown, simply that they were "prophets". We have some hints in the Old Testament, but not much. We must humbly admit the author would have had access to information that we cannot even speculate as to its full content and scope, we can debate all we want, but we can hardly verify with certainty our conclusions.

I hope that answers your question. Take care and God bless.

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  • Hebrews 11:33 and 34 refers to prophets. But in verse 35 the subject changes and the first word is 'Women'. Then verse 36, it changes again to 'Others'. Then verse 39 sums up the various categories 'These all'. You restrict the context to prophets but that is not what the grammar says.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 17 '20 at 8:52
  • "Women who received back their dead" is a sub-unit that is syntactically subordinate to what is said in v33-34, which in itself is an expansion on v32. It is not an isolate. Grammatically, and in terms of the overall communicative message of the text, the proper context is things done "through faith" by "prophets". Thus it is "through the faith of certain prophets" that "women received back their dead". "Women received back their dead" is to be seen as a predicate in a long list of predicates, describing the actions of those listed in v32. The narrative subject does not change from v32-38. Jul 18 '20 at 3:58
  • There is also no reason to suppose that "women" does not rightfully fall under the narrative heading of "the prophets" and is somehow distinct. It is an indefinite pronoun the meaning of which is determined by the context. There were women prophets. But most likely, the author is referencing the deeds of faith of prophets like Elijah and Elisha done to women. Jul 18 '20 at 4:00
  • Despite your use of some grammatical terminology in your comments, I still return to 'women' and 'others' as new subjects and 'these all' as a summation of the several categories. Down-voted -1.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 18 '20 at 7:09
  • If you open the NRSV to Hebrews 11, you will see an em dash before v33 and before v38, showing that though the immediate subject of v35 is "women" and "others" it should be thought of in reference to v32. Then in v38 the whole section is summarized. In v39 Hebrews 11 v4-38 is being summarized. You don't have to agree with me or the NRSV's grammatical choices, but you're not really making an informed argument against my claims. Jul 18 '20 at 11:02
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Who are the “tortured and refused their release…world was not worthy of them” people in Hebrews 11:35?

Hebrews 11:35 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

35" Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their [a]release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection;"

Hebrews 11:35 (AMP)

35 Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured [to death], refusing to accept release [offered on the condition of denying their faith], so that they would be resurrected to a better life;

"Women received back their dead by resurrection".

In the past women received back their loved ones from the dead by resurrection. One such woman was the poor widow from Sarephtah , when her son died the prophet Elijah resurrected him back to life. (1 Kings 17:22-24) The prophet Elisha also resurrected the son of the Shunamite woman. (2 Kings 4:32-37) .

Jesus also performed three resurrections, one being his friend Lazarus, known by many people because the event is well depicted in some movies. (John 11:38-44 ). He also resurrected the son of the woman from the city of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), the other was the resurrection of the daughter of a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue.(Luke 8 : 21-49).

"Others were tortured, not accepting their [a]release, [offered on the condition of denying their faith]".

There are many examples of such men and women who did not compromise their integrity and faith in God, among them were the prophet Daniel and his companions , Noah, King David, Moses and Job.

Daniel preferred to suffer death in the pit of lions rather than compromise his faith and integrity to God. (Daniel 6:1-28).

Daniel's companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, after refusing to bow to the huge image of the king made of gold, where thrown into the fiery furnace,God send his angel to protect them and were unharmed.(Daniel 3:1-30).

Moses ,a Hebrew child was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter,had the opportunity to be a Pharaoh of Egypt, gave up his favored post and preferred to suffer with his people.

Paul wrote about Moses : " He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward." (Heb. 11:26)

David having full confidence and faith in God, took a courageous stand against Goliath. (1 Samuel 17:4-51).

"So that they might obtain a better resurrection."

All past resurrections,not including that of Christ, all died again.

The men of faith such a s Abraham, David, Noah, King David and many other are awaiting the "better resurrection"reserved for them by God.

The "better resurrection ".

These men of faith are awaiting for the "better resurrection" an earthly resurrection as promised to them by God. Psalm 45:16 speaks prophetically about Jesus and his forefathers.

Psalm 45:16 (NASB)

16" In place of your fathers will be your sons; You shall make them princes in all the earth."

Among the forefathers of Jesus are Abraham ,Isaac, Boaz, Jesse , David, Jacob, Mary and all the other men of faith will be made princes over the earth. For Jesus to make them princes over the earth , He will have to first resurrect them from their graves.

Jesus said:

John 5:28-29 (NASB)

28 "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice,"

29 And will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment."

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All through history evil people have persecuted good people. That's just how sin and the devil work. Sometimes the price for Faith and holding to the truth is very high. Sometimes it will cost your life in this world. Although at times God intervenes, and works miracles--such as those mentioned in Hebrews 11:30-35a--at other times God allows evil men in this world to rule.

I suppose the earliest instance of violent persecution is when Cain killed Abel. But all of history is marked with the red stain of evil violence and violent totalitarian rule by propaganda and fear and actual killing.

For example, when Jezebel became queen of Israel, she executed all the true prophets in Israel that she could catch (1 Kings 18:13). It could easily have been thousands. In that case, Obadiah saved 100 of the prophets, but likely thousands were executed. They surely could have converted to Baal worship to save their lives. But they counted their faith of greater value than life in this world.

Many who gave up their life for their faith are forgotten in human history. But sometimes there is a passing note in the Bible. Certainly these people are well known to God. For example when the Assyrian army came to besiege Jerusalem we like to rejoice in God's deliverance and that when Hezekiah prayed the Angel of the Lord went out and in one night killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, and the Assyrians returned Nineveh in shame (2 Kings 19:35). But we usually don't even notice the fact that 1000's of good people died in the process of this deliverance. Here is 2 Kings 18:13

"Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them."

This included large cities like Lachish with thousands of citizens. To spell it out, the people who lived there were cruelly killed, captured, and enslaved. Many of these were people of faith. As always the world is a confusing mix of good and bad. But the good people wouldn't just surrender to the pagan king of Assyria. They fought to the end. For them it was death, slavery, or deportation. Often Faith comes at a very high price. But if you are serving the God of the universe it is well worth it.

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  • Welcome to BH. Please separate your answer into paragraphs - one point of argument per paragraph for clarity. As it is, you are presenting your readership with the 'dreaded Wall of Text'. Most people will not even stop to read what you have written, It is not easy on the eye or the brain. Please see the Tour and Help (both below, bottom left) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 9 '20 at 8:53
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This appears to be an allusion to this "apocryphal" account in 2 Maccabbees 6 and 7.

So says Ellicott's:

...Others were tortured.—See the account of the aged Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6:30), martyred because he would not pollute himself with swine’s flesh and the “flesh taken from the sacrifice commanded by the king.” The following chapter records the martyrdom of seven brethren, who for their adherence to their law were put to death with cruel tortures. (See especially Hebrews 11:9; Hebrews 11:14; Hebrews 11:23; Hebrews 11:29; Hebrews 11:36.)...

Also Barnes has this:

...The case of Eleazer, recorded in 2 Macc. 6, so strongly resembles what the apostle says here, that it is very possible he may have had it in his eye...

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown also:

...not accepting deliverance—when offered to them. So the seven brothers, 2 Maccabees 7:9, 11, 14, 29, 36; and Eleazar, 2 Maccabees 6:21, 28, 30, "Though I might have been delivered from death, I endure these severe pains, being beaten."...

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