Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Prayer of Manasseh

Introduction to the Text:

The Prayer of Manasseh, written in the last two centuries BCE, was authored by a Hellenistic Jew well-versed in both Hebrew and Greek. The text, therefore, contains a beautiful tapestry of language choices and exquisite poetic style. Scholars frequently point to the structural similarities between 2 Chronicles 33 and the Prayer of Manasseh, indicative that the author wrote the Prayer of Manasseh as both an extension of 2 Chronicles 33 and a prayer of conversion (this point will be explained below).

Click here to read the short text.

The Prayer of Repentance or Conversion?

After reading the prayer, most people would argue that it is penitential in nature, a prayer in which Manasseh is portrayed as repenting for his sins. J. H. Charlesworth even falls into that habit, defining four main features of the prayer: acknowledgement of God’s infinite power, full confession of sins, affirmation of God’s power and willingness to forgive, and a commitment to act righteously and give praise [1]. Charlesworth’s analysis, though, misses the nuance of repentance in the prayer. In a recent work by David Lambert (Oxford, 2015), Lambert argues that the idea of repentance was never a rigid concept of penitential, internal behavior; rather, it went through many developments due to social-religious influences [2].

Regarding the Prayer of Manasseh, Lambert argues that it demonstrates a naturalized repentance, one in which repentance in hardwired into creation itself. He points to verse 7: “you have promised repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against you, and in the multitude of your mercies, you have constituted repentance for sinners, for salvation” [3]. This is an important reading because Lambert emphasizes an important element of the Prayer of Manasseh which is ignored by Charlesworth, namely the meaning of repentance on the historical continuum of repentance as a developing concept. While the author’s universal outlook on salvation is nothing extraordinarily unique in extra-biblical literature, it does permit us to make two note regarding how we read the biblical literature.

First of all, we must always set aside our own theological assumptions and attempt to read the literature through the lens of the author. In the Prayer of Manasseh, and in agreement with Lambert, modern reading must set aside the “penitential lens”. Only by doing this are we able to accurately read the literature at hand within its own terms and context. Second, we should develop an understanding of the context within which literature is written, whether it be an understanding of concurrent literary trends or historical events. Doing so allows us to avoid cherry picking based on convenient information and more fully engage with the history and literature. So, when reading the Prayer of Manasseh, we should understand where ‘repentance’ is on the continuum of repentance, what constitutes Greek  and Hebrew poetry, the general atmosphere regarding universally hardwired outlooks on repentance, etc.

 

[1] J. H. Charlesworth, “Prayer of Manasseh”, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 629-630.

[2] David Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1-10.

[3] Cited from Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical, 170.

 

 

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