Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 5

jacob_wrestling_the_angel_by_21stcenturydamocles-d3buwcaIn today’s installment of our inquiry into how Jews spoke and wrote concerning the illusive subject of ‘preexistence’ we will examine a passage within the Prayer of Joseph. The Prayer of Joseph appears in the collection of texts called the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. This document was composed in the first century CE, written in either Aramaic or Greek. The third century CE Church Father Origen notes that the Prayer of Joseph was being read by Jews in his day (Commentary on the Gospel of John 2:31). This suggests that this document made an impact within at least some Jewish communities over the first three centuries of the Christian church.

The opening verses, based loosely off of Genesis 32:24-31,  narrate Jacob’s dialogue with an angel (with whom he wrestles). During his introductory speech he makes the following admission concerning his forefathers:

“Abraham and Isaac were created before any work of God” (Prayer of Joseph 1:2)

The author of the Prayer of Joseph puts into the mouth of Jacob this comment concerning Abraham and Isaac. Before God created any work, he made these two figures. This sounds very similar to what we observed regarding Moses whom the T. Moses describes as having already been designed by God from the foundation of the world. We likewise observed in Genesis Rabbah that the Patriarchs were spoken of as preexisting within God’s plans and contemplations.

Regarding the Prayer of Joseph, however, it sounds as if Abraham and Isaac literally existed prior to their respective births.  The translator of this text, J. Z. Smith, offered a helpful footnote regarding this particular question. In Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Smith comments that the term “created before” should be rendered literally as “pre-created.” This seems to give the impression that Abraham and Isaac were, in some sense, pre-created, i.e., with God from the beginning. The divine passive “were pre-created” indicates that God was the active Creator. It would seem very strange to argue from this passage that these two patriarchs literally existed before the Genesis creation.

All in all, it seems that the preexistence spoken of in the Prayer to Joseph involves Abraham and Isaac as existing notionally and conceptually with God from the beginning, giving them a higher status worthy of the founding fathers of Israelite religion.

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2 thoughts on “Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 5

  1. Excellent research in this series! The Rabbinic literature cited illuminates critical differences between the Judaic and pagan view of pre-existence. Looking forward to future installments.

  2. Hi Dustin,

    I think this quote from the Prayer Of Joseph is particularly interesting. If the writer believed that Abraham and Isaac were “created” before any work of God, then it seems reasonable to ask what “any work of God” he might be thinking about.

    The only option here is not a “notional preexistence.” It could also be that the writer simply understood that God’s “work” began (historically) with Jacob. This could account for the fact that Abraham and Isaac really didn’t exist until long after the thing created in Genesis 1-2. If this is the case, then no concept of “notional preexistence” would be necessary.

    Rivers 🙂

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