The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament/Hezekiah

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The Testament of Hezekiah is once mentioned, by George Cedrenus, who says (p. 120, Paris): "In the Testament of Ezekias king of Judah, Esaias the prophet says that Antichrist has power for three years and seven months, which is 1290 days. And after Antichrist is cast into Tartarus the Lord of all things, Christ our God, comes, and there is also a resurrection and retribution for good and evil deeds." This occurs in a collection of rather incoherent paragraphs, roughly in chronological order, which deal with Old Testament history, and are followed by a more connected narrative going over the same ground. The quotation coincides with a passage in the Ascension of Isaiah (iv. 12 ff.), "and he shall bear sway three years and seven months and twenty-seven days," etc. The number of days (1334) disagrees with Cedrenus. In Asc. i. 2, 4 we have an apparent reference to visions of Hezekiah, who summons Manasseh "in order to deliver unto him the words of righteousness which the King himself had seen (in his sickness, i. 4, 13), and of the eternal judgments and the torments of Gehenna," etc. Dr. Charles and others have not unnaturally thought of the Testament of Hezekiah as a writing, part of which at least has been incorporated into the Ascension. This part is supposed by Dr. Charles to comprise Asc. iii. 13b. to iv. 18—a prediction of Christ and Antichrist. The data in Asc. i. imply that Hezekiah had certain revelations about these matters in his sickness in the fifteenth year of his reign. And the "testamentary" part of the book would be, according to analogy, his telling these revelations, at the end of his life, to his son Manasseh. Manasseh remains unaffected by them, and Isaiah tells Hezekiah that Manasseh will do evil and will put him, Isaiah, to death, and that God will not allow Hezekiah to slay Manasseh in order to prevent this crime. That is the substance of Asc. i.

The writer of the Opus Imperfectum on Matthew, in his first homily, when treating of the genealogy of Christ, and particularly of the name of Manasseh, quotes something which does not exactly correspond with our texts of the Ascension, but comes very near them.

"When Ezechias had fallen sick at one time and Esaias the prophet had come to visit him, Ezechias called his son Manasses, and began to command him that he ought to fear God, and how to rule his kingdom, and much else. And Esaias said to him: 'Verily, thy words go not down into his heart; but it must also befall that I should be slain by his hand.' Ezechias, hearing that, wished to slay his son, saying, 'It is better for me to die without a son than to leave such a son, who should both provoke God, and persecute the saints.' And Esaias the prophet hardly restrained him, saying, 'God will make this thy counsel of none effect,' seeing the piety of Ezechias, that he loved God more than his own son." He then gives the story of Manasseh's captivity, sufferings, and deliverance, in words which coincide with those of the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 22) and are pretty evidently taken from them; he omits the Prayer of Manasses which is given there. (Very shortly afterwards he quotes the story of King Amon, which is also in the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 23): and elsewhere he uses that book. So we need not doubt that the Constitutions (or Didascalia) are his source for the latter part of his account of Manasseh.) In the above passage about Hezekiah and Isaiah it is to be noted (a) that the king's illness is specially mentioned, and (b) that his words ("It is better for me," etc.) do not occur in the Ascension.

Later on, in Hom. 33, he says that the Jewish people "bore false witness, in the person of those who slew the prophets, especially against Esaias, before King Manasses, saying: He calls your princes men of Sodom and the people of Israel men of Gomorrha: he blasphemes, saying that he has seen the Lord Sabaoth, whereas God says: No man shall see my face and live. Wherefore also he was sawn with a wooden saw." This passage from the Opus Imperfectum is not adduced, I think, by any of the editors of the Ascension. It is in substance Asc. iii. 8–10, v. 1, the order of the two accusations being reversed, and the text shortened by the Homilist. So he knew a part of the Asc. which does not, ex hypothesi, belong to the Testament (iii. 13b–iv. 18). Indeed, we ought to credit him with knowing the whole of Asc., for we have fragments of a Latin version covering all the book, preserved in a fifth or sixth century MS. of Arian origin: and our Homilist was an Arian of the fifth century, who wrote in Greek.

I am myself very much puzzled by this question of what the Testament of Hezekiah was. There must have been more of it, one is inclined to say, than Dr. Charles assigns to it. Did it perchance go on to relate the destinies of Manasseh, and was it the source of his Prayer? I hardly think so. The Apostolical Constitutions (Didascalia) are our earliest evidence for the Prayer, and my reading of them suggests that they are using an interpolated text of Chronicles. There is nothing Christian in the Prayer, and the Testament as quoted by Cedrenus is Christian. Or is "Testament of Hezekiah" an alternative title for what we call the Ascension of Isaiah? It would be a strange one, and it has left no other trace. Yet Cedrenus is not likely to have invented it.

My acceptance of Dr. Charles' view is impeded by the strong case with which Professor Burkitt (in his Schweich Lectures on Apocalypses) has made out in favour of the unity of the whole Ascension. He is seconded by Mr. Vacher Burch (Journal Theol. Studies, 1918).[1] He does allow, it is true, for the interpolation of a passage in Chapter xi. which is absent from two of the versions. He does not write on the question of the Testament.

I believe that with our present lights we cannot get further than saying that there was a book known as the Testament of Hezekiah, which contained revelations made to the King in his sickness; that these were Christian in character, and that the substance of a good part of them and of the book as a whole is preserved in the first five chapters of the Ascension. But whether it was incorporated into the Ascension or developed out of it remains for me uncertain.

There is other mythical matter connected with Hezekiah's name. He is said to have burned the medical and magical books of Solomon, and to have obliterated the secrets, of cures, and the like, which had been engraved on the Temple gates. Others relate that these secrets were written on the wall of his chamber, and that when he turned his face to the wall (Isa. xxxviii. 2) it was to consult them. Cedrenus is one of those who tells of the burning of the books, and it is also he who, when treating of Hezekiah's reign, tells the story of the man who gave all his property away, relying on the promise that God would repay him with increase: and of his disappointment and subsequent conversion, which fell out on this wise. He resolved to go to Jerusalem and inquire of God, or rather arraign His justice for deceiving him. As he went he met two men disputing about a stone they had picked up, and appeased their quarrel by buying it of them at the price of his only two remaining coins. On arriving at Jerusalem he showed the stone to a goldsmith, who, on seeing it, worshipped. It was a gem that for three years had been missing from the high priest's breastplate, and a great price would be given for it. Meanwhile an angel appeared to the high priest and told him that that day the lost stone would be brought to him by a man to whom he was to give a great sum of money, and then smite him lightly on the face and say to him, "Be not doubtful in thy heart, and disbelieve not the Scripture that says, 'He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord.'" So it was done. The man left all the wealth in the Temple, and went home, to doubt no more.

This story has made its way into Christian books—the Ethiopic romance of Clement (ed. Budge, Contendings of the Apostles), where it is told of Clement's father; and it may be read, rendered from Latin, in S. Gaselee's Stories of the Christian East. Cedrenus tells it, as I said, under Hezekiah's reign,[2] and along with the story of Tobit. I infer that he took it from a Jewish apocryphon—not impossibly that of Ezekiel, which its parable-character would suit well enough.

  1. Mr. Burch's article seeks to show from a passage in Asc. iv. 21, 22, that the Ascension is avowedly based upon the primitive Christian book of Testimonies (which Dr. Rendel Harris and he have investigated with such interesting results). The words on which he bases his speculation are these (iv. 21): "and the descent of the Beloved unto Sheol, behold, it is written in that section where the Lord saith, 'Behold, my son will understand' (Isa. lii. 13). And all these things, behold, they are written in the parables of David," etc. (here follows an enumeration of prophetical books). The "section" referred to is, according to Mr. Burch, a section of the book of Testimonies. But surely the two verses which immediately precede his quotation tend to show that it is a section of the canonical Book of Isaiah which is being cited. They run thus: (19) "and the rest of the words of the vision are written in the vision of Babylon (Isa. xiii.). (20) And the rest of the vision regarding the Lord, behold, it is written in the parables according to my words which are written in the book which I publicly prophesied." Mr. Burch takes no notice of these two verses, which I am afraid invalidate (in my opinion) his interesting theory. Nor can I think him justified in eliminating Nero from Asc. iv. 2. He has to push this date of the Ascension very far back, and to make the Prayer of Joseph a pro-Christian book of yet earlier date. See above.
  2. In the Chronicle of Georgius Hamartohis (ed. de Muralt, 1859: lii. p. 154) the story is also given: it is there placed between the reigns of Joash and Amaziah.