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The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a constituent of the apocryphal scriptures connected with the Torah. It is a pseudepigraphical work comprising the dying commands of the twelve sons of Jacob. It is part of the Oscan Armenian Orthodox Bible of 1666. Fragments of similar writings were found at Qumranmarker, but opinions are divided if these are the same texts. It is considered Apocalyptic literature.

The Testaments were written in Greek, and reached their final form in the second century CE. In the 13th century that they were introduced into the West through the agency of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, whose Latin translation of the work gained immediately became popular. He believed that it was a genuine work of the twelve sons of Jacob, and that the Christian interpolations were a genuine product of Jewish prophecy; he accused Jews of concealing the Testaments "on account of the prophecies of the Saviour contained in them."

With the critical methods of the 16th century, Grosseteste's view of the Testaments was rejected and the book was unjustly disparaged as a mere Christian forgery for nearly four centuries. Presently, scholarly opinions are still divided as to whether the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are an originally Jewish document that has been retouched by Christians or are a Christian document written originally in Greek but based on some earlier Semitic material. Scholarship tends to focus on this book as a Christian work, whether or not it has Jewish original (Vorlage).

A copy of the testaments is published in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.


Testaments are regarded as exhortatory writings, ethics therefore are fundamental to the text. The Testaments, then, have many different ethical motifs. The foremost of which are adhering to God's commandments. In this regard it is interesting to note that the ethics in the Testaments generally start out very precise, each testament discusses a certain vice or virtue. Usually this is then concluded with a very vague and general reference to God's law and commandments.

Another theme that has been extensively discussed by Hollander is the role that Joseph plays in the ethics. He is often the example of an ethical man, and the deeds of the patriarchs are often weighed against those of Joseph.

Charles's View on Ethics

As argued by Robert Henry Charles, who studied and translated the Testaments in the beginning of the 20th century,

the main, the overwhelming value of the book lies ... in its ethical teaching, which has achieved a real immortality by influencing the thoughts and diction of the writers of the New Testament, and even those of our Lord.

He writes that the Testaments help to "bridge the chasm that divides the ethics of the Old and New Testaments." To a modern reader, the main value of the Testaments, is not in the ranting variations on biblical text, but in their ethical teachings, as amplified by the following citations:

  • Love the Lord through all your life, and one another with a true heart
  • Love yea one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peacefully to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he repent and confess, forgive him. But if he deny it, do not get into a passion with him, lest catching the poison from thee he take to swearing, and so then sin doubly …
  • Love the Lord and your neighbor.
  • Anger is blindness, and does not suffer to see any man with truth
  • Hatred, therefore is evil; etc.
(from The Apocrypha in English. Edited by Rev. R. H. Charles.)


The work is divided into twelve books, each purporting to be the last exhortations of one of the twelve titular patriarchs. In each, the patriarch first narrates his own life, focusing on his strengths, virtues, or his sins, using biographical material from both the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. Next he exhorts his listeners to emulate the one and to avoid the other. Most of the books conclude with prophetic visions.


The Testament of Reuben is predominantly concerned with admonishing lust, and the sinfulness of Reuben in his having had sex with Bilhah, a concubine of his father. It is likely that the author wished to cover the topic of fornication anyway, and assigned it for Reuben to discuss due to Reuben's relationship with Bilhah being recounted in the canonical bible.

The Testament adds that Reuben spied Bilhah while she bathed in secret; and that when Bilhah later becomes drunk, Reuben rapes her. That trope derives from a reading of Genesis 49:4, "wanton as water", as "wanton in water", taken from the Book of Jubilees. This theme is also in 2 Samuel 11:2's account of David and Bathsheba.

The Testament portrays women as the cause of the downfall of the Watchers, and of man in general (excepting Bilhah, in accordance with Jubilees). Joseph is on the other hand portrayed as the ideal, for his resistance against Potiphar's wife.


The Testament of Simeon is primarily a diatribe against envy. In the Genesis narrative, Simeon is portrayed as having been bound in chains by Joseph, and the author of the Testament argues that Simeon had wanted to kill Joseph due to jealousy, allowing the Testament to continue with a discourse about envy. The narrative of the Testament explains that it was Judah who had sold Joseph into slavery, and goes on to portray Joseph as the ideal of virtue and generosity.

The Testament 5:4-6 in an aside attacks Simeon's children for the sin of miscegenation, Numbers 25. It does not mention the attack on Shechem, which in the Torah Simeon had mounted alongside brother Levi. Instead it posits that Simeon made war against Levi. Kugel concludes that the Testament agreed with Jubilees 30:23 in that the attack on Shechem was "righteous", and so the Testament suppressed the account to deny Simeon credit.


The Testament of Levi is an apocalyptic section. It is one of the longest of the Testaments, and is predominantly concerned with arrogance. Taking the theme of the Levite priesthood, the Testament explains how Levi's descendants corrupted the office by their arrogant disregard for the proper regulations.

Chapter 2-8 involves Levi being taken to heaven and promised the priesthood forever, and then seven angels physically give him the insignia of the priesthood (as described in Exodus). This part parallels the beginning and end of a vision in the Aramaic Levi Document, whence the body of the vision is now lost; and is thought to preserve that part of the text.

In chapters 14-18 Levi cites a "book of Enoch", describing the sins of his descendants, with the promise that at the end there will be a glorious priest who will restore the righteousness of his office. The tropes of Levi's "Book" match those of the "Apocalypse of Weeks" in 1 Enoch.

The Testament has an account of the raid on Shechem. Its take is that Jacob proposed a marriage between Shechem and Dinah, sincerely offering Shechem the option of circumcision. Levi opposed the circumcision from the start. Unlike Jubilees and, if Kugel is right, the Testament of Simeon: to the Testament of Levi, intermarriage is lawful in principle between Israelites and converts. Shechem was excluded for its other crimes.

Aramaic Levi Document

One way in which this testament is distinguished from the others is by additional footnotes in a Greek version of the manuscript from Mount Athos. These footnotes were found to be translated from a non-apocalyptic precursor of the text in Aramaic, partially preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The find consisted of six fragments in two manuscripts from cave 4 (4Q213-214). A small related fragment was also found in cave 1 (1Q21). According to some sources, these scrolls were dated by the Oriental Institute to between 100-200 BC using Radiocarbon dating.

According to James Kugel at Bar-Ilan Universitymarker, Aramaic Levi is a composite of two documents. One source was "a wisdom apocalypse derived from the exegetical elaboration of Malachi 2:4-7". The other, based on the same exegesis, "described Levi's actual initiation into the priesthood by angels". The narrative frame is based from the Book of Jubilees. The compiler of Aramaic Levi added that the priests would be kings. It is a Hasmonean compilation, 133-100 BCE.


The Testament of Judah is primarily concerned with courage, monetary greed, and fornication. It begins by portraying Judah as idealistically courageous, involving bravery in front of wild beasts, as well as successful military expeditions, sometimes basing the narrative on acts that the canonical bible attributes to Jacob. However, it goes on to present a xenophobic focus, criticising his marriage to a non-Israelite, as well as his sexual activity with Tamar , his daughter-in-law who at that time was pretending to be a prostitute.

The narrative argues that Judah had sex with Tamar and his wife due to drunkenness, and that he bribed his wife's father in order to be allowed to marry her. It then goes on to instruct that the role of a king is lesser than that of a priest, and that Levi is more important, clearly pointing to the theocratic attitude of the author.


The Testament of Issachar predominantly concerns asceticism, which the text portrays as virtuous. The narrative however begins by retelling the biblical tale of Leah's purchase of Jacob's nocturnal services by the giving of mandrake to Rachel. Rachel is portrayed as virtuous for being more celibate than the randy Leah.

The remainder of the narrative portrays Issachar himself as leading a godly and simple agricultural life. This is based on Genesis 49:14-15: Issachar had loved the land such that he "bent his shoulder to the burden" and became a tiller for hire. The same exegesis is at work in the Septuagint and Samaritan Targum of Genesis.


Zebulun was the sixth son of Leah and Jacob. He is described as an inventor and philanthropist and the text relates what he learned as a result of the plot against Joseph.

"The copy of the words of Zebulun, which he enjoyed on his sons before he died in the hundred and fourteenth year of his life, two years after the death of Joseph.2 And he said to them:Hearken to me, ye sons of Zebulun, attend to the words of your father.3 I, Zebulun, was born a good gift to my parents.4 For when I was born my father was increased very exceedingly, both in the flocks and herds, when with the straked rods he had his portion.5 I am not conscious that I have sinned all my days, save in thought.6 Nor yet do I remember that I have done any iniquity, except the sin of ignorance which I committed against Joseph; for I covenanted with my brethren, because they had all agreed that if any one should declare the secret, the secret, he should be slain."


The Testament of Dan treats the topics of anger and lying. The main vice, however, is anger.

Dan first explains his feelings of jealousy towards his brother Joseph. The spirit of anger tempted him towards murdering Joseph. Fortunately, the Lord did not deliver Joseph into Dan's hands.

Dan then goes on to explain how the spirit of anger works. It covers your eyes, and distorts your vision. Through this you do not recognise people for who they really are. In the case of Joseph, Dan speaks from experience. Furthermore, it disturbs the mind so that the Lord departs from it and Beliar inhabits it.

Therefore, Dan's children should keep the commandments of the Lord, and stay near to the Lord. Dan goes into more depth through a prediction about the future, including one SER (Sin-Exile-Return) and three LJ (Levi-Judah) passages. In this Dan talks of a saviour arrising from Levi and Judah that will set the souls free from Beliar.

Again, Dan reminds his sons to stay near to God, and also to his interceding angel, and the saviour of the Gentiles. If they listen to Dan's warning, then his children will will be received by the saviour of the Gentiles and be saved.

The testament ends with an apparent gloss (inasmuch as one can speak of a gloss in a pseudepigraph), which points out that the prophecies of Dan did indeed happen.


A copy of the Testament of Naphtali was discovered at Qumranmarker among the Dead Sea Scrolls taken from Cave 4 (4Q215).


Hatred and spirit of love


The Testament of Asher is the shortest of the twelve and unlike the others does not begin with a deathbed scene.It is regarding the subject of the two ways to live. The main appeal in Asher is to follow truth with singleness of face.


The Testament of Joseph primarily concerns Chastity, and seems heavily to be based on Joseph's resistance against Potiphar's wife that the canonical bible portrays. The narrative contains a large expansion on the attempts of Potiphar's wife to seduce Joseph, portraying her as first threatening Joseph, then employing torture, then flattering Joseph, then plotting to kill her husband so that Joseph would be able to marry her without bigamy, then using love potions, and finally threatening suicide.


Benjamin, who is represented both by the Testament which bears his name and by rabbinic literature as the one who clings lovingly to his brother Joseph (see Gen. R. xciv. 7), typifies affectionate regard for the righteous. The hero himself, whose name is explained in ch. i. as "the child of old age," dwells on the nobility of Joseph, but since he would not impute an evil act to his brothers, he construed the story of the coat in their favor (ch. ii.), and besought his father to pray to God that He should not impute to them the evil they had devised against him (ch. iii.). Benjamin accordingly admonishes his children ever to direct their mind toward the good and pure, for the good man has no "evil eye," but sympathy for all, and mercy to the poor (ch. iv.), thus having a good influence even on the evil (ch. v.). The spirit of Belial will have no power over him, nor will he look with lust upon woman. Cain, the evil brother, had to suffer for seven hundred years, but Joseph could be defiled by sin no more than is the sun by shining over dung and mire. The whole admonition (ch. ii-viii.), however, is in great disorder. The apocalyptic portion (ch. ix.-xi.), based partly upon Gen. xlix. 27 and partly upon Deut. xxxiii. 12, is so retouched by Christian writers that any analysis of it is extremely difficult.


The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs contain a substantial amount of prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah. From a Christian perspective, a number of statements can be associated with events in the life of Jesus. Many consider this significant since several of the books are thought to predate Jesus. This opinion, first propagated by Bacon in his Opus Majus, is hardly defended in modern scholarship, where all passages that clearly refer to Jesus, are either considered Christian interpolations (by those who consider the author to be Jewish) or Christian writings (by those who consider the author to be Christian).

For example, compare the following passages from the Testament of Levi:

The heavens shall be opened, and from the temple of glory shall come upon him sanctification, with the Father's voice as from Abraham to Isaac. And the glory of the Most High shall be uttered over him, and the spirit of understanding and sanctification shall rest upon him in the water.(Levi 5:21-22)

with this passage from the Gospel of Matthew

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.
At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."( )

Use of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs in the New Testament

Charles (l.c.) called attention to the frequent use of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs by Paul and other writers of the New Testament. I Thess. ii. 16 is a quotation of Test. Patr., Levi, 6:10; Rom. 12:19 of Gad, 6:10; Rom. 12:21 of Benjamin, 6:3; II Cor. 12:10 of Gad, 5:7; and Ephes. 5:6 of Naphtali, 3:1.

Later scholarship has highly debated this issue. Current consensus is that, while there is similarity of thought, the New Testament authors do not utilise the Testaments in any way.


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