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Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs

tes-tuh-muhnt uhv thuh twelv pey-tree-ahrks
Jacob, Kingdom of Israel
TWELVE PATRIARCHS: Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Gad, Issachar, Joseph, Judah, Levi, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun
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Easton's Bible Dictionary

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Hitchcock's Dictionary of Bible Names

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Smith's Bible Dictionary

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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


IV. Testaments. Although, strictly speaking, Jewish law had no place for "testamentary dispositions" by those about to die--"the portion of goods" that fell to each being prescribed--yet the dying exhortations of Jacob addressed to his sons, the farewell song of Moses, David's deathbed counsels to Solomon, were of the nature of spiritual legacies. Under Greek and Roman law testaments were the regularly understood means of arranging heritages; with the thing the name was transferred, as in the Mishna, Babha' Bathra' 15 26, dayytike, so also in Syriac. The idea of these pseudepigrapha is clearly not drawn from the "Last Will and Testament," but the dying exhortations above referred to.

1. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs:

Genesis 49 in which Jacob addresses his sons gathered round his dying bed furnished the model for a number of pseudepigraphic writings. Of these the longest known is Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. In it the writer imagines each of the sons of Jacob following his father's example and assembling his descendants in order that he might give his dying charge. While Jacob addressed each of his sons separately, the sons of none of his sons, save those of Joseph, became at all prominent; so in the case of the sons of Jacob they each address their descendants as a whole. These Testaments are occupied with moral advices mainly. The sin most warned against is incontinence.

A. Summary.

(1) Reuben:
The first Patriarch whose Testament is given is Reuben. While he bewails the sin that deprived him of his birthright, he gives an account of the various propensities that tend to sin, and accommodates each of these with an evil spirit--spirits of deceit. He gives details of his sin, which, resembling those given in the Book of Jubilees, differs in an apologetic direction. This apologetic effort is carried farther in the Targum of the pseudo-Jonathan. In it Reuben is declared to have disordered the bed of Bilhah because it was put beside his mother's, and he was accused of impurity with her; but the Spirit revealed to Jacob that he was not guilty.

(2) Simeon:
The next Testament is that of Simeon. The crime that seems to have most affected Jacob, if we may judge by Genesis 49:5-7, was the murder of the Shechemites by Simeon and Levi. That, however, is not touched upon in the Testament; his envy of Joseph is what he most repents of. A stanza, however, is inserted, warning against fornication (Genesis 49:3).

(3) Levi:
The Testament of Levi follows. It is mainly apocalyptic. The murder of the Shechemites is regarded as a wholly estimable action, and is commended by God. The treachery of the circumcision is not mentioned at all. He tells how he was admitted in dream to the third heaven. In another vision he is clothed with the garments of the priesthood. After a piece of autobiography followed by general admonitions Levi tells what he had learned from the writing of Enoch. He tells how his descendants will fall away and become corrupt. It is to be noted that fornication becomes very prominent in the picture of the future. The destruction of Jerusalem is foretold, and the captivity of Judah among all nations. This cannot refer to the setting up of the "Abomination of Desolation" by Epiphanes. The Temple was not laid waste, although it was desecrated; and there did not follow on the desecration by Epiphanes the scattering of the Jews unto all nations. It seems necessary to understand by this wasting the capture of Jerusalem by Titus. Consequently, the "new priest" of XII P 18 seems to us the priest "after the order of Melchizedek" according to the New Testament interpretation.

(4) Judah:
Judah is the next whose Testament is given. He first declares his own great personal prowess, slaying a lion, a bear, a boar, a leopard and a wild bull. When the Canaanite kings assailed Jacob as related in the Book of Jubilee, he showed his courage. Several warlike exploits, of which we only learn here, he relates. The assault made by the descendants of Esau upon the sons of Jacob and Jacob's victory is related in the manner and nearly in the terms of the account in the Book of Jubilees. He mentions with a number of explanatory and excusatory details his sin in the matter of Tamar. He denounces covetousness, drunkenness and fornication. Then he commands his descendants to look to Levi and reverence him. Then follows a Messianic passage which seems most naturally to bear a Christian interpretation.

(5) Issachar:
The Testament of Issachar is much shorter than either of the two preceding ones. After telling the story of the mandrakes, he dwells on husbandry. As is noted by Dr. Charles, this is at variance with the rabbinic representation of the characteristics of the tribe. He, too, denounces impurity and drunkenness.

(6) Zebulun:
Zebulun's Testament is little longer than that of Issachar. This Testament is greatly occupied with tho history of the sale of Joseph in which Zebulun protests he took only the smallest share and got none of the price.

(7) Dan:
The Testament of Dan also is short. He confesses his rage against Joseph, and so warns against anger. Here also are warnings against whoredom. The Messiah is to spring from Judah and Levi. Dr. Charles thinks the first of these was not in the original, because it would naturally have been "tribes," not "tribe," as it is. This somewhat hasty, as in 1 Kings 12:23 (Septuagint) we have the precisely similar construction pros panta oikon Iouda kai Beniamin, a sentence which represents the construction of the Hebrew. In this there is a Messianic passage which describes the Messiah as delivering the captives of Beliar.

(8) Naphtali:
The Testament that follows, that of Naphtali, has apocalyptic elements in it. It opens with the genealogy of Bilhah, his mother, whose father is said to be Rotheus. His vision represents Levi seizing the sun and Judah the moon. The young man with the twelve palm branches seems to be a reference to the Apostles. Joseph seizes a bull and rides on it. He has a further dream in which he sees a storm at sea and the brethren being separated. Again there is a reference to the recurrent theme of sexual relation (XII P 8).

(9) Gad:
The subject of the Testament of Gad is hatred. Gad is associated with Simeon as being most filled with wrath against Joseph.

(10) Asher:
Asher urges whole-hearted obedience to righteousness, as the apostle James does in his epistle.

(11) Joseph:
One of the most important of these Testaments is that of Joseph. The opening is occupied with a prolonged description of the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar's wife. There is in that connection the unhealthy dwelling on sexual matters which is found in monkish writers. There are not a few resemblances to the language of the Gospels (compare XII P 1:6 and Matthew 25:36). There is a more important passage (XII P 19:8): "And I saw that from Judah was born a virgin wearing a linen garment, and from her was born a lamb, and on his left hand there was, as it were, a lion: and all the beasts rushed against him, and the lamb overcame them, and destroyed them, and trod them under foot." This to us is clearly Christian. Dr. Charles, without apocalyptic credence to support him, would amend it and change the reading.

(12) Benjamin:
The Testament of Benjamin is very much an appendix to that of Joseph. It opens with the account Joseph gave Benjamin of how he was sold to the Ishmaelites. He exhorts his descendants against deceit, but, as all his brethren, he warns them against fornication. There is a long Christian passage which certainly seems an interpolation, as it is not found in some of the texts, though others have all verses. The text concerning Paul (XII P 11:1,2) appears in varying forms in all versions.

B. Structure;

That these "Testaments" have been interpolated is proved by the variations in the different texts. Dr. Charles has, however, gone much farther, and wherever there is a Christian clause has declared it an obvious interpolation. For our part, we would admit as a rule those passages to be genuine that are present in all the forms of the text. The Greek text was first in, so to say, recent times edited by Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, in the 13th century. Since then other manuscripts have been found, and a Slavonic and an Aramaic version. We are thus able to check the interpolations. In essence the Christian passage in T Josephus is found in all versions.

C. Language;

Dr. Charles makes a very strong case for Hebrew being the original language. His numerous arguments are not all of equal value. While some of the alleged Hebraistic constructions may be actually so, not a few may be explained by imitation of the language of the Septuagint. As an example of the first, compare T Jud (XII P 7): ochlos barus = chel kabhedh, "a numerous host." On the other hand T Reub XII P 3:8: "understanding in the Law," is a turn of expression that might quite well be common among Greek-speaking Jews. Of passages that are only explicable by retranslation, as in T Josephus 11:7, "God .... increased him in gold and silver and in work," this last turn is evidently due to the translator's rendering 'abhuddah, "servant," as if it were 'abhodhah, "work." On the whole, we are prepared to amend the decision elsewhere, and admit that the probability is that this book, like so many more of the same class, has been translated from Hebrew.

D. Date and Authorship;

Dr. Charles declares the author to have been a Pharisee who wrote in the early part of the reign of John Hyrcanus I. The initial difficulty with this, as with the other pseudepigrapha in attributing a Pharisaic authorship, is the preservation of the book among the Christian communities, and the ignorance or the ignoring of it among the Jews. The only sect of the Jews that survived the destruction of Jerusalem was that of the Pharisees. The Sadducees, who were more a political than a religious party, disappeared with the cessation of the Jewish state. When Judaism became merely a religion--a church--not a nation, their function was gone.

The third sect, the Essenes, disappeared, but did so into the Christian church. If the writer had been an Essene, as we suppose he was, the preservation of this writing by the Christians is easily explicable. If it were the work of a Pharisee, its disappearance from the literature of the synagogue is as inexplicable as its preservation by the Christians. The constant harping on the sin of fornication--in T Naph XII P 8:8 even marital intercourse is looked at askance--indicates a state of mind suitable to the tenets of the Essenes. The date preferred by Dr. Charles, if the author is a Pharisee, appears to us impossible. The Pharisees had, long before the final break, been out of sympathy with the Maccabeans. The Chasidim deserted Judas Maccabeus at Elasa, not improbably in consequence of the alliance he had made with the heathen Romans, and perhaps also his assumption of the high- priesthood. Further, the temple is laid waste and the people driven into captivity unto all nations (T Levi 15:1). This does not suit the desecration of the temple under Epiphanes.

During that time the temple was not laid waste. The orgies of the worship of Bacchus and of Jupiter Olympius dishonored it, but that is a different thing from its being laid waste. The scattering unto all nations did not take place then. Some were taken captive and enslaved, but this was not general. The description would only apply to destruction of the temple by Titus and the enslaving and captivity of the mass of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The "New Priest" cannot refer to the Maccabeans, for they were Aaronites as much as Alcimus or Onias, though not of the high-priestly family. This change of the priesthood only has point if it refers to the priesthood of Christ as in Hebrews 7:12. If Dr. Charles is right in maintaining that 2 Macc in its account of Menelaus is to be preferred to Josephus, the change of the priesthood was not unprecedented, for Menelaus was a Benjamite, not a Levite. Yet 1 Macc takes no notice of this enormity.

Further, there are the numerous passages that are directly and indirectly Christian. Dr. Charles certainly marks them all as interpolations, but he gives no reason in most of the cases for doing so. That the omission of such passages does not dislocate the narrative arises from the simpler construction of Semitic narrative, and is therefore not to be regarded as conclusive evidence of interpolation. The reference to Paul in T Ben XII P 11, occurring in all the sources, although with variations, also points to a post-Christian origin. For these reasons, we would venture to differ from Dr. Charles and regard the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as post-Christian, and to be dated in the first quarter of the 2nd century AD.

E. Relation to Other Books

From the decision we have reached in regard to the date of these Testaments, it follows that all the many resemblances which have been noted between them and the books of the New Testament are due to imitation on the part of the Testaments, not the reverse. A case in point is T Josephus XII P 1:6 where the resemblance to Matthew 25:31 - 36 is close; only, whereas in the Gospel the judge approves of the righteous on account of their visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and condemns the wicked because they did not do so, in T Josephus God ministers to His servants. The Testament is really an imitation of the passage in the Gospel. The direct visiting of the afflicted, whatever the form of the affliction, was a thing of everyday occurrence. To think of the Almighty doing so is the result of a bold metaphor. One familiar with the Gospel narrative might not unnaturally think of God's dealings with the saints in terms drawn from our Lord's description of the Last Judgment. In T Naph XII P 2:2 the figure of the potter and the clay is, as in Romans 9:21, applied to God's power over His creatures. The passage in the T Naph is expanded, and has not the close intimate connection with the argument that the Pauline passage has. While none of the other resemblances give one any ground to decide, these instances really carry the others with them. We may thus regard the resemblances to the New Testament in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as due to the latter's copying of the former.



asher, benjamin, bible commentary, bible reference, bible study, dan, define, gad, issachar, history, israel, jacob, joseph, judah, levi, naphtali, reuben, simeon, testament of the twelve patriarchs, will, zebulun



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