Skip navigation to content

A Difficult Case: The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (1)

(Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 20 February, 1997)

The debate over the origins and nature of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (hereafter T12P) has been going on for at least three centuries and does not seem yet to be resolved. By and large, there have been two theories defended, both of which have proponents at present.

(1) The T12P are an originally Jewish document that has been interpolated by Christians. First proposed by J. E. Grabe around 1700, this position has been defended by Friedrich Schnapp and R. H. Charles and, most recently (in OTP I), Howard Clark Kee. This position points out, first of all, that we know of the existence of some Jewish testamentary texts about the patriarchs in Hebrew and Aramaic in the Second Temple period (see below), and that these fragments have some sort of more or less direct literary connection to the T12P. Second, the proponents claim that redaction criticism allows us to excise the relatively few Christian passages in the document with little violence to the overal content, which implies that they are secondary additions to the originally Jewish work. Charles, followed to some degree by Key, argued that textual criticism alone can take us fairly far in this direction. Charles believed that the often shorter text of the Armenian translation sometimes preserved the text as it stood before the Christian interpolations were added. Charles also thought that he could retrovert the Greek of our current T12P back into the original Hebrew in which he thought it had been composed. He even undertook to find errors in the Greek "translation" that showed it had a Hebrew Vorlage. Overall, this last suggestion has generally been viewed with scepticism.

(2) The T12P are a Christian document written originally in Greek but based on some earlier Semitic material. (There are testament fragments in Hebrew or Aramaic for some individual patriarchs, but it is unlikely that there was ever a pre-Greek composition that covered all twelve patriarchs.) This position was proposed almost immediately after Grabe presented his theory and it actually became the consensus view for a couple of centuries. But the challenge of Schnapp in 1884 reopened the debate and it continues today. The theory that T12P are a Christian work has been defended since 1953 in particular by Marinus de Jonge. The proponents of this position argue that the Christian material permeates the document and cannot be removed simply by emendation. They find the Armenian translation to be of doubtful value for reconstructing of the original text and take it to be deliberately abbreviated and secondary to the Greek. In addition, the Greek MSS of the T12P in our possession can only bring us back to a text that existed sometime before the ninth century, but it is unclear how much before. We know that the Greek T12P had been composed by about 200 CE, since the church father Origen refers to TReub 2-3, but the text of our Byzantine MSS could be quite far from what was available to Origen. Some of the Christian additions could be interpolations into an already Christian document. It is argued also that the theory of a originally Jewish work doesn't have much explanatory value. In general the paraenetic material (moral exhortation) is generic enough that it can't easily be labeled specifically Jewish or Christian. On the other hand, the passages predicting the future are so complex that excision of the Christian elements doesn't help our understanding of the text very much.

My own bias, as should be obvious from the methodological comments I've made along the way, is in favor of the second hypothesis. But rather than dealing any more with the debate in this lecture, I think it is more productive to list some points that seem to be well established and that should be taken into account in further discussion of the T12P. So here are several points to keep in mind.

(1) The T12P are based at least in part on older purely Jewish (Hebrew and Aramaic) material. A number of specific texts have a clear literary connection with the T12P.

(i) The Aramaic Testament of Levi. This document was first recovered in fragments from the Cairo Geniza. Then when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it turned out that fragments of what appears to be the same document were found in the Qumran library. In addition, one Greek MS of the T12P has a Greek translation of a passage known only from the Aramaic Testament of Levi (ArLevi). These three sources allow us to piece together a fair bit of the Aramaic text and compare it to the Greek Testament of Levi (TLevi). The Aramaic work included the Levi's prayer and vision of heaven present in TLevi 2-5 (TLevi describes seven heavens but ArLevi may have had only one). Then there is an account of the war with Shechem (cf. TLevi 6-7) and a longer and probably more original version of Isaac's instructions to Levi (cf. TLevi 9 and 11--ch. 10 appears to be a seconday addition by the Greek writer). Some other material in the Aramaic fragments corresponds to TLevi 13-14. Overall TLevi draws loosely on the traditions found in ArLevi, but it isn't entirely clear that TLevi's source was the Aramaic document we have in scattered pieces today. In any case, the relationship is complex and is not just a matter of the Greek writer translating ArLevi and introducing some Christian interpolations.

(ii) The Hebrew Testament of Naphtali. Known from Medieval Hebrew MSS, the Hebrew Testament (HebNaph) contains much material that overlaps in complicated ways with the Greek Testament of Naphtali (TNaph). It has been argued that TNaph and HebNaph draw on a common source, which, by and large, HebNaph (despite its medieval date) preserves better. The gist of HebNaph is a series of episodes in the lives of the patriarchs that predict that the sons of Joseph will cause the Exile by their wickedness and disobedience to Judah and Levi. (The Charles edition of the OT Pseud and the commentary by Hollander and de Jonge have translations of HebNaph.) TNaph transforms these themes in ways that are not entirely coherent at times.

There is also a fragment from Qumran (4QTestNaph) that appears to be of a Hebrew Testament of Naphtali. It has literary connections with TNaph and medieval Hebrew material apart from HebNaph.

(iii) Midrash Wayissa'u. There are a couple of medieval recensions of this Hebrew work, which describes the war of Jacob and his sons against the Amorites, as well as their later war with Esau and his sons. Parallels to these episodes appear in the Greek Testament of Judah 3-7 and 9, and in Jubilees 34 and 37-38. De Jonge has argues that there was a Second Temple haggadic work about the patriarchs (probably in Hebrew) on which TJudah, Jubilees, and the medieval tradition drew, largely independently of one another.

I strongly suspect that there is another dissertation or two to be written on the relationship between T12P and the parallel Semitic material, especially ii and iii above.

(2) The current text of T12P contains clearly Christian elements, whose centrality to the text are debatable. Kee marks off many with brackets in his translation in OTP I.

(3) Textual criticism alone can't get us back to a pre-Christian T12P. The generally abbreviated nature of the Armenian version makes it suspect as a tool for eliminating putative Christian interpolations in the Greek text. According to the research of H. J. de Jonge, the extant Greek MSS were transcribed twice from the earlier Uncial letters (roughly meaning "capital letters only") into the Minuscule script (roughly "small letters only") sometime before the ninth century. Unfortunately, we just don't know how much before, but it seems unlikely that the Greek textual tradition left to us can lead back to a pre-Christian stage of transmission, assuming there was one in the first place.

(4) Finally, there are striking thematic and terminological parallels between the T12P and the sectarian works from Qumran, particularly the Damascus Rule, the Community Rule, and the War Rule. The T12P use the term Beliar for the devil, which is a Greek slurring of the Hebrew word Belial, the term for the most powerful evil spirit in the sectarian texts. Both the T12P and the sectarian texts use light and darkness as symbols for good and evil, make use of the dualistic doctrine of the two spirits and the two ways, and refer to the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. In the T12P there is a focus on the priesthood of Levi and the kingship of Judah, and also on the supremacy of the former over the latter. This theme is reminiscent of some passages in the sectarian texts that seem to speak of priestly and royal messianic figures, sometimes in the same context and sometimes implying the supremacy of the priestly figure over the royal one.

The simplistic conclusion that the T12P were written by the Qumran sectaries is hardly likely to be right, especially given that the sectarian texts also have interesting parallels to the Johannine and Pauline literature in the NT. But the connections should give us pause and warn us that the form(s) of Judaism and/or Christianity behind the T12P are likely to be ones that we know very little about and that will be exceedingly difficult to reconstruct.

These then are some basic points that need to be taken into account by any theory that seeks to give a full account of the origins and development of the T12P. The major issue in dispute in the scholarly literature remains whether the T12P are a Jewish document with light Christian editing (which is removable with judicious redaction criticism) or a Christian document that has heavily reworked various Jewish sources.

I should conclude by mentioning a number of bibliographical items that are not in the annotated basic bibliography. Good overviews of the current state of the question (from the perspective of the second hypothesis) are:

Marinus de Jonge, "The Main Issues in the Study of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs," in _Jewish Eschatology, Early Christian Christology and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs_ (Leiden: Brill, 1991) 147-163

__________, "The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: Christian and Jewish," _Jewish Eschatology_ 233-43

An important study of the transmission of the Greek MSS is:

H. J. de Jonge, "The Earliest Traceable Stage of the Textual Tradition of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs," in _Studies on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: Text and Interpretation_ (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 63-86

On the Armenian translation see:

M. de Jonge, "The Greek Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Armenian Version," _Studies on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs_ 120-139

For the Hebrew testamentary material pertaining to Naphtali, see:

Th. Korteweg, "The Meaning of Naphtali's Visions," _Studies on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs_ 261-90

Michael E. Stone, "Testament of Naphtali," _JJS_ 47 (1996) 311-21 [on the Qumran Testament]

There is also a new book on the relationship between ArLevi and TLevi which on order for our library but has not yet arrived:

Robert A. Kugler, _From Patriarch to Priest: the Levi-Priestly Tradition from Aramaic Levi to Testament of Levi_ (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1996)

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Back to the OT Pseud Web Page.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (2)

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 25 February, 1997)

In this lecture I want to look again at the passages in Genesis covered in my second lecture on Jubilees and see how they are used in the T12P. I'll conclude with some reflections about the interplay between biblical exegesis and other streams of tradition in the OT Pseud.

I. THE STORY OF THE RAPE OF DINAH (Gen 34 and 49:5-7)

This story is developed in TLevi 2:1-5, 5:3-7, and 6:1-7:4. The writer of TLevi deals with the same two questions tackled by the writer of Jub:

(1) How could the Israelites make the Shechemites into circumcised brethren and then deceive and kill them?
(2) How could Levi perpetrate such a treacherous act and still found the priestly tribe of the people of God?

The second question in particular was a serious problem for the writer of T12P, since Levi and the line of Levi were extremely important in the writer's theology. The answers the writer proposes to each question are as follows:

(1) Levi knew already that the Shechemites had to be destroyed (see below) and so he told his father Jacob not to have them circumcised. Levi was filled with zeal against them because of their assault on his sister. Afterward Jacob was sorrowful that the Shechemites had been killed even though they were circumcised, but Levi had made a good faith effort to prevent this and felt justified in the actions he and his brother had taken. The narrative strategy here is quite different from that of Jub (and works considerably better). Rather than trying to ignore the problem as Jub does, the writer of the T12P tries to exonerate Levi by showing he was morally obligated to kill the Shechemites, yet he did try to prevent their circumcision.

(2) To justify Levi's treachery the author emphasizes the evil of the Shechemites. Not only did they abuse Dinah, they also were planning to rape Sarah and Rebecca. They mistreated Abraham and others and in general preyed on the nomadic people. They were murderers and rapists many times over and their fate was well deserved. In addition, the writer of the T12P, like the writer of Jub, made a virtue of necessity, and reports that Levi received a direct revelation in a vision from an angel to kill them.

II. THE STORY OF REUBEN AND BILHAH (Gen 35:22 and 49:3-4)

This episode is developed in TReub 1:6-10 and 3:10-15 and is mentioned briefly in TJudah 13:3. Three of the questions explored by the writer of Jub seem to have occurred also to the writer of T12P:

(1) What led Reuben to do this vile deed?
(2) Why did Bilhah go along with it?
(3) How did Jacob find out?

The fourth question (why wasn't the death penalty carried out on them?) is not addressed. It may have been a bigger issue for the writer of Jub, since that writer believed that the patriarchs already knew and followed much of the Mosaic law.

The answers to the three questions in T12P are:

(1) Reuben spied on Bilhah who was bathing in a "sheltered place" and he became obsessed with her. While Jacob was away Reuben came into her bedroom at night and, finding her nude and insensibly drunk, raped her.

(2) Bilhah didn't consent; she slept through the whole thing, but--

(3) an angel immediately revealed the deed to Jacob.

A couple of points are worth noting about this version of the story. First, there are details also found in Jub but not in Genesis. In both Reuben spied on Bilhah while she was bathing in private, he assaulted her in her own bedchamber, and Jacob never touched her again. I'll say more about these shared elements below. Second, the story is taken in a very different direction by T12P. In Jub the issue is why the death penalty for incest wasn't carried out (and whether it still applied in the writer's present.) But the overall theme of TReub is avoidance of sexual promiscuity and seductive women. The story of Reuben and Bilhah becomes a paradigm of how women (even unwittingly) can become sexual snares to men.


As noted before, the exegetical problem addressed by Jub was that Jacob's bones were buried promptly in Canaan, so why the delay in burying Joseph's bones? The solution proposed in Jub was that the border had been closed off by a war between Canaan and Egypt, so Joseph on his deathbed told his brothers to wait until the Exodus to take his bones to Canaan. But later the border was reopened and the bones of the other brothers were taken to the family tomb in the Cave of Machpelah. Joseph's bones were left in Egypt, presumably because of his own instructions.

The same problem is also addressed briefly in T12P. The Testament of Simeon 8:1-3 says that Simeon's bones were conveyed secretly to Hebron during a war with Egypt. But the wizards of Egypt divined that plague and darkness would accompany the departure of Joseph's bones, so his bones were locked up in the tomb of the kings (a variant reading is "the treasure-house of the palace"). It is interesting to note that the war with Egypt appears here as well, although the detail seems to hang without motivation, unlike its use in Jub.

The Mishnah (which was written in its final form in the early third century CE, perhaps around the same time as the writing of the T12P) notes the same problem, but offers a completely different explanation. In Sotah 1.9 it says that only Joseph was worthy to bury his father Jacob and none of his brothers were worthy to bury Joseph himself. The only person greater than Joseph was Moses, so Joseph's bones had to wait for burial until Moses' time. And in turn, of course, no human being was greater than Moses, so only God was worthy to bury him, as per Deuteronomy 34.

The later rabbinic literature developed various creative solutions to the basic problem of Joseph's bones. These generally start with the assumption of Jub and TSim that the bones were somehow made inaccessible until the time of the Exodus. I'll cite two examples here, both found in variant forms in the Tosefta and the Mekhilta deR. Yishmael.

One version tells us that Joseph had been buried in the tomb of the kings in Egypt (cf. TSim). The Divine Presence could not lead the Israelites out of Egypt until his bones were recovered (and evidently their exact location had been forgotten) so Moses had to call out to them to reveal themselves if they didn't want to be left behind. The bones then shook the casket they were in and Moses took it.

Another version says that the Egyptians had put the coffin containing Joseph's bones in the Nile and, again, Moses didn't know where they were. Fortunately, a contemporary of Joseph, Serah daughter of Asher, was still alive, although obviously *very* old, at the time of the Exodus. Serah is mentioned in Gen 46:17 in a list of the descendents of Israel who went to Egypt, and again in a list of the descendents of the twelve sons of Jacob in Num 26:46. It is odd for a woman to be mentioned in these lists, so for some reason the rabbinic exegetes concluded that she was singled out both times because she alone was alive from the time of Jacob to the time of Moses. Serah told Moses what had become of Joseph's bones and at Moses' adjuration the coffin floated to the surface of the Nile and Moses retrieved it.

There are numerous other rabbinic accounts of the recovery of Joseph's bones, but these are a good illustration of how a basic exegetical question could generate stories that snowballed and pulled in other motifs along the way.

IV. Finally, I want to say a few words in general about the traditions in the OT Pseud (especially Jub and the T12P) and their relationship to the biblical text (in this case, Genesis). First, they are clearly often interpreting the text of Genesis much as we have it now. For example, Jubilees suppresses the circumcision of the Shechemites in Genesis 34, but leaves enough loose ends that it is obvious the writer knew and is bowdlerizing the story in Genesies. But second, it is equally clear that other traditions about the patriarchs were available alongside Genesis and were drawn on by both Jub and T12P. For example, the overall framework of the story of Reuben and Bilhah and the tradition of the war with Egypt are shared by the latter two works even though they don't appear in Genesis. James Kugel suggests that these other details and stories were a body of oral tradition that commented on the biblical text, not a written document. On the other hand, Marinus de Jonge, on the basis of his research on the T12P, argues for the existence of a Hebrew "haggadic writing" behind Jub, the T12P, and the Midrash Wayissa'u. The presumption in both positions seems to be that this material was secondary to Genesis and based upon it, but Thomas Thompson and others on this list have challenged this assumption and argue that Jubilees and Genesis are redactions of a common stream of tradition. I think we would probably all agree that the problem is extraordinarily complex and a full explanation would have to draw on all three positions outlined here.

Some bibliographical notes:

James Kugel has discussed the full panoply of ancient interpretation of Joseph's bones in chapter 5 of _In Potiphar's House_. I am following his analysis in this lecture. In the same book, his ninth thesis in chapter 9 outlines his understanding of the oral source he postulates behind the later exegetical traditions.

Marinus de Jonge analyzes the parallels between the T12P, Jubilees, and other Semitic texts (which I have discussed in the previous lecture) in _The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Study of Their Text, Composition, and Origin_. It is in this volume that he postulates a haggadic writing in Hebrew (p. 71) to explain the nonbiblical material they have in common.

Full bibliographical details for both books can be found in the annotated basic bibliography for DI3216.

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Back to the OT Pseud Web Page.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852