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.

 

 

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Psalms of David

DDSIntroduction to the Text: 

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, there were some additional Psalms, one of which was Psalm 155 (keep in mind that the typical Bible only has 150 Psalms). It was likely written in the 1st century BCE. Although it is impossible to determine authorship, there is a specific element I wish to draw attention to after having read How Repentance Became Biblical by David Lambert. Regarding 11QPsᵃ 155 (11Q=Cave 11 at Qumran, Ps=Psalms), there is a later Syriac translation (5ApocSyrPs 3). This later translation is irrelevant for this study because I hope to demonstrate something about the greater theological landscape through the earlier text.

Here is the text that I am examining:

5  Build me up;
and do not cast me down.

6  And do not abandon (me)
before the wicked ones.

7  The rewards of evil,
may the Judge of Truth remove from me.

8  O Lord, do not condemn me according to my sins;
for no one living is righteous before you.

J. H. Charlesworth with J. A. Sanders. “More Psalms of David: 155 (11QPsᵃ 155)”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

11QPs 155 and the Role of Repentance:

Scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls has been utilized to provide “background” of the “penitential movements” in the early Jesus movement; however, as David Lambert shows, the sectarian Qumran community “assumed “the mantle of the new, eschatological Israel, with its attendant practices and possibilities for transformation” (142, 2015). Essentially, Qumran didn’t see themselves as a community changing their morals due to their sin, a concept formed later in history and assumed in old historical records. In the Qumranite mind, Yahweh was the one who made the change. I believe this greatly exemplified in 11QPsᵃ 155.

Allow me to begin with verse 5. Interestingly enough, the footnotes of Charlesworth’s translation would allow the verse to be translated as follows:

“Build [my soul] up; / and [do not cast it] down”.

This is important to note because it focuses more on Yahweh being the one who determines the state of the soul. Unfortunately, Charlesworth’s translation fails to consider that Yahweh is the agent who changes the state of the human. Take, for example, Florentino Martinez’s more recent translation of the same passage: “build up my heart and do not erode it” (Col. XXIV (Psalm 155)). Martinez’s translation more accurately captures the essence of the Psalm, namely that God is the agent at work in changing the state of the soul.

Verse 7  is accurate to the period in the translations of Martinez and Charlesworth, as each of them capture Yahweh as the agent who removes the “rewards of evil” or “recompenses of evil”.

I find verse 8 to be the most intriguing because it specifically references sin. With such a verse, it would be easy to read it as repentance. How, though, is one to read “sin” within this Psalm in light of the previous verses, which reference Yahweh as the agent who changes ones state and Lambert’s note that the Qumran community was not about moral changes?

Perhaps the best way is to approach it as Lambert did, whereby sin is more a form of rhetoric that permits the reader to attain a renewed state via Yahweh as the agent. Read in this light, confession of sin within the Psalm is not a penitential act; rather, it demonstrates recognition that all people have some sort of sin. Consequently, this “confession” establishes Yahweh as the king and the Psalmist as his subject. Sin is more akin to a state of being in time and space, something attached to the soul (see verse 7) rather than something a person has done.

Bibliography:

Florentino Martinez. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans and E. J. Brill, 1996.

J. H. Charlesworth with J. A. Sanders. “More Psalms of David”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.

David Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.

 

“How Repentance Became Biblical” by David A. Lambert

RepentDavid A. Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, & the Interpretation of Scripture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

David Lambert (PhD Harvard University) is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill. A brief view of his previous publications highlight his interest in penitential practices especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament. In How Repentance Became Biblical, Lambert aims to draw out a common interpretive tendency among biblical critics, namely to read “repentance” into the Bible with a “penitential lens”. The penitential lens, though, is based on ontological principals thrust backward through history: human subjectivity, virtue, didacticism, and autonomy. Throughout the work Lambert highlights these ontological assumptions “to witness ourselves reading a variety of texts and… gamin insight into the interpretive forms cultural hegemony assumes” (6).  Opposing these ontological assumptions, he focuses on language, comparison, and other choices in the interpreter’s present to draw out alternatives to the penitential lens. Consequently his focus in How Repentance Became Biblical is he focuses upon three elements of texts commonly connected to penitential rites: to identify penitential readings and their ontological underpinnings, explore alternative readings, and examine developments in discourse of biblical literature which brought about “repentance”.

The book is divided in to three parts: Rites, Language and Pedagogy, and Religion. Parts I and II identity part of the Bible which tend to receive penitential treatment and provides alternative interpretations. Part III shifts to early Jewish sectarianism and the rise of repentance as a concept.

Chapter One focuses on fasting, a rite commonly associated with penitence, and suggests an alternative approach: “fasting is an integrated physical-emotional response to suffering, not an outward signifier of repetance”, and directly appeals to divine mercy (17). His modern-day example is helpful as notes fasting in the Hebrew Bible as more akin to modern-day hunger strikes, fasting as a manifestation of affliction with concrete effect on those who perceive it. Lambert effectively demonstrates a major tendency to read the Bible with a penitential lens.

Chapter Two explores prayer, aptly noting its common association as penitential. Alternatively Lambert illustrates the logic of appeal behind prayer. Prayer reinforces Yahweh’s self-interest through “a mutually beneficial relationship, between the powerful and the powerless” (35). Yahweh, argues Lambert, is more interested in constancy than  sincerity or subjective quality of faith, and sin is often times nothing more than “a rhetorical strategy aimed at defusing likely criticism” (38). Portraying cries of people as desperate rather than external expression of internal repentance, Lambert also provides a valuable reconfiguration of the Judges cycle as sin-oppression-outcry-champion, a cycle focusing more on the power dynamics, the logical of appeal, and self-interest of both Israel and Yahweh. Thus, prayer is not meant “to mitigate its pain… through control over self but through social engagement – verbal articulation” (49). As I highlighted in this summary, I greatly appreciate his reconfiguration of the pre-monarchic Judges cycle as it avoids the modern penitential lens and permits a clearer view of ancient Israelite reality.

Chapter Three demonstrates how the articulation of sin, or confession, is not always about providing a statement of repentance; rather, it may be seen from three aspects: “confession as the realization of an entity’s status, as initiation of a particular social, relational state, and as participation in a broader restitutive process” (53). Lambert suggests, for example, that Joseph’s brothers confess their guilt not due to the self in them, but as declaration of existence in a state of liability and diminishment, things implicitly connected to their social standing and reality. Even in Leviticus, articulation of sin of not about consciousness of sin but the sense of danger with the presence of sin. Even David’s confession of sin to Nathan is about recognizing his diminishment and carving out a place for Yahweh to be in power. All-in-all, Lamberts alternative reading draws out the power dynamics present through the articulation of sin.

Chapter Four sifts through uses of shuv, a term commonly understood as “repent”, by reading the term as a material return, more like an appeal with a less mediated, metaphorical understanding of the inner state of repentance. This constitutes shuv as an operative image outside of covenant, especially active in the appeal and oracular inquiry. By briefly demonstrating shuv‘s relationship to materialistic, prophetic inquiry throughout the Hebrew Bible, he demonstrates early prophetic figures, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, utilizing shuv as a physical return to prophetic inquiry (Amos), Yahwistic cult sites (Hosea), and rhetoric of appeal to Yahweh (Isaiah). Jeremiah and the DH record a shift in shuv as a cessation of sin, a state of being rather than act of internal repentance.

Chapter Five re-frames the pedagogic evaluation of prophetic utterance by applying to the theory of divine anthropopathy to Yahweh and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Often times through passionate anger, Lambert argues that “oracles themselves… stake out the power of Israel’s god and the contours of his reign, his very identity, as well as the reasons for people’s current state” (101). He provides support with the Mari letters, in which the prophet’s devouring of a living lamb materializes the anthropopathy of the deity’s anger and promised devastation at the city, just like Moses’ destroying the golden calf and Samuel destroying Agag. Lambert’s analysis of Moses as Yahweh’s warrior in Exodus,  the DH rendering of prophetic words of doom with no reversal, Isaiah’s words of doom as words of power, and Jonah’s parody of prophecy effectively highlights prophecy in relation to power, namely the anthropopathism portrayed by prophets that attaches collective guilt through words of power. Problematic, though, is the historical disconnect between the letter from Mari (18th century BCE) and the historical kernels in Exodus and 1 Samuel. If Lambert is going to connect such distant literature through the phenomenon of prophecy, he must demonstrate that their was no shift or development in prophetic utterance for nearly one thousand years.

Having considered and critiqued the influence of a penitential lens through practices (fasting, logic of appeal, and articulation of sin), linguistic terms (shuv), and public address (pedagogy), Lambert proceeds to the articulation of redemptive expectations as communal definition, in contrast to tendencies to explore moral demands upon individuals in a community. Redemption in Jubilees, for example, aims not at redemption through the agent of repentance but God’s direct  transformation and re-creation of the community. Jubilees does, however, hint toward individual liability. Likewise, the community imagined by the Dead Sea Scrolls did not take on moral/religious desideratum for community, but assumed a transformation through things like the hadayot and immersion. Lambert’s analysis of the early Jesus movement compares the Gospels and Q to emphasize that the original “baptism of repentance” was about repentance as the consequence of baptism. Even Jesus’ ministry was not about repentance but “one of joining Jesus, attaching oneself to his body of followers” (147). Paul echoes early ideas of “repentance” as a consequence and begins to expand this idea with Hellenistic thought. All-in-all, the notion of divine re-creation is consistent in these texts. Lambert challenges readers of the New Testament to reconsider the penitential lens with clearly explained and explored alternative interpretation.

Finally, Chapter 7 locates the emergence of a “repentance” concept within 1st and 2nd century CE Jewish and Christian literature as an offspring of Hellenistic metanoia. Throughout the works of Philo and Plutarch, meanoia is the internal pain of mind that causes one to change or rethink. Philo and Joesph and Aseneth take the concept of repentance with hypostatization. Even terms like shuv become similar to menanoia resulting in the term as representing “repentance”. Rabbinic Judaism aquires repents, thus, as the concept of teshuva, which requires one to change via their own cognition. Early Christianity also comes to understand Jesus as the hypostatization of the figure Metanoia. From Hellenistic moral philosophy to Christianity and Judaism, repentance became an internal acts of change, and idea that is often, unfortunately, universalized.

As I hope is evident through this review, Lambert’s nuanced analysis explores the multitude of historical contours that tend to be flattened through a penitential lens. With clarity he brings to the fore problematic readings of the Bible and also offers a variety of alternative readings aligned more closely to the texts. Challenging the current presuppositions of mainstream scholarship and laypeople, his book is groundbreaking. Akin to Jeffrey Stackert’s A Prophet Like Moses, which is now cited in most books I have read about Hebrew Bible composition, David Lambert’s work has the potential to become integral to the forward motion of biblical studies. After all, he challenges the mere idea of repentance as a concept throughout the Hebrew Bible, something that has been essential to Christianity and Judaism for centuries.

Additionally, I greatly appreciate his work with regard to the history of biblical interpretation. His dissemination of discourse and development of biblical interpretation from the oldest portions of Hebrew Bible to 3rd century Rabbinic literature issue a starting point for many future studies on the history of biblical interpretation. In addition to critiquing and answer questions, Lambert’s work raises important questions that potentially undermine (challenge?) religious traditions and the frameworks within which they operate.

Finally, with regard to framework, he takes a great step forward in moving beyond theoretical issues with “religion” as a term for discussing the ancient world. He notes that “even while this Enlightenment-inflected definition [of religion] has been challenged on theoretical ground, it continues to inform interpretation” (121). His work explores the validity of repentance throughout biblical literature does, though, provide an alternative framework which does not assume that accounts of redemptive expectations are rooted in repentance. With this framework, I look forward to seeing how other scholars utilize it and, perhaps, reconfigure it to better describe ancient Israelite religion rather than re-describing with modern assumptions.

Especially for research issues pertain to biblical interpretation, I highly recommend How Repentance Became Biblical. The invigorating discussion and innovative analysis holds potential to significantly impact the field of biblical studies. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least be sure you understand the arguments and ideas set forth by Lambert, as you will likely encounter them in the future.