The account of King Manasseh's evil reign over Judah in 2 Chronicles 33 contains the account of an episode, almost certainly legendary, in which Manasseh was taken captive by the Assyrians and carried off to Babylon where, in his trouble, he became a loyal worshiper of the God of his people (2 Chron. 33.11–13). This story, which has no parallel in the older account in 2 Kings 21.1–18, was no doubt told to give a theological explanation for the length and prosperity of the career of one whose policy was to promote idolatry: for in theory, he should have been punished by God with political failure and come to a disastrous end (Deut. 29.14–21). The author of Chronicles, having explained the king's paradoxical and puzzling success by a story of his eventual return to the worship of Yahweh, also mentions that his prayer was preserved in “the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (2 Chron. 33.18–19). A devout writer from a much later period, probably the late Hellenistic age, composed a prayer such as the king might have used. The result was the small “book” called the Prayer of Manasseh.
It is a dignified penitential prayer, in traditional Jewish liturgical language, that contains nothing specifically appropriate to Manasseh's situation except the reference to “setting up abominations” in v. 10 (see 2 Chron. 33.3–5). It begins with an address to God as all‐powerful and fearsome to sinners (vv. 1–5) but also as compassionate and willing to accept repentance (vv. 6–7). While penitence is unnecessary for the righteous, such as Israel's ancestors (v. 8), the royal penitent knows that his sins are too many to be overlooked and therefore confesses his deep unworthiness, in terms that are quite general except for the phrase previously noted (vv. 9–10); he begs for divine forgiveness (vv. 11–14) and concludes with a promise, similar to those in several of the biblical psalms of lament, to engage in a formal act of praise when his prayer is answered, as undoubtedly it will be (v. 15; cf. Pss. 22.22–31; 56.12–13).
The Prayer was not part of the original Greek Septuagint and is not regarded as canonical by the Roman Catholic church; some Orthodox churches, however, accord it deuterocanonical status, and so it is frequently included among the Apocrypha in English Bibles (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha). In the Greek Codex Alexandrinus, it is included in a collection of “odes” printed as a supplement to the book of Psalms. Jerome seems not to have been acquainted with it, though in modern editions of the Vulgate it is printed (along with 2 Esdras [= 4 Ezra] and Ps. 151) in an appendix to the New Testament. In some ancient versions, it appears after 2 Chronicles (as it does also in the Geneva Bible of 1560), but it was never incorporated into the text of that book, perhaps because it was found only in Greek or was known for some other reason to be of recent composition. Most scholars would agree in assigning it a very late date, perhaps the first century BCE. There is no unmistakable evidence that the book was composed in any language other than Greek, and some competent scholars continue to believe the Greek text to be the original. The general style, however, suggests a Hebrew original, as does the fact that Hebrew was the normal language of prayer among Jews. This is probably the prevailing view.
The liturgical style makes it suitable for use in public worship, and its inclusion in the collection of odes added to the Psalter in some Septuagint manuscripts and other ancient versions indicates that it was so used in the ancient church. In an abridged form it has been incorporated as a Lenten canticle in the 1979 Prayer Book of the American Episcopal church.
Robert C. Dentan