Heroes of Faith

Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy on which we commemorate the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the vindication of the Apostolic Faith. Though the particular emphasis on this day is on icons, as the Seventh Ecumenical Council definitively categorized iconoclasm and aniconism in the Church as heresy, since this was the last great theological challenge in the formative years of the Church, it has come to be celebrated as a commemoration of the defense, approbation and triumph of the Apostolic Faith against all its enemies through the ages.

Today was also read for the Epistle reading Hebrews 11.32-40, a passage very familiar to Christians as one describing heroes of the faith. There is a very interesting variation on this particular reading from the old Georgian Lectionary, which is based almost verbatim on the practice in the churches in Jerusalem circa 700 AD. This variation entails the insertion of names of various holy prophets into the text at appropriate places:

And what more can we say, for time would fail us in this description of the judges, of Barak, of Samson, and of Jephthah, of the kings, of David and Samuel and the prophets, Abraham and the judges who through faith conquered kings, Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Phineas administered justice, Abraham, Joshua, and Caleb received promises, Samson and David and Daniel shut the mouths of lions, the three youths Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael quenched flaming fire, Uriah, Mideli [sic], and Elijah the Prophet escaped the edge of the sword, David, King Hezekiah, King Asa received strength out of weakness, Gideon, Barak, Samson, and David routed the foreign armies, the Shunammite woman and the woman from Sarepta — women received their dead by resurrection, the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother and other prophets others were tortured … that they might be worthy, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Job, certain were bent over … were tested, Jeremiah and Micah chained and imprisoned, Jeremiah and Naboth were stoned, Isaiah was cut in two, Job, Zerubbabel were tempted, Micah, Amos, Zechariah the priest were killed by the sword, John the Baptist, Elijah, Elishah went around in skins…this world, the prophet who nourished Obadiah wandered in deserts…in the caves of the earth. With all these, witness was proven…that not without us will they be perfected.

There are two quite striking additions relating to the Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and others that may likely do so, though they are obscure.

The first is “the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother and other prophets others were tortured … that they might be worthy” is inserted into verse 35, the relevant part of which in the ESV reads: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” Anyone familiar with the tale of the mother and her seven sons in Second Maccabees chapter 7 will recognize this summary in Hebrews 11.35 as relating to that episode. What is striking is that the Georgian Lectionary made this connection explicit in a liturgical context (specifically for the commemoration of Saint Antony the Great on 17 January; commemoration of the Holy Prophet Amos on 17 June; and the commemoration of the Holy Prophet Jonah on 10 December).

Then comes the reference to “Isaiah was cut in two” which is an alteration of part of verse 37, “they were sawn in two.” This particularly grisly end to the earthly life of the Holy Prophet Isaiah is related in books categorized as among the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, particularly the Martyrdom of Isaiah (also known as Ascension of Isaiah) chapter 5 and in the Lives of the Prophets 1.1. It is also mentioned in St Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 120, and also appears in the writings of St Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lecture 13) and Palladius (Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom. This is also referred to in the hymnography of Matins on Wednesday of mid-Pentecost in Eastern Orthodox churches: “They sawed Esaias asunder with a saw fashioned out of wood.” Also somewhere I’ve read an elaboration of this tradition that Isaiah was hiding inside a hollow mulberry tree, was found, and then the tree was sawed through with him inside it (I heard this so long ago as a child that whenever I see a mulberry bush I think of Isaiah; I can’t find a reference to this fuller version, however). This tradition of Isaiah’s death by being sawn asunder was so widespread, however, it’s hard to say whether it was related to a particular writing or simply a long-preserved tradition with no single source of written original expression.

Other alterations above refer to events that can’t be easily construed from the biblical text. These include “Uriah, Mideli [sic], and Elijah the Prophet escaped the edge of the sword” (Mideli being certainly a corruption, perhaps Mordecai in Esther might be meant); “Job, Zerubbabel were tempted”—I suppose one may read Job as being tempted to sin in Job, though this is not so explicit as in Testament of Job, while the tempting of Zerubbabel remains mysterious; “Micah, Amos, Zechariah the priest were killed by the sword”—the deaths of Micah and Amos are not related canonically, and death “by the sword” doesn’t fit the descriptions in Lives of the Prophets, wherein Micah is apparently pushed off a cliff, and Amos dies some days after being hit in the head with a club (LivPro 6–7), and the death of Zechariah the priest in Second Chronicles 24.20-22 is not by sword, though this could be inferred from Matthew 23.35 and Luke 11.51.

This bit of elaboration of Hebrews 11.32-40 on the part of either Greek ecclesiastics in Jerusalem or Georgian ecclesiastics in their homeland shows the enduring value of tradition within community, and specifically the value early Christians placed on traditions known through their inclusion in the Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. Presumably the works preserving those traditions were likewise held in some kind of esteem, subordinate but supportive of the canonical biblical books (which differ among traditions).

Above all, it’s simply a delightful lectionary passage, bringing even greater life to an already beloved passage. I hope others will also find delight in it.

2 Replies to “Heroes of Faith”

  1. Perfect! I’m glad it’s already proven useful! Some of the choices made for the additions are obvious, others quite sophisticated (with some I thought, “Oh, yeah, I kinda remember that!”) while others are puzzling, as I noted. It also gives us an idea of how these early Georgians (or Jerusalemites circa 700) viewed these various prophets and patriarchs and others. Obviously they had a very broad and deep knowledge of the Scriptures and related materials, and they used this to further the faith, as should we all.

    If you want to see the greater context of that passage, it’s number 149 on this page (though I just noticed the italics to indicate the additions were missing, so fixed that). You can search for “Heb 11” and find the other mentions as well.

    That was one of my favorite early translation projects, from a kind of imperfect neo-Latin translation of the rubrics of the Georgian lectionary into English. In the other lectionaries I’ve collected, none of the compilers have ever mentioned something similar, so it does seem unique to the Georgian tradition. If it was in use in Jerusalem, it was used only temporarily.

    But I’m glad you’ve found it useful. I almost didn’t post it because of the bad news today. I’m glad I did.

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