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What is the Testament of Abraham?

Testament of Abraham

The Testament of Abraham is one book in the pseudepigrapha; that is, it is a non-biblical text written using the name of a biblical figure. Like its related works, the Testament of Abraham contains various contradictions to Scripture and history, and it was not accepted as inspired by the early church. Researchers have identified two different versions of the text. A prevailing theory is that the revisions were meant to make the story more serious, as the original has a satirical, almost comedic approach.

According to the Testament of Abraham, God sent the archangel Michael to inform Abraham that he is about to die. Michael feels guilty about bringing this news, so God sends the message to Isaac in a dream instead. Isaac relays the news to his father. An angry Abraham demands a world tour before he dies. As Michael shows Abraham the world via a heavenly chariot, Abraham repeatedly calls for fierce judgment on those he perceives as sinners. Michael, on the other hand, is more regretful than vengeful. That attitude is eventually reflected in Abraham, as well.

When Abraham returns home, he finds Sarah has died of grief, thinking he is dead. In one version of the Testament of Abraham, Abraham’s soul is taken by God in a dream-like sequence. In the other, a manifestation of death has to trick Abraham into kissing the hand of death in order for him to die.

The overall theme of the Testament of Abraham is that of mercy. In particular, the text implies that God’s mercy is far above and beyond that of human beings. At the same time, it suggests that judgment is inevitable for all people. The Testament of Abraham also leans heavily toward a works-based approach to religion: person’s eternal fate is tied to the balance of his good and bad deeds.

In keeping with the possibly comic intent of the original author, Abraham gives no “last testament” in the Testament of Abraham—he delivers no grandiose speech or final instructions. This version of Abraham is not “evil” so much as “conniving,” and much of the plot involves his stalling God and Michael to delay his own death. Michael is portrayed as an indecisive, almost weak-willed creature who is constantly befuddled by Abraham.

More so than many other pseudepigraphic texts, the Testament of Abraham seems to have been originally intended to entertain, rather than simply teach or enhance spirituality. Depending on the version one reads, the Testament of Abraham seems to emphasize comedy as much as moralizing. It was not considered Scripture by any early Christian or Jewish groups. And yet it is apparently referenced as such by Muhammad in the Qur’an (87:17–18), as the Testament of Abraham was circulating during his lifetime.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022