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

Varieties

Jewish novellas come in assorted packages, following no single model and dependent on no blueprint. Some invent heroes or heroines, placing them in an ostensibly historical setting of the distant past, but one shaped to bring out the qualities, characteristics, or experiences of the central figures rather than to shed any genuine light on the past. This holds, for instance, in the case of Tobit, conceived as dwelling in the Assyrian empire, Susanna in the Babylonian exile, Esther under Persian rule, Daniel straddling the Babylonian and Persian periods, and Judith in Palestine contending with the forces of Nebuchadnezzar, who is labelled an Assyrian! The texts aim for verisimilitude rather than history. The remoteness of the constructed past is helpful on that score. But other texts depict recent eras and familiar monarchs, drawing on the recognizable circumstances of the Hellenistic age. So, the Tales of the Tobiads, recorded by Josephus but based on much earlier sources, present an elaborate family saga of intrigue, escapade, and adventure set in the reigns of the Ptolemies and Seleucids. The narrative makes explicit reference to historical personages and certifiable situations, but it owes more to echoes of the biblical Joseph than to events of the Hellenistic period. Similarly, the so-called Third Book of Macabees (which has nothing to do with the Maccabees themselves) records specific incidents in the specific reign of Ptolemy IV, placed in its proper historical context, but delivers a fanciful fable in which angelic figures rescue terrified Jews from the inebriated elephants of the king.

Still other prose fictions, in diverse forms, reach back into the Bible itself, taking celebrated figures of the tradition and spinning new yarns about their escapades or accomplishments. The imaginative writer Artapanus revamped the story of Moses, making him the teacher of Orpheus, the author of most Egyptian institutions (including animal worship!), and the victor in a ten years' war against the Ethiopians (Tiede 1972: 146–77). The Testament of Abraham is no testament at all, but a wholly original tale of the patriarch that bears little resemblance to the scriptural account. The anonymous author has Abraham dodge death by manufacturing excuses and devising a multitude of schemes to delay the inevitable. Abraham's evasiveness and procrastination through a series of episodes keeps God, his representatives, and the day of judgement at a distance until the end (Ludlow 2002: 48–72). The Testament of Job concocts a very different set of scenes. Although much closer in theme and narrative to the biblical version, it injects numerous novelties, sparring between Job and Satan, melodramatic confrontations with Job's wife, his servants, and his friends, and the substitution of an engrossing narrative for a morality play (Gruen 2002: 193–201). In still another quite distinctive mode, Joseph and Aseneth picks up on just a few phrases in Genesis that have Pharaoh present Joseph with Aseneth, daughter of a priest, as his wife, who then bore him two children. The author blows this up into a full-scale romance and adventure story that employs some characters from the biblical account but creates a complex, occasionally mysterious, and captivating new version.

A number of these texts blur the boundaries between history and fiction. Indeed, fictionality itself is a slippery concept when applied to works that provide a plausible historical setting, include historical figures, and frame their narrative with historical events. For some scholars, that mode of discourse simulates reality in order to have readers buy the presentation as history (Fox 1991: 148–50). But the guise should not be confused with disguise. Neither deception nor credulousness is at play here. The works often signalled their fabrication by outrageous claims and comic exaggerations that could leave no alert reader deceived on the matter of historicity. The book of Esther opens with Ahasuerus conducting a banquet that endures for 180 days, thus tying up all the officialdom of the realm for half a year. Mordecai is described as a victim of the Babylonian Captivity, which would make him an advanced centenarian at the time of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes). The book of Judith designates Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria, a designation that any Jewish audience would instantly recognize as absurd. The author of Tobit confuses the sequence of Assyrian kings and makes a hash of Mesopotamian geography. The buffoonish Ptolemaic king in 3 Maccabees has to drug a whole herd of elephants to punish the Jews, and then forgets his own orders and countermands his own officials. Joseph and Aseneth's transformation of Joseph into an actual ruler of Egypt clearly abandons the scriptural tradition well known to its readers. These are not inadvertent errors or clumsy chronological confusion, let alone an effort to deceive. They announce the fictionality of the narrative (Wills 1995: 217–24; Johnson 2004: 9–55, 182–216). And they disclose the mutual consent between author and audience to suspend disbelief. The historical novel conveys verisimilitude, but does not engage in fraud.

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