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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

The Testament of Isaac - Introduction

The Testament of Isaac has survived in Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic. Of the Coptic there are two versions, one in Sahidic and one in Bohairic, each extant in only a single MS. The Sahidic version is found as the second of four items in a MS in the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York (M 577, dated AD 894/5), and the Bohairic in Cod. Vat. Copt. 61 (dated AD 961/2) where it is grouped together with the Testaments of Abraham and Jacob as the fifth item in a series of ten. Both the Arabic and Ethiopic versions agree with the Bohairic in offering texts of all three Testaments and also in grouping them together.

Guidi, in the Introduction to his edition of the Bohairic text of the Testaments of Isaac and Jacob, 1 Guidi, p. 223. argued that both are imitations of the Testament of Abraham and that both were composed in Coptic. In this case the Arabic and Ethiopic versions will have been derived from the Coptic. And this hypothesis may be supported by the observation that the later versions follow the Bohairic, not only in grouping the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together as a unit, but also in attributing them in their present form to St. Athanasius. 2 See above p. 395.

On the other hand, even if it be conceded that the two later Testaments are imitative, that is no reason why they should not have been composed in Greek, although the Greek originals have not as yet come to light. If the reference to the book, or books, ‘of the three Patriarchs’ in The Apostolic Constitutions (VI.xvi.3) is to our Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then there must have been a Greek Isaac and a Greek Jacob as well as a Greek Abraham. Similarly, it might be argued that the enigmatic passage in Priscillian (tract. iii) shows that Priscillian knew a Latin version of all three Testaments, 3 What Priscillian says (commenting on an Old-Latin rendering of Tobit iv. 12 ) is: ‘Nos fili prophetarum sumus: Noe profeta fuit et Abraham et Isac et Iacob et omnes patres nostri qui ab initio saeculi profetaverunt. Quando in canone profetae Noe liber lectus est? quis inter profetas dispositi canonis Abrahae librum legit? quis quod aliquando Isac profetasset edocuit? quis profetiam Iacob quod in canone poneretur audivit?’ and that this is further evidence in favour of a Greek Isaac and a Greek Jacob. If there was, then various schemes of version descent are possible. But it would be idle to speculate on these possibilities when there are no Greek texts of either Isaac or Jacob actually available.

It would seem therefore, that, so far as date and place of origin are concerned, we can affirm even less about the Testaments of Isaac and Jacob than we can about the Testament of Abraham. The attribution of all three to St. Athanasius in the Coptic-Arabic-Ethiopic tradition must inevitably be suspect; and even if it were not, the further statement in the preface to the Testament of Abraham in the Bohairic that Athanasius ‘found’ them ‘in ancient books of our holy fathers the apostles’ 4 Cp. also Test. Jacob xi. 2 and xiii. 11. would be too vague to be of any real use (it looks far too much like a pious conjecture on the part of some editor or scribe). Even so, such evidence as there is points to Egypt as the place of origin – the name Athanasius, the geographical distribution of the extant texts, and the similarity of the Testaments of Isaac and Jacob to the Testament of Abraham, which in all probability was itself written in Egypt. This last point is of some importance. If the authors of the Testaments of Isaac and Jacob were not the same as the author or compilers of the Testament of Abraham, they must not only have known Abraham, but also have thought it worth while composing very passable imitations of it. However, it should be noted that although the pattern of the Testament of Isaac follows the pattern of Abraham closely, there is a new element introduced, viz. the moral and religious teaching attributed to Isaac; and it might well be argued that this new element is due to a Coptic author or redactor, since a strong practical and pastoral interest is one of the recurring features in all Coptic literature. The Testament of Jacob is much more imitative than is the Testament of Isaac, but it seems to imitate the Testament of Isaac rather than the Testament of Abraham directly. The outstanding characteristic of this Testament is its dependence throughout on the book of Genesis.

In their present form the Testaments of Isaac and Jacob are certainly Christian. Yet it may be maintained, as it has been maintained in the case of the Testament of Abraham, that they contain Jewish legendary material, even if they were not themselves the work of Jewish authors. In the Testament of Isaac the explicitly Christian elements may have been superimposed, for they appear to be easily detachable. In the Testament of Jacob, on the other hand, they form a more integral part of the whole. But whatever be the truth here, there are signs that our existing texts have a long history behind them, although ‘the violent treatment to which the Testaments (more especially the Testament of Jacob) have been subjected, lies a long way behind their present Coptic form.’ 5 So Gaselee in G. H. Box, The Testament of Abraham, p. 56.

The Sahidic text in the Pierpont Morgan MS has been chosen as the basis for the translation of the Testament of Isaac that follows, as being the most ancient text extant. The Bohairic was almost certainly made from the Sahidic, although as it has come down to us it does not always follow it exactly: it may, therefore, on occasion have preserved some features otherwise lost. In consequence, major divergences between Sahidic and Bohairic, which affect the subject-matter, have attention drawn to them in the notes.

Notes:

1 Guidi, p. 223.

2 See above p. 395.

3 What Priscillian says (commenting on an Old-Latin rendering of Tobit iv. 12 ) is: ‘Nos fili prophetarum sumus: Noe profeta fuit et Abraham et Isac et Iacob et omnes patres nostri qui ab initio saeculi profetaverunt. Quando in canone profetae Noe liber lectus est? quis inter profetas dispositi canonis Abrahae librum legit? quis quod aliquando Isac profetasset edocuit? quis profetiam Iacob quod in canone poneretur audivit?’

4 Cp. also Test. Jacob xi. 2 and xiii. 11.

5 So Gaselee in G. H. Box, The Testament of Abraham, p. 56.

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