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Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

TESTAMENTS OF THE TWELVE PATRIARCHS Διαθη̂και τω̂ν Πατριαρχω̂ν, Testaments of the Patriarchs. An early pseudepigraph in which each of Jacob’s twelve sons gives instructions to his descendants. It is the most important example of a large body of “testaments” of a Judeo-Christian character usually attributed to outstanding OT saints but also to Orpheus and to Jesus Christ.

Each testament contains narrative material, eschatological and demonological material and homiletical material, and much of the teaching is of a very noble character. The structure of the twelve sections is quite uniform. The patriarch calls his sons together, tells them of some events in his own life, warns them against a particular vice or admonishes to a particular virtue often connected with his own life and prophesies their future in terms of their sins, punishments, salvation, etc. The sections close with the death of the patriarch and his burial at Hebron. The inspiration for such a collection of testaments undoubtedly came from Genesis 49 (cf. also Deut 33) where Jacob prophesied concerning each of his sons. The form of each section is also similar to that of Joshua’s charge to Israel (Josh 23; 24) and to David’s charge to his son Solomon (1 Kings 2).


In his testament, Reuben chiefly mourns over the sin which he committed with Bilhah (Gen 35:22). He gives details of the sin which are not found in the Biblical account but are similar to those found in Jubilees. Reuben attributes temptation to sin to various spirits of deceit and spirits of error. He gives very strong warnings against the sin of fornication and scathes womankind for the wicked way in which they ensnare their male counterparts. The apologetic trend of the testament as a whole is to clear the name of Reuben as far as possible.

The next testament is that assigned to Simeon. Simeon dwells mainly upon his hatred and mistreatment of Joseph. He recognizes Joseph’s goodness and repents of his evil attitude, all the while warning his sons against deceit and envy and admonishing them to live pure and upright lives. A brief warning against fornication is given in much the same spirit as is found in the Testament of Reuben and the writing of Enoch is referred to in this connection (see 5:3f.).

The testament of Levi, which follows, is mainly apocalyptic in character. Levi falls into a deep sleep, and the heavens are opened to him and explanations concerning them are given. An angel gives the command to execute vengeance upon the Shechemites and Levi’s action against them is justified in spite of the sorrow it brought upon his father. Thereafter, Levi sees another vision in which seven men in white clothe him in priestly apparel. A promise is given to Levi to the effect that his descendants would participate in the three offices of prophet, priest, and king, a sign of the coming of the Messiah. There follows a short biographical section together with general admonitions. Levi then prophesies the corruption of his descendants, esp. in the end of the ages, and this will bring a curse upon Israel. Sexual sins were to play an esp. large part in this corruption. The destruction of the Temple is predicted, a reference, most prob., to a.d. 70. In the end, a glorious “new priest” will appear and all the saints will be clothed with joy.

The testament of Judah is next and begins with a declaration of Judah’s own prowess in killing a lion, a bear, a boar, a leopard, and a wild bull and in his battles with Canaanite kings and others. The assault upon the sons of Jacob by Esau and Jacob’s victory is given. There is a considerable degree of similarity between the accounts of the Book of Jubilees and some of those given here. Judah relates the sinful incident involving Tamar with explanatory and excusatory remarks. He admonishes his children to upright living and in particular he denounces covetousness, drunkenness and fornication. Judah expresses sorrow over the lewdness and wickedness of his children and he looks forward to the day when they shall all repent, after which time the Messianic “star of Jacob” will arise.

The testament of Issachar is much shorter than the previous two. The testament dwells chiefly on the matter of the mandrakes familiar to us from the Biblical account. There is little sorrow or repentance in this testament and, in fact, there is considerable exultation on the part of Issachar in the good life he has lived. He exhorts his sons to a similar life.

Zebulun’s testament is also short and deals mostly with the sale of Joseph. Zebulun is justified by declaring that he took only the smallest part in the incident and received none of the money. He exhorts his sons to show compassion toward others even as he himself did.

In the short testament named after him, Dan confesses that he had hated Joseph enough to be joyful over his fate and he therefore admonishes his children to avoid anger. In 5:10 there is a significant Messianic passage stating that salvation would arise from “the tribe of Judah and of Levi.” R. H. Charles edited out the words “Judah and of,” arguing that the sing., “tribe,” admitted only Levi. The argument could hardly be sustained in the light of a similar construction in the LXX VS of 1 Kings 12:23. And, in any case, the expectation of two Messiahs and perhaps even three is known now from the DSS.

The testament of Naphtali begins with the genealogy of Bilhah, his mother, whose father is called Rotheus, and there are some general exhortations with a reference to the writing of Enoch. There follows an account of Naphtali’s vision in which Levi seizes the sun and Judah seizes the moon. Joseph seizes a bull and rides on it and there is a storm at sea where the brothers are separated. There is another reference to future salvation which is to arise from Levi and Judah.

In the testament ascribed to him, Gad admits his hatred of Joseph and the whole work is taken up with the subject of hatred. Gad exhorts his sons to show love and concern and teaching of the noblest character is found here.

In the testament of Asher there is a general and strong exhortation to obedience to righteousness in a tone similar to that of the wisdom lit. or that of the Epistle of James. Some of the instruction is developed along the lines of the doctrine of the Two Ways.

The testament of Joseph is mainly concerned with a lengthy description of the temptation of Joseph by the wife of Potiphar. It was God who guarded him from her vices and the whole incident is made the occasion for moral instruction to be given to Joseph’s sons. There are quite a number of resemblances to the language of the gospels (see 1:6). There is a significant reference to the birth of a virgin who in turn gives birth to a conquering lamb (see 19:8).

The last of the testaments is that of Benjamin. This work opens with the account Joseph gave to Benjamin of his being sold into Egypt. Benjamin exhorts his children against deceit and sexual immorality. In this testament esp., there is a considerable difference in the material included in the various texts and Christian interpolation seems plain. The first two vv. of chapter 11 often are taken to refer to Paul the Apostle.


Both the testament of Naphtali and the testament of Levi circulated independently at one time, to judge by certain known fragments (see Charles, APOT, II, 361-367). The Dead Sea discoveries have confirmed this judgment and have, at the same time, added new light to the discussion of the text. A number of MSS of T. of Levi were turned up. Cave I yielded sixty small fragments of one MS and Cave IV produced slightly larger fragments of three MSS. One of these is dated paleographically to late 2nd cent. or early 1st cent. b.c. The text of these fragments is similar enough to the standard text to suggest that it may be the original. It has also been suggested that the two fragments of T. Levi from the 11th cent. a.d. found in the Cairo Genizah were copied from a Qumranic MS. A 10th cent. a.d. Gr. MS has interpolations possibly based on such a Qumranic MS, and a fragment of a 9th cent. a.d. Syriac MS may also be based upon it.

A few small fragments of a work closely related to T. Naphtali have also been found in the caves. A number of later Heb. documents give evidence of extremely variant forms of text and of several amplified VSS of parts of this testament.

No evidence of any of the other testaments has been found at Qumran. It is possible that only T. Levi and T. Naphtali were known there. The other testaments are certainly replete with terms and concepts characteristic of Qumranic lit., but it is going too far to suggest that the Testaments must have originated at Qumran. A common source for Qumranic lit. and for the Testaments may be responsible for the similarity.

Apart from the evidence cited above, the first indication of the existence of the Testaments is a reference by Origen to “a certain book which is called ‘The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs,’ although it is not accepted in the canon” (Homily on Joshua XV. 6). Origen attributes to this book the teaching that a different demon acts in each sinner. It is true that T. Reuben 2, 3 lists over a dozen spirits which act in mankind, but it is not entirely beyond dispute that Origen is referring to the Testaments as we know them. Jerome likewise speaks of the “book of Patriarchs” which he considers to be apocryphal. The material which he refers to in this book is known to us from T. Naphthali 2:8 (see Homily on Psalms, XIV).

Within about a cent. of Jerome’s time an Armenian VS appeared, most prob. based on Jerome’s text. This was substantially the same as our present texts. The Testaments must have been very popular in the 10th cent. a.d. period. These represent two families of texts, and the three earliest Gr. MSS come from this implying that much copying of the document was being done. A Venetian MS gives only excerpts of the work. There are also MSS of the work in Slavonic and Latin. Translations into Georgian and Serbian have been reported as well.


There appear to be enough Semitisms in the Testaments to justify a decision in favor of a Heb. original. R. H. Charles was a stalwart proponent of a Heb. original and his views have been widely accepted. Not all of his arguments are of equal value, however, and it must be remembered that Gr.-speaking Jews may well have produced works in Gr. having built-in “Semitisms.” Some of the “Semitisms” may have been imitations of the language of the LXX. Nonethelesss, a Heb. original for the Testaments seems probable.


The date of composition of the Testaments was placed within very narrow limits by R. H. Charles. He cites T. Reuben 6:10-12 (cf. T. Simeon 5:5) as a reference to a high priest who is also king and warrior which suggests the Maccabean priest-kings of the 2nd. cent. b.c. The fact that T. Levi 8:14 indicates that the priesthood is to be called by “a new name” is taken as a reference to the designation “priests of the Most High God,” a title applied to the Maccabean high priests in Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, Josephus and the Talmud. Charles then argues that since, according to his reasoning, the author of the work was a Pharisee, it must have been composed before the break between the Pharisees and John Hyrcanus took place near the end of the 2nd cent. b.c. Further, T. Levi 8:15 assigns the prophetic gift to a member of the Maccabean dynasty together with the functions of kingship and priesthood. This could only be John Hyrcanus himself, which limits the date of composition to the period between 137 and 107 b.c. Furthermore, T. Levi 6:11 most prob. refers to the destruction of Samaria and this means that the book is to be dated to the period 109-107 b.c.

It is to be noted, to begin with, that Charles’ dating is based heavily upon the assumption of Pharisaic authorship. This presents some difficulties in view of the fact that the Testaments were preserved almost entirely in Christian circles and appear to have been ignored by, or unknown to, Jewish communities. If the Testaments were actually the work of an Essenic community, for example, Charles’ argument would be somewhat weakened. It should also be noted that Charles’ dating is also based heavily upon the assumption of the essential unity of the book. Interestingly, T. Levi, from which he draws most of his evidence for his dating, is now known to have existed as a separate work as, for example, at Qumran.

It seems best to suggest, in the light of all the circumstances, that certain parts of the book were prob. written in the 2nd cent. b.c. but that the work, as we now know it with all of its Christian and other additions, did not come into existence till perhaps sometime in the 2nd cent. a.d.

Integrity and authorship.

There is little doubt that, on the whole, the Testaments show an essential unity of concepts and even of language. The form, too, of each of the twelve separate sections is essentially the same. But there seems to be enough evidence, esp. since the discovery of the DSS, for stating that some parts of the work, most notably T. Levi and T. Naphthali, circulated as independent works. It may be, therefore, that we must speak of several authors and a final editor. While the attribution of the work to Pharisaic hands, esp. to those of the early type with their emphasis upon the law and the Messianic kingdom has much to commend it, there are other factors which suggest that authors belonging to one or other of the Essene groups may have been responsible for most of the work. From what is now known of at least one Essene group, the Qumran community, the emphasis upon the law and the Messianic kingdom in the Testaments would make Essene authorship as likely as Pharisaic. Further, the constant emphasis on sexual sins in the Testaments would admirably suit an Essenic origin for the work. Essenic authorship of the work would also make its preservation in Christian circles easier of explanation. It is certain, at least, that part of the work was read at Qumran and this is more probable if the work originated in Essenic circles.

In view of the undoubtedly Christian passages and references in the work, however, it is most probable that the final editor or compiler was Christian or Jewish-Christian. In view of the references to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (T. Levi 15:1) a date of compilation near the end of the 1st cent. a.d. or early in the 2nd cent. a.d. seems most probable.

Concepts and influence on the NT.

As already remarked, the Testaments reflect some of the highest and noblest ethical teaching outside of the NT. When a contrast between the teaching of the OT and of the NT can be seen, the teaching of the Testaments usually falls between the two. Thus, for example, on the question of forgiveness, the understanding of the concept as expressed in T. Gad 6:3-7 is considerably different from that expressed in the OT, but strikingly similar to that expressed in Luke 17:3f. and Matthew 18:15-35. Forgiveness here is seen as the restoration of the offending party to full communion and fellowship with the offended party. It is the offended party who is responsible for taking the initiative and his mind must be rid of any feelings of resentment. Similarly, man’s supreme duty is summed up in terms almost, though not exactly, identical to those of the NT. Thus “Love the Lord and your neighbor” (T. Issachar 5:2; cf. T. Dan 5:3; T. Issachar 7:6). Further, the treatment of such questions as hatred, lying, envy, lust, covetousness, and the virtues of long-suffering, truthfulness, love, purity, generosity, and temperance in the Testaments is similar to that in the NT.

Concerning the more highly theological issues, we note that there is to be a resurrection, first of the OT heroes, and next of the righteous on the right hand and the wicked on the left (T. Benjamin 10:6-8). This is to take place on the earth which is to last forever. The Testaments also show an advanced stage of demonology and of angelology. Interestingly, T. Dan 5:6 links the tribe of Dan with Satan and this is of assistance in explaining the omission of the tribe in the NT Apocalyptic list (Rev 7:5ff.).

Regarding eschatological expectation, two Messiahs are referred to in the Testaments, one to be descended from Levi, the other from Judah. R. H. Charles explained this by suggesting that, in the original work, a Messiah from Levi was expected and the expectation of a Messiah from Judah was supplied to the work by 1st-cent. additions. In the light of Qumranic Messianic expectation, however, it is no longer necessary to appeal to source criticism to explain this apparent two-Messiah concept. The original itself may well have expected two Messiahs. The Messiah from Levi is a priestly Messiah and overshadows the Messiah from Judah. It is thought, by some, that this reflects the Hasmonean era when Israel was ruled by Maccabean priest-kings. This priestly Messiah was to be free from sin, to walk in meekness and righteousness, to establish a new priesthood under a new name, to mediate for the Gentiles, to be a prophet of the Most High and a king over all the nation. He was to wage battle against Israel’s enemies and the powers of wickedness, to deliver the souls of the saints, to open paradise to the righteous, to feed the saints from the tree of life, to give the faithful power over evil spirits and to bring sin to an end.

There is a fairly strong note of universalism in the book, the Gentiles being given opportunity for salvation. Indeed, all the Gentiles are to be saved through the example and teaching of Israel.

The influence of concepts of the Testaments upon the NT seems unmistakable. In addition to this, there are many parallels where the NT appears to reflect the very phrasing of the Testaments.


The best MS of the long text is transcribed in R. Sinker, Testamenta XII Patriarcharum (1869). R. H. Charles, The Greek Versions of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (1908), contains the readings of nine Gr. MSS together with readings from the Cairo Genizah, the Heb. Testament of Naphtali, the Armenian and Slavic parallels and some Midrashic parallels. The Qumranic material is published in D. Barthélemy and J. Milik, Discoveries in the Judean Desert (1955). See also J. Milik “Le Testament de Levi en Araméen,” RB, LXII (1955), 398ff.

Among critical studies of the Testaments, the following may be noted: R. H. Charles, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs Translated from the Editor’s Greek Text (1908); ibid. APOT, II, 282-367; M. de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (1953); K. Kuhn, “Die beiden Messias Aarons und Israels,” NTS, I (1954-1955), 168ff.; M. Philonenko, Les interpolations chrétiennes des Testaments des Douze Patriarches et les Manuscrits de Qumran (1960); M. de Jonge, “Christian Influence in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” Nov Test, IV (1960), 182ff.; F. M. Braun, “Les Testaments des Douze Patriarches et le Problème de leur Origine,” RB, LXVII (1960), 516ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

See Apocalyptic Literature, sec. IV, 1.

See also

  • Apocalyptic Literature