Third Maccabees 2 – Have Mercy on the Downcast

Philopater IV

Gold octadrachm issued by Ptolemy IV Philopator, British Museum

When Philopater visits Jerusalem wants to offer sacrifices at the temple in order to make his new subjects “feel secure” (1:6-16). He is greatly impressed by the Temple and wants to enter the Holy of Holies. But the priests explain this is forbidden even for the Jews. Philopater insists that as king he is above this law. The priests cry out and tear their cloths and pray that Almighty God would stop Philopater from this plan. The whole city joins in the mourning for the plan of the king, praying to God to stop the king from his “sacrilegious plan.” He refuses to be persuaded and the chaos grows in intensity (1:17-29).

The High Priest Simon makes an impassioned prayer asking God to stop this “wicked and corrupt man” who is “reckless in his effrontery” (2:1-20). He believes God is testing the people as he has done in the past and the priest is determined that the people will not fail this time. Simon’s prayer recalls other times when the wicked were destroyed (the giants, Sodom, Pharaoh). The High Priest begs the Lord not to punish the Jews for this defilement (v. 17). The Lord responds to this prayer by severely thrashing Philopater and paralyzing him (2:21-33).  His bodyguards were amazed at this and pull his body out of the Temple.

Philopater recovered but was not humbled by this punishment: “he by no means repented, but went away uttering bitter threats” (v. 24). He returned to Egypt where he was “even more extravagant in his wickedness.” He sought ways to bring shame on the nation of Israel.  He required the Jews to sacrifice to Dionysus and even to tattoo themselves with an ivy leaf over their hearts to show devotion to Dionysus. The Jews are to be taxed heavily and reduced to the level of slavery.

While there were some Jews who gave into these demands in order to advance themselves in society, “The majority acted firmly with a courageous spirit and did not abandon their religion; and by paying money in exchange for life they confidently attempted to save themselves from the registration” (3: 32, NRSV). The latter half of this verse is an indication there were some Jews who did attempt to capitulate to the Ptolemies.

There is very little in these events which is historical. The writer has combined elements of the abominations of Antiochus IV with Pompey’s entry into the Temple in 63 B.C. The writer created a biblical prayer and placed in the mouth of the last of the great High Priests, Simon. Although it is impossible to connect these events to any one actual event, the writer tells his generation that God will act as he has done in the past to deal with the current empire, Rome.

There are several indications the writer has Rome in mind in this text. First, it was Pompey who entered the Holy of Holies in 63 B.C. The author of 3 Maccabees pushes this sacrilege back more than a hindered years.

Second, during the Roman period Jews in Egypt were required to register in a census (λαογραφία, laographía). This tax was first introduced by Augustus, required the men of Alexandria aged 14 to 62. Those who were Greek citizens and “members of the gymnasium” were exempt. Some Jews could be considered Greek citizens by virtue of their education and were considered “Greek” for purposes of this taxation. This registration and marking (2:28-29) may be in the background of the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13.

Third, when Simon lists other times the Lord has defeated the enemies of God’s people, he begins with “giants who trusted in their strength” (2:24). The word translated “strength” is a rare word in the LXX, ῥώμη, which is a homophone for Rome.

The writer of 3 Maccabees is therefore creating a theologically driven story to encourage readers struggling against another oppressive Empire. Just as God has acted in the past to rescue his people (whether this is Antiochus or Pompey or the present evil emperor), so too will he act again to rescue those who are “those who are downcast and broken in spirit” (2:20).

Book Review: David Wenham, From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus?

Wenham, David. From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 124 pp. Pb; $16.   Link to Eerdmans

This new book by David Wenham is an attempt to address the forty years between Jesus and the writing of the canonical gospels. What was the content of the message the earliest Christians preached during this period? Since we only have access to reports written a generation after the fact, scholars have suggested a collection of Jesus’s sayings developed and used as a source for the three Synoptic gospels. This two-source hypothesis has dominated scholarly discussion of the origin of the written gospels, but in recent years it has been attacked, modified and sometimes dismissed as an adequate origin for the various material which eventually became the canonical gospels. The reason for this in part is a growing interest in oral tradition as a source for the Gospel writers. Both James Dunn (The Oral Gospel Tradition, Eerdmans 2013) and Francis Watson (Gospel Writing, Eerdmans 2013) have made significant contributions to a better understanding of how Oral Tradition functioned in the period between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

The main problem with oral tradition is a modern prejudice against oral sources (or the modern preference for written sources). When Form Critics described the growth of oral tradition they often assumed early Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return very soon and establish his kingdom, thus there is no need to write books. They simply told stories about Jesus, and as Christians began to understand Jesus as in some sense divine, they began to embellish the sayings and stories in order to enhance the status of Jesus as well as to address particular problems in their own community. Someone passing along an oral tradition about Jesus was not particularly concerned with accuracy (in the modern sense).

Based on a better understanding of how oral tradition works in ancient cultures, Wenham’s main thesis in the book is that oral tradition was carefully preserved by the earliest Christians. He also demonstrates that this oral tradition is far more substantial than often assumed, freeing New Testament scholarship from the “hazardous hypothetical document” Q (p. 99).

In order to support this thesis, Wenham examines the evidence for an oral tradition in the book of Luke-Acts (chapter 2), the evidence in Mark, Matthew, and John (chapter 3) and in Paul’s letters (chapter 4). Wenham argues for the accuracy of Luke-Acts as a witness to the preaching and teaching of the early church. This resonates with the Synoptic Gospels description of the as invited to follow Jesus and to “be with him” (p. 29-30). Those who followed Jesus were commanded to pass along to the nations everything Jesus had instructed them (Matt 28:16-20).

Wenham finds confirmation of this passing of tradition in the Pauline letters. In this chapter Wenham follows the same trajectory as Jerry L. Sumney in his recent Steward of God’s Mysteries (Eerdmans, 2016). Beginning with 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, Wenham identifies a series of traditions embedded in the Pauline letters. Wenham answers the objection that “Paul knows nothing of the life of Jesus” by pointing to several examples where Jesus tradition is assumed. Since letters are occasional literature, there is no need for Paul to outline the life of Jesus before alluding to the Sermon on the Mount or the Olivet Discourse.

Chapters 5-6 trace the evidence for an oral tradition in the Gospels.

Wenham offers two examples where an appeal to oral tradition provides a more satisfying solution than literary dependence. First, Matthew 10:11/Luke 10:7 is usually considered a Q passage. The phrase “the laborer deserves his wages” appears in Luke 10:7 and 1 Timothy 5:18. There are allusions to this same idea in 1 Corinthians 9 as well.

His second example is Paul’s allusions to the Olivet Discourse in 1 Thessalonians 5. The parable of the Thief, followed by five foolish virgins who fall asleep, much the way Paul’s thief sayings in 5:2 and 5:4 are followed by a an admonition not to sleep “as the others do.” Wenham argues 1 Thessalonians 5 is evidence Paul knew an oral tradition later incorporated into Matthew 25. That Paul seems to know material from all potential literary traditions (Mark, Q, M and L is evidence Paul has extensive knowledge of Jesus’s teaching in an oral form.

At this point Wenham needs to address two potential objections to his view that oral tradition better explains Paul’s use of Jesus tradition than a literary theory involving some sort of written source like Q. First, it is almost certain Paul knew the material eventually included in Matthew 24-25 (although the influence on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is less obvious than for 1 Thessalonians 5:1-9). Although it is entirely possible Paul knew this material via an oral tradition handed down to him by Jesus’s disciples, it is equally possible Paul did have written notes of the things Jesus said, something like a Q document. That Paul may allude to as many as four pools of literary sources (Mark, Q, M, L) seems to favor Wenham’s thesis, but since the allusions are all from an eschatological discourse, it is at least possible he had a written collection.

A second objection is the possibility Paul alludes to another source than the oral tradition standing behind the Gospels or a literary tradition like Q. For the laborer saying, Jesus and Paul may both allude to Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15, or similar rabbinic interpretations of these texts (b. Bek. 29a: “Just as you received it [Torah] without payment, so teach it without payment”). The same could be said for 1 Thessalonians 4-5 since non-canonical apocalyptic literature describes the end of the age as labor pains. Does Paul’s phrase “peace and security” in 5:3 refer to Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:36-39 (the “days of Noah”) or is he parodying the claims of the Empire to bring “peace and safety” to the world.

Overall I am in agreement that there was an extensive oral tradition which the first generation actively passed on and guarded tenaciously. As Wenham said, the oral tradition was the “story of Jesus, not just pithy creedal statements or disconnected stories” (p. 94). He is certainly correct to say the earliest Christians told and retold the story of Jesus as accurately depicted in the book of Acts (p. 100). But is this an issue of either oral or written sources?

Despite these caveats, Wenham’s book is good entry point into a sometimes contentious debate on the status of an oral tradition in the earliest church. Wenham properly calls attention to the pervasive use of oral sources in the earliest written documents as well as the trustworthiness of the oral tradition used by Paul and the Gospel writers.



NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

What is Third Maccabees?

This “historical romance” was written in Greek sometime after the battle of Raphia (217 B.C.) and before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The book seems to know the additions to Daniel and possible the Letter of Aristeas as well, so it is probable the book was written in the first century B.C. The book may also have used 2 Maccabees, there are parallels in vocabulary and style. The book is often included in texts on the Apocrypha. The book is misnamed, since it does not contain a history of the Maccabean period, nor is it a continuation of the other two Maccabean books.  The book concerns an incident unrelated to the Maccabean family, and is titled Ptolemaica in some manuscripts (deSilva, 306).

Image result for third maccabeesSome scholars date the book to the reign of Caligula because of his desire to place an image of himself in the temple in A.D. 40. This sort of fictional “reaction” to Caligula is told in the guise of a similar crisis of the not-too-distant past. The problem with this view is there nothing explicit in the text which points to Rome or Caligula as the real point of the book.

A third possibility is the book was written in response to the shift from Egyptian to Roman control of Egypt in 24 B.C. The civic status of the Jew in Egypt was in question at that time, therefore the author creates a story as a comment on the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt. The evidence for this is a hint in 2:28 to a Roman poll tax.

This is a very thin argument and cannot serve as a final proof of the date of the book either. As Anderson says in his introduction, the real problem with each of these theories is that the book does not read like a “crisis document.” It lacks nearly every important characteristic of the apocalyptic response to a crisis (judgment, retribution, overthrow of the present age by God himself).

3 Maccabees may have been written as a defense of Diaspora Jews written to a Judean Jewish audience (Williams, 17). Since they live outside the land, they are considered to be “still in exile” and are therefore still under God’s judgment. The book demonstrates that God hears the prayers of the Diaspora Jewish community and preserves them in persecution, as he did during the Jewish community in Judea during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. It is possible the Jews in Jerusalem looked down on the Jews living outside the land.  The Jew of the Diaspora has as close of a connection to God as of the Jewish living in the land.

The book certainly addresses the problem of apostasy in the Diaspora since the Jews who have renounced their faith in the book are judged harshly. A major theme of the book is the boundary between the Jew and the Gentile. When Gentiles appear in the story, they are prejudiced, lawless and abominable. Even in Egypt Jews are warned to keep their distance from Gentiles and to avoid apostasy at all cost.

The context of the Caligula decree seems to make the most sense, but there does not seem to be enough time for a book like this to be written and circulated to make much of a difference in that situation. It is possible the author has in mind “generic” persecution, since a number of Greek and Roman generals sought to enter the temple. Pompey did in fact enter the Holy of Holies without any judgment. It is possible the book was written after Pompey as a sort of “what should have happened” story.

The study of this book is valuable to the student of the New Testament because it describes the Jews as unwilling to compromise their faith even in the Diaspora. When Ptolemy threatens to enter the sanctuary the whole population of Jerusalem join in the protest, but it is a protest to God to step into the situation and stop Ptolemy himself.  God is “the God, who oversees all things, the first Father of all, holy among the holy ones” (NRSV), therefore he can act and do what he needs to in order to defend himself.

Paul’s encounters with Jews in Asia Minor, for example, indicate that most Jews were keeping the law and not particularly interested Paul’s encouragement of Gentiles to “convert” partially by believing Jesus is the Messiah and not keep the Law. Here in this book those Jews who chose to “following their own bellies” and reject the Law in order to gain favor with the King are killed in the climax of the story. It is little wonder Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law often resulted in riots and physical abuse (2 Cor 12).


Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 304-322; David Williams, “3 Maccabees: A Defense of Diaspora Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), 17-29.


The Words of Ahiqar

Ahiqar is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 (Charles APOT 1:296 lists parallels between Ahiqar and Sirach) and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book is considerably different than any surveyed thus far because it is a part of the context of Mesopotamia rather than the Old Testament. While this is certainly wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. OTP 2:483-484 discusses the possibility of an historical Ahiqar based on cuneiform tablets discovered at Uruk.

The name of the book appears and there are several other superficial parallels. The genre of Ahiqar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6), although it is possible also to see an affinity to Esther as well in that Ahiqar saved a man’s life, then later that man has power over him. The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahiqar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The “plot” of the book concerns the retirement of Ahiqar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahiqar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahiqar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahiqar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahiqar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahiqar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahiqar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahiqar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahiqar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahiqar lectures him).

The Sayings of Ahiqar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point. For example, line 117 says “there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu.” Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

There are a few lines which are reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword (cf., Heb. 4:12, the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword). The parallel is superficial, but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common speech in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in both the Old and New Testament (1 Tim. 6:10, for example).

Eldad and Modad

This biblical expansion is only preserved in a single line of only four words at that in the Vision of Hermes 2.3.4, The line reads “’The Lord is near to those who turn to him’” as it is written (in the book of) Eldad and Modad who prophesied in the desert. James Charlesworth thinks that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan also quotes from this source (ABD 2:43)1. There are a number of other un-attributed statements in the writings of the earliest church which have been attributed to Eldad and Modad, but none of these can be proven to be from an actual book. The Stichometry of Nicephorus (ninth century) lists Eldad and Modad as having 400 lines.

In Numbers 11 Moses orders the seventy elders to the tent of meeting after the people complain about food in the desert. Eldad and Modad (Medad in the MT, NRSV and most literature on this apocryphal text) are two of the elders of Israel who did not go to the tent of Meeting (Numbers 11:26-27). When the spirit of God comes upon them and they begin to prophesy, Joshua tells Moses to stop them since they had been to the tent. Moses refuses since the Lord who put his spirit in these men and he would not stop it. Like Enoch, who generated significant apocryphal literature, there is nothing in Numbers to indicate what they prophesied. For Martin, the two were “were insignificant tribal prophets” E. G. Martin, “Eldad and Modad,” OTP 2:465).

The text from Targum Pseudo-Jonathan indicates the two prophets predicted Gog and Magog would attack on Jerusalem at “the end of days.” A “royal Messiah” would defeat these evil forces (Martin, OTP 2:464). The pair are mentioned a few times in the Talmud. For example, Eldad and Medad said, ‘We are not worthy of that high position’” (b. Sanh. 1:1, XXX.3.A; cf. b. Ros. Has. 2:8b, III.1.D where they are simply mentioned as elders). But there is nothing on the content of their prophecy.

James Davila addressed the problem of “quotation fragments” in a lecture entitled “A Worst-Case Scenario (Eldad and Modad)” (29 April, 1997, University of St. Andrews). The purpose of the paper was to “propose some common-sense guidelines for dealing with quotation fragments.” The first of these proposals is to “know your author,” something of a problem of Eldad and Modad. Although the Shepherd of Hermas is a well-known text, “Visions 1-4 is a redactional unit that was probably written half a century or so earlier” and the text itself is not particularly well preserved.

The fragment represents a tantalizing glimpse into a short biblical expansion lost to modern scholarship.

History of the Rechabites

This short text is sometimes called the Apocalypse of Zosimus or the Story of Zosimus since it features the visionary travels of the virtuous monk Zosimus. Since a critical edition of the text has yet to be published, Charlesworth suggests it is unwise to state a probable date and provenance for the book. The book appears in Greek, Syriac and Ethiopic but it is possible the text goes back to a Semitic source. More recently, Chris Knights considers chapters 11-12 and 14-16 to be a Jewish Pseudepigrapha written before A.D. 850 originally composed in Greek (Knight, 1998, 92-3).

The book was preserved by Christians and has obvious Christian glosses. While the book has limited value for the study of the New Testament, it is an interesting parallel to the story of St. Brendan, the Irish monk who twice sailed to the Isle of the Blessed in the fifth century A.D. It is impossible to know if History of the Rechabites was influences by the tale of St. Brenden or vice versa. For details, see Witikowski, “Syriac Apocalyptic Literature,” in The Armenian Apocalyptic Tradition: A Comparative Perspective: Essays Presented in Honor of Professor Robert W. Thomson on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. eds. Kevork B. Bardakjian, Sergio La Porta (Brill, 2014), 670.

History of the Rechabites is an expansion of Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah encounters a nomadic tribe of people known as the Rechabites who drink no wine and live in tents because of a vow their forefather had made. In canonical Jeremiah, this tribe is a model of faithfulness in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. In this apocalypse the tribe now resides on the Island of the Blessed Ones. A holy man by the name of Zosimus spends forty years fasting in the desert asking to see the Island of the Blessed. His prayer is finally heard and an angel escorts him over a gigantic sea. An animal of some kind takes him the rest of the way onto an island where he meets a naked man who claims to be one of the Blessed.

The Blessed Ones take Zosimus in and teach him their background including a few stories about Jeremiah and Josiah’s sons in the last days of Judah. A wicked king attempts to force the Rechabites to break their vow by forcing them to drink wine, but God himself protected them and brought them to this island. The people living on the Blessed Island know all about people in Zosimus’ world. They are aware how wicked they are and they pray for them. The Lord announced to these Blessed Ones the coming of the Word Incarnate through the Holy Virgin.

The Island of the Blessed Ones is like the Garden of Eden. The people are naked, “covered with a stole of glory similar to Adam and Eve before they sinned” (12:3). They eat from the fruits of the trees drink from “the exceedingly good, sweet, and delightful water which comes out to us from the roots of the trees.” These people are aware of the fallen world because “the angels of God dwell with us and they announce to us those things which (happen) among you.” They pray for the “sinners and pagans who are in the world and petition God constantly to restrain his anger” (12:8).

On feast days the Lord rains manna on the Blessed Ones, and they never suffer from sickness or temptation. The Rechabites know when they are going to die, but there is no need to dig graves because the angels conduct them to heaven. The Blessed pray for Zosimus specifically that he could be a guide and refuge. While they pray, a white cloud delivers him back to his home. The text breaks off here, although OTP notes there is an additional four chapters in Greek by a Christian author concerning temptation.



Bosman, H. L. “The Rechabites and ‘Sippenethos’ in Jeremiah 35.” ThEv 16 (1983): 83-86.

Demsky, Aaron. “The Scribal Families of Jabetz”, in M. Garsiel (ed.) Studies in Bible and Exegesis vol. 10 (Shmuel Vargon Vol) (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan Universty Press, 2011), pp. 253-261 (Hebrew).

Frick, Frank. “Rechab, Rechabites” in ABD 5:630-631; “The Rechabites Reconsidered,” JBL 90 (1991): 279-287. Frick suggests the Rechabites were a guild of chariot makers, based on the etymology of their tribal name.

Haelewyck, J-C. (Jean-Claude), et al. “Diverse Perspectives on the Manuscript Tradition of the Story of Zosimus,” Oriens Christianus 99 (2016): 1-44

Keown, G. L. “Excursus: The Identity of the Rechabites” in Jeremiah 26-52 (WBC 27; Dallas: Word, 2002) 194-96.

Knights, Chris “‘The Story of Zosimus’ or ‘The History Of The Rechabites’?” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period (1993): 235–245.

Knights, Chris. “Towards a Critical Introduction to ‘The History of the Rechabite,’” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 26 (1995): 324-342.

Knights, Chris. “The History of the Rechabites-an Initial Commentary,” Journal For The Study Of Judaism In The Persian, Hellenistic And Roman Period 28 (1997): 413-436.

Levenson, J. D. “On the Promise to the Rechabites.” CBQ 38 (1976) 508-514;




Jannes and Jambres

The text of Jannes and Jambres is fragmentary and lacking in solid historical allusions, making it doubly difficult to date. Origen appears to refer to the book when commenting on 2 Timothy (Contra Celsus, IV. 51.)  The fragments in Chester Beatty papyri XVI date to the third century A.D. The book could be either Jewish or Christian since the Jannes and Jambres traditions are found in both streams.

The Damascus Document is the first reference to one of the magicians by the name, suggesting a tradition which predates 100 B.C.: “For in earlier times Moses and Aaron arose with the help of the Prince of Lights, while Belial raised up Jannes and his brother in his cunning, when Israel was saved the first time” (CD–A Col. v:18, trans. Davies, 245). In his commentary on Matthew, Origin indicated the reference to the Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy came from a non-canonical source (see commentary on 27:3-10). There are several rabbinic sources for the names (b.Men., 85a; Exodus rabba, 7 on 7:11) and in Targum. Ps.-Jonathan. on Exod 1:15, but these are also late and not useful for dating the document with any precision

It is possible Paul knew the tradition since 2 Timothy 3:8 to two men who opposed Moses, Jannes and Jambres. Paul’s point is his opponents stand in the tradition of Jannes and Jambres, “corrupted in mind” and “disqualified in the faith.” From about the same time as 2 Timothy, Dibelius and Conzelmann quote Pliny, Hist. Nat. 30.2.11: “There is yet another branch of magic, derived from Moses, Jannes, Lotapes and the Jews, but living many thousand years after Zoroaster.” They also mention a tradition in the Acts of Peter and Paul 34: “For just as the Egyptians Jannes and Jambres deceived Pharaoh and his army until they were drowned in the sea, so also etc.” (The Pastoral Epistles; Hermenia, 117).

These two men are the magicians who were able to change their staff to a snake as did Moses in Exodus 7:11. Although they are not mentioned by name in Exodus, the traditional use of these two names as prototypical magicians is well known. In Eusebius’ Praeparatio evangelica (9.8) the pagan Numenius may have alluded to this tradition, saying that Jannes and Jambres were able to undo, the plagues against Egypt. In the Decretum Gelasianum, a sixth-century Latin manuscript attributed to Pope Gelasius I (492–96), Jannes and Jambres is listed among the sixty-two “apocryphal” (rejected) works.

The book makes for difficult reading since most lines are fragmentary and there are a number of gaps in the text. When the two magicians are summoned to oppose Moses, Jambres ran back to the library to collect his “magical tools.”  A fragment in the British Library states that Jambres (Mambrews) performed necromancy. When he died he went into the netherworld where there is a great burning pit of perdition.

Mambres opened the magical books of his brother Jannes; he performed necromancy and brought up from the netherworld his brother’s shade. The soul of Jannes said in response, I your brother did not die unjustly, but indeed justly, and the judgment will go against me, since I was more clever than all clever magicians, and opposed the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, who performed great signs and wonders. As a result I died and was brought from among (the living) to the netherworld where there is great burning and the pit of perdition, whence no ascent is possible. (Pietersma A. and R. T. Lutz, “Jannes and Jambres,” in OTP 2:440)

The use of the fragments for New Testament studies is extremely limited, perhaps only serving to illuminate the tradition standing behind 2 Tim 3:8.



Davies, Philip R. The Damascus Covenant: An Interpretation of the “Damascus Document” (Translation) (JSOTSupp 25; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1982), 245–247.

James, M. R. “A Fragment of the ‘Penitence of Jannes and Jambres.’ ” JTS 2 (1901): 572–77.

Klippenstein, Rachel “Jannes and Jambres, Text,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

Pietersma A. and R. T. Lutz, “Jannes and Jambres,” in OTP 2:427.

Pietersma, Albert. “Jannes and Jambres” in ABD, 3:368-369.