This prayer of repentance is only known through three fragments embedded in the writings of Origin. J. Z. Smith described the text as “a tantalizing fragment that has left no discernible impact on subsequent literature” (OTP 2:711).
Although the prayer originally ran some 1100 lines, only nine are now extant. Since the longest fragment appears in Origin’s Commentary on John, the prayer dates before A.D. 231. Origin introduced the text as “an apocrypha presently in use among the Hebrews.” J. Z. Smith thought the parallels with Hebrew and Aramaic prayers suggest a date in the first century (OTP 2:700). After observing the uncertainty associated with this text, Stephen Robinson suggests the prayer was written in the first century in either in Aramaic or Greek by a Jewish author (ABD 3:976). In his Lexham Bible Dictionary article, John Barry suggests the possibility the text may have “gnostic undertones” since Jacob is described as elevated figure with special abilities and knowledge.
Of interest to New Testament studies is the description of Jacob as “firstborn of every living being” in line three of the first fragment:
“I, Jacob, who is speaking to you, am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit. Abraham and Isaac were created before any work. But, I, Jacob, who men call Jacob but whose name is Israel am he who God called Israel which means, a man seeing God, because I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life.
This is remarkably similar to Colossians 1:15, although the Prayer of Joseph uses πρωτογενός rather than πρωτότοκος. But as Smith points out, both usages have their origin in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my firstborn” (πρωτότοκός μου Ισραηλ, cf., 4 Ezra 6:58; Sir 36:17; PssSol 18:4). In addition, this fragmentary text also stats Abraham and Isaac were created before anything else. In John 8:58, Jesus claims “before Abraham was, I am.” In both Colossians and John, the issue is the pre-existence of Jesus, the Prayer of Joseph may be evidence of some interest among some first century Jews in the pre-existence of patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob.
One additional intriguing element of the first fragment is the re-interpretation of the struggle between Jacob and an angel in Genesis 32:22-32. In that canonical story, the identity of the man who wrestles with Jacob is not at all clear; he is never called an angel, but he seems more than human. When he blesses Jacob, the man says “you have striven with God.” Although this may imply the man was an angel (on an incarnation of God), that is not clear in the text. The Prayer of Joseph identifies the angel as Uriel:
And when I was coming up from Syrian Mesopotamia, Uriel, the angel of God, came forth and said that ‘I [Jacob-Israel] had descended to earth and I had tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name of Jacob.’ He envied me and fought with me and wrestled with me saying that his name and the name that is before every angel was to be above mine. 6I told him his name and what rank he held among the sons of God. ‘Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? and I, Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain 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.”
This angel is one of the archangels, serving as a “chief captain among the sons of God,” but so too is Israel, the “first minister before the face of God.” Uriel appears in Uriel are those found in The Astronomical Book (1 Enoch 72–82) and guides Enoch in several other heavenly journeys (1 Enoch 19:1; 21:5, 9; 27:2; 33:3-4). 1 Enoch 20:2 identifies him as one of the angels ruling over Tartarus. Since Israel overcomes Uriel, Barry suggests this is an allegory for the elevation of Israel (the nation) over all people.
Bibliography: Barry, John D. “Prayer of Joseph” LBD; Newsom, Carol A. “Uriel (Angel),” ABD 6:769; Smith, J. Z. “Prayer of Joseph,” OTP 2:699-714.