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The Prayer of Joseph

And now we come to the consideration of a very interesting lost book, the Prayer of Joseph. The lists have told us that it contained 1100 lines—as many as are assigned to Wisdom; and we have certain fragments of it preserved by Origen, which must be transcribed and expounded in detail.

The first and longest is in Origen's Commentary upon John, ii. 31.


He is speaking of John the Baptist, and, says he: "It will not be out of place to add a notion of our own about him. When we read the prophecy of him, 'Behold, I send my angel before thy face,' etc., we reflected if by chance one of the holy angels being upon service were not sent down as a forerunner of our Saviour. It would not, indeed, be surprising if, when the firstborn of all creation became incarnate, for love of man, some should have become emulators and imitators of Christ, and embraced the opportunity of ministering to His kindness to men by means of a like body. . . . Now if any one accepts among the apocrypha current among the Hebrews, what is entitled the Prayer of Joseph, he will derive from it exactly this teaching, expressed in plain terms: that those who from the beginning possessed some special excellence beyond men, and were greatly superior to all other souls, have descended from the estate of angels into human nature. Jacob, at any rate, says: 'For I Jacob that speak unto you, I am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were pre-created (προεκτίσθησαν, a word only found here) before any work. And I Jacob, that am called by men Jacob, yet my name is Israel, that am called by God Israel, a man seeing God, for I am the first begotten of every living thing that is quickened by God.'" And he continues: "And I, when I was coming from Mesopotamia of Syria, Uriel the angel of God came forth and said that I had come down (came) to earth and tabernacled among men, and that I was called by name Jacob. He envied me and fought with me, and wrestled with me, saying that his name should have precedence of my name and of the angel that is before all (or that his name and the name of the angel that is before all should have precedence of my name). (All is singular, and should perhaps be rendered 'before every (angel).') And I told him his name, and in what order[1] he is among the sons of God, saying: 'Art not thou Uriel, the eighth from me, and I am Israel, an archangel of the power of the Lord, and a captain of captains of thousands among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God?' And I called upon my God by the inextinguishable name." "It is likely" (Origen goes on) "that if these words were really spoken by Jacob, and therefore recorded, that the incident 'He supplanted his brother in the womb' (Hos. xii. 3) happened intelligently (consciously, συνετῶσ)." He then speaks a little about Jacob and Esau, hinting at their possible pre-existence, and concludes: " But we have made a considerable digression in taking up the matter of Jacob and calling in as evidence a writing not lightly to be despised, to make something more credible of the theory about John, which maintains that he, according to Isaiah's word, being an angel, took a body in order to bear witness to the Light." This passage is summarized by Jerome on Haggai.

The second fragment is in the Philocalia, cap. xxiii. 15, taken from the Commentary on Genesis iii. It is partly to be found in Eusebius' Præp. Evang., VI. 11, and Procopius on Genesis quotes from it too. The topic is astrology.

"For, as we showed before that the fact that God knows what every man will do is no obstacle to free-will, so neither do the signs which God has appointed for the giving of information impede freewill: but, like a book containing future events in prophecy, the whole heaven—the book of God, as it is—may contain the future. Wherefore in the Prayer of Joseph this word of Jacob may be thus understood: 'For I have read in the tablets of heaven all that shall befall you and your sons.'

(19) "But if Jacob says he has read in the tablets of heaven what is to befall his sons, and upon this point some one objects to us that the opposite of what we have said is shown by the Scripture (for we were saying that man has no apprehension of the signs, whereas Jacob says he has read in the tablets of heaven), we shall say in defence that our wise men, aided by a spirit excelling human nature, are taught secret things not humanly but divinely, as Paul, who says, 'I heard unspeakable words,' etc. . . . And, besides, Jacob was greater than man, he who supplanted his brother, and who declares in that same book from which we quoted, 'I read in the tablets of heaven' that he was a captain of captains of thousands of the power (host) of the Lord, and had of old the name of Israel: which fact he recognizes while doing service in a body, being reminded of it by the archangel Uriel."

The next allusion is in the Annals of Michael Glycas, a Byzantine chronicler of the twelfth century. He has given a résumé of the story of Tobit, and when he comes to the name of the archangel Raphael, he says, "And this name Raphael thou hast already learnt out of Tobit, but that of Uriel, as the great Psellus (Michael Psellus, 1081) says, neither the Old nor the New Testament makes known to us. But there is a Hebraic book, unknown to most men, entitled the Prayer of Joseph, where his father Jacob is introduced as talking with this angel [Raphael]; though now the book, like the other apocryphal writings, is rejected and set at nought by the Hebrews." The bracketed name of Raphael must be wrong. The reference to Psellus, much of whose writing remains inedited, has never been followed up. Very likely he depended upon Origen for his knowledge of the Prayer.

In the Ascension of Isaiah, iv. 22, a number of prophetic writings are mentioned: the twelve minor prophets are enumerated, and then "the words of Joseph the Just, and the words of Daniel." Here it is generally assumed that the Prayer of Joseph is meant. The passage has been thought to be an addition to the Ascension: at latest it would be of the third century, at earliest late in the first.

In the Revue Bénédictin Dom Morin has an article on the library of the Abbey of Gorze in the eleventh century. To it he appends a note upon a collection of Latin homilies attributed to a certain John, which he had seen in MSS. then extant at Reims and at Arras.

(Are they still in being?) "I noticed," he says, "a mention of the angel Uriel; on p. 62 are the words, Et pugnavit cum angelo Oriel (and he fought with the angel Uriel)." I do not see that this can refer to any one but Jacob, and it is not independent of the Prayer of Joseph. It is quite likely, of course, to have been derived from Origen, who, when all is said, remains our sole source of knowledge of the contents of the book.

A very lengthy comment might be written upon these fragments. I will try to compress mine.

First, the title. Prayer of Joseph, is peculiar. No other separate book is so named, though a good many prayers occurring in Scriptural books are dignified with special titles, and some were current separately. Such are the Prayers of Moses (Ps. xc), of Habakkuk, of Solomon in Kings, and in Wisdom, of Jesus son of Sirach (Ecclus. li.), of Azarias in the furnace (Dan. iii. (LXX)), of Esdras (4 Esdr. viii), of Baruch (Apoc. Baruch), of Manasseh. But these are not whole books. The nearest parallel is the case of the Book or History of Asenath, which the Armenian list places in the stead of the Joseph book, and calls the Prayer (prayers) of Asenath. A Greek MS. of it has a similar title, Confession and Prayer of Asenath. The fact that Asenath replaces Joseph suggests the possibility of an integral connexion between the books (so Mgr. Batiffol). I have tried to establish one, but with little success. The most one can say is that in Asenath a sort of divinity hangs about both Jacob and Joseph: that Levi "saw writings written in the heavens," that the angel who visits Asenath is "captain of the host of the Lord God, leader of all the army of the Most High." He has a name "written in heaven in the book of the Most High by the finger of God, before all. And the things written in that book are ineffable, such as men may not speak or hear." Joseph is described as the son of the Most High. The description of Jacob says that his arms were as those of an angel, his thighs and legs and feet like a giant's, and he like a man that fought (or might fight) with God. I think it quite probable that the writer of this was acquainted with the Prayer of Joseph; but I do not see (as I should like to see) evidence that the one book has drawn much from the other or is modelled upon it.

All that we can fairly gather from the title is that the book must have contained a prayer or prayers of considerable bulk uttered by Joseph (as Asenath contains a long prayer of Asenath). On what occasion it was offered, whether in the pit, or in prison, or on his deathbed, there is no certainty.

From the fragments we can gather one point of importance. Jacob says, "I that speak unto you, I have read what shall befall you and your sons." He is therefore addressing some or all of his descendants, and he does so in the terms used by the Patriarchs in the Testaments when they are on their deathbeds. Also, I think, the revelation of his angelic nature is one which would naturally be reserved until the end of his life. Further, in Gen. xlviii., where the blessing of Joseph's sons is related, there are coincidences of expression: "My God," and "When I was coming from Mesopotamia of Syria." Thus the book contained a dying speech of Jacob, of which we have a portion. I am tempted to think that it was addressed to Joseph and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The grounds are naturally slight: (a) We already have, in Genesis xlix., the full address of Jacob to the twelve; (b) there are coincidences of language with the episode of Joseph's sons in Gen. xlviii.

The matter and doctrine of the fragments occupy us next. The pre-existence of Jacob as an angel, and of Abraham and Isaac is here taught in the crudest way. The terms, however, are confusing. If Jacob is first-begotten of every living thing, is he senior to Abraham and Isaac? One must doubt whether the writer had thought this out. He is bent on emphasizing the dignity of Jacob, and finds himself forced to mention the two other Patriarchs.

On pre-existence of souls in general a good deal has been written: an essay by F. C. Porter in O. T. and Semitic Studies in Memory of President Harper, is a notable contribution to the subject. His thesis is that the Jewish doctrine of the pre-existence of ordinary human souls does not imply a belief in a full personal existence of them. We, however, are concerned with the personal pre-existence of certain individuals. Rabbinic literature has a little light to throw on this. The Midrash Rabba, I. §4, gives (as do other books) a list of things that were created before the world. The Torah and the Throne of Glory (Prov. viii. 22, Ps. xciii. 2): these were created already; four more came into God's mind to be created: the Patriarchs (Hos. ix. 10: I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig-tree at her first time), Israel (Ps. lxxiv. 2), the Sanctuary (Jer. xvii. 12), the name of Messiah (Ps. lxxii. 17). Sometimes Repentance is added. We find the list also in Midrash Tanchuma and the Pirke R. Eliezer (where the phrase is "the spirits of the fathers"). It does not quite come up to our text in precision of statement. Older books can be cited. Enoch xlviii. 3, says of the Son of Man, "Before the sun and moon and the signs were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits." Moses (Assumption, i. 14) says of himself, "God foresaw (not created) me before the foundation of the world that I should be the mediator of his covenant."

Ideas about pre-existence were in the air, and it is even possible that the words of Christ in John viii. 58, "Before Abraham was, I am," are to be regarded as showing a consciousness, and containing a contradiction, of such beliefs.

As to the phrase "first-begotten of every living thing," one O.T. text may be cited as a parallel, Exod. iv. 22, "Israel is my firstborn son"; but far nearer is St. Paul's phrase in Col. i. 15, "the firstborn of every creature."

In the Shepherd of Hermas, Vision III. 2, 5, we read of the (seven) holy angels who were first created. Clement of Alexandria mentions them rather frequently, e. g. in Str. VI. 143: "Seven are they that have the greatest power, the first begotten rulers of the angels." We also find them in the Pirke R. Eliezer, 4: "The seven angels that were first created."

"That his name should have precedence over my name and over that of the angel before every . . ." Schürer would read, "and before every angel" (πρὸ τοῦ παντὸσ ἀγγέλου for τοῦ πρὸ παντὸσ ἀγγέλου), but I do not think the text can be mended so easily. It depends on one sole MS., and I fear it is defective. More important is it to notice another Pauline parallel: "He hath given him a name which is above every name," etc. No Jewish Scripture supplies a better.

Uriel is the wrestling angel. This, again, is peculiar. The uniform Rabbinic tradition savs that it was Michael, Pseudo-Philo (Bibl. Antiq., XVIII. 6) that it was the angel who is over the praises, the Ladder of Jacob that it was the archangel Sarekl: in Pirke R. Eliezer the wrestling angel gives his own name Israel to Jacob. I do not trace the reason for choosing Uriel. He figures a good deal in Enoch: in xx. 2 he is the angel over the world and over Tartarus; he guides Enoch to remote regions and shows him the movements of the heavenly bodies. He is one of the four great angels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael being his compeers. To Adam he comes as the angel over repentance and tells him of the hours of day and night. To Esdras he shows visions. In the Apocalypse of Peter (and Sib. Orac. II ) he brings souls out of Hades to judgment. In the Testament of Solomon we read of a demon who was an offspring of Uriel, and Uriel is summoned to control him.

He appears in our fragment in a somewhat unfavourable light, seeming to take advantage of Jacob's (Israel's) confinement in a human body to gain a superiority over him, which he (no doubt) hopes to maintain when Jacob's earthly life is over.

Of the phrases "come down to earth" and "tabernacled among men," the second is paralleled by Baruch iii. 38, Rev. xxi. 3, and especially Ecclus. xxiv. 8–10; the first has its closest illustration in Eph. iv. 9–10.

"Uriel the eighth from me." Another contradiction of tradition. Israel appears here as the first of a band of seven, all of whom were before Uriel. Uriel is elsewhere always one of the first seven, and usually of the first four. The place here claimed by Jacob-Israel is that assigned by almost universal consent to Michael.

"And I called on my God by the inextinguishable name." Does this begin a fresh sentence and mean that after thus addressing Uriel, Jacob called upon God? or is it to be connected with the last clause, meaning that, in the discharge of his functions in heaven, Israel invoked Him? In this latter case the greatness of the Name would be the important point, and the intention would be to show how exalted was Jacob's ministry. In spite of the fact that the verb is in the aorist and not in the imperfect, I incline to the latter interpretation. The expression "inextinguishable name" I have not as yet found elsewhere, though I believe it to exist.

These are the chief points in the first fragment. The second is: "I read in the tablets of heaven all that shall befall you and your sons."

The tablets of heaven figure in three books, Enoch (four times) Jubilees (over twenty times), the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (thrice).

The Enoch passages are lxxxi. i, 2 (the book of the deeds of all men . . . to the remotest generations), xciii. 2 (they contain the destinies of the righteous), ciii. 2 (the reward of the righteous), cvi. 19, cvii. 1 (generation after generation will transgress).

In Jubilees, iii. 10, the laws of the purification of women are written in the heavenly tablets, and in sixteen other passages decrees or legal enactments are registered in them. In three cases events are recorded as they happen, and in two others, future matters. But to us the really important passage is xxxii. 21 ff. Jacob at Bethel (not on his flight in Gen. xxviii., but later in his life) "saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel descended from heaven with seven tablets in his hands, and he gave them to Jacob, and he read them and knew all that was written therein which would befall him and his sons throughout all the ages."

In the Testaments, Levi (v.) speaks of the slaughter of Shechem as written on the tablets (as Jubilees xxx. 19, 20), Asher (ii.) says that the distinction between clean and unclean is declared there (also in the manner of Jubilees); and in vii. 5, "I have read (or known) in the tablets of the heavens that ye will surely be disobedient," etc. In each of these cases Dr. Charles eliminates the phrase "tablets of the heavens" for reasons which seem to me unsound. In each case there is a distinct resemblance to the use of the phrase in Jubilees.

We cannot be wrong, I think, in connecting the phrase in the Prayer of Joseph with the passage in Jubilees xxxi., and in supposing that in the Prayer the same vision of Jacob at Bethel is referred to.

The leading idea of the principal fragment is that angels can become incarnate in human bodies, live on earth in the likeness of men, and be unconscious of their original state. Israel does so apparently in order that he may become the father of the chosen people. It is, I believe, a doctrine which is unique in Jewish teaching.

It has been held—e. g. by J. T. Marshall (Hastings' Dict. Bible, II. 778)—that the Prayer was definitely anti-Christian: it claimed for the Patriarchs the same sublime and supernatural characteristics as Christians claimed for Our Lord. Also, whereas in early Christian exegesis the wrestling angel is identified with the Logos, the pre-existent Christ (as by Justin and Origen), the status of that angel is here lowered in favour of Israel. These are substantial arguments. I would add that the fragments appear to show knowledge of Christian ideas and terminology. These are the points: (a) pre-existence of the Patriarchs as opposed to "Before Abraham was, I am"; (b) incarnation; (c) firstborn of every living thing; (d) "his name should have precedence of mine."

Upon the whole I incline to think that the author of the Prayer of Joseph knew something of Christian theology and indulged in some side-hits at it. Whether that was the main object of the book we cannot tell; but Origen treats it with such respect that I think its attack on Christianity cannot have been very overt.

In the Journal of Theological Studies, xx. (1918) p. 20, Mr. Vacher Burch advocates the view that the Prayer was pro-Christian, and based on the primitive Testimonia against the Jews. "The chief theme of the fragments ... is the surpassing of one angel-appearance of the Christ by another—of Uriel by Israel." It is now known that Uriel was a Testimony hypostasis of this nature, for the Ethiopic Narrative of St. Clement (Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, ii 479) contains this helpful passage: "And I (Peter) gave them commandments concerning circumcision according to the Law of Moses, and God (i. e. Christ) appeared unto me in the form of the Angel Uriel, and commanded me to do away the Old Law and to bring in the New." He refers also to the fact that Justin Martyr makes Jacob and Israel names of Christ. I cannot reproduce the whole of the passage here: the thesis is to me unconvincing at present. It is obscurely put by Mr. Burch, and needs restatement in an expanded form to make it plausible, or indeed intelligible. See further under Hezekiah.

  1. Edd. πόσος, but πόστος (quotus) is certainly to be read.