The Prayer of Manasseh is an early Jewish prayer of penitence that is attributed to the biblical figure of Manasseh, a wicked king of the southern kingdom of Judah who reigned after his righteous father Hezekiah in the seventh century B.C.E. Scholars have often classified it as pseudepigraphical, because of its attribution to a figure from the distant past.

The biblical basis for this prayer is found in 2 Chronicles 33:10–13. While Manasseh is depicted as an unrepentant evil king in 2 Kings, Chronicles portrays a change of heart motivated by his personal captivity in Babylon: “While he was in distress he… prayed to him, and God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom.” Some speculate that Chronicles, unlike Kings, is attempting to explain how Manasseh could sustain lengthy rule and die peacefully, since these are signs of divine blessing that would not befit an impenitent evil king.

The Prayer of Manasseh supplies a text for the prayer mentioned in Chronicles. Its date of composition is difficult to determine based on its vague and sparse historical references and generic theological positions, but it may be conservatively placed between the completion of Chronicles (fourth century B.C.E.) and the Didascalia (third century C.E.). The prayer was likely produced within a context of nonbiblical Jewish traditions about Manasseh, which appear throughout rabbinical writings. The prayer itself is not in rabbinic literature, but was widely preserved in early Christian communities who seem to have adopted it as they did other hymns from Jewish sources. Most of its extant versions are Greek or Syriac, but the variations between them render the original language of composition uncertain.

This text primarily arises as either a catechetical illustration of God's mercy towards penitent sinners, or within a collection of prayers. Its earliest manuscript is part of the Didascalia, an early Syriac Christian work of the third century C.E. which falls into the former category. The fifth century C.E. Codex Alexandrinus, a Greek text of the Old and New Testaments, exemplifies the latter category, appending a prayer collection to the book of Psalms. Latin Bibles after the thirteenth century C.E. incorporate it immediately following Chronicles. A tenth century C.E. Hebrew version was found in the Cairo Genizah in a collection of six pseudepigraphic prayers and incantations. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, a fragment of a Hebrew prayer attributed to Manasseh was discovered (4Q381 33 8); while its text bears little similarity to the Greek/Syriac Prayer of Manasseh, it does testify to the ongoing Jewish tradition expanding on Chronicles' Manasseh narrative and the attribution of prayers to his name as early as the first century B.C.E.

The prayer bears likeness to other early confessional Jewish prayers (see Ps 51, Neh 9, Bar 1:15—3:8). It opens by invoking the God of the patriarchs in his infinite power (1–5) and mercy (6–8); Manasseh confesses his myriad sins that warrant just punishment (9–10) for which he repents (11–12) and petitions for mercy (13–14), promising to glorify God forever (15).

[See also 1 AND 2 CHRONICLES and PRAYERS AND HYMNS.]

Bibliography

  • Charlesworth, James H. “Prayer of Manasseh.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 625–637. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985.
  • Horst, Pieter W. van der and Judith H. Newman. Early Jewish Prayers in Greek. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.

Lisa Cleath