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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Novella

Erich S. Gruen

Definitions

The ancients had no word for ‘novella’, or ‘novel’. The construct is a strictly modern one. That may cause some misgivings right away. The labelling or categorizing of literary works is always a hazardous procedure—especially so when the genre is one of our own making. This need not prevent the grouping of works with similar forms, motifs, themes, modes of expression, even values and objectives, so as to provide reciprocal illumination. As a heuristic device, it can certainly help to reconstruct an intellectual atmosphere and to probe a cultural setting or tradition within which authors (even of different periods) may have engaged. But it is important to bear in mind that the constructed collectivity is artificial, and that the authors themselves need not have consciously produced works in a genre that we perceive or conceive (cf. Pervo 1987: 102–14; Wills 1994).

This is certainly true for the Jewish ‘novella’. However one defines it, the examples are diverse, and the category can be expanded indefinitely. I employ here a conservative and tentative definition: prose fiction narrating the experiences of individuals or groups, composed for entertainment but also communicating values, ideas, or guidance. The classification encompasses works as diverse as the religious fables of the book of Daniel, the morality tale of Susanna, the historical fantasy of 3 Maccabees, and the romantic/adventure story of Joseph and Aseneth. Almost all the writings traditionally clustered under this heading fall within the Hellenistic period, from the second century BCE through the first century CE, a time of considerable experimentation in literary forms and a time when Jewish writers were part of a broader Graeco-Roman cultural environment from which they benefited and which they adapted to their own ends. At the same time, they engaged with biblical themes, with traditional folk-tales, legends, and edifying stories of admirable figures caught in perilous situations and emerging triumphant.

The term ‘novella’ (a little novel) is a modem invention which refers in part to the length of the narrative—somewhere between a short story and a novel. The first focuses on a single episode, the latter on a more sprawling set of events. But this does not supply a perfect fit. The story of Susanna, commonly labelled a novella, is as short as any short story. Judith and Tobit are of a size comparable to one another, yet the one concentrates upon a single incident, the other on a number of different, though associated episodes. Joseph and Aseneth encompasses two quite separate stories. The tales in Daniel 1–6 are mini-narratives with little connective tissue. In general, no uniform pattern can be found, and none should be imposed.

Similarly, there exists no canonical list of Jewish novellas. If ancients did not acknowledge the category, they could hardly have assembled a collection to pack it. Any select group would be arbitrary. Reference is made here to eleven texts that fall within the definition outlined above, yet offer a variety and range to give a sense of the span covered by the imaginative fiction composed by Jews in the late Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods: Esther, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Susanna, the Tales of the Tobiads, 3 Maccabees, Joseph and Aseneth, the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Job, and the writings of Artapanus.

Resemblance to Greek romances has often been remarked upon (Pervo 1987: 119–21; Wills 1995: 16–28). But the standard works in that category, those of Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Longus, Achilles Tatius, and Heliodorus, tend to follow a consistent design with modifications. They narrate the separation of lovers, their numerous adventures or misadventures, whether kidnapping, shipwrecks, or the amorous designs of third parties, and then a happy ending that reunites them (Hägg 1983; Anderson 1984; Reardon 1991). One can find different elements of this general scheme in certain Jewish texts. But the only Jewish novella that approximates the pattern is Joseph and Aseneth, for it contains erotic elements and a union of separated lovers (West 1974; Pervo 1991; Chesnutt 1995: 85–93; Humphrey 2000: 38–46). But the separation was their own doing; and the narrative otherwise diverges rather sharply from the pattern. Moreover, uncertainties about the chronology of both the Greek and the Jewish texts make it quite probable that most of the latter preceded the former. There may or may not have been mutual influence. What matters is that they both partook of the same cultural milieu.

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