Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is not that well known to most Western Christians. It is found in an appendix to the (post-Tridentine) Latin Vulgate Bible (together with 1 & 2 Esdras, Psalm 151 and the Epistle to the Laodiceans). It as put in the appendix l'est it be lost'. However, vernacular Roman Catholic bibles do not include the appendix and its texts in gthier translations. The King James bible included the Prayer in the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments. However, for the last two centuries the Apocrypha have been omitted from most English language Bibles and from non-English bibles produced by Anglophone churches and the Bible Societies. Luther also included the Prayer in the Apocrypha in his German Bible, which is also the basis of Swedish, Danish and other northern European bibles. These northern European churches, I believe, still retain the Apocrypha in their bibles so Lutherans in northern Europe are likely to be most familiar with the Prayer.

In the Eastern churches, it's different. The Prayer is found at the end of 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles in the Slavonic, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac bibles. That's where it's found in my English language Orthodox Study Bible. (The prayer was also found there in pre-Tridentine manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate bible.) I understand the Ethiopian bible incorporates it within the body of 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles as part of the story of Manasseh in chapter 33. The oldest most complete codex of the Greek Bible, the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus, includes the Prayer in the Book of Odes a collection of biblical liturgical canticles, such as Song of Moses, Song of Hannah, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, appended to the Psalter. Likewise the Prayer appears in the Book of Odes in the Codex Turicensis of the Psalms. The oldest form of the prayer however was found in the ancient Christian text, the 3rd century Didascalia, which was later incorporated into the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions. (You can read the Didascalia here). In both these texts, the story of the sinful king Manasseh, as found in both 2 Kings and 2 Paralipomenon/Chronicles, is recounted including his captivity in Babylon and repentance and subsequent restoration as king in Judah. It is here that the Prayer is found and these are the oldest versions of the Prayer. The Prayer has only been found in Greek and translations from the Greek but it is not certain whether it was composed in Greek or Hebrew. It's also not certain whether it is a Jewish or Christian composition. Certainly the Prayer has only been found in Christian texts. No form of the Prayer has been preserved in Rabbinic Judaism.

However, in cave 4 at Qumran a scroll of unknown non-canonical psalms was found. The Psalms are attributed to David and other kings including a different and shorter version of Manasseh's Prayer. So we have here a pre-Christian and Hebrew Prayer of Manasseh.

Qumran Prayer of Manasseh (4Q381)

The prayer of Manasseh, king of Judah, when the king of Assyria imprisoned him
.... my God .... is near,
My deliverance is before your eyes ....
For the deliverance your presence brings I wait, and I shrink before you
Because of [my sins,] for You have been very [merciful]
while I have increased my guilt, and so .... from enduring joy,
but my spirit will not experience goodness for ....
You lift me up, high over the Gentile ....
though I did not remember You ....
.... I am in awe of You, and I have been cleansed of the abominations I destroyed.
I made my soul to submit to You ... they increased its sin,
and plot against me to lock me up; but I have trusted in You ....
do not give me over to be tried, with You, O my God ....
they are conspiring against me, they tell lies .... to me deeds of ....

[from The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr & Edward Cook]

Greek Prayer of Manasseh

1 O Lord Almighty,
God of our ancestors,
of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
and of their righteous offspring;
2 you who made heaven and earth
with all their order;
3 who shackled the sea by your word of command,
who confined the deep
and sealed it with your terrible and glorious name;
4 at whom all things shudder,
and tremble before your power,
5 for your glorious splendour cannot be borne,
and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable;
6 yet immeasurable and unsearchable
is your promised mercy,
7 for you are the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful,
and you relent at human suffering.
O Lord, according to your great goodness
you have promised repentance and forgiveness
to those who have sinned against you,
and in the multitude of your mercies
you have appointed repentance for sinners,
so that they may be saved.
8 Therefore you, O Lord, God of the righteous,
have not appointed repentance for the righteous,
for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you,
but you have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner.

9 For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea;
my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied!
I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven
because of the multitude of my iniquities.
10 I am weighted down with many an iron fetter,
so that I am rejected because of my sins,
and I have no relief;
for I have provoked your wrath
and have done what is evil in your sight,
setting up abominations and multiplying offences.

11 And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
12 I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
13 I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me for ever or store up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent,
14 and in me you will manifest your goodness;
for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy,
15and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.
For all the host of heaven sings your praise,
and yours is the glory for ever. Amen.

[From New Revised Standard Version]

I'm struck by the way the principle of biblical diversity works even for such a minor text as the Prayer. Of course the Prayer is not such a minor text. It clearly had great liturgical significance in the early church and it is still recited both in the Byzantine rite of Great Compline and is also used a canticle in the daily office of the 1979 US Book of Common Prayer. Presumably the non-canonical psalms from Qumran were also used in liturgical settings.

Indeed the Prayer illustrates one way (at least) that the canonical process may work. The story of Manasseh tells of a prayer he recited. Individuals at different times/places are inspired by this account to compose a prayer, perhaps to add to the already existing account or maybe to the public performance/recitation of the account. The prayer is a hit and is added to a repertoire of prayers for public liturgical performance. Liturgical performance ensures preservation of the prayer, indeed it comes to be associated with the canonical versions of the story. Thus the prayer becomes canonical both scripturally and liturgically. It would appear that the Prayer was not deployed liturgically in the Roman rite and so did not make it into the Tridentine canon.

I would further argue that the Prayer of Manasseh should be restored as a normal part of Catholic (and all Christian) bibles either in 2 Chronicles 33 or as an appendix to Chronicles and perhaps also as part of a restored Book of Odes (I hope to write a post on the Book of Odes soon). Furthermore, I would think it most appropriate that both Greek and Qumran forms of the Prayer should sit side by side as a mark of the truly ancient diversity and plurality of the biblical texts.

For more information on and translations of the Prayer of Manasseh see the page at Early Jewish Writings

There was also a post on the Prayer at Biblicalia last year


  1. Excellent overview of one of the most beautiful prayers in any language.

  2. Can anyone explain verse 8?