1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

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TESTAMENTS OF THE TWELVE PATRIARCHS. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (see Apocalyptic Literature: II. Old Testament), are an important constituent of the apocryphal scriptures connected with the Old Testament, comprising the dying commands of the twelve sons of Jacob.

They “were written in Hebrew in the later years of John Hyrcanus-in all probability after his final victory over the Syrian power and before his breach with the Pharisees-in other words, between 109 and 106. Their author was a. Pharisee who combined loyalty to the best traditions of his party with the most unbounded admiration of Hyrcanus. The Maccabean dynasty had now reached the zenith of its prosperity, and in its reigning representative, who alone in the history of Judaism possessed the triple offices of prophet, priest and king, the Pharisaic party had come to recognize the actual Messiah. To this John Hyrcanus, in whom had culminated all the glories and gifts of this great family, our author addresses two Messianic hymns. The writer already sees the Messianic kingdom established, under the sway of which the Gentiles will in due course be saved, Beliar overthrown, sin disappear from the earth, and the righteous dead rise to share in the blessedness of the living. Alas for the vanity of man's judgment and man's prescience! Our-book had hardly been published, when Hyrcanus, owing to an injury done him by the Pharisees, broke with their party, and, joining the Sadducees, died a year or two later. His successors proved themselves the basest of men. Their infamy is painted in lurid colours by contemporary writers of the 1st century B.C., and by a strange irony the work, or, rather, fragments of the work of one of these assailants of the later Maccabees, has achieved immortality by finding a covert in the chief manifesto that was issued on behalf of one of the earlier members of that dynasty. This second writer singles out three of the Maccabean priest kings for attack, the first of whom he charges with every abomination; the people-itself, he -declares, is apostate, and chastisement will follow speedily-the temple will be laid waste, the nation carried afresh into captivity, whence, on their repentance, God will restore them again to their own land, where they shall enjoy the blessedness of God's presence and be ruled by a Messiah sprung from Judah. When we contrast the expectations of the original write rand the actual events that followed, it would seem that 'the chief value of his work would consist in the light that it throws on this obscure and temporary revolution in the Messianic expectations of Judaism towards the close of the 2nd century. But this is not so. The main, the overwhelming value of the book lies not in this province, but in its ethical teaching, which has achieved a real immortality by influencing the thought and diction of the writers of the New Testament, and even those of our Lord. This ethical teaching, which is indefinitely higher and purer than that of the Old Testament, is yet its true spiritual child, and helps to bridge the chasm that divides the ethics of the Old and New Testaments.[1]

In the early decades of the Christian era the text was current in two forms, which are denoted by Hα and Hβ in this article and in the edition of the text published by the Oxford University Press. “The former of these was translated not later than A.D. 50 into Greek, and this translation was used by the scholar who rendered the second Hebrew recension into Greek. The first Greek translation was used by our Lord, by St Paul, and other New Testament writers. In the second and following centuries it was interpolated by Christian scribes, and finally condemned undiscriminating along with other apocrypha. For several centuries it was wholly lost sight of, and it was not till the 13th century that it was rediscovered through the agency of Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, who translated it into Latin, under the misconception that it was a genuine work of the twelve sons of Jacob, and that the Christian interpolations were a genuine product of Jewish prophecy. The advent of the Reformation brought in critical methods, and the book was unjustly disparaged as a mere Christian forgery for nearly four centuries. The time has at last arrived for this book, so noble in its ethical side, to come into its own.[2]

Versions and MSS.—The two recensions[3] of the Hebrew original, to which we have already referred, were translated into Greek, the former being attested by the Greek MSS. chi and the latter by a b d e f g, which groups for the sake of brevity we designate as α and β. The Greek version was in turn rendered into Armenian in the 5th or 6th century. The rendering was made, except in a limited number of passages, from β. Of this version there are at least eleven MSS. known. Here again two types of text, Aα and Aβ, are represented, but for the most part the differences originated within the Armenian. Finally about the 13th century the Slavonic Version was made from the β form of the Greek Version. Here again we have two recensions S1 and S2, but the one may be on the whole reasonably described as an abbreviation of the other.

The relations of the above authorities are too complicated to be treated of here in detail, but they are represented on the subjoined diagram.

EB1911 - Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.png

Original Language.—Apart from Grabe, till within the last fifteen ears no notable scholar has advocated a Hebrew original. Nitzsch, Dillmann, Ritschl and Sinker are convinced that the book was not a translation but was written originally in Greek. To Kohler and Gaster belongs the honour of re-opening the question of the Hebrew original of the Testaments. Only the latter, however, offered any linguistic evidence. In his article[4] on the question he sought to establish a Hebrew original of all the Testaments and to prove that the Hebrew text of Naphtali which he had discovered was the original testament, and that the Greek Naphtali was a late and corrupt reproduction of it with extensive additions from other sources. But he failed in establishing either thesis. The subject was next taken in hand by R. H. Charles, who in a preliminary form in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (i. 241, 1899), and later, with considerable fullness. in his edition of the Greek text of the Testaments (1908), brought to light a number of facts that put the question of a Hebrew original beyond the range of doubt. We will now place a few of the grounds before the reader.

(a) Hebrew constructions and expressions are to be found in every page. Though the vocabulary is Greek the idiom is frequently Hebraic and foreign to the genius of the Greek language. Thus in T. Reub. vi. 11, ἐν αὐτῷ ἐξελέξατο = בו בתך. In T. Jud. xx. 4, ἐν στήθει ὀστέων αὐτοῦ—an utterly unmeaning phrase—becomes intelligible on retroversion–בלב ץעמר, “on his very heart.” In T. Benj. x. II κατοικήσετε ἐπἐλπίδι ἐν ἐμοί=“ye shall dwell securely with me”; for here ἐπἐλπίδι, as several times in the Septuagint, is a wrong rendering of לבםח.

(b) Dittographic renderings in the Greek of the same Hebrew expression; also dittograghic expressions in the Greek implying dittographs in the Hebrew. See Introduction to R. H. Charles's Text, § 11.

(c) Paronomasiae which are lost in the Greek can be restored by retranslation into Hebrew. There are over a dozen of such instances.

(d) Many passages which are obscure or wholly unintelligible in the Greek become clear an retranslation into Hebrew. Of the large body of such passages (see op. cit. § 12) we will give only one. In T. Jud. ix. 3, we have the following impossible sentence, where Esau is referred to: ἤρθη νεκρὸς ἐν ὄρει Σιείρ, καὶ πορευόμενος ἐν Ἀνονίραμ ἀπέθανεν. Here a fragment of the Hebrew original, which has happily been reserved, reads נחלח, “wounded,” where the Greek has νεκρός=נבלח, which is manifestly a corruption of the former.

In all the above cases there is no divergence among the MSS. and Versions. Yet the restorations are so many and so obvious that our contention might be taken for proven. But there is stronger evidence still, and this is to be found where the MSS. and Versions attest different texts, α standing generally in opposition to β, A (=Armenian Version), and S (=Slavonic Version). By means of this evidence we are able to prove not only that our book is from a Hebrew original, but that also the Hebrew existed in two recensions, Hα and Hβ, which are the parents respectively of α and β (see diagram above).

α and β are not, strictly speaking, Greek recensions; for their chief variations go back to diverse forms of text already existing in the Hebrew Hα and Hβ. For the considerable body of evidence supporting this conclusion see the Introduction to R. H. Charles’s Text, § 12. A couple of the many passages in which the variations in α and β are due to variations in Hα and Hβ will now be given. In T. Benj. xiii. 2 α reads ἐκοιμήθη ὕπνῳ καλῷ and β A S1 ἀπέθανε . . . ἐν γήρει καλῷ. Here ἐκοιμήθη and ἀπέθανε may be taken as renderings of the same Hebrew word, but ὕπνῳ καλῷ =בש׳נה טזבד, an undoubted corruption of בש׳נה טךבה = “at a good old age.” The same corruption invaded both Hebrew recensions in T. Zeb. x. 6; T. Dan. vii. 1; T. Ash. viii. 1; T. Jos. xx. 4, whereas in T. Iss. vii. 9 both recensions were right. In the late Hebrew text of Naph. i. 1 the correct Hebrew phrase is found. Again in T. Ash. vi. 6 α reads εἰσφέρει αὐτὸν εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον and β A S1 παραμυθεῖται αὐτὸν ἐν ζωῇ. Here παραμυθεῖται=׳נהם, a corruption of ׳נהה=εἰσφέρει. It is the soul of the righteous that is here spoken of, and α rightly says that the angel of peace. “leads him into eternal life.” The rightness of Hα is confirmed by T. Benj. vi. 1, which reads ὁ γὰρ ἄγγελος τῆς εἰρήνης ὁδηεῖ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ.

Hα and Hβ, however, differed mainly from each other in words and phrases, as we infer from α and β. In some passages, however, the divergence is on a larger scale, as in T. Lev. ii. 7–iii. Notwithstanding these divergences, however, the great similarities between α and β oblige us to assume that the translator of Hβ used the Greek version of Hα, or vice versa. That the former is the more likely we shall see presently. To the above we have a good parallel in the Book of Daniel; for the variations of its two chief Greek Versions—that of the Septuagint and of Theodotion—go back to variations in the Semitic.

Date of the Original Hebrew.—“The date of the groundwork of the Testaments is not difficult to determine. Thus Reuben (T. Reub. vi. 10–11) admonishes his sons: Πρὸς τὸν Λευὶ ἐγγίσατε ἐν ταπεινώσει καρδίας ὑμῶν ἵνα γέξησθε εὐλογίαν ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ . . . ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐξελέξατο Κύριος βασιλεύειν ἐνώπιον παντὸς τοῦ λαοῦ. Here a high-priest who is also a king is referred to. Such a combination of offices naturally makes us think of the Maccabean priest-kings of the 2nd century B.C. The possibility of doubting this reference is excluded by the words that immediately follow:—καὶ προσκύνησατε τὸ σπέρμα αὐτὸν ὅτι ὑπὲρ ὑμῶv ἀποθανεῖται ἐν πολέμοις ὁρατοῖς καὶ ἀοράτοις καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν ἕσται βασιλεὺς αἰώνιος. A similar statement is made in T. Sim. v. 5. Thus the high-priest is not only a high-priest and civil ruler, but also a warrior. That the Maccabean high-priests are here designed cannot be reasonably doubted. But the identification becomes undeniable, as further characteristics of this priestly dynasty come to light. It was to be a new priesthood and to be called by a new name (T. Lev. viii. 14 ἱερατείαν νέαν . . . ὄνομα καινόν). Now the Maccabean high-priests were the first to assume the title ‘priests of the Most High God’—the title anciently borne by Melchizedek. But the praises accorded in this book could not apply to all the Maccabean priest-kings of the nation. As it was written by a Pharisee, it could not have been composed after the breach arose between John Hyrcanus and the Pharisees towards the close of the 2nd century B.C. Thus the period of composition lies between 153, when jonathan the Maccabee assumed the high-priesthood, and the year of the breach of John Hyrcanus with the Pharisees; some time, therefore, between 153 and 107. But the date can be determined between closer limits. To one member of the Maccabean dynasty are the prophetic gifts assigned in our text (T. Lev. viii. 15) in conjunction with the functions of kingship and priesthood. Now, in all Jewish history the triple offices were ascribed to only one individual, John Hyrcanus. Hence we conclude that the Testaments were written between 137 and 107.” But the limits of the date of composition be fixed still more definitely. For the text refers most probably to the destruction of Samaria, T. Lev. vi. 11. In that case the Testaments were written between 109 and 107 B.C.

Date of the Greek Version.—The α Version seems to have been translated first, indeed before A.D. 50; for it is twice quoted by St Paul. The first passage is in Rom. i. 32 οὐ μόνον αὐτὰ ποιοῦσιν ἀλλὰ καὶ συνευδοκοῦσιν τοῖς πράσσουσιν which is taken almost verbally from T. Ash. vi. 2, ὅτι οἱ διπρόσωποι δισσῶς †κολάσονται (rd. ἁμρατάνουσι) ὅτι καὶ πράσσουσι τὸ κὰκον καὶ συνευδοκοῦσι τοῖς πράσσουσιν. Since bg, A omit the words ὅτι . . . πράσσουσιν, we conclude that, though it is now found in α, adef, S1, it was originally wanting in β and probably also in Hβ. For as we have already seen (see diagram above) aef were early influenced by α, and d is conflate in character. Hence in reality the passage was preserved only by α originally.

The second passage is the well-known one in 1 Thess. ii. 16, ἔφθασεν δὲ ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς ἡ ὀργὴ (+τοῦ θεοῦ defg it, Vulg. go) εἰς τέλος, which is borrowed from T. Lev. vi. II, ἔφθασεν δὲ (+ἐπβ) αὐτοὺς ἡ ὀργή τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς τέλος.

Here β reads Κυρον for τοῦ θεοῦ. The ἐπὶ is omitted by α through a simple scribal error.

On the ground of the above quotations we assume, therefore, that α was used by St Paul, and that Hα was therefore translated into Greek at latest before A.D. 50.

When Hβ was translated we have no definite means of determining. It was in all likelihood done subsequently to Hα. The translator of Hβ appears to have had the translation of Hα before him, and to have followed it generall unless where there were manifest divergences between Hα and Hβ.[5]

Jewish Additions to the Text.—(a) A large body of these additions can be classed under one head as written with a well-defined object and at a definite period. This period was about 70–40 B.C., and the object of the additions was the overthrow of the Maccabean high-priesthood, which in the 1st century B.C. had become guilty of every lewdness. T. Lev. x., xiv.–xvi.; T. Jud. xvii. 2–xviii. 1 (?), xxi. 6–xxiii., xxiv. 4–6; T. Zeb. ix.; T. Dan. v. 6–7, vii.3 (?); T. Naph. iv.; T. Gad. viii. 2; T. Ash. vii. 4–7. These additions are identical in object and closely related in character and diction with the Psalms of Solomon.

(b) Other additions are of various dates and cannot be more than mentioned here, i.e., T. Reub. ii. 3–iii. 2; T. Lev. xvii. 1–9; T. Zeb. vi. 4–6, vii.–viii. 3; T. Jos. x. 5–xviii.

Christian Additions to the Text.—These additions are to be found in most of the Testaments and were made at different periods. The existence of these Christian elements in the text misled nearly every scholar for the past four hundred years into believing that the book itself was a Christian apocryph. To Grabe, SC napp and Conybeare belongs the credit of showing that the Christian elements were interpolations—to Conybeare especially of the three, since, whereas the two others showed the high probability of their contention on internal evidence, Conybeare proved by means of the Armenian Version that when it was made many of the interpolations had not yet found their way into the text. For a full treatment of these passages see R. H. Charles's Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (1908), Introd. § 20.

Influence on the New Testament.—We have already shown that St Paul twice quoted from the Greek text of the Testaments. These two passages in Rom. and 1 Thess. give but the very faintest idea of the degree of his indebtedness in thought and phraseology in several of his Epistles, especially that to the Romans. But of still greater interest are the passages in the Gospels which show the influence of the Testaments, and these belong mainly to the sayings and discourses of our Lord. We may mention two of the most notable of these. Thus Matt. xviii. 15, 35, which deal with the great question of forgiveness, are clearly dependent on our text.

Matt. xviii. 15.Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ   T. Gad. vi. 3. Ἐάν τις ἁμαρτήσει
ὁ ἀδελφός σου κατά σου, ὔπαγε
...
εὶς σί εἰπὲ αὐτῷ ἐν εἰρήνῃ
. . .
35. Ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ... vi. 6. Ἠσύχασον μὴ ἐλέγξῃς.
. . .
v. 7. Ἄφες αὐτῷ ἀπὸ καρδίας.

Next, the duty of loving God and our neighbour is already found in T. Dan. v. 3, which is the oldest literary authority which enjoins these two great commands. The form is infinitely finer in Matt. xxii. 37–39, but the matter is already in the Test. Dan. See Introd. § 26 to R. H. Charles’s Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Literature.—(a) Texts.—Sinker, Testamenta XII Patriarcharum (1869); [this work gives b in the text and a in the footnotes; subsequently (1879) Sinker issued an Appendix with variations from cg]; Charles, The Greek Versions of the Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs from nine MSS., with the Variants from the Armenian and Slavonic Versions and the Hebrew Fragments (1908). Commentary.—Charles, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs translated from the Editor’s Greek Text (1908). Critical Inquiries.—See Schürer, G. J. V. iii. 261–262: Charles, The Test. XII. Patriarchs, pp. xxxvi.–xli.  (R. H. C.) 



  1. From § 1 of the Introduction to R. H. Charles’s The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, translated from the Editor’s Greek Text (A. & C. Black, 1908).
  2. From § 1 of the Introduction to R. H. Charles's The Greek Versions of the Testament of the XII. Patriarchs (Oxford University Press, 1908).
  3. Some of the evidence for this conclusion will be given later.
  4. “The Hebrew Text of one of the Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs” (Proceedings of the Soc. of Bibl. Archaeology, December 1893, January 1894).
  5. § 14 of the Introduction to R. H. Charles’s The Greek Versions of the Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs.