M. D. Matlock, Discovering the Traditions of Prose Prayers in Early Jewish Literature

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Matlock, Michael D., Discovering the Traditions of Prose Prayers in Early Jewish Literature (Library of Second Temple Studies, 81; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. xix + 199. US$120.00. ISBN 978-0-567-38384-6.

Matlock's volume represents a revision of his doctoral dissertation written at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received special direction from Stephen A. Kaufman and Richard S. Sarason. The book analyzes extended prose prayers from the exilic period, into the Second Temple era, to the Targumic age. The range of texts includes the following: prose prayers in the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, and the translated and rewritten prayers in the Septuagint and Targums (p. 2). In his treatment of the prayer texts, he applies narrative, rhetorical, and traditio-historical criticisms, while also giving attention to the ancient authors' exegetical methods (p. 2). He renders his own translations of the prayers and generally follows this with comments about the prayers' structures and ideologies. Excluded from his discussion are prayers he deems to be poetic. He proceeds by going from prayer to prayer in an exegetical manner. Thus, the book does not flow by topics or sustained argument throughout, though Matlock certainly does highlight key features of the prayers that will lead to specific conclusions. Because of this structure and the number of prayers examined, in this review I will not be able to discuss the analysis of every prayer text.

The author seeks to “discover windows into the thinking of these religious communities” and to “obtain a greater understanding of the theologies and ideologies of the prayer texts' sponsors” (p. 3). His primary interests lie in what innovations occur in the Second Temple period, how the understanding of prayer varies from text to text and era to era, and why prose prayers proliferate during this period (p. 3). Matlock includes a “subsidiary set” of questions for the collection of prayers that focuses on rhetorical patterns within prayers, relationships between the “post-biblical” prayers and “biblical compositions,” the interpretive use of Scripture in Second Temple prayers and the Targums, the ways in which authors reinterpret traditions, and the history of interpretation of the prayers (p. 3). For his definition of prayer, he basically builds on Judith Newman's proposal.[1] Prayers have the following characteristics: 1) the presence of key terms (e.g., בשם קרא ,התפלל and προσεύχομαι), 2) address to God in second-person, with occasional third-person speech, 3) “expressions of dependency and an expectation of divine response;” lastly, 4) texts containing dialog between humans and God are not counted as prayers, and are therefore not included in the material under examination (pp. 2–3).

The analysis proper begins with a chapter entitled “Extended Narrative Prayers in the Hebrew Bible,” which examines 1 Kgs 8, Ezra 9, Neh 1 and 9, and Dan 9. These prayers span a long time period—from the exile to the reign of Antiochus IV. The collection of these prayers together suggests that Matlock has given weight to their canonical status and not dating, for the prayer in Baruch probably originates near the time of Daniel's prayer and is quite similar to Dan 9. Further, as one learns, the chapters that follow tend to reflect modern categorizations of this literature. Matlock argues that Solomon in his prayer in 1 Kgs 8 seeks to reverse the curses of Deut 28 and attempts to obligate God to forgive the people “[b]y keeping Israel's requirements to a minimum and the Lord's to the maximum” (p. 22), a ploy which the remainder of the Deuteronomic history undermines (p. 23). Matlock correctly states that this prayer continues to function as a touchstone through much of the penitential prayer tradition in the post-exilic and Second Temple periods. Ezra 9, with its “conglomeration of expression” from “Scripture” and its mixed genre, seems to downplay any particular petition, and instead “is designed to compel the people who hear the prayer toward an action” (p. 30). Nehemiah's prayer in Neh 1:6–11, which develops traditions found in 1 Kgs 8, presents a plan for restoration through penitence and God's loyalty to the covenant (p. 37). Especially drawing on the work of Mark Boda and Judith Newman,[2] Matlock concludes that the Levites' prayer in Neh 9 “utilizes great portions of scriptural wording as cement for a new composition in a time when Scripture is being complied for the first time” (p. 48). The prayer focuses on the reconstruction of the people through confession and renewed obedience to Torah and the covenant (p. 49). Daniel 9 calls the people to confess their sins in order to receive forgiveness (p. 55), while also appealing to God to respond to the people's suffering. Because the prayer appears within an apocalyptic context, it also provides a model for acquiring an understanding of esoteric texts and prophecies (pp. 58–59).

Prayers from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are grouped into one chapter. The author asserts that these prayers often serve as responses from Jews who lived in difficult circumstances (p. 84). He begins with the Prayer of Manasseh, a penitential prayer that departs from the Deuteronomic traditions. Matlock agrees with Newman's conclusion that the prayer “represents a ‘counter discourse’ over and against the dominant discourse of the Deuteronomistic Historians” (p. 89). The Prayer of Azariah, however, clearly “employs Deuteronomic ideology to assert that individual suffering comes as a punishment for the sins of the whole Jewish people” (p. 93). The insertion of penitential prayer into this section of Daniel results in a slight shift. The three youths are innocent, but they join in the corporate responsibility for the sins of the Jewish people (p. 93). This prayer setting is contrasted to Mordecai's prayer in the Additions to Esther, in which Mordecai maintains his innocence and lack of responsibility for the problems facing the people (p. 98). Esther's prayer, though, returns to Deuteronomic language and ideology. Both prayers function in the narrative as an act that leads to the people's deliverance (p. 99). Of the four prayers he examines in Jubilees (1:19–21; 10:3–6; 12:19–22a; 22:6–9), the first three address the problem of evil spirits, and thus tie into Jubilees's understandings of the origin of evil. Further, these evil spirits control the Gentiles who oppress the people (p. 104). Baruch, which Matlock suggests most likely expands upon Daniel's prayer by especially adding material from Jeremiah and Deuteronomy (p. 107), departs from Daniel's ideology in regards to how the Jews should relate to foreign power (p. 109). Drawing on Jer 27:9–12, Bar 2:20–23 counsels submission, for foreign domination is “a sign of God's continued punishment for the broken covenant” (p. 110). The prayers of Simon II (3 Macc 2:1–22) and Eleazar (6:1–18) convey a “penitential tone” as a response to a crisis; but “neither displays a strong element of the confession of sin,” as can be found in some earlier biblical prayers (p. 128). Judith's prayer (Jdt 9:1–10:2a) functions as a model of faithfulness in order to “convince the covenant people that faithfulness is the proper way of life for them” (p. 133). While Judith's prayer demonstrates subtle correspondences to several other prayers, it especially “reinforces the basic premises of Deuteronomic philosophy of history” (p. 133).

In his discussion of the Qumran scrolls, the author analyzes the chief priests' prayers in the War Scroll (1QM 10–12), Joseph's prayer in the Joseph Apocryphon (4Q372 frag. 1), and Abram's prayer in the Genesis Apocryphon (1Qap Genar 21). His primary interests rest in examining how “disparate discourses are dialogically related in the Qumran literature” (p. 142). He notes the sectarian features of the prayer in the War Scroll and the lack of these features in the two other prayers. Besides this, he again relates the basic tone and formal features of these three prayers with the prayers already examined in the volume.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on prayers that have received much less treatment: the prayers in Philo, Josephus, and the Targum. As one might expect, Philo's “Prayer of the People Gathered on Yom Kippur” (Spec. Leg. 2.198–199) exhibits the Jewish philosopher's penchant for emphasis on the development of the virtues and the allegorical and moral value of the Jewish festival(s). In his presentation of “Moses' Prayer by the Sea” (Ant. 2.334b–337), Josephus links the Greek idea of “providence” with Deuteronomic “retribution theology” (p. 171). Further, Moses possesses the virtues that are ideal in Hellenistic culture. Josephus's retelling of Solomon's temple dedication prayer bears the influence of Greek philosophy, especially Stoic ideas of a pantheistic deity who is “immanent in the universe, but not totally identifiable with it” (pp. 174, 177). The examination of Solomon's prayer in Targum Jonathan reveals that the text tends to avoid anthropomorphisms (pp. 189–90), yet emphasizes God's continued engagement in the world and especially with the Jewish people through the use of the term שכינה (p. 191). Although the temple is gone, “God is not simply ‘with’ his people as the MT indicates in 8:57, but God is ‘supporting’ or ‘aiding’ them” (p. 192).

The conclusion repeats the central concern of the volume: “to learn more about the theologies and ideologies of these Jewish prayer sponsors and communities” (p. 193). Matlock concludes that the evidence he has uncovered in the prayers reveals that there exists no “linear evolutionary schemas of prayer elements…discernible as many scholars argue (usually from a rigid form-critical or tradition-historical approach” (p. 196). For him, “[t]hese prayer texts contain too many rhetorical variances for tidy evolutionary patterns” (p. 196). Instead, he sees a “sizeable consistency among the elements of prayer in these prayer texts” (p. 196).

Those who work on prayer in Second Temple Judaism will certainly need to consult this volume. Matlock has provided several valuable observations and has especially offered some important comparisons between the prayers. The volume presents a broad sweep through these prayer texts, which has the advantage of comparing many texts across many periods, but naturally lacks in-depth analysis of any particular text. I agree with the author that form criticism suffers from some methodological deficiencies, and I think that this problem seems more important to the author than he may indicate. As he mentions, form criticism sometimes operates as if pure forms exist. His desire to by-pass form criticism by examining “the theologies and ideologies of these Jewish prayer sponsors and communities” perhaps opens new possibilities (p. 193). However, I think that a better answer to the weaknesses of form criticism lies within certain anthropological methods that recognize cultural patterns and human ability to apply them artfully to ever new situations. Further, Matlock correctly concludes that tracing a “linear evolutionary scheme of prayer elements” is not possible (p. 196), especially like that found in Westermann. However, these prayer texts do reveal some interesting developments, for example the infusion of biblical traditions in Neh 9, which he notes. I suppose one might debate over what developments demonstrate some “evolution” and what elements are “rhetorical variances.” Some comparisons between these prose texts and poetic texts may have revealed a few more key developments in prayers of this period.

Rodney Werline, Barton College

[1] See Judith Newman, Praying by the Book: The Scripturalization of Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (SBLEJL, 14; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 6–7. reference

[2] Mark J. Boda, Praying the Tradition: The Origin and Use of Tradition in Nehemiah 9 (BZAW, 277; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1999); Newman, Praying by the Book. reference