Heb 11:38 what OT character wandered the desert?


I commented on a reformed protestants point about Heb 11 using non biblical sources. I said that it was describing biblical characters not sources but then he pointed out in verse 38 it describes people after the maccabeans who wandered the desert and asked who they were and why they’re placed chronologically after the Maccabeans. This is a good question and I’d like to know of any of you have insight in this? I’ll post my exact conversation with him below.


Here’s our exact conversation so far:

Craig, I’d like to address some of your points regarding Heb 11.

“Isaiah being killed by the saw is from the Talmud (not canonical)”

The point to make here is not that Hebrews 11 uses only biblical [sources], but that it uses only biblical [characters]. Even if Hebrews 11 takes it’s info of Isaiah from the Talmud (Ascension of Isaiah) to describe the death of the prophet Isaiah, which is certainly disputable, the fact remains that the prophet Isaiah is a biblical [character]. The introduction of non-biblical [characters] that are nowhere attested to in Scripture would cause, in the context of Hebrews 11, a rather sharp and unwarranted disjuncture from the rest of the text and be in contradiction to its earlier claim that those listed were “attested to”.

“and the enduring of torture to attain a better resurrection (2 Maccabees AND 3 Maccabees, one canonical in the RCC and one not, but canonical among the EO.) The fact that all of the events in Heb 11:35-37, and may I add verse 38 too, are a spattering of different events that are not entirely Biblical, it seems obvious to me that Paul is referring to historical events and not passing comment on the canonicity of where these events were recorded.”

Hebrews 11 presents examples of men and women who lived out their supernatural faith in Sacred Scripture. Included among these people of faith are the Maccabean martyrs, as described in the deuterocanonical book of Second Maccabees. Therefore, the inspired author’s Bible included the book of Second Maccabees, which he considered to be an authentic member of sacred scripture.

Where did the inspired author of Hebrews find these examples of supernatural faith? Was it from his own personal recollection or Jewish folklore or did he choose them from a specific source? Three times in the same chapter, the author states that the characters mentioned were “attested to” or gained a testimony” somewhere:

“…for by it the men of old gained approval [obtained a good testimony]” (Heb 11:2).

“…for he [obtained the witness] that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God!” (Heb 11:5)

“And all these, having gained approval [obtained a testimony] through their faith, did not receive what was promised…” (Heb 11:39).

Where are these heroes’ faith “attested?” Given that (1) the chapter is recounting sacred history (concerning supernatural faith), not secular history, (2) Hebrews explicitly states three times that these men and women are “attested to” somewhere and (3) the order given roughly corresponds to the order that they appear in scripture, there is little reason to doubt that the characters mentioned came from Sacred Scripture. More specifically, they came from the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament the Septuagint or LXX.

Among these biblical characters, we find the following “…and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection…” (Heb 11:35). Who were these Jewish martyrs? Hebrews 11:35 provides three identifying marks or traits: (1) they were Jews that were tortured, (2) they did not accept release (from torture), and (3) the motivation for choosing martyrdom was so that “they might obtain a better resurrection.”

Who in the Protestant Old Testament fulfills all three traits? The answer is no one. However, there are several characters in Second Maccabees that satisfy all three. In the sixth chapter of Second Maccabees, we find two examples of Jews who were (1) Tortured and (2) refused release:

2 Maccabees 6:22-23, “…So that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them… but he made up his mind in a noble manner… so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God.”

2 Maccabees 6:30, “When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said: ‘It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.”

We also find in the following chapter two examples of those who accepted martyrdom explicitly for sake of the Resurrection:

2 Maccabees 7:9 – “And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe [will raise up to an everlasting renewal of life], because we have died for his laws.’”

2 Maccabees 7:14 – “When he was near death, he said, ‘[One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him]. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

No other individual or group of individuals in the Protestant Old Testament fulfills all three traits.

The inclusion of the Maccabean martyrs within this context shows that they were also “attested to” in the author’s copy of sacred Scripture. Therefor the inspired author’s Bible included Second Maccabees and his appeal to them shows his tacit approval for the book as authentic Scripture. Otherwise, we would be left with the rather bizarre scenario of the inspired author inserting, in this one verse, a reference to non-biblical characters as examples of supernatural faith for Christians to follow. Not only would a non-biblical character not fit within the overall context and structure of Hebrews 11, but it would contradict the inspired author’s repeated assertion that these “men of old” were “attested to”.

Then Craig responded:

I appreciate your response, but who are the biblical characters who wandered in deserts and lived in caves in verse 38. They would be chronologically after the maccabbean martyrs. It is clear that in the last few verses Paul left the scriptural examples and moved onto more recent examples not attested in scripture.


Actually I did some more digging and it looks like verse 38 is still largely referring to the Maccabees and possibly other biblical characters.


Moses and the Hebrew people wandered the desert in the Exodus. Elijah wandered the desert. Abraham did too, I think.

Lot and his daughters lived in a cave at one point. David camped in a few caves. Elijah lived in a cave in 1 Kings 19:9.

They would be chronologically after the maccabbean martyrs.

Not necessarily. Coming after verse 35 does not automatically mean the examples are chronologically after. Verse 37 is possibly discussing Isaiah, for example, who was not chronologically after the Maccabean martyrs.

It is clear that in the last few verses Paul left the scriptural examples and moved onto more recent examples not attested in scripture.

Several things suggest against that. For one, most of the examples he gives in verses 36-40 are more general examples, not more specific ones. He says people were mocked and scourged, chained and imprisoned – lots of pre-Maccabean biblical people did that. He said they were stoned and killed with the sword – ditto. He said they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – those things can also be found in pre-Maccabean times. He said some people wandered over deserts and mountains – again, almost all of the examples that come to mind are from pre-Maccabean times. He said they were in dens and caves – ditto. For all these reasons, with the possible exception of the person (or people?) who was sawn in two, the descriptions he gives are very general, and in all those cases the examples that come to mind, at least for me, are people from before the Maccabees. So there is no evidence that he switched to nonbiblical examples or examples from after the Maccabean martyrs.


Thanks for that insight!


So I’d like to update you on how our conversation has gone so far. After he asked me who verse 38 could possibly referencing I stated

"Craig, sure I’d be happy address that.

I’ll start with this statement. “It is clear that in the last few verses Paul left the scriptural examples and moved onto more recent examples not attested in scripture.”

Lets go over the last several verses (32-37) and see if the sacred author has left scriptural character examples. Allusion to Daniel is made in 11:33 who “stopped the mouths of lions” (Dan 6:16-24); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood unharmed while fire danced around them (11:34; Dan 3:23-27, 24-27); the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman received their children back from the dead (11:35; 1 Kings17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37); the Maccabean martyrs were tortured as they professed faith in the resurrection (11:35; 2 Mac 7); the priest Zechariah was stoned in the Temple (11:35; 2 Chron 24:20-22); the prophet Isaiah was sawn in Two (11:37; Jewish tradition [we already discussed this]); and the prophet Elijah wore animal skins (11:37; 2 Kings 1:8). So I guess I’d just have to disagree with you that no it’s not clear that Paul has moved on to non scriptural characters in the last verses. He’s very much still using biblical characters.

Now lets address this one. “but who are the biblical characters who wandered in deserts and lived in caves in verse 38.”

The Maccabees very much fit this bill (not limited to them as some other previously mentioned characters fit as well). “Wandering the desert (or wilderness)” This is a description of persons driven away from their homes, and wandering about from place to place to procure a scanty subsistence. Here are some examples from Maccabees.

(1 Maccabees 1:53) “they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.”

(1 Maccabees 2:28-29) “Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there”

(2 Maccabees 5:27) “But Judas Maccabees, 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 that they might not share in the defilement.”

(2 Maccabees 6:11) “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 the most holy day.”

(2 Maccabees 10:6) “And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts”

I hope this helps"

Then he replied to me saying

"I have to be quick, but I don’t think that Heb 11:38 is in reference to those verses. It is far too general. Chrysostom thought it was about the new testament saints. Aphrahat thought it was about David, as did Aquinas. Saint Basil takes my interpretation: “Here are the teachers and prophets wandering in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. Hebrews 11:38 Here are apostles and evangelists and solitaries’ life remote from cities.” (Letter 42)

None of the church fathers or anyone I can dig up take the interpretation it refers to the Maccabees. It doesn’t mean it can’t, but I hope you respect my position that it doesn’t."

I’ve not responded with

"Craig, I would like to point out a few things.

“Aphrahat thought it was about David, as did Aquinas.”

To this I did mention that Heb 11:38 isn’t limited to just the Maccabees. Indeed there are many that could fit parts of it as well, Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert in Exodus. Elijah wandered the desert. Lot and his daughters lived in a cave at one point. Elijah lived in a cave in 1 Kings 19:9. And yes David camped in a few caves. All these support the view that 11:38 is referring still to biblical characters.

“Here are the teachers and prophets wandering in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. Hebrews 11:38 Here are apostles and evangelists and solitaries’ life remote from cities.”

One could take 11:38 and apply it to any number of people (and this can be said for practically any scripture passage that they can be applied to even us in today’s age) but the passage does have a primary meaning and context. the idea that it’s the new testament apostles and evangelists plainly doesn’t fit the greater context of Hebrews 11 nor does it fit it’s immediate surrounding context as I demonstrated earlier was still referring to old testament characters “men of old”. And when reading that quote of St. Basil within it’s context he doesn’t appear to be making a connection between them in the sense you mean, rather they’re just parts of the list of examples he’s making. But that’s irrelevant really.

“or anyone I can dig up take the interpretation it refers to the Maccabees.”

Really? I just did a simple yahoo search and found that every annotation or commentary (including protestant commentaries) on Hebrews 11:38 interpret it as referring to the Maccabees or the ones that don’t are still interpreting it as other old testament characters.

In conclusion, I respect you taking the position you do but would warn that it’s quite a stretch to hold that position as the primary meaning of the text. Context is important and I showed how your basis for holding that position (the idea that it’s immediate context had moved on from old testament characters) doesn’t hold up to scrutiny."

If anyone has more insight please let me know. I’ll keep posting if he replies


If I were you, I would change a few things in my responses. Primarily, I would look for anything in my response that sounds like I’m denying possible allusions to other people besides the Maccabees.

Specifically, I’m referring to the paragraph that contains this sentence: “the idea that it’s the new testament apostles and evangelists plainly doesn’t fit the greater context of Hebrews 11.” This seems like a rabbit trail. Whether the author is or is not alluding to New Testament characters, that doesn’t affect your case that he is alluding to the Maccabees. Your denial here thus seems to run down a rabbit trail. It opens you up to challenge on a point that you don’t need to defend. He can believe the text alludes to some New Testament figures if he wants. I won’t begrudge him, especially given the typology of many of the Old Testament characters cited in this passage. But even if these verses allude in some way to New Testament figures, that doesn’t take away from the fact that verses 35-36 refer to the Maccabees. I would stick to that point.

Regarding your last paragraph, something sounds off about it. You seem to be concluding with triumph in your voice, and even though that is very satisfying for you, I don’t think it is a good idea. Instead, I would tell him straight out: I don’t think you are really denying that Hebrews 11:35-36 refers to the Maccabees. The evidence in the text is very strong in favor of a Maccabean allusion here, and the vast majority of biblical scholars understand that. It seems to me that there are two questions at hand: does the author refer to the Maccabees, and does his attitude suggest that he considers his references to be Scriptural characters? I think the first question is settled by definitive scholarship and textual evidence. Re: the second question, I think the author is clear that he wants his readers to take his examples as scriptural figures, for three reasons. First, he says they obtained a good testimony, which seems to be a reference to their testimony in the Bible. Second, he cites these figures as people to return to in our thoughts as we struggle in our own age, which suggests that he wants us to read about them in a common source. And third, there is evidence that the author thought these figures have a typological significance for New Testament times, which makes it unlikely that the author thought any of his characters were simply secular examples.

In light of all that, are you really saying the author has stopped talking about biblical characters for these two verses only, when the surrounding verses all make dozens of allusions to biblical characters and their significance for our times?

I think that is a better way to go in your discussion.


This is where a good cross reference comes in handy.

See note G at usccb.org/bible/hebrews/11#65011038-g

The NAB cross reference points to the followers of Mattathias in 1 Maccabees 2. These went into the desert and lived in caves, were attacked and slaughtered.



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