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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

The Testament of Abraham - Introduction

The Testament is known from more than thirty Greek MSS, which contain a variety of legends, lives of saints, and other hagiographical material, and date from the 13th to the 17th cents. It is known also from several versions – Coptic (Bohairic), Arabic, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Rumanian.

The Greek MSS are clearly divisible into two distinct recensions – the longer (= A) and the shorter (= B); and these recensions are distinct in the sense that they represent different arrangements of what is frequently different material, and there are no reasons for thinking either that B is an abridgement of A or that A is an expansion of B. The question to what extent the versions support one or other of these recensions admits of no easy answer. Thus, the Coptic follows neither exactly: it is on the whole much closer to B, but some details in it, which are absent from B, show resemblances to material contained in A. The Rumanian inclines towards A, although it is by no means identical with it. The Slavonic, on the other hand, inclines very definitely towards B, though the situation here is complicated by the fact that, as so often with Slavonic texts, a number of different ‘inner-Slavonic’ recensions have to be reckoned with. Of the Arabic and Ethiopic (which appears to have been made from the Arabic) there are no printed editions; but from what is known of the Arabic it would seem that it, like the Slavonic, also inclines towards B, though again with considerable variations. So also the Ethiopic.

James in his edition printed the Greek text of both recensions one after the other, using six MSS for A and three for B. Vassiliev printed only the text of the A recension, relying on a single MS (Cod. Vind. theol. 237 = James's E). The Greek text printed opposite Stone's English translation is a photographic reproduction of James's text of both recensions. Our own translation follows the A recension, except that four passages which are of more than ordinary interest and which are lacking in A, have been added from B. These passages will be found in chaps. vii, xi, xii, and xiii; and they are distinguished by a heavy vertical line in the left-hand margin.

About the date and place of origin of the Testament opinions have varied. James styled it ‘another fragment of early popular Christian literature’ and suggested that it was written as early as the second century (probably in Egypt), that it embodied even earlier legends, and that it received its present form perhaps in the ninth or tenth cent. 1 James, p. 29. On the other hand, Kohler, Ginzberg, and Box, all stressed the essentially Jewish character of the work, and argued in one way or another for a Semitic original, though Box noted that our present Greek text does not read like a translation: ‘The story in its original (Hebrew) form’, he wrote, ‘probably grew up in the first half of the first century A.D.… This probably formed the basis of a free Greek version, which was embellished with some special features (e.g. in the description of the Angel of Death) which owed their origin to Egypt’. 2 Box, pp. xxviii–xxix. Against this, Schürer saw no reason for thinking that the story was of Jewish origin, on the ground that many such legends were invented by Christians. Bousset-Gressmann were prepared to compromise and regarded the Testament as an example of Christian adaptation of preexisting Jewish legend. 3 W. Bousset – H. Gressmann, Die Religion des Judentums im späthellenistischen Zeitalter 3 (Tübingen, 1926), p. 45. More recently, N. Turner has maintained that James over-emphasized the Christian elements. For Turner the Testament is Jewish in origin, but written in Greek – in all probability in Egypt, though rather earlier than James suggested: it subsequently passed into Christian hands and became very popular in the Church from the fifth century onwards: Recension B may reasonably be dated to the third century, while Recension A, as it stands, cannot be earlier than the fifth or sixth century, and it may well be very much later. Even more recently, M. Delcor has argued along much the same lines: the traces of Christian influence are much fewer and less definite than James and his followers thought: the original Testament, which lies behind both recensions, was a Jewish work incorporating a variety of traditions, some traceable to the Septuagint, some paralleled in the Palestinian Targum; and it was written in Egypt, perhaps by a member of the sect of the Therapeutae, about the beginning of the Christian era.

As was pointed out in the Introduction to the Apocalypse, 4 See above p. 363. both the pseudo-Athanasian Synopsis and the Stichometry of Nicephorus mention ‘Abraham’ in their lists of apocryphal books; but whether they are referring to the Apocalypse, or to the Testament, or to some other work bearing Abraham's name and now lost, it is impossible to say. What patristic evidence there is is equally ambiguous. Of the nine MSS used by James, four definitely give ‘The Testament of Abraham’ as the title, and in three of the others the word ‘Testament’ occurs at some point in more elaborate titles; but of the remaining two MSS, one entitles the work ‘The Narrative (Διήγησις) concerning the Life and Death of the righteous Abraham’, and the other entitles it ‘The Account (Λόγος) concerning the Death of Abraham’. Among the versions, the Slavonic calls it simply, ‘The Death of Abraham’, the Rumanian ‘The Life and Death of our father Abraham’, while the Coptic-Arabic-Ethiopic tradition (in which the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, figure as a trilogy) introduces Abraham with a short preface explaining that what follows is an account of ‘the going forth from the body of our holy fathers, the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, and goes on to describe it as a ‘homily’ or ‘discourse’ of Athanasius, adding that Athanasius had discovered the substance of it in ancient apostolic writings.

In the light of these facts we cannot assume either that ‘Testament’ was the work's original title, or that it was widely known as a ‘Testament’ in the early Church. In any event, little attempt seems to have been made to make it look like one. The normal ‘Testament’ professes to be a record of its hero's last words of instruction and command, delivered in the first person to his family circle gathered round him. But the Testament of Abraham makes no such profession. Instead it provides a plain, factual, account of the events which led up to Abraham's death, written in the third person. In the circumstances, some such title as ‘The Narrative of the Death of Abraham’ would seem very much more suitable.

But whatever may have been the original title of the Testament and by whatever titles it may have been known subsequently, the existence of the versions is clear proof of its popularity in certain areas in the Church from the beginning of the mid-patristic period onwards. What is perhaps remarkable is that there is no clear testimony to its existence previously. The absence of a Latin version presumably indicates that it was not as popular in the West as it was elsewhere.

Notes:

1 James, p. 29.

2 Box, pp. xxviii–xxix.

3 W. Bousset – H. Gressmann, Die Religion des Judentums im späthellenistischen Zeitalter 3 (Tübingen, 1926), p. 45.

4 See above p. 363.

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