Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
Volume I, 30 November 1948 to 16 February 1949

Volume I Table of Contents

Transcriptions are intended to reproduce the source document accurately, adhering to the exact wording and punctuation of the original. In general, errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar have been neither corrected nor indicated by [sic].

"The Ethics of Late Judaism as Evidenced in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs"

[30 November 1948-16 February 1949]
[Chester, Pa.]

This paper was written for Morton Scott Enslin's course on the history and literature of the New Testament, which exposed King to liberal biblical criticism. In observing that "many of the works of this period [late Judaism] were infinitely more valuable than those that received canonicity," King challenges the wisdom of canonical decisions and argues that many of the great ethical principles normally associated with the New Testament actually had their origins in late Judaism. He describes how early Christian values such as chastity, compassion, forgiveness, and temperance were foreshadowed in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a late Judaic document. Enslin noted numerous grammatical, spelling, and writing errors but gave the essay an A-. Although he thought the bibliography "a bit slim," Enslin wrote that this was "a well-written and competent paper. It shows evidence of thought and study. I have enjoyed reading it." King received a B for the course.

For a number of centuries, it was generally held that the period between the Old and New Testaments was a period of silence, and that no spiritual development was achieved within it. It was believed that this period of silence was broken when the New Testament appeared on the stage of history. Now the pendulum of interpretation is swinging in another direction. Most competent scholars have cast such positions out of the window. They would all agree that in reality there was no period of silence. To be sure, it was a period of great spiritual progress, and in many instances greater than any preceding it in Old Testament times, even though the Old Testament was its logical prelude. To my mind, many of the works of this period were infinitely more valuable than those that received canonicity. The materials to justify such statements are found mainly in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. These works, although presented pseudonymously, are of lasting significance to the Biblical student.

In this paper, however, we are mainly interested in the ethics of this period (late Judaism) as evidenced in one of the pseudepigraphic works--The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. This work was written in Hebrew in the latter years of John Hyrcanus (ca. 109-106 B.C.). The author was a Chasid\[Footnote:] A Chasid, according to Charles, was a Pharisee of the early type.\ who had a great deal of admiration for the high-priesthood of the great Maccabean family. In fact, the work was written on behalf of the Messianic claims of John Hyrcanus. The book has many valuable contributions, but its overwhelming value lies in the ethical teaching found therein. It was these high ethical principles which left an ineffaceable impression on many of the New Testament writers, and also upon our Lord. The language and thought of the New Testament writers prove conclusively that they were directly acquainted with the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. All of this goes on to prove the importance of the book. The ethical teaching of this great work serves as a bridge connecting the ethics of the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, no logical thinker can doubt the fact that knowledge of this work is a sine qua non to all concrete study of Hebrew-Christian religion.

For the moment let us turn our attention to a critical analysis of this important work. The critical analysis is limited to the question of authorship. Because of conflicting Jewish and Christian elements found in the book, questions of authorship have arisen. To account for these conflicting views, Grabe--in his "Spicileguim Patrum" (Oxford, 1714)--arrived at the conclusion through critical analysis, that the basis of the work is Jewish, though there are many Christological interpolations. This hypothesis was immediately combated by Corrodi. Other scholars such as Nitzsch and Ritschl assigned the work to a Christian author; the former to a Jewish Christian and the latter to a Gentile Christian. Each of these views were vigorously assailed by other critics.

In recent years the picture has changed quite a bit. Such scholars as Schnapp, Conybeare,Charles and King apparently refer to Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare (1856-1924), an English New Testament scholar who devoted much of his research to the recovery of manuscripts in the Armenian Christian tradition. His Myth, Magic, and Morals, A Study of Christian Origins (1909) was an attack on early Christianity. See "Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare," in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 340. Preuschen and Bousset, have notably confirmed Grabe's hypothesis. Therefore, it is now generally accepted {that} the groundwork of the book is the work of a single author of the Pharisaic school.

Before entering the general discussion, a brief summary of the content of the book needs to be given. The writings consist of the last words and exhortations of the twelve sons of Jacob to their Children. Each testament indicates the virtues inculcated or the vices condemned by each of these patriarchs in turn.

It is also observed that in each testament three elements can be distinguished. (1) The patriarch gives a brief history of his life, in which he emphasizes his particular virtue or vice. This history is generally a midrashic expansion of certain biblical statements, but in some cases it contains materials that are in direct conflict with them. (2) The patriarch next proceeds to exhorts his descendants to emulate the virtues and to avoid the vices. (3) Finally, the patriarch deals with the prophetic visions of his descendant's future. Here he emphasizes the authority of Levi and Judah, and foretells the tragedy that they will face if they fall into sin and disown the supremacy of Levi and Judah.

The present study represents an attempt to provide in condensed form a survey of late Jewish ethics as evidenced in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The plan of the study involves taking successively each of the twelve patriarchs, and presenting, what I consider, his outstanding ethical teaching. This method is employed with an attempt to give a comprehensive study of the book. Many of the patriarchs deal with more than one ethical principle, but in this {study} only one will be considered from each. The value of this study may be found in the textual quotations taken directly from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, supporting and illustrating the ethical priciple of each patriarch. Throughout the paper comparisons will be made of both Old and New Testament passages which are similar to passages found in this work.

Reuben: Unchastity.

Purity has been considered the characteristic feature of the Jewish home and family life throughout the ages. Not only the home, but the body and soul must be pure. Impure thoughts are considered both immoral and unethical. Judaism is all out in forbidding sensual abandonment, the breaking down of family ties, and every impure act or thought in the relation between the sexes. This demand for chastity reaches a high peak in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. We find Reuben warn-ing his children against looking on a woman with lustful eyes (cf. Matt. 5:28). "Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man's wife, nor meddle with the affairs of womankind."\[Footnote:] T. Reuben 3:10.\ He continues, "and command the women likewise not to associate with men, that they also may be pure in mind. For constant meetings, even though the ungodly deed be not wrought, are to them an irremediable disease and to us a destruction of Beliar and an eternal reproach."\[Footnote:] T. Reuben 6:2, 3; cf. T. Jud. 14:2, 3; 15:2; T. Dan 5:5.\

It is interesting to notice that the impure thought, according to Reuben, is as destructive as the impure act. Even the desire for licentiousness is destructive, to say nothing of licentious conduct. This is a noble ethical principle which was re-echoed in the teaching of our Lord some years later.\[Footnote:] See Matt. 5:28.\

How is one protected against lustful thoughts in the hour of temptation? It is only by the singleness of heart in the fear of God. It was these noble principles that preserved for the New Testament one of the highest conceptions of moral purity the world has ever known.

Simeon: Envy.

Of all sins, envy is one of the most insidious. This fact was expressed long ago in the ethics of late Judaism. Simeon, one of the twelve patriarchs, warns his children against the spirit of deceit and envy. "For envy," he warns, "ruleth over the whole mind of a man, and suffereth him neither to eat nor to drink, nor to do any good thing. But it even suggesteth (to him) to destroy him that he envieth, and so long as he that is envied flourisheth, he that envieth fadest away."\[Footnote:] T. Simeon 3:2, 3.\ Here we see that envy brings about a dual destruction. It destroys both him that is envied and him that envies.

This is one of the most remarkable statements on the subject of envy in all ancient literature. The author is aware of the fact that envy poisons the atmosphere of old time friendship, warps the judgment, embitters the heart, and substitutes unkind criticism for sympathetic understanding and cynicism for courage.

How does one get rid of this destructive element, envy? It is only through loving your brother with a good heart that the spirit of envy will be withdrawn from you. This is the solution which Simeon gives. In other words, love is the logical substitute for envy.

It is significant to observe that Simeon conceives of envy as destroying the total personality. It is not a bath that dampens certain portions of the personality, but a flood that drowns the entire inner self. Therefore, the person who envies,, according to Simeon, can never achieve peace of mind, for his personality is forever distorted.

Levi: Retribution.

The question of retribution is an important ethical tenet in any religion. Of course, it might be argued that the question of retribution is a theological concept rather than an ethical principle. To my mind, it may be both, therefore I will treat it from the point of view of the latter. This ethical teaching is found in the testament of Levi. It is this principle that leads to the highest ethical consciousness in the end: "the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the punishment of sin is sin."

Throughout the testament of Levi this ethical principle is discussed. He says to his children, "perform righteousness on earth that ye may find treasures in heaven;\[Footnote:] cf. Luke 12:21.\ sow good works in your souls that ye may reap them in life. But if you sow evil things ye shall reap every trouble and affliction."\[Footnote:] T. Levi 13:5, 6.\ Here we see that the author believed in the lasting honesty of the universe. He was aware of the fact that things dont happen haphazardly in this universe, but on the contrary they have causes; after every cause there is a concomitant effect. Moreover, it was his conviction that there is order in the moral realm of the universe just as there is order in the natural realm.

This is truly a great ethical contribution. Even the apostle Paul discovered it in later years (it is probable that he was acquainted with these very passages) and declared, "whatsoever a man sowoth, that shall he also reap."\[Footnote:] Gal. 6:7.\ This is a principle that we in the modern world cannot minimize, for more than anything else, faith in God presupposes that this is an honest universe.

Judah: Temperance

In the testament of Judah, many ethical principles are discussed, such as courage, avarice, fornication and temperance. But I think greater emphasis is placed on the question of temperance. Therefore, my discussion will be limited to temperance.

It is amazing to read what sane advice this old writer gives in regards to the question of temperance and abstinence. He laconically states, "if ye drink wine with gladness, be ye modest with fear of God. For if in your gladness the fear of God departeth, then drunkenness ariseth and shamelessness stealeth in. But if you would live soberly do not touch wine at all, lest ye sin in words of outrage . . . and perish before your time."\[Footnote:] T. Jud. 16:2-3.\ He continues by telling his children that drunkenness turns ones mind from truth and brings about lustful thoughts.\[Footnote:] T. Jud. 14:1-3.\

This demand for temperance is not to be interpreted as an attempt to bring about asceticism. To argue that late Judaism (or even early Judaism) insisted upon asceticism is a false assumption. It rather desired that one should keep all in equipoise, granting every mental and physical faculty as much as it can bear, without overburdening another at its expense. Through such teaching one was to cultivate a conscious will to self-discipline, one was to learn moderation and how to rise above mere desire and prove stronger than things material.

This is a great contribution. This sound, sane and, cool-headed tendency, which condemns anything excessive, unbounded, extravagant and unnatural, makes itself felt today. It should serve as a profound challenge to the modern reader.

Issachar: Simplicity.

The testament of Issachar reveals a very important ethical principle of late Judaism. This ethical teaching is that of simplicity. Issachar is presented as a single-hearted husbandman who works for the joy of working (3:1, 3, 5). He is free from malice, envy and greed (3:3); shuns lust (4:4); offers freely to God and his father (3:6), and to the poor (3:8). He accordingly admonishes his children to walk in simplicity, and to refrain from envy and all lustful thoughts, prying into no secrets, but loving God and man.

We are not to think of this simplicity which Issachar speaks of as simplicity of mind; but it is simplicity of heart. It is the type of simplicity that causes a man to know but one woman; it causes one to avoid the drinking of wine and the telling of falsehood; it causes one to love God with all his might, and every man even as his children.

At first sight this ethical principle, like that of temperance, would appear to asceticism. But, in reality, it wasn't. To be sure, asceticism, as stated above, was never a characteristic of early or late Judaism,--notwithstanding the fact that ascetic groups occasionally appeared on the scene--for Judaism was always a religion that was apart of everyday life. It seems to me that this demand for simplicity was a desire for high ethical character rather than a total divorcement from life. In other words, man (according to Issachar) was to forever choose, through living the simple life, the higher values.

Zebulun: Compassion.

The testament of Zebulun presents a profound example of the demand for compassion in the ethics of late Judaism. Zebulun in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, unlike the rabbinical conception, is presented as a fisherman who supplies his household with fish and gives of his store to the stranger, the sick, the aged and the needy that he may be blessed by God for his compassion.\[Footnote:] T. Zeb. ch. 6.\ He goes on to tell his children that it was his deep compassion for Joseph which restrained Simeon and Gad from bloodshed. When the other brothers took the twenty pieces of silver for which they sold Joseph and used it to buy sandals, Zebulun refused to share in the money. He, therefore, admonishes his children to show mercy to every man, to walk with neither grudge nor malice, but to love one another. It is his firm conviction that if man showeth compassion on his fellow beings, so will God show compassion on him. It is interesting to notice that compassion was not to end with human beings, but beast also were to receive compassion.\[Footnote:] T. Zeb. 5:1.\

This is from all angles a noble principle, for it presupposes that all wealth belongs to God. Even man himself is the possession of God. Here we find no distinction between the rich and the poor, for all men are the children of God. According to this view, a gentle sympathetic attitude, a friendly word of courage and of cheer is the summum bonum of life. It forbids one to confine his care to his own welfare and to be indifferent to the misfortune of others. This is truly a great ethical principle.

Dan: Anger.

Anger has always been an injurious emotion. It is dangerous because it places one in a state where thinking ceases and passion takes its course. This was realized long ago by the {the author of the} Testaments of the {Twelve} Patriarchs. Dan is found telling his children a moving story of how anger overtook him. While under the influence of Belial, he relates to his children, he had been filled with anger against Joseph, and had planned to kill him that he might supplant him in the heart of his father.\[Footnote:] T. Dan ch. 1.\ Dan accordingly warns his children against anger, because "anger is blindness and does not suffer one to see the face of any man with truth." Anger heeds neither parent, nor brother, nor prophet, nor righteous man, nor friend.\[Footnote:] T. Dan 2:3.\ Anger first of all gives provocation by word, then it leads to action. Therefore, he exhorts his children to refrain from anger either at spoken words or at misfortune.\[Footnote:] T. Dan 4:2, 3.\

These are noble statements on the question of anger. It again reveals to us that the author had great insight into the deeper problems of human life.

Naphtali: Natural Goodness

In the testament of Naphtali, we are immediately attracted by his theory of natural goodness. He does not hesitate in saying that God made everything good. He seems to think that in the very nature of man is a spark of goodness. It is every mans job to develope this spark into a flame. Out of this theory grows his whole ethical contribution. So he says to his children, "be ye, therefore, not eager to corrupt your doings through covetousness or with vain words to beguile your souls, because if ye keep silence in purity of heart, ye shall understand how to hold fast the will of God, and to cast away the will of Beliar."\[Footnote:] T. Naphtali 3:1, 2.\

Gad: Forgiveness.

One of the most important ethical principles found in late Judaism was that of forgiveness. In order to understand its importance, as Charles reminds us, we must contrast the Old Testament's concept of forgiveness with that of the New Testament. Without analyzing the content of the Old and New Testaments scrutinizingly, one would easily conclude that the two types of forgiveness are the same. But careful analyzation will prove to the contrary. In the New Testament, it is understood throughout that one can only receive the divine forgiveness on the condition that he forgives his neighbour. A few passages will illustrate this point.

"Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."\[Footnote:] Matt. 6:12, 14, 15.\

"Whensoever ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any one, that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses."\[Footnote:] Mark 11:25, 26.\

"Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and railing be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind to another, even as God also in Christ forgave you."\[Footnote:] Eph. 4:31, 32.\

In the Old Testament, we get an altogether different point of view. One could receive divine pardon in the Old Testament, and yet have the most bitter feelings toward his neighbour. Let us look at a few examples.

"The Lord is on my side among them that help me: Therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me."\[Footnote:] Ps. cxviii. 7.\

"Behold God is mine helper: the Lord is with them that uphold my soul. He shall reward evil unto mine enemies: cut them off in thy truth."\[Footnote:] Ps. 54:4-5.\

"Do thou, O Lord, have mercy upon me, and raise me up, that I may requite them."\[Footnote:] Ps. 41:10.\

From these passages we can see that our Lord was justified in his statement, "ye have heard that it was said, thou shall love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy."\[Footnote:] Matt. 5:43.\ Thus we may conclude that in most instances the two types of forgiveness are different.\[Footnote:] Charles, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, p. xcii.\

Now after seeing the differences of these two great moral issues found in the Old and New Testaments, we are able to see the significant contribution found in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. We find Gad warning his children against hatred. "Love ye one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peaceable to him, and in thy soul hold not guile.\[Footnote:] cf. Lev. 19:17; Matt. 18:15.\ And if he confess and repent, forgive him.\[Footnote:] cf. Luke 17:3.\ Here we obviously see that our Lord in all probability had some acquaintance with the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. The parallels in thought and language attest to that fact.

It is significant to notice that the meaning of forgiveness as expressed in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is the same as that found in the New Testament. It means "the restoring the offender to communion with us, which he had forfeited through his offence."\[Footnote:] Charles, op. cit., p. xciv.\ The author is aware of the fact that forgiveness does not take away the fact of sin. But one thing it does; it reestablishes the old personal relationships that have been broken by sin, and makes them deeper and sweeter, it may even be by awakened love and responsive gratitude. That great thing forgiveness does--and to have been alienated and then reconciled through forgiveness is about the most searching experience that the human heart ever goes through.

How is this process of forgiveness carried out? First, if a man sins against you, you must treat him with love and kindness. If he admits his wrong, you are to forgive him. If he fails to admit his offence, you must not lose your temper with him, lest he becomes poison by your temper, and you become guilty of a double sin. In such a case, the offender, even though he denies his guilt, when he is reproved will feel a sense of shame, or he will not. If he feels this sense of guilt he will repent. If he will not repent for his wrongdoing, he must be left to God.\[Footnote:] T. Gad 6:3-7.\

I have given more space to this ethical principle than I have given to any other previously, because of its tremendous influence on the Christian tradition. It reveals to us that the teachings of [strikeout illegible] late Judaism on the question of forgiveness is a connecting link between the conceptions found in the Old and New Testaments. The modern reader is amazed to see how the author of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs had such a wonderful insight into the kernal of this question. No one can fully destroy its relevance today. We can see with greater appreciation the words of the prayer given to all men, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us."

Asher: The Two Characters of Vice and Virtue.

The demand for ethical living presupposes that there is freedom of will, the free choice to will the good and do it or to hate the evil and avoid it. The teachers of late Judaism clearly recognized the significance of moral freedom. Asher says to his children: "Two ways hath God given to the sons of men, and two inclinations, and two kinds of action, and two modes (of action), and two issues. Therefore all things are by twos, one over against the other. For there are two ways, of good and evil, and with these are the two inclinations in our breasts discriminating them. Therefore if the soul take pleasure in the good (inclination), all its actions are in righteousness; and if it sin it straightway repenteth. For, having its thoughts set upon righteousness; and casting away wickedness, it strightway overthroweth the evil, and uprooteth the sin."\[Footnote:] T. Asher 1:3-7.\ The importance of this passage can hardly be exaggerated, for it deals with a high ethical principle. Although the idea had been expressed before,\[Footnote:] See Jer. 21:8.\ it is carried to its deeper meaning in this book. The author of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs will not accept a doctrine of hereditary sin, neither will he accept the doctrine of inevitable fate. He will only accept the view that the universe is essentially honest.

This is a lofty contribution which serves as a dynamic influence to later Judaism and Christian thought. Even the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the parties who, according to Josephus were of conflicting views, came in agreement on the question of freedom of will.

Joseph: Brotherly Love.

The testament of Joseph deals with two important ethical principles. In the first part (ch. 1-10) he deals with the problem of chastity. In the second part (ch. 10-17) he appears as the model of brotherly love. The former is written in poetical style; the latter, which is chronologically earlier, is written in simple prose, so that it is quite evident that the work {is of} two different authors.

Since the question of chastity was discussed above, I will limit this discussion to the question of brotherly love. Joseph is found dwelling on the fact that, lest he should put his brothers to shame, he never revealed his birthplace and his family either to the merchants, who had bought him as a slave, or to Potiphar, whose wife had fallen in love with him at first sight, or to any of the enuchs of Pharaoh who stripped and beat him. "Therefore," said he to his children, "love one another, and with long-suffering hide each other's faults, for God delighteth in the unity of brethren."\[Footnote:] T. Joseph 17: 3.\ He even goes futher by saying, "if any one seeketh to do evil unto you, do well unto him, and ye shall be redeemed of the Lord from all evil."\[Footnote:] T. Joseph 18:2.\


The Testament of Benjamin deals with an ethical principle (purity of heart) which has already been discussed in the Testament of Reuben, therefore it would be needless repetition to reiterate this principle here. So we may leave Benjamin by saying that he saw purity of heart as the highest virtue.


We must conclude that the ethics of late Judaism reached a very high peak. So high and lofty were these ideals, that even today we cannot completely escape them. We might have to modify these ideals to fit the conditions of the twentieth century, but we can never cast them out altogether. Although the form of the situations have changed, the substance of truth is the same.

In many instances, the pictures drawn by the author of this great work were idealistic, and ideals which all Jews did not attain any more than we attain all of our ideals. But the ideals were there; they at least served as standards by which he could measure himself, or goals which he could strive to attain. It was these ideals which later influenced the two great characters who will remain dear to us as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen--Jesus and Paul.


Charles, R. H., Testaments Of The Twelve Patriarchs, London: Adam And Charles Black, 1908.

Charles, R. H., Religious Development Between The Old And The New Testaments, New York: Henry Holt and Co., n.d.

THDS. MLKP-MBU: Box 113, folder 19.

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