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Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


A number of texts from Qumran that either mention their speakers as figures from Israel's ancestral period or can be logically assigned to such persons have been designated at one time or another by those who have commented on them as testaments. They include works attributed to Jacob (Apocryphon of Jacob, 4Q537), Levi (Aramaic Levi, 1Q21, Aramaic Levia–e, 4Q213–214), Judah (Testament of Judah[?], 3Q7, Apocryphon of Judah, 4Q538), Naphtali (Testament of Naphtali, 4Q215), Joseph (Apocryphon of Joseph, 4Q539), Kohath (Testament of Qahat, 4Q542), and Amram (Visions of Amrama–f[?], 4Q543–548). This article assesses the reasons for and the legitimacy of designating each text as a testament, and considers the possible role in the life of the community played by some of these texts that are closely associated with one another principally by reason of subject matter.

A testament is defined not by specific content but by its narrative framework. The subject matter of testaments varies considerably and cannot be used to establish the presence of the genre; although a testament often includes the speaker's narration of events and visions from his life, exhortations to his children, and eschatological predictions regarding his descendants (e.g., Testament of Levi), in some cases only one or two of these elements appear (e.g., Testament of Asher; Testament of Job; Testament of Moses). By contrast, the narrative framework of testamentary literature is relatively consistent. A testament is almost always a first-person deathbed address, which is introduced by a description of the context for the address and concluded by a narration of the speaker's death (Collins, 1984).

Two of the Qumran works labeled testaments seem to possess at least some aspects of this narrative framework. They are the works attributed to Kohath (4Q542) and Amram (4Q543–548). Although the remains of the Testament of Qahat (an Aramaic text in Hasmonean script) provide neither an introduction certifying the context as a deathbed speech by Kohath nor a concluding narration of Kohath's death, the text that survives makes it clear the work is an address given to Kohath's children in imminent expectation of his demise (Puech, 1991; see especially the urgent exhortations to banay [“my children”] in 4Q542 1.i.4, 7–8; and to ῾amram [“Amram”] in 4Q542 1.i.9). The principal interest of the speech is in the purity of the priesthood and its proper stewardship, and fragment 1.ii.9–12 makes apparent that its contents had already been passed by Levi to Kohath and to Levi by another before him. The speech may also evince some eschatological interests (4Q542 1.ii.4–8).

Meanwhile, the only certain exemplar of a testament found at Qumran, represented in six manuscripts, was dubbed Visions of Amram by J. T. Milik (Milik, 1972; 4Q543–548). [See Amram for additional details regarding the manuscripts' date and discussion of the disputed assignment of 4Q548.] Reconstruction of the first line of the work leaves little doubt that it is a testament: “This is a copy of the words of the visions of Amram, son of Kohath, son of Levi, all that he recounted to his sons and that he commanded to them on the day of his death, in his 136th year, the year of his death, in the 152nd year of the exile of Israel in Egypt.” As in the case of Kohath's testament, Amram's visions concern the proper stewardship of the priestly office but also include much more evidence of an eschatological interest on the part of the author.

A second group of texts are considered testamentary, not because they exhibit the narrative framework described above, but because some or all of their content parallels passages from fully extant testaments. The most extensive of these is Aramaic Testament of Levi (Aramaic Levi, 1Q21; Aramaic Levia–e, 4Q213–214, 4Q214a; the identification of Aaronic Text A (bis)-Aramaic Levic?, 4Q540–541, as additional Levi material may be rejected since it lacks any significant connection with the otherwise certain witnesses to the Levi document [Puech, 1993], but see more on these texts below). Because of a fragmentary Aramaic medieval manuscript from the Cairo Genizah whose text resembles parts of Testament of Levi 6–7, 8–9, and 11–13, it has long been known that the Greek testament had a close Semitic parallel. Part of the Cairo Genizah manuscript giving Isaac's priestly instructions to Levi and Levi's life history was also matched by a long addition to the Greek Testament of Levi in the Mount Athos manuscript of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs at Testament of Levi 18.2 (Charles, 1908). In 1955 Milik published an Aramaic work and named it Testament de Lévi (Aramaic Levi 1Q21) because a handful of its sixty fragments matched the Cairo Genizah text and/or the Mount Athos additions and also paralleled elements of Testament of Levi. Milik also published a two-column “Prayer of Levi” from Aramaic Levia (4Q213), a Hasmonean Aramaic manuscript, as a Semitic parallel to another addition in the Mount Athos manuscript at Testament of Levi 2.3 (Milik, 1955) and concluded that the manuscript was another Qumran copy of Testament de Lévi. Several more fragments of Aramaic Levia were offered as a parallel to Testament of Levi 13–14 (Milik, 1971, p. 345; 1976, pp. 23–25). Since then the remaining fragments of Aramaic Levia and all Aramaic Levid (4Q214) have been published, some of which are identified as further parallel material with the Cairo Genizah fragments and/or Testament of Levi; the rest of Aramaic Levia is material unknown before the discovery of the scrolls (Beyer, 1994; Greenfield and Stone, 1994; Kugler, 1996; see now Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 22 for the further division of these two manuscripts). The basis for calling the work a testament has been its close connection with Testament of Levi. While most scholars follow Milik's lead and reconstruct the document according to the pattern of Testament of Levi (e.g., de Jonge, 1988), Greenfield and Stone first questioned this procedure (1979). Kugler (1996) has proposed a reconstruction that, at least on the basis of the surviving text, precludes classification of the work as a testament and offers instead the title Aramaic Levi. Although manuscript witnesses of Aramaic Levi do provide a number of parallels with Testament of Levi, no evidence of the narrative framework that makes a speech or recollection into a testament survives; there is no third-person introduction indicating this is a deathbed speech and no conclusion in which Levi's death is narrated; there is only a great deal of material that shows the author's fascination with the priestly office and its purity. More importantly, Levi's reference to his own death in the Cairo Genizah text (Aramaic Levi 81), suggesting the entire speech is given from beyond the grave, and the introduction to the wisdom speech he gives his children (Aramaic Levi 82) which indicates he is recalling the speech as a past event, decisively contradict the notion that this might be treated in any way as a deathbed speech to Levi's offspring.

Milik (1978, p. 97) presented three more texts from Qumran that he thought could be classified as testaments because of their similarity to known works of the genre. He entitled a late Hasmonean Hebrew text the Testament of Naphtali (4Q215; Milik thinks, however, that it was originally an Aramaic work). He discerns a parallel between fragment 1.ii.v and the Testament of Naphtali 1.11–12, from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, both of which recount Bilhah's genealogy. However, this is all the two documents have in common; the remainder of the Testament of Naphtali from Qumran provides more detail about Bilhah and in a separate fragment gives part of an eschatological speech, none of which occurs in Testament of Naphtali (see now the separation of this fragment from 4Q215 in Stone's discussion in DJD, 22).

Milik also dubbed 4Q538, two fragments of a late Hasmonean Aramaic work, Testament of Judah (Apocryphon of Judah) (1978, pp. 97–98). According to Milik the scant remains are the narration of the second trip by Jacob's sons to Egypt and Joseph (cf. Gn. 44.1–45.10, Jub. 42.25–43.18; see especially the parallel between ḥsh in 4Q538 1.1 and the equivalent word in Jub. 42.25). Although this trip is only summarized in the Testament of Judah 12.11–12, the existence at Qumran of a precursor to the testament in Apocryphon of Judah (4Q538) is confirmed for Milik by the parallel he suspects between Testament of Judah?, 3Q7 6, 5, and 3, a Herodian text that he suspects to be another copy of the work attested in Apocryphon of Judah, and Testament of Judah 25.1–2 (1978, pp. 98–99; 3Q7 was identified earlier by Baillet only as “Un apocryphe mentionnant l'ange de Présence” [1962, p. 99]). Finally Milik identified 4Q539 (Apocryphon of Joseph), a late Hasmonean Aramaic manuscript, as a Testament of Joseph (1978, pp. 101–102). While he intimates that isolated references to “children” and “loved ones” in fragment 2.ii provide the formal characteristics of a testament, the two phrases are only that—isolated references that apparently come in the middle of the work and so provide no convincing evidence that it possessed the complete narrative framework described above. However, Milik points out that the remaining content matches elements of the Testament of Joseph 14.5–4 (frg. 1) and 15.1–17.2 (frg. 2). On that basis he is confident in naming the work a Testament of Joseph. But like the Testament of Naphtali (4Q215) and the Apocryphon of Judah (4Q538), the parallel in content does not succeed in overcoming the absence of the narrative framework distinctive of testaments. Given the evidence as it remains to us, it is difficult to think the three are much more than source material for the corresponding testaments that appear in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. In spite of his nomenclature, Milik (1978) shares this view.

In scrolls research, a final work has been termed a testament that hardly deserves the designation. The Apocryphon of Jacob (4Q537), an Aramaic manuscript described by Milik as apocalyptic and testamentary (1978, p. 103) but named “Visions de Jacob” (and subsequently called a testament by Puech, 1993, p. 488), gives only the slightest remains of a vision of Jacob dealing in apocalyptic and priestly matters. In the absence of any indication that the vision was related by Jacob to his children from his deathbed, there is no reason to consider the Apocryphon of Jacob a testament.

To summarize, it is clear that the testaments attributed to Kohath and Amram are legitimate examples of the genre. In addition, other scrolls provide works that, though lacking the narrative framework characteristic of a testament, show parallels with material known otherwise from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Judah, Joseph, Levi, and Naphtali), and may be understood as sources for the testaments. Of these, Aramaic Levi from Qumran is most closely related to certain Qumran testaments by virtue of its similarity to those works: it also deals with the priesthood and contains a vision account. Finally, there is a work attributed to Jacob that should not be classified as a testament, at least on the basis of its scant remains; nevertheless, it too may be associated with the genuine testaments at least by reason of content since it also relates to the priestly office.

The recurring interest in the priesthood in Aramaic Levi, Testament of Qahat, and Visions of Amram (and perhaps the Apocryphon of Jacob) and their relationship through the genealogical connections among their main figures suggest that classifying these texts from Qumran by genre may be less fruitful than grouping them according to the topic addressed. As Milik (1972; 1978) and Puech (1991) have already indicated, these texts, along with Aramaic Text A (bis) and Aramaic Text A (4Q540–541), also deal with the purity and future of the priesthood (see Puech 1993); they should perhaps be considered together as a priestly literature attributed to key figures from Israel's sacerdotal history. This body of literature probably originated in a pre-Qumran setting—perhaps when the priestly office was contested in the early second century BCE—and was further developed by the Qumran residents who seem to have had reason to perpetuate a priestly literature, especially one that reflects a concern for the purity of the priestly office and that presents the view that it was unjustly usurped by impure occupants and will someday be returned to its proper stewards. In fact, one suspects this priestly literature may constitute the books given by Israel to Levi in Jubilees 45.16. Unfortunately, the present understanding of these texts and their content permit little more than such speculation; and the fragmentary condition of the manuscripts may never allow more than that.

[See also Amram; Jacob; Joseph, Apocryphon of; Judah; Levi, Aramaic; Naphtali, Testament of; Qahat; and Twelve Patriarchs, Testaments of the.]


  • Baillet, Maurice, J. T. Milik, and Roland de Vaux, eds. Les “Petites Grottes” de Qumran (Textes). Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 3. Oxford, 1962.
  • Beyer, Klaus. Die aramäischen Texten vom Toten Meer, Göttingen, 1984. See pp. 188–209 (Supplementary volume, Göttingen, 1994, pp. 71–78) for Beyer's presentation of the Qumran, Cairo Genizah, and Mount Athos manuscript witnesses to Aramic Levi.
  • Charles, R. H. The Greek Versions of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Oxford, 1908.
    See pp. 245–256 for the Cairo Genizah fragments and the Mount Athos manuscript addition at Testament Levi 18.2.
  • Collins, John. “Testaments.” In Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus, edited by Michael E. Stone, pp. 325–355. Compendia Rerum Iudiacarum ad Novum Testamentum. Philadelphia, 1984.
    A definition of the testamentary genre and discussion of its examples.
  • de Jonge, Marinus. “The Testament of Levi and 'Aramaic Levi.'” Revue de Qumrân 13 (1988), 367–385.
    One of the many who reconstruct Aramaic Levi according to the pattern of Testament of Levi.
  • Greenfield, Jonas C., and Michael E. Stone. “Remarks on the Aramaic Testament of Levi from the Geniza.” Revue biblique 86 (1979), 214–230.
    Some improved readings of the Cairo Genizah manuscript and limited early discussion of the work as a whole by the eventual editors of the Qumran manuscripts.
  • Greenfield, Jonas C., and Michael E. Stone. “The First Manuscript of Aramaic Levi Document from Qumran (4QLevia aram).” Le Museon 107 (1994), 257–281.
    More of 4Q213 and indication that Stone and Greenfield divide 4Q213 and 4Q214 into five manuscripts (Aramaic Levia–e).
  • Kugler, Robert A. From Patriarch to Priest: The Levi-Priestly Tradition from Aramaic Levi to Testament of Levi. Early Judaism and Its Literature, 9. Atlanta, 1996. Chapters two and three provide a reconstruction and analysis of Aramaic Levi.
  • Milik, J. T. “Le Testament de Lévi en araméen: Fragment de la Grotte 4 de Qumrân. Revue biblique 62 (1955), 398–406. Milik's publication of the “Prayer of Levi.”
  • Milik, J. T. “Testament de Lévi.” In Qumran Cave I, edited by D. Barthélemy and J. T. Milik, pp. 87–91. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 1. Oxford, 1955.
    Publication of (1Q21) Aramaic Levi.
  • Milik, J. T. “Problèmes de la littérature hénochique à la lumiére des fragments araméens de Qumrân.” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971), 333–378.
    Milik's publication of several fragments of Aramaic Levia.
  • Milik, J. T. “4Q Visions de ῾Amram et une citation d'Origène.” Revue biblique 79 (1972), 77–97.
    A discussion of the Amram material from Qumran.
  • Milik, J. T. The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumrân Cave 4. Oxford, 1976.
    See pp. 23–25 for Milik's publication of several fragments of Aramaic Levia.
  • Milik, J. T. “Écrits préesséniens de Qumrân; d'Hénoch à ῾Amram.” In Qumrân. Sa piété, sa théologie et son milieu, edited by M. Delcor, pp. 91–106. Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium, 46. Duculot, 1978.
    Milik's discussion of, among other texts, the so-called testaments of Judah, Joseph, and Naphtali, and the Apocryphon of Jacob.
  • Puech, Émile. “Le Testament de Qahat en araméen de la Grotte 4 (4QTQah).” Revue de Qumrân 15 (1991), 23–54.
  • Puech, Émile. Fragments d'un apocryphe de Lévi et le personnage eschatologique. 4QTestLévic–d(?) et 4QAJa.” In The Madrid Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid, 18–21 March, 1991, edited by Julio Trebolle Barrera and Luis Vegas Montaner, vol. 2, pp. 449–501. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 11. Leiden, 1993.
    Presentation and discussion of Aaronic Text A (4Q540, 541).
  • Stone, Michael. “4Q213, 4Q213a, 4Q213b, 4Q214, 4Q214a, 4Q214b, 4Q215.” In Qumran Cave 4: Parabiblical Texts, Part 3, edited by George Brooke, et al. In consultation with James VanderKam, pp. 1–82. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 22. Oxford, 1996.
    Publication of 4Q213–215 with the new division of the Aramaic Levi manuscripts and the separation of the eschatological fragment of 4Q215 from the so-called Testament of Naphtali.

Robert A. Kugler

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