The Testament of Abraham is a pseudepigraphic text of the Old Testament. Probably composed in the 1st or 2nd century AD, it is of Jewish origin and is usually considered to be part of the apocalyptic literature. It is regarded as scripture by Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews, but not by any other Jewish or Christian groups. It is often treated as one of a trio of very similar works, the other two of which are the Testament of Isaac and Testament of Jacob, though there is no reason to assume that they were originally a single work. All three works are based on the Blessing of Jacob, found in the Bible, in their style.

The Testament of Abraham was likely written originally in Koine Greek, by someone living in Roman Egypt. Its vocabulary is similar to that used in the later books of the Septuagint and in 3 Maccabees, which were written in Egypt.

Manuscript tradition

The Greek text of the Testament of Abraham is preserved in two quite different recensions:

There is no consensus among scholars as to which recension is nearer the original, or whether we shall suppose one or more original texts. The early scholars, as James,[6]: 66  but also recently Ludlow,[7] working mainly on the narrative viewpoint, support the priority of the long recension. This view has been challenged for example by Turner,[8] who studied the text from a linguistic point of view, and mainly by Schmidt,[9] who worked deeply on manuscript E of the short recension, which was not available to the early editors.

The text is preserved also in Slavonic,[10] Romanian,[11] Ethiopic (Falasha), Coptic Bohairic and Arabic. These versions, apart one Romanian recension, follow the content of the Greek short recension. The Greek Text was first edited, with an English translation and introduction, by M. R. James[6] in 1892. The Greek text was also early edited by Vassiliev[12] in 1893.

Origin and date

As regards its origin James writes:[6]: 55  "The Testament was originally put together in the second century by a Jewish Christian, who for the narrative portions employed existing Jewish legends, and for the apocalyptic, he drew largely on his imagination". James holds that the book is referred to by Origen, Luc. xxxv. With the exception of x.xi. the work is really a legend and not an apocalypse. To the above conclusions Schürer,[13] takes objection, and denies the reference in Origen, asserting that there are no grounds for the assumption of a partial Jewish origin. Kohler[14] on the other hand has given adequate grounds for regarding this apocryph as in the main an independent work of Jewish origin subsequently enlarged by a few Christian additions,[15] and it is Kohler's stance that most scholars follow today.

The Testament of Abraham was likely written originally in Greek, by someone living in Egypt at the time. This is due to the fact that the vocabulary found in the text is quite similar to the vocabulary used in the later books of the Septuagint, which were being written at that time, in addition to other books, such as 3 Maccabees, that we know were written around that time in Egypt. In addition, there are aspects of the story that seem to reflect aspects of Egyptian life, such as the three judgments which mirror the three levels of Egyptian government. Unfortunately these reasons for the place of origin being Egypt are only supported by the long recension of the Testament of Abraham.[16]

The short recension therefore has no definite place or date of origin. While it would be logical to assume that it had its origins in the same place and time as the long recension, as there is no concrete evidence, any Jewish cultural center could therefore be a possibility for its origin.


This testament deals with Abraham's reluctance to die and the means by which his death was brought about.[15] Overall, the long recension is about twice as long as the short recension, though both relate the same overall plot.


When viewed as a religious text, the Testament of Abraham gives a unique message. Beyond the presence of angels and God and Death, the lesson demonstrated is simply being a good person, performing good acts, and avoiding bad ones. In the scenes of judgment, there is no distinction made between whether people are Jewish or Gentile, only whether they have performed good deeds or bad. The reader is then left with an idea of universally fair treatment, not influenced by lineage or any other traits, when it comes to judgment, where a person whose sins outweigh their good deeds will be sentenced to eternal punishment, while one whose good deeds outweigh their sins will move on to paradise.[22]


While this text does have its theological significance, it can also be simply viewed as a story meant to entertain. Throughout the entire text, the ever pious Abraham attempts to dodge and avoid God's will; rather than this portrayal painting Abraham in a non-pious light, Abraham instead recognizes how good and devout he has been throughout his entire life, and uses that to his advantage. He is so good at avoiding God's decree that the only way he finally has his soul taken away is when Death tricks him.[23] Another humorous character is the Archangel Michael. God's "Commander-in-Chief" is an angel who would seem to be able to make decisions on his own and handle the refusals of Abraham, but he cannot. Every time that Abraham does something that Michael does not expect, he comes up with some reason to excuse himself then rushes up to heaven to consult God and find out what he is to do with stubborn Abraham.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Grec 770, ff.225v-241r, dated 1315
  2. ^ Vienna, Theol Grec 333 (ex 337), ff. 34r-57r, 11th century
  3. ^ Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarchate, Holy Sepulcher No. 66, ff. 128v-144v, 15th century
  4. ^ Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Grec 1613, ff.87v-96r, 15th century
  5. ^ Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Grec 405 (G 63 sup), ff. 164r-171r, 11th century
  6. ^ a b c M. R. James The Testament of Abraham, the Greek Text now first edited with an Introduction and Notes. With an appendix containing extracts from the Arabic Version of the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by Barnes in "Text and Studies", 2.2, Cambridge 1892
  7. ^ Jared W. Ludlow, Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham ISBN 0-8264-6204-9 (2002), pag 186
  8. ^ N. Turner The Testament of Abraham: Problems in Biblical Greek NTS 1 (1954/55) 219-23
  9. ^ F. Schmidt Le Testament grec d'Abraham, introducion, edition critique des deux recensions grecques, traduction TSAJ 11, Tubingen, 1986
  10. ^ Tichonrawow, Pamjatniki otretschennoi russkoi Literaturi, 1863, i. 79-90.
  11. ^ Moses Gaster, Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 1887, 1X. 195-226. Also, Nicolae Roddy, Romanian Version of the Testament of Abraham: Text, Translation, and Cultural Context, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
  12. ^ Vassiliev, in Anecdota Graeco-Byzantina, 1893, i. 292-308, based on manuscript E of the long recension.
  13. ^ Emil Schürer Geschichte des jd. Volkes, 3rd ed., iii. 252
  14. ^ Kohler, in Jewish Quarterly Review, 1895, V. 581606
  15. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCharles, Robert Henry (1911). "Testaments of the Three Patriarchs". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 666.
  16. ^ James H. Charlesworth "The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 1" ISBN 0-385-09630-5 (1983) p.875
  17. ^ Testament of Abraham 1:4 long recension as translated in Allison
  18. ^ Testament of Abraham 1:2 long recension as translated in Allison
  19. ^ Testament of Abraham 7:3 long recension as translated in Allison
  20. ^ Testament of Abraham 10:1 long recension as translated in Allison
  21. ^ Testament of Abraham 14:6 short recension as translated in Allison
  22. ^ James H. Charlesworth "The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 1" ISBN 0-385-09630-5 (1983) pp876-7
  23. ^ Erich S. Gruen "Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans" ISBN 0-674-01606-8 (2002) p.187
  24. ^ Erich S. Gruen "Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans" ISBN 0-674-01606-8 (2002) p.188