A Collection of Ancient Novels Plumbs Antiquity and Proselytizes for Piety

By Mark Jay Mirsky

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology

Edited and Translated by Lawrence M. Wills

Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $24.95.

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In “Joseph and Aseneth,” a “purer than thou” Joseph, the biblical patriarch and newly appointed regent of Egypt, meets the “holier than thou” Aseneth, virginal daughter of Pharaoh’s chief counselor. Aseneth — “more beautiful than any woman on earth” — is being courted by Pharaoh’s son. This snobby Egyptian teenager disdains Joseph as a “former slave” and “shepherd,” but Aseneth will eat her own words and convert to a loyal Jewish wife. It must have been the stuff of damp dreams for a Jewish audience and possibly later on a Christian one. There is even a subplot with a villainous pagan: the son of the Pharaoh.

These details of Joseph’s story are probably unfamiliar to many readers, but they can be found in “Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology.” In it, Lawrence M. Wills, a professor of biblical studies at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., has brought together translations of 12 ancient Jewish narratives, including texts from the Old Testament Apocrypha, historical novels and several of the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs.

These short “novels” emerged in the Greco-Roman period, when Jews either retold or collected alternate versions of stories from the Bible, as well as composed new religious tales. While the original dates of composition may go back to hundreds of years before the Common Era, the versions in which they survived were probably written down after the New Testament was circulated. In these texts, one can feel the tensions of the Jewish communities struggling to maintain identity in the Greco-Roman world reflected. Reading them alongside the better-known classics of antiquity and the stories of the Talmud and Midrash gives one a larger sense of those centuries’ cultural life, as they strive both to entertain and to edify.

Joseph’s eccentric romance with his Egyptian bride, who merits only a single line in the text of the Bible, echoes the Book of Ruth in its themes of conversion to Judaism and steadfast loyalty. “Joseph and Aseneth,” however, is almost parody. The elements of exaggeration in Aseneth’s conversion and Joseph’s exalted status remove these characters from any realistic world and set them in a ritualized one of operatic melodrama — far from the austere riddles of the Book of Ruth, which continues to fascinate contemporary novelists, such as Cynthia Ozick. Does this in part explain why “Joseph and Aseneth” and several sister narratives were excluded by the redactors who established the rabbinic canon?

Similarly, in “Judith,” a story found in the Greek translation of the Bible (and included in the Catholic Bible), one observes the same theater, formal speeches and studied gestures. The story of an attractive Jewish widow, who offers her body to Holofernes, the brutal commander of Nebuchadnezzar, ought to be dramatic. But, like Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, the story lacks exciting detail.

To enliven the action, Wills’ commentary leaps into psychiatry.

Although Sigmund Freud criticized the character of Judith as a woman out of control, he would have recognized the use of sexual symbols. When Holofernes lies drunk and impotent on his bed, Judith takes his own sword and beheads him in a symbolic castration. Further, it is also clear in the way the author describes Holofernes’ tent, with inner and outer chamber, that it is a vagina symbol, and Judith, from the village of “Virgin” is penetrating Holofernes’ “vagina.” Judith “violates” Holofernes and takes the curtain from the inner chamber — Holofernes’ “hymen” — with her as she escapes and brings it as a spoils offering for the Temple in Jerusalem.

In my book, a beheading is a beheading is a beheading, even if the high priest is Freud. The rabbis of the Talmud often show an erotic sense of humor about the Jews’ enemies, but nothing in “Judith” invites us to laugh. Wills’ final comment, though, I can concur in. “The interest in Judith, in the ancient period as now, lies partly in the extreme reversal of gender roles.”

These “ancient novels” have an agenda — to prove the reward of pious adherence to the Jewish tradition, and to proselytize for it. In “Judith,” the Ammonite, Achior, who warns Holofernes that it might be wise to avoid a fight with the Jews, converts. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, which include texts like “Judith,” regarded the agenda as their own, and Wills wonders if “Joseph and Aseneth” received its additions from a Christian redactor. In light of recent work by Seth Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who argues that Jewish and Christian religious cultures borrowed from each other in the early centuries of the common era, it may be that these stories passed back and forth among congregations of Jews and Christians without inhibition.

Wills also suggests the possibility that these ancient Jewish novels influenced Christian ideas of asceticism. In remarks about “The Testament of Job,” Wills points out that the Job of the “Testament” (in contrast to the complaint, argument and contention at the center of the Job narrative as preserved in our Hebrew Bible), “remains a patient hero of endurance,” who “accepts his life of discipline bravely, ‘If my flesh was full of worms, and if a worm fell off, I would pick it up and return it to the same place, saying, “Remain there in the spot you were placed until you are instructed by the one who commands you.’” Wills notes that “one can see that beyond anything that was commanded in the biblical book, this Job text is advocating an ascetic ethos, a new element in Jewish life in this period that would later be emphasized by Christians and de-emphasized in rabbinic Judaism.”

The “tall tale” elements of “The Testament of Job,” its hills “so covered with milk they resembled hardened butter,” make this a Job of exaggerated piety, a cartoon, not an advocate in my mind for asceticism. More interesting is the figure of Satan, who emerges here not as a mere messenger or spy of the Holy One, but as an independent figure who personifies evil and indulges in a back and forth with Job wholly missing in the biblical text. This reflects an argument of the Gospels: the devil as an independent force striding the abyss that begins to yawn between the followers of Jesus and rabbinic Judaism. Suddenly the creed of the One has been altered. With the biblical Job, we are in the realm of folklore with a devil who remains, at best, a malicious ambassador.

One of my scholarly associates questioned whether one could call these texts “novels.” The didactic holds sway in ways that contrast unfavorably with classics such as “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius or “The Satyricon” by Petronius. While several of the additions in “Greek Esther” are welcome, they fall far short of the details that the rabbis of the Talmud would add to the tale, and when contrasted with the version in the Hebrew Esther, Wills admits that some of the pungent earthiness of the story is lost. These Greek “novels” turn me back in admiration of the Hebrew canon’s narrative, its muscularity, its adherence to story, following the observation of the biblical critic Umberto Cassuto, who noted that “Semitic thought avoids general statements.”

Though “pious example stories,” barely masking their message to the faithful to persevere in tradition, the texts do have striking details: the elders watching a naked widow in “Susanna”; the angel pretending to leave a tent to urinate in “The Testament of Abraham.” They gain clarity in Wills’ translation into contemporary English, even as they lose their evangelical force.

Wills introduces his collection as 12 “well known and little-known Jewish texts from the Greco-Roman periods that all have the goal of entertaining through written prose narrative.” Will they entertain us? Yes, but particularly if you wish to put on sandals to travel back to a complex antiquity.

Mark Jay Mirsky, a novelist and professor of English at the City College of New York, is the editor of Fiction, an international magazine of stories and novels. He was co-editor of the anthology “Rabbinic Fantasies” (Yale University Press, 1998). His latest book, “Dante, Eros and Kabbalah,” was just published by Syracuse University Press.

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