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The Prayer of Manasseh

David Lambert
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Course: Introduction to Biblical Studies/Apocrypha/Second Temple Literature
Syllabus Section: Prayer of Manasseh
Audience: Undergraduate or Divinity School students


The Prayer of Manasseh appears as part of the Apocrypha in many editions of the Christian Bible today. However, it did not appear with the same regularity and position of prominence as other books of the Apocrypha in early manuscripts of the Septuagint. Therefore, it did not appear to have attained, originally, the same status within the Christian canon as the other works.

The earliest evidence for the text is found in a Syriac translation of the third-century CE Greek work, the Didascalia Apostolorum. It also appears appended to the Psalms in a few manuscripts of the Greek Bible as part of a collection of prayers drawn from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament. The Prayer subsequently appears in varying positions in the Vulgate (though not in older manuscripts), appended to Luther's Bible, and in that of Eastern Orthodox churches.

The text is set against the backdrop of 2 Chr 33:10–13, 19, which tells the story of how the seventh-century BCE king of Judah, Manasseh, was taken as a captive to Babylon on account of his failure to heed the LORD. There, he prayed to the LORD and, thereby, secured his release. The Prayer of Manasseh claims to be the very prayer that he uttered while in captivity.

In fact, the account of Manasseh in Chronicles and see, in particular, discussion of Manasseh in (2 Chr 33:1–20) is a postexilic rewriting of the Manasseh narrative in 2 Kings 21:1–18. The Prayer of Manasseh itself was composed much later, working off of the Chronicles account. Most believe it to have originated around the turn of the Common Era within some sort of Jewish community, though there is a longstanding scholarly dispute over whether it was originally written in Hebrew or Greek.

As such, the Prayer of Manasseh is part of the broader phenomenon, Rewritten Bible , known to us from Second Temple Judaism. Though a postbiblical composition, it lays claim to a certain authority by inserting itself within the biblical narrative. Many other examples of this phenomenon can be found among the testaments, prayers, wisdom writings, and narratives known to us from this period. (See, in particular, the collections Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture [ed. L.H. Feldman et al.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2013] and The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [ed. J.H. Charlesworth; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983–85].)

Though its provenance is unclear, its ideological features, in particular its noteworthy interest in the language and idea of repentance, mean that it can be profitably compared to other writings known to us from Hellenistic Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity.

Reading Assignment with Questions for Discussion

  • A) Start off by comparing 2 Kings 21:1–18 and 2 Chr 33:1–20. What is the relationship between these two passages? What elements does 2 Chr 33:1–20, the later text, seem to introduce into the account of Manasseh's reign? Why does it do so? Do these additions represent a different series of ideological concerns than those found in the Kings passage? Specifically, what is at stake for the authors of the two different passages?
  • B) Now, read the Prayer of Manasseh. What new elements, particularly in the sort of terms that it uses, does the Prayer introduce? How does that new language correspond to yet another series of ideological concerns?
  • C) Read an article or book chapter on the phenomenon of Rewritten Bible. (One suggestion is Sidnie White Crawford, Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008].) How can the Prayer of Manasseh be seen as a form of Rewritten Bible? What sort of relationship does it stake out in connection to the above biblical passages? Why does it do so? What does that tell us about the phenomenon of Rewritten Bible? Why might writers in the Second Temple period have chosen to write in this format?
  • D) Now, read the Prayer of Manasseh again closely. Chart out the flow of the passage. How is it structured? It is obviously a prayer, but what sort? In considering this question, compare it to a number of late biblical prayers (Ezra 9:1–15, Neh 1:4–14, 9:6–37; Dan 9:4–19; and Bar 1:15–3:8) that some scholars today label along with the Prayer of Manasseh as "penitential prayers." Does the Prayer of Manasseh adopt the same "form" as these earlier prayers, or does it contain distinctive features? (For more on the dispute over the interpretation of these biblical prayers, see David A. Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture [New York: Oxford University Press, 2016], 51–67, esp. 64–67.)
  • 1.
  • E) Let's now take a look at the distinctive ideology that animates the Prayer of Manasseh. In explicit terms, the text is a prayer, but it also contains a variety of other claims about God, creation, and human sin. What are those claims, and does one central doctrinal claim appear to emerge from them? In other words, what might have been the motivating factor for the production of this text? In this regard, it will be helpful to compare the passage to other Jewish, Christian, and Greek texts from around the same time period that evince similar concerns. Texts to which it can be profitably compared include: Joseph and Aseneth, The Shepherd of Hermas, and the Tabula of Cebes. What sort of doctrinal concerns do these texts share? What sort of communities might have been behind their production? For this discussion, read Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical, 151-187, esp. 170-171.
  • One text from within the rabbinic corpus, specifically, the Palestinian Talmud, that is particularly apt appears below: A copper pot was prepared, he [Manasseh] was placed inside, and a fire was started beneath him. When he saw he was really in trouble, there was no idol to whom he did not appeal. When this didn't help him at all, he said to himself: "I recall that my father [Hezekiah] used to lead me in reciting the (following) verse in synagogue: 'When you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, turn back to the LORD your God and obey him, for the LORD your God is a compassionate God, he will not fail you nor will he let you perish; he will not forget the covenant which he made on oath with your fathers' (Deut 4:30–31). I will recite the verse. If he answers me, great, and, if not, nothing is lost. The angels shut the windows [to the heavens] so that his prayer should not go up before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said to the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the Universe, a person who has worshipped idols and set up an idol in the Temple, you're going to accept in repentance?" He said to them: "If I do not accept him in repentance, I would be shutting the door before all penitents." What did He do? He dug a hole directly below His Glorious Throne and heard his plea. That is what is written: "In his distress…he prayed to him, he granted his prayer (vayyeʿater) [read as the verb, ḥtr: dug a hole for him], heard his plea, and restored him" (2 Chr 33:12–13) (y. Sanhedrin 28:3). What concerns does this text share with the Prayer of Manasseh? What is the basis or origin of the concept of repentance according to the rabbinic passage? When does the possibility of repentance begin according to the Prayer of Manasseh? Is the distinction significant for understanding the different nature of the communities that might have been responsible for the productions of these texts? 2.
  • F) What does the history of the Prayer of Manasseh as a text tell us about its reception and significance? Where was it first preserved? To what ends? Why does it remain meaningful to a variety of religious communities to this day? Read the discussion of the Prayer of Manasseh in Pieter Willem van der Horst and Judith H. Newman, Early Jewish Prayers in Greek (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 147-164, esp. 153-158.
  • Lecture Notes

    (The above questions are designed to encourage open-ended discussion. In these "lecture notes," I give a few brief indications of how I would orient discussion of these matters. The numbers correspond to the above questions.)

  • A) One of the main concerns (if not the main concern) of the book of Kings is to account for why the national deity, YHWH, allowed Israel and Judah to fail as nations despite his covenantal commitments to them and, especially, to the house of David. The chief explanation for this failure is not that their god was not loyal or just too weak to defend them, but that he purposefully abandoned them on account of their sins, especially the sins of their leaders and especially those sins connected to idolatry. The idolatry of Manasseh, as discussed in 2 Kings 21:1–18, is one of the key explanations for the fall of the southern kingdom. Chronicles, though it is based on the Kings account, has a different series of concerns and is troubled more by issues of individual retribution (rather than that of the nation as a whole; for more on Chroncles' particular theology of retribution, see the work of Sara Japhet, The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought [New York: P. Lang, 1989].). It is, therefore, perplexed by how Manasseh, if he was truly the wicked king that Kings says he was, could have prospered and been allowed to reign for fifty-five long years. Its answer is to develop an account in which Manasseh is, in fact, punished for his sins, eventually entreats YHWH in exile and adopts exclusive worship of YHWH upon his return.
  • B) The Prayer of Manasseh, according to its heading, claims to be the very prayer Manasseh uttered in exile that is referred to in 2 Chr 33:10–13, 19. Additional allusions to the Chronicles context are found within the prayer. These include mention of an "iron fetter" (v. 10) in which the petitioner finds himself (cf. 2 Chr 33:11), "setting up abominations and multiplying offenses" (v.10; cf. 2 Chr 33:2–7), and "bending the knee" (v. 11; cf. Manasseh's act of "humbling himself" in 2 Chr 33:12). While the Prayer of Manasseh introduces many elements not found in the Chronicles passage, it also subtly redirects elements that are found there, specifically with regard to the nature of Manasseh's entreaty. In 2 Chronicles, Manasseh prays and "humbles himself" (33:12–13). Such forms of appeal are appropriate to a monarch acknowledging defeat before the king who has defeated him. In the Prayer of Manasseh, however, these ritual forms of submission take on a new character; they come to be associated with an act of repentance. Thus Manasseh's "iron fetter" actually seems to be a spiritual problem not a physical one, namely, the sin that weighs him down. Furthermore, his "humbling himself" is not submission before a victor but an internal act of "bending the knee of my heart." Finally, we find rather than just a focus on the language of appeal, as in 2 Chronicles, the introduction of the language of "repentance" itself (v. 7–8, 13) in connection with confession of sin. (On the significance of that development, see further question # 4.)
  • C) The nature and purpose of Rewritten Bible is very much in dispute today. Do texts that retell biblical narratives in new ways undermine, on some level, the authority of the original text, or should they simply be seen as a form of biblical interpretation that, if anything, affirms the priority and importance of the preexisting biblical text? In this case, a third possibility presents itself. 2 Chr 33:19 itself alludes to the existence of Manasseh's prayer in written form. This text is stepping in and claiming that mantle for itself. In other words, it is helping to populate the world of the Bible with an additional text that claims to emerge from that very world, in this case a text the existence of which is actually alluded to in the Bible. (For more on this phenomenon, see Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity [New York: Oxford University Press, 2016], esp. 114-155.)
  • The prayer follows a fairly typical format for prayer in the Bible and beyond: praise of God (v. 1–8), lament, i.e. presentation of the central problem the petitioner faces (9–10), petition, in this case, for forgiveness, (11–13), and vow of further praise, if the petition is answered (14–15). Within that rubric, however, it does contain a number of novel elements. Specifically, the "praise" section actually contains a detailed argument establishing why the petition should be answered, namely the compassion God showed in "promising repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against you" (v.7). As for the petition itself, it too is no mere petition, but alludes to an act of repentance being performed in the midst of the petition itself: "And now I bend the knee of my heart" (v. 11). Both elements lack clear predecessors in the biblical material. As for the late biblical prayers mentioned above that also include acknowledgements of sin, these appear to be quite different in form, including long accounts of Israel's history as a nation, utterly lacking here, and, while they allude to the nation's guilt and sometimes even the fact of the nation's return to YHWH, they never represent the present moment—the performance of the prayer itself—as an act of repentance. As such, their emphasis may be more on establishing the state of the relationship between God and Israel and, therefore, the possibility of prayer in the nation's present moment, rather than any particular penitential piety. That said, many scholars, until recently, have simply assumed the act of repentance to be present, either as a prerequisite to the prayer itself or as a natural consequence. They have therefore tried to argue that the Prayer of Manasseh is, more or less, the same in form as the late biblical prayers. (On the form of the Prayer of Manasseh, see, further, Judith H. Newman, "The Form and Settings of the Prayer of Manasseh," in Seeking Favor of God Vol. 2, the Development of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism [eds. M.J. Boda et al.; Atlanta: SBL, 2007], 105–25.)
  • D) The prominence given to repentance in the Prayer of Manasseh gives evidence for the emergence in the late Second Temple period of a distinctive concept of "repentance." The same concept is celebrated in the Jewish Hellenistic work, Joseph and Aseneth, in the Greek work, Tabula of Cebes, and in the Christian work, the Shepherd of Hermas. In each of these cases, "repentance" is presented as not just a concept but a divine hypostasis. "Repentance," in other words, exists as a divine entity in the divine realm and, therefore, is most certainly open to human beings. The Prayer of Manasseh makes much the same point with regard to God's instilling in creation itself a promise of repentance (v.7). The rabbinic text quoted above also sees a special place for repentance in the heavenly realm. Many other texts from this period of Greek and then Roman governance show a decided interest in "repentance." These include such diverse writers as Ben Sira, Philo, and Plutarch. "Repentance" also has a privileged place throughout the rabbinic corpus and some of the writings of the New Testament, especially Luke-Acts. Interestingly, it is not foregrounded in the biblical sources upon which the Prayer of Manasseh is based or in the late biblical prayers to which it is so often compared. Most likely, this speaks to the fact that "repentance," as we think about it today, and as it is formulated with the Prayer of Manasseh, first came into prominence during this very period. That said, the popular and scholarly convention has been to see "repentance" as a biblical concept, thus effacing any significant ideological difference between the world out of which this prayer emerges and the world of the Bible.
  • The Prayer of Manasseh itself, therefore, can be seen as engaged in a subtle polemic by claiming that "repentance" really is part of the natural world, a position that might not otherwise have been obvious. The rabbinic passage, on the other hand, goes in a different direction in staking out its claims for repentance's validity, linking them instead to a certain interpretation of Deut 4:30–31 that would see it as a promise to the sinner that repentance is open to him or her as a possibility, rather than a reference to a historic return of the nation to the loyal worship of YHWH as it would appear to be in its original context in Deuteronomy. In addition to the focus on the individual rather than the nation as a whole, there is a strong difference in the focus on internal feelings bound up in the concept of "repentance" as expressed in the Prayer of Manasseh. One implication of the different grounding for repentance found in rabbinic literature may be that repentance is truly significant only as a component of the internal dynamics of the Jewish community; it is a promise given through the Torah itself. In the Prayer of Manasseh, however, it is part of creation and, therefore, open to all. That may suggest that the Prayer of Manasseh emerged from a community that was oriented toward conversion of non-Jews from "idolatry" to the true religion. Also noteworthy in this regard is the focus in the Prayer of Manasseh on God as the "God of those who repent" (v. 13) and as "not appointing repentance for the righteous for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob [or "their righteous offspring" (v.1), one might add] who did not sin against you" but for sinners (v.8).
  • F) It is difficult, indeed, to know much about the origins of the prayer or even its early history. One of the key questions that surrounds it is whether we should look at the prayer as essentially putting forward a certain doctrinal position, the primacy and availability of repentance, by locating the possibility of repentance already back in the biblical past through the figure of Manasseh, or whether the prayer itself might have served as an actual liturgical text for petitioners. Interestingly, the history of its early reception could be seen as confirming both possibilities. In Didascalia Apostolorum, it does appear as part of a discussion promoting the doctrine of repentance. Elsewhere, however, it appears among a collection of prayers, suggesting a liturgical setting.
  • Select Bibliography

    Charlesworth, James H. "Prayer of Manasseh," in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J. Charlesworth; New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:625-37.

    Chazon, Esther G., "Prayer of Manasseh," in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture (eds. L.H. Feldman et al.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2013), 2:2143-2147.

    Davila, James R. "Is the Prayer of Manasseh a Jewish Work?" in Heavenly Tablets: Interpretation, Identity and Tradition in Ancient Judaism (eds. L. LiDonnoci and A. Lieber; Leiden: Brill, 2007), 75-85.

    Lambert, David A. How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 170-171.

    Newman, Judith H., "The Form and Settings of the Prayer of Manasseh," in Seeking Favor of God Vol. 2, the Development of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (eds. M.J. Boda et al.; Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 105-25.

    van der Horst, Pieter Willem, and Judith H. Newman, Early Jewish Prayers in Greek (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 147-164.

    Oxford University Press

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