Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 10.

Lawrence M. Wills, The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1995. Pp. 279, incl. 1 appendix. ISBN 0-8014-3075-5. US$37.50.

Armand D'Angour
Department of Greek & Latin, University College London.

What was the Jewish novel in the ancient world? As the vogue for studies in the ancient novel is relatively recent, both Judaic and classical scholars might be forgiven for wondering what actually constitutes the genre. The 'ancient Greek novel' is itself not a literary category taken from ancient canons, but a modern construct arising from the grouping of certain ancient writings on the basis of their distinctive treatment and ethos. In this wide-ranging and lucid book, Lawrence Wills aims to show that the characteristics of what he identifies as ancient Jewish novels indicate the existence of a definite genre, which justifies analysis within its literary and socio-historical context and may be fruitfully considered and investigated on its own terms. In proposing and defending the idea of the ancient Jewish novel, he offers a useful and lively survey of some ancient texts generally neglected by classical scholars, and thereby provides illuminating and productive new angles for students of the novel generally, and of the ancient Greek novel in particular.

The ancient Jewish novels in question essentially comprise four books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, Esther and Daniel (in their Greek rather than Hebrew versions), Judith, and Tobit, together with a fifth, the pseudepigraphic story of Joseph and Aseneth. In addition to these more or less familiar biblical stories, to each of which Wills devotes a chapter, are what he calls 'Jewish historical novels', compositions dating from the same era which deliberately set out to render historical events in a novelistic fashion. These include a portion of Second Maccabees, Third Maccabees, and the Tobiad Romance and Royal Family of Adiabene as recorded in Josephus' Antiquities. The composition of all the novels, in their current form, dates from between 200 BC and 100 AD. The distinctive characteristics which they share include a commitment to describing their characters' emotional experience and a heightened attention to feminine roles, features which mark them out as novels and suggest interesting comparisons with other examples of the genre (e.g. the depiction of heroines in 'Gothic' novels). Viewed as a group, they have hitherto escaped scholarly scrutiny, and Wills' book is a worthwhile and thought-provoking attempt to address this omission.

Wills bases his identification of the genre of the 'ancient Jewish novel' partly on the premise that at least the non-historical books in question were 'before being canonized, likely perceived by their audience as fictions' (p. 2). The qualification here is important, and may have merited further amplification and consideration of the religious culture of Hellenistic Jews. Only the shorter Hebrew versions of Esther and Daniel became part of the Jewish canon, but the Greek versions of the novels appear to include diverse elements culled from fluid popular traditions, and some imaginative additions to the biblical accounts. Wills rightly shows some unease about this element of their claim to novelistic status: e.g., 'The novels were probably read by the audience as fictions' (p. 30), 'The book of Esther, probably also fictitious . . . ' (p. 220, my italics). Indeed, one of the reasons why using the term 'novel' seems, at least initially, to jar in this context is that it urges us to look at biblical or quasi-biblical texts from a historically-minded, secular perspective. Whereas the fictional status of the texts may be necessary for Wills' definition of the genre, it is by no means clear that they were generally perceived as such at the time (notwithstanding the Greeks' own efforts, at least from the time of Herodotus and Thucydides, to distinguish A)LH/QEIA from MU=THOS on rational grounds). In most Jewish households, for instance, then as now, the stories of Esther and Daniel, whether told in Hebrew or the language current in everyday intercourse, are likely to have beeen thought (at best) as belonging to a twilight world between imaginative fiction, holy writ, and historical truth. Conversely, some Hellenised Jews will have approached many parts of the canonical scriptures with unconcern or scepticism regarding their historicity. As Wills is well aware, a similar kind of ambivalence may be thought to attach to the way that parts of the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were presented:[[1]] despite their novelistic features, and even though Gospel truth may not be the same thing as historical truth, the latter were clearly not intended to strike the reader as fictitious.

Whilst this ambiguity regarding the historical status of the ancient Jewish novels in question may explain the traditional tendency of biblical scholarship to treat them either as scriptural commentary or as a vulgarisation of history, the bold paradigm shift demanded by Wills' identification of them as 'novels' offers a justifiable and useful new point of departure, particularly for those seeking to address them from a literary perspective. His discussions both of the socio-historical circumstances in which the Jewish novels developed and of their inherent character and 'poetics' clearly demonstrate how the stories (as transmitted in their various Greek versions) may be seen to illustrate the workings of a Jewish 'novelistic impulse'. The latter term is broadly defined in distinction to traditional oral prose story-telling, as 'the tendency under certain social conditions for authors to transfer oral stories over to a written medium, to embellish and create others, using description, interior psychological exploration, dialogue and other narrative devices that can be easily manipulated in written prose but are not as often utilized in oral' (p. 5). This general tendency is plausibly related to the evolution at this period throughout the OI)KOUME/NH of a literate, Hellenized bourgeoisie with individualistic and cosmopolitan (rather than PO/LIS-oriented) instincts, providing a widespread audience for written works of prose fiction expressly composed (or revised) for the purpose of popular entertainment. Thus the fragments of the earliest known Greek novel, Ninus and Semiramis (first century BC) reflects a readership of native Syrians and the descendants of Babylonians, while stories such as Sesonchosis and the Alexander Romance were likely to have been popular amongst native and Hellenised Egyptians.[[2]] Similarly, in the Jewish sphere, the agglutination of various non-canonical legends and episodes such as are found in the Greek version of Daniel demonstrates a growing impulse to recreate traditional tales in a diverting and novelistic fashion, while the existence of such novels in general reflects the changing interests and values of a literate, increasingly secularised and individualistic, Jewish middle class.

In his introductory chapter (pp. 1-39), Wills outlines the literary and historical questions associated with the genesis of the ancient Jewish novel and the intriguing question of its relationship with the Greek novel. The two genres differ in a number of significant respects. The Jewish novels are considerably shorter, and generally less sophisticated in matters of style and composition than the five extant Greek novels. They exhibit characteristic Jewish motifs such as the beautiful heroine, the loyalty of the extended family, and the assertion of Jewish identity vis-ŕ-vis non-Jews. The Greek novels tend to be formulaic love-stories in which the young couple is followed through various adventures, often taking them to exotic locations, before the invariable happy ending. Whilst such themes reflect features observable in earlier Greek literature (such as in epic, biography, and New Comedy), the novels' treatment of the romance and their emotional preoccupations differentiate them as a group from their literary precursors. The Jewish novels are similarly distinguishable from earlier Jewish prose literature, while they are clearly not derived from the extant Greek novels (which they largely predate). They appear to have emerged out of traditional oral tales, influenced by both biblical and Persian precedents. In the period of new written literature these were extended to allow for plots and subplots, and in particular a fuller exploration of the principal character's interior life and motivation - a technique identified by Georg Lukács as one of the hallmarks of the novel.[[3]]

The question of the relationship between the Greek and Jewish novel thus seems to be less one of derivation or mutual influence than of parallel modes of development within a similar socio-historical context. The parallelism allows Wills to consider areas of comparison with the modern novel as well, in its historical emergence, its distinguishing characteristics, and its treatment in modern literary theory from Auerbach to Bakhtin. He raises, for instance, the interesting consideration that, just as the modern novel may have originated in an ambivalent relationship with the opportunities suggested by printing, in particular for the dissemination of 'facts', the ancient novel may similarly have arisen in a dialectical relationship with the demands made on author and audience by 'factual' historical writing. The creation of the ancient Jewish novel, with its specific literary syntax and semantic, may thus have represented the final stage of a process of reaction to the compilation of Jewish prose writings within the canon of sacred literature.


[[1]] See, for example, Richard I. Pervo's study Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia 1987).

[[2]] Translations in B.P. Reardon (ed.) Collected Ancient Greek Novels (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1989); texts, translations and commentary in S.A. Stephens & John J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments (Princeton 1995).

[[3]] See G. Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (Cambridge 1971).