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The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs


This very curious fragment of antiquity deserves a few words in anticipation of the translator's valuable preface. Grabe's Spicilegium is there referred to; but it may be well also to consult his citations, in elucidation, of Bull's Defensio Fidei Nicaenae, where he treats the work with respect. My most valued authority, however, on this subject, is Lardner, who gives a very full account of the work with his usual candor and learning. He seems to treat the matter with a needless profusion of space and consideration; yet in a much later volume of his great treatise he recurs to the subject with expressions of satisfaction that he had dealt with it so largely before.

Cave placed the composition of the Testaments about a.d.192, but concedes a much earlier origin to the first portion of the work. Origen quotes from it, and Tertullian is supposed to have borrowed from it one of his expositions, as will be noted in its place. Lardner clears it from charges of Ebionitism, but thinks the author was so far in accord with that heresy as to use expressions savouring of "Unitarianism." Of this charge he is not justly susceptible, it appears to me: quite otherwise. If we can imagine Trypho coming to the light after his kindly parting with Justin, I can conceive of such a man as the author of this work. He is a Christian awakening to the real purport of the Old-Testament Scriptures, and anxious to lead rather than drive his brethren after the flesh to the discovery of Him "concerning whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write: "not a "Judaizing Christian," as Cave imagined, but the reverse,-a Christianizing Jew. Now, I must think that such a writer would weave into his plan many accepted traditions of the Jews and many Rabbinical expositions of the sacred writers. He was doubtless acquainted with that remarkable passage in the Revelation in which the patriarchs are so honourably named, and with that corresponding passage which seems to unite the twelve patriarchs with the twelve apostles. St. Paul's claim for the twelve tribes before Agrippa would naturally impress itself on such a mind. Whether the product of such a character with such a disposition would naturally be such an affectionate and filial attempt as this to identify the religion of the Crucified with the faith of the Jewish fathers, may be judged of by my reader.

It appears to me an ill-advised romance; not more a "pious fraud" than several fictions which have attracted attention in our own times, based on the traditions of the Hebrews. The legends of the "Wandering Jew" have grown out of corresponding instincts among Christians. To me they appear like the profane "Passion-plays" lately revived among Christians,-a most unwarrantable form of teaching even truth. But as to the work itself, seeing it exists, I must acknowledge that it seems to me a valuable relic of antiquity, and an interesting specimen of the feelings and convictions of those believers over whom St. James presided in Jerusalem: "Israelites indeed," but "zealous of the law." They were now convinced that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, with Moses and all the prophets, looked for the Messiah who had appeared in Jesus of Nazareth. The author of this book was anxious to show that the twelve patriarchs were twelve believers in the Paschal Lamb, and that they died in Christian penitence and faith.

He, then, who will read or study the following waif of the olden time, as I have done, will not find it unprofitable reading. It really supplies a key to some difficulties in the Scripture narrative. It suggests what are at least plausible counterparts of what is written. "To the pure all things are pure; "and I see nothing that need defile in any of the details which expose the sins, and magnify the penitence, of the patriarchs. In fact, Lardner's objection to one of the sections in the beautiful narrative of Joseph strikes me as extraordinary. It is the story of a heroic conflict with temptation, the like of which was doubtless not uncommon in the days of early Christians living among heathens; and I think it was possibly written to inspire a Joseph-like chastity in Christian youth. "I do not suppose," says Lardner, "that the virtue of any of these ancient Hebrews was complete according to the Christian rule." I am amazed at this; I have always supposed the example of Joseph the more glorious because he flourished as the flower of chastity in a gross and carnal age. Who so pure as he save John the Baptist, that morning star that shone so near the Sun of Righteousness in the transient beauty of his "heliacal rising"? Surely Joseph was a type of Christ in this as in other particulars, and our author merely enables us to understand the "fiery darts" which he was wont to hurl back at the tempter. I own (reluctantly, because I dislike this form of teaching) that for me the superlative ode of the dying Jacob receives a reflected lustre from this curious book, especially in the splendid eulogy with which the old patriarch blesses his beloved Joseph. "The author," says Lardner, "in an indirect manner ...bears a large testimony to the Christian religion, to the facts, principles, and books of the New Testament. He speaks of the nativity of Christ, the meekness and unblameableness of His life, His crucifixion at the instigation of the Jewish priests, the wonderful concomitants of His death, His resurrection, and ascension. He represents the character of the Messiah as God and man: the Most High God with men, eating and drinking with them; the Son of God; the Saviour of the world, of the Gentiles and Israel; as Eternal High Priest and King. He likewise speaks of the effusion of the Holy Spirit upon the Messiah, attended with a voice from heaven; His unrighteous treatment by the Jews; their desolations and the destruction of the Temple upon that account; the call of the Gentiles; the illuminating them generally with new light; the effusion of the Spirit upon believers, but especially, and in a more abundant measure, upon the Gentiles.... There are allusions to the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. John, the Acts of the Apostles, and of the Epistles to Ephesians, First Thessalonians, First Timothy, Hebrews, and First St. John, also to the Revelation. So far as consistent with the assumed character of his work, the author declares the canonical authority of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul." Of which of the minor writers among the Ante-Nicene Fathers can so much be said?

Regarded as a sort of Jewish surrender to Justin's argument with Trypho, this book is interesting, and represents, no doubt, the convictions of thousands of Jewish converts of the first age. It is, in short, worthy of more attention than it has yet received.

Here follows Mr. Sinker's valuable Introductory Notice: -

The apocryphal work known as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs professes to be, as its name implies, the utterances of the dying patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. In these they give some account of their lives, embodying particulars not found in the scriptural account, and build thereupon various moral precepts for the guidance of their descendants. The book partakes also of the nature of an Apocalypse: the patriarchs see in the future their children doing wickedly, stained with the sins of every nation; and thus they foretell the troubles impending on their race. Still at last God will put an end to their woe, and comfort is found in the promise of a Messiah

There can be little or no doubt that the author was a Jew, who, having been converted to Christianity, sought to win over his countrymen to the same faith, and thus employed the names of the patriarchs as a vehicle for conveying instruction to their descendants, as winning by this means for his teaching at any rate a prima facie welcome in the eyes of the Jewish people.

It does not seem hard to settle approximately the limits of time within which the book was probably written. It cannot be placed very late in the second century, seeing that it is almost certainly quoted by Tertullian, and that Origen cites the Testaments by name, apparently indeed holding it in considerable respect. We can, however, approximate much more nearly than this; for the allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem assign to the Testaments a date subsequent to that event. This will harmonize perfectly with what is the natural inference from several passages,-namely, that the Gentiles now were a majority in the Church,-as well as with the presence of the many formulae to express the incarnation, and with the apparent collection of the books of the New Testament into a volume.

On the other hand, important evidence as to the posterior limit of the date of writing may be derived from the language used with reference to the priesthood. Christ is both High Priest and King, and His former office is higher than the latter, and to Him the old priesthood must resign its rights. Now such language as this would be almost meaningless after Hadrian's destruction of Jerusalem consequent on the revolt of Bar-Cochba (a.d. 135), after which all power of Judaism for acting directly upon Christianity ceased; and, indeed, on the hypothesis of a later date, we should doubtless find allusions to the revolt and its suppression. On the above grounds, we infer that the writing of the Testaments is to be placed in a period ranging from late in the first century to the revolt of Bar-Cochba; closer than this it is perhaps not safe to draw our limits.

The language in which the Testaments were written was no doubt the Hellenistic Greek in which we now possess them; presenting as they do none of the peculiar marks which characterize a version. Whether there were a Hebrew work on which the present was modelled-a supposition by no means improbable in itself-we cannot tell, nor is it a matter of much importance. The phenomena of the book itself may be cited in support of this conclusion: for instance, the use of the word diaqh/kn in its ordinary classical meaning of "testament," not "covenant" as in Hellenistic Greek, for which former meaning there would be no strictly equivalent word in Hebrew; the numerous instances of paronomasia, such as a0etei=n, nouqetei=n, a0fai/resij, a0nai/resij, limo/j, loimo/j, e0n ta/cei, a@takton, ta/cij, a0taci/a\ the frequent use of the genitive absolute, and of the verb me/llein; the use of various expressions pertaining to the Greek philosophy, as dia/qesij, ai!sqhsij, fu/sij, te/loj.

It seems doubtful how far we can attempt with safety to determine accurately the religious standpoint of the writer beyond the obvious fact of his Jewish origin, though some have attempted to show that he was a Nazarene, and others a Jewish Christian of Pauline tendencies. We shall therefore content ourselves with referring those who seek for more specific information on this point to the works mentioned below.

To refer now briefly to the external history of our document, we meet with nothing definite, after its citation by Origen, for many centuries: there are possible allusions in Jerome and in Procopius Gazaeus; there is also a mention of patria/rxai in the Synopsis Sacrae Scripturae found among the writings of Athanasius, as well as in the Stichometria of Nicephorus of Constantinople, on which it is probably based. Again, in the Canons of the Council of Rome (494 a.d.) under Gelasius, and of the Council of Bracara (563 a.d.), are possible references, though it is far from improbable that in some of the foregoing passages the reference may be to a writing tw=n triw=n Patriarxw=n alluded to in the Apostolic Constitutions, or is even of somewhat loose application.

After this a blank ensues until the middle of the thirteenth century, when it was brought to the knowledge of Western Europe by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, the earliest of the great English reformers. We cite here the account of the matter given by Matthew Paris, although of course we need not accept all the opinions of the old chronicler respecting the document in question: "At this same time, Robert, Bishop of Lincoln, a man most deeply versed in Latin and Greek, accurately translated the Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs from Greek into Latin. These had been for a long time unknown and hidden through the jealousy of the Jews, on account of the prophecies of the Saviour contained in them. The Greeks, however, the most unwearied investigators of all writings, were the first to come to a knowledge of this document, and translated it from Hebrew into Greek, and have kept it to themselves till our times. And neither in the time of the blessed Jerome nor of any other holy interpreter could the Christians gain an acquaintance with it, through the malice of the ancient Jews. This glorious treatise, then, the aforesaid bishop (with the help of Master Nicolaus, a Greek, and a clerk of the Abbey of St. Alban's) translated fully and clearly, and word for word, from Greek into Latin, to the strengthening of the Christian faith, and to the greater confusion of the Jews."

Again, after speaking of the death of "Master John de Basingstokes, Archdeacon of Leicester," a man of very great learning in Latin and Greek, he proceeds : "This Master John had mentioned to Robert, Bishop of Lincoln, that when he was studying at Athens he had seen and heard from learned Greek doctors certain things unknown to the Latins. Among these he found the Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs, that is to say, of the sons of Jacob. Now it is plain that these really form part of the sacred volume, but have been long hidden through the jealousy of the Jews, on account of the evident prophecies about Christ which are clearly seen in them. Consequently this same bishop sent into Greece; and when he obtained them, he translated them from Greek into Latin, as well as certain other things."

After this it would seem as though the same fate still pursued our document, for the entire Greek text was not printed until the eve of the eighteenth century, when it was published for the first time by Grabe, whose edition has been several times reprinted.

Four Greek mss. of the Testaments are known to exist:-

I. The ms.ff. i. 24 in the University Library of Cambridge, to which it was given by Archbishop Parker, whose autograph it bears on its first page. It is a quarto on parchment, of 261 leaves (in which the Testaments occupy ff. 203a-261b), double columns, 20 lines in a column, handwriting of the tenth century. It is furnished with accents and breathings, and a fairly full punctuation. There are very strong grounds for believing that it was this ms. that Grossetestes version was made, exhibiting as it does a very large amount of curious verbal coincidence with it. The text of this ms.has been that given in the various editions mentioned below.

2. The ms. Barocci 133 in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where it came with the rest of the Barocci collection from Venice, and was presented to the University by its Chancellor, the Earl of Pembroke. It is a quarto volume; and except a leaf or two of parchment, containing writing of an older period, consists of a number of treatises on paper, apparently by several different hands, in the writing of the latter part of the fourteenth century. The Testaments occupy ff. 179a-203b. The amount of difference between this ms. and the preceding is considerable, and is sufficient to show that it has had no direct communication with the latter. A large number of omissions occur in it, in some instances amounting to entire chapters. The variations of this ms. are given more or less fully in the various editions.

3. A ms. in the Vatican Library at Rome, not yet edited. It is said to be a small quarto on paper, written in a very distinct hand, though unfortunately some leaves are damaged. It bears a subscription with the date 1235. I owe my knowledge of this ms. to an article by Dr. Vorstman in the Godgeleerde Bijdragen for 1866, p. 953 sqq.

4. A ms. discovered by Tischendorf in the island of Patmos, of which no details have yet been published.

The entire Greek text of the Testaments was first printed by Grabe in his Spicilegium Patrum et Haereticorum, Oxford, 1698, professedly from the Cambridge ms., but in reality from some very inaccurate transcript of it, very possibly from one made by Abednego Seller, also in the Cambridge University Library, Oo. vi. 92. Grabe also gave a few of the variations of the Oxford ms. Fabricius, in his Codex Pseudepigraphus Veteris Testamenti, gives little more than a reprint from Grabe. In the second edition of the latter (1714) the true text has been restored in several passages; but in many places Grosseteste's Latin version, which witnessed to the true reading, was altered to suit Grabe's incorrect text. Fabricius' second edition (1722) is perhaps, on the whole, less accurate than his first. Since then the text and notes, as given in Grabe's second edition, have been reprinted, with but few additions, by Gallandi, in his Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum, vol. i. p. 193 sqq., Venice, 1765, and in Migne's Patrologia Graeca, vol. ii., Paris, 1857. The text of the Cambridge ms. with a full statement of the variations of the Oxford ms., has recently been edited directly from the mss. by myself, Cambridge, 1869; from this edition the present translation has been made.

The mss. of Grosseteste's Latin version are numerous, there being no less than twelve in Cambridge alone and it has been frequently printed, both with the editions of the Greek text and independently.

Besides the Latin version, the Testaments have also been translated into several European languages, in all cases apparently from the Latin. The English translation made by Arthur Golding was first printed by John Daye in Aldersgate in 1581, and has since been frequently reproduced; the British Museum, which does not possess all the editions, having no less than eleven.

The author of the French translation appears to believe, as the English translator had done, that we have here really the last words of the sons of Jacob. A German translation has also several times been published, and a German translation in ms. is to be found in the British Museum. We may further mention a Dutch translation (Antwerp, 1570), a Danish translation (1601), and a ms. Icelandic translation of the eighteenth century in the British Museum, add. mss 11, 068.

For further information on the subject of the Testaments, reference may be made, in addition to works already mentioned, to the following:-Nitzsch, Commentatio Critica de Testamentis XII. Patriarcharum, libro V. T. Pseudepigrapho (Wittenberg, 1810); Ritschl, Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche (Bonn, 1850; ed. 2, 1857), p. 171 sqq.; Vorstman, Disquisitio de Testamentorum XII. Patriarcharum origine et pretio (Rotterdam, 1857); Kayser in Reuss and Cunitz's Beiträge zu den theol. Wissenschaften for 1851, pp. 10-40; Lücke, Einleitung in die Offenbarung des Joh., vol. i. p. 334 sqq., ed. 2.

R. S.

Trinity College, Cambridge.

February 21, 1871.

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