The Apocalypse of Abraham
H. F. D. Sparks
Both the pseudo-Athanasian Synopsis and the Stichometry of Nicephorus include ‘Abraham’ in their lists of apocryphal books; but whether they are referring to our Apocalypse, or to our Testament, or to some other work bearing Abraham's name, it is impossible to say. Priscillian is similarly vague when he asks whether anyone has ever ‘read a book of Abraham among the prophets of the established canon’. 1 Prisc. Tract. iii. Even more uncertain is the identity of the book (or books) ‘of the Three Patriarchs’ mentioned at the very end of the apocryphal list in the well known passage in The Apostolic Constitutions (VI. xvi. 3) – is one book being referred to here or are three? Are the ‘three patriarchs’ referred to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (as we should naturally expect)? Or is the fact that they occur at the very end of the list (after ‘Jsaiah’ and ‘David’ and ‘Elijah’) significant, and are three later worthies therefore in mind?
Epiphanius, at first sight, is more definite. He records that among the apocryphal books used by the Sethians was one passing under the name of Abraham ‘which also they assert to be a revelation’. 2 Epiph. Haer. XXXIX. v. 1. The obvious interpretation of this statement is that it is a reference to our Apocalypse. On the other hand, the Testament contains not a little apocalyptic material; and this is recognised, for example, in the title of the Testament in the Rumanian version (‘The Life and Death of our Father Abraham, the Righteous, written according to the Apocalypse …’). So there could clearly be confusion between Apocalypse and Testament. The Sethians, about whom Epiphanius is writing, may have used either the Apocalypse or the Testament, or, perhaps, another work incorporating material in one, or the other, or both, or neither.
Even greater uncertainty surrounds the interpretation of a passage in the Prologue to Palladius's Lausiac History. In the traditional text of this passage Palladius refers to ‘those who have written the lives of the Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses also and Elijah, and those who came after them’. 3 e.g. PG xxxiv. 1003–4 (reprinted from Ducaeus). But the standard modern text reads ‘those who have written the lives of the Fathers, Abraham and those who came after him, Moses and Elijah and John’. 4 Cuthbert Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius, II (= TS VI. ii; Cambridge, 1904), p. 11. Whether or not Palladius knew three ‘Lives’ of all three patriarchs, or only a single ‘Life’ of Abraham, is for our present purposes immaterial. What is important to note is that the description ‘Life’ fits the Testament of Abraham just as well as it does the Apocalypse. Though it may well be that Palladius was referring to neither, but to a different work altogether, now no longer extant.
In modern times the Apocalypse has been preserved only in Slavonic. Two editions of the Slavonic text were published independently by N. S. Tikhonravov and I. I. Sreznevsky in 1863 from the 14th cent. Codex Sylvester (in which the Apocalypse appears as one item in a collection of lives of saints); and these two editions of the text were followed by the publication of a facsimile edition of the MS itself in 1891. The Apocalypse is also found in some of the MSS of the Palaea interpretata, 5 The Palaea is a compendium of miscellaneous items collected together primarily to show how the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New. Individual items vary not a little from MS to MS. The basic collection is thought to have been made in Greek in the 8th or 9th cents. and to have been translated into Slavonic in the 10th cent.: over the years it was much enlarged and expanded. Besides The Apocalypse of Abraham the Palaea has preserved, among other things, The Ladder of Jacob, a number of sagas about Cain, Abel, Lamech, and other Old Testament worthies, and, most important of all, the Slavonic version of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. and the texts of several of these MSS have been edited.
Our translation is based on the Sylvester text (= S). This text, however, is in many places manifestly corrupt and not infrequently inferior to one or the other of the Palaea texts: in such cases the Palaea texts have been preferred. Three Palaea texts have been used: J = the 15th cent. MS of the Palaea in the Joseph Monastery at Volokolamsk (now in Moscow), edited by N. S. Tikhonravov; K = the 17th cent. MS originally in Solovetsk, transferred to Kazan, and edited by I. Ya. Porfir'ev; and R = the MS dated AD 1494 in the Rumyantsev Museum (now the Lenin Library) in Moscow, edited by A. N. Pypin.
Most of the Palaea texts begin with a prologue not found in S: we have printed this prologue in full from R and K in the apparatus on p. 369 . Some Palaea texts (and among them R and K) continue immediately with the opening words of chap. i, although this makes a very awkward connection; but others omit chaps. i–vi altogether and follow the prologue with the beginning of chap. vii (‘And Abraham, having reasoned thus, came to his father, saying, Father Thara, fire is more honourable than images …’). R stops short at the end of chap. viii – i.e. it contains only the ‘legendary’ part of the Apocalypse and not the more specifically ‘apocalyptic’. J and K agree in offering a more satisfactory conclusion, which is lacking in S; but, even here, J seems to be defective at the very end. And throughout there are many variants, omissions, additions, and displacements, by no means all of which are recorded in our apparatus. Also noteworthy is the vacillation between the use of the first and third persons in the narrative – the result of uncertainty in the tradition about whether Abraham himself is telling the story or someone else is telling it about him. Moreover, the work known as ‘The Tale of the Just Man Abraham’, 6 Published most recently by P. A. Lavrov in SORYaS lxvii. 3 (St. Petersburg, 1899 ), pp. 70–81. although it cannot be described as an ‘abridgement’ of the Apocalypse, nevertheless shows clear traces of dependence on the same tradition, and by its very existence provides an interesting illustration of how that tradition, in the Slavonic world at least, was being continually adapted and re-shaped.
Despite the wide variations in the extant Slavonic texts of the Apocalypse, and the consequent difficulty in tracing any part of it with any degree of certainty to a Greek or Semitic original, there can be no doubt at all that a very great deal of the material contained in it is ultimately Jewish. Thus, the tradition that Israel's ancestors in Mesopotamia ‘even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor … served other gods’ is attested as early as Josh. xxiv. 2 . The Book of Jubilees relates how Abraham disputed with Terah about the folly of idol-worship and how he ‘set fire to the idols’ house' in Ur of the Chaldees, and then how later in Haran, while observing ‘the signs of the stars’, he perceived at last the truth about the Creator, was thus led to forsake all kinds of false worship, and set out at the Divine command on his journey to Canaan 7 Jub. xii. 1–8, 12, 16–28. . And this account in Jubilees is repeated and developed in a variety of ways in later Jewish writings.
Yet this does not in itself prove that the author of the Apocalypse was a Jew. Christians read, not only their Bibles, but also Jubilees and other Jewish literature. They were also in touch in certain areas and at certain times with not a little Jewish oral tradition. There is clear evidence, from sources quite unconnected with the Apocalypse, that in this instance they knew some, at least, of the extra-Biblical Jewish traditions about Abraham. 8 See especially L. Ginzberg, ‘Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvätern und in der apokryphischen Litteratur’ in Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums, xliii (1899), pp. 486–490. And there are in the Apocalypse several passages which show signs of Christian influence, particularly towards the end (and pre-eminently chap. xxix). These passages may, of course, be Christian interpolations into an originally purely Jewish work. But not necessarily so.
A possible indication of date is the description of the burning and pillaging of the Temple by the heathen in chap. xxvii. This has been held to point to a date after AD 70. But chap. xxvii is in the second, ‘apocalyptic’, part of the book (ix–xxxi); so that for those who, like Ginzberg, think that the ‘apocalyptic’ part was originally independent of the ‘legendary’ (i–viii), chap. xxvii is only evidence for the date of the ‘apocalyptic’ part.
However, as the book stands, there are certainly connections between the two parts (chaps. xxv and xxvi make unambiguous references to the contents of i–viii). Consequently, even if the two parts were originally independent, they have not simply been joined together, but a definite attempt has been made to fuse them. And the fusion (if such it was) would seem to have been made by the middle of the 4th cent. at the latest, since the Clementine Recognitions refer to Abraham,
‘who, since he was an astrologer, was able to recognise the Creator from the disposition and order of the stars, and understood that all things are regulated by His providence. Whence also an angel standing by him in a vision, instructed him more fully about those things which he was beginning to perceive. But he shewed him also what was destined for his race and posterity, and promised that these places should not so much be given to them as restored’. 9 Clem. Recogn. i. 32 (Rufinus's translation of the Recognitions is to be dated c. AD 400).
Nothing is said in the Recognitions about the source of the writer's information about Abraham at this point. Furthermore, the ‘legendary’ interest of the passage is concentrated on Abraham's practice of astrology, rather than on his attack on idolatry, which is the main theme of the first part of the Apocalypse. Even so, what is significant is that in the Recognitions the ‘legendary’ and the ‘apocalyptic’ elements in the Abraham tradition are closely associated, and that the latter part of the passage quoted ‘forms (as Box puts it) a good description of the second or apocalyptic part of our Book’. 10 G. H. Box, The Apocalypse of Abraham, p. xvii. In other words, Recognitions, i. 32, would seem to be evidence that the Apocalypse existed, at any rate in embryo, as early as c. 350, however much it may subsequently have been re-modelled, re-written, expanded, or interpolated, even perhaps as late as the 16th or 17th cents. (the date of our latest Slavonic MSS).
1 Prisc. Tract. iii.
2 Epiph. Haer. XXXIX. v. 1.
3 e.g. PG xxxiv. 1003–4 (reprinted from Ducaeus).
4 Cuthbert Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius, II (= TS VI. ii; Cambridge, 1904), p. 11.
5 The Palaea is a compendium of miscellaneous items collected together primarily to show how the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New. Individual items vary not a little from MS to MS. The basic collection is thought to have been made in Greek in the 8th or 9th cents. and to have been translated into Slavonic in the 10th cent.: over the years it was much enlarged and expanded. Besides The Apocalypse of Abraham the Palaea has preserved, among other things, The Ladder of Jacob, a number of sagas about Cain, Abel, Lamech, and other Old Testament worthies, and, most important of all, the Slavonic version of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
7 Jub. xii. 1–8, 12, 16–28.
8 See especially L. Ginzberg, ‘Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvätern und in der apokryphischen Litteratur’ in Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums, xliii (1899), pp. 486–490.
9 Clem. Recogn. i. 32 (Rufinus's translation of the Recognitions is to be dated c. AD 400).
10 G. H. Box, The Apocalypse of Abraham, p. xvii.