Book of Ahikar

AHIKAR, BOOK OF ə hī’ kär. An ethical folktale from 500 or 600 b.c. demonstrating the just reward of ingratitude by recounting the story of Ahikar, the wise and virtuous secretary of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, and his wicked nephew Nadan.

Ahikar, who is the hero of the story, is a politician and a wealthy sage but suffers greatly under the curse of childlessness though he has sixty wives. Divinely directed, he thus adopts his nephew upon whom he bestows all the instruction and wisdom that the E can offer. Contrary to all expectations, the young man turns out badly and, through forged documents, betrays his father to the king. Thereupon, Ahikar is condemned to death, to be succeeded by his nephew. His life is spared, however, through his friendship with the executioner and he goes into hiding. Certain political circumstances then arise which cause the king to wish for one as wise as Ahikar, whereupon, to the king’s delight, he is brought forth. Ahikar is then reinstated to his former glory. After this, he heroically meets the king’s political extremity and then wreaks just vengeance on his adopted son.

The book has been extraordinarily popular in folkloric lit. for many centuries (see e.g., the supplement to the Arabian Nights). It has been traceable in Democritus (according to Clement of Alexandria), Aesop, Book of Tobit, Theophrastus and Strabo. This, and other evidence, had pointed to a date of composition at least as early as 500 b.c., which has now been confirmed by the discovery of a fragmentary papyrus of the book from the ruins of Elephantine. This papyrus is a copy and the original may well date to 600 b.c.

Besides the important parallels with, and references to, Ahikar, in Democritus, Tobit, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Koran, there are a number of interesting parallels with both the OT and NT. In the case of the OT, the parallels are, naturally, mainly with the wisdom books and there is some difficulty in deciding which is the more ancient text. In the case of the NT, the most striking similarities are with certain of the parables of Jesus though there are parallels with the epistles as well.

The only authority for the original text of Ahikar is the Aram. papyrus already mentioned. Later copies are extant in Syrian, Arabic and Karshuni, Ethiopic, Armenian, Greek and Slavonic. There is considerable variation among the different copies, and this, coupled with the fragmentary nature of some of them, means that the story as a whole has to be pieced together.


F. C. Conybeare, J. H. Harris, A. S. Lewis, The Story of Ahikar (1898); Sachau, Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus Elephantine (1911); F. C. Conybeare, J. R. Harris, A. S. Lewis, APOT (1913), II, 715-784.