A popular genre of the Persian and Hellenistic periods, court tales existed both outside and inside Judaism. As an international genre, it may be defined as a story of the adventures of a deserving person in the royal court, who (usually) achieves success through skill or wisdom. A good example of this genre is the Aramaic Story of Aḥiqar, which tells of the adventures of Aḥiqar, a courtier of the Assyrian king, who is persecuted by his nephew, narrowly escapes death, and is ultimately vindicated through his wit. Although Aḥiqar is not Jewish, this story must have been popular with the Jewish community, for it appears among the documents of the Jewish colony at Elephantine. Eventually it was translated into many languages used by the Christian church.
Within Judaism, the genre may be most widely defined as the story of the adventures of a Jew in the court of a foreign king. This tale takes two forms: the contest and the conflict. In the contest, a wise person of undistinguished status solves a problem, interprets a dream, and so forth, and as a result is elevated. In the conflict, a wise courtier begins in a respected position, is persecuted, suffers a fall, and is finally vindicated. The Hebrew scriptures and the Apocrypha contain several examples of both types of court tale. The Joseph story (Gn. 37–50), Daniel 2, Daniel 4, Daniel 5, and the story of Zerubbabel in 1 Esdras 3–4 are all examples of the contest type, while Esther, Daniel 3, Daniel 6, and Bel and the Dragon are examples of the conflict type. A related type of tale uses the same basic structure but is not set in a royal court, for example, the story of Susanna. These tales often present ideals of Wisdom in popular narrative form. There was a natural association of the royal court with Wisdom (e.g., the figure of Solomon), and the tales are human rather than God centered; that is, it is the wit and wisdom of the protagonist that saves him or her rather than the direct intervention of God (Daniel 3 and Daniel 6 are exceptions).
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls offers evidence that the court tale existed in Judaism outside the Hebrew scriptures and the Apocrypha. Of the biblical examples, several have been found at Qumran. The Joseph story has been found in fragmentary form in Genesisc,e,f,j (4Q3, 4Q5, 4Q6, 4Q9), Genesis- Exodusa (4Q1), and paleo-Genesis-Exodus1 (4Q11). Fragments of Daniel 1–6 appear in Daniela (1Q71, 4Q112) and Danielb (1Q72, 4Q113) while the tale of Daniel and Susanna may appear in Daniel-Susanna? (4Q551). No manuscript of Esther has been found at Qumran.
At least two new compositions that are related to the court tale have been identified at Qumran. The first is the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242), an Aramaic composition dating to the late second or early first century BCE. Although the Prayer of Nabonidus itself does not take the form of a court tale, it is generally agreed that the text is the original form of the court tale now found in Daniel 4. The Prayer of Nabonidus concerns the last Babylonian emperor, Nabonidus (556–539 bce), who, according to the text, was afflicted by an “evil ulcer” in Teima (Nabonidus's historical capital in Arabia). He was healed by an unnamed Jewish exorcist, who forgave his sins and commanded Nabonidus to recount the incident in writing, to glorify the name of God. The text breaks off at the beginning of Nabonidus's written statement. Evidently, the author of Daniel (or his predecessor) took this tale and recast it, changing the location to Babylon, switching the king's name to the much better known Nebuchadnezzar, and greatly expanding the account of the king's illness. Most importantly, the author of Daniel identified the unnamed Jewish exorcist of the Prayer of Nabonidus with his hero Daniel, thus bringing the tale into the Daniel cycle where it appears in Daniel 4 in the form of a contest tale.
The second composition uncovered at Qumran is an Aramaic text officially named Proto-Esthera–f (4Q550), but which would be better entitled Tales of the Persian Court. This composition, which exists in three separate manuscript groups, dates paleographically to the late Hasmonean period. The story (or stories), set in the Persian court, bears certain similarities to the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Book of Esther, raising the possibility that the composition may have influenced the author of Esther. The first set of fragments (a–c) is set in the court of Xerxes I and involves an unnamed protagonist whose father, Patireza, was a servant of the royal wardrobe. One day the king has his father's annals read to him, in which is found, evidently, a record of the deeds of Patireza. The king then rewards the son for Patireza's good works. Although fragmentary, this story seems to take the form of a conflict tale, spread out over two generations. The story is not specifically Jewish.
The second set of fragments (d), again set in the Persian court, seems to tell the tale of a conflict between Bagasraw, a Jew, and Bagoshe, a gentile, in which Bagasraw triumphs. The king, evidently as a result of Bagasraw's triumph, venerates the Jewish God. This set of fragments bears certain similarities to Daniel 1–6 as well as to both the Hebrew and Greek versions of Esther.
The third set of fragments (e–f) are very broken, but the contents do not seem to take the form of a court tale. It is impossible to suggest a direct relationship between Proto- Esthera–f and the Book of Esther, but an indirect relationship is extremely plausible.
Other compositions found among the Dead Sea Scrolls share certain affinities with the court tale, although they are not court tales themselves. These include the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) and Tobit (4Q196–200).
- Crawford, Sidnie White. “Has the Book of Esther been found at Qumran? 4QprotoEsther and the Esther Corpus.” Revue de Qumrân 17 (1996), 307–325.
- Lange, Armin, and Marion Sieker. “Gattung und Quellenwert des Gebets de Nabonid.” In Qumranstudien. Vorträge und Beiträge der Teilnehmer des Qumranseminars auf dem internationalen Treffen der SBL: Münster, 25–26 Juli, 1993, edited by H. J. Fabry, Armin Lange, and Hermann Lichtenberger, pp. 3–34. Göttingen, 1996.
- Milik, J. T. “‘Prière de Nabonide’ et autres écrits d'un cycle de Daniel, fragments araméens de Qumrân 4.” Revue biblique 63 (1956), 407–415. .
- Milik, J. T. “Les modèles araméens du livre d'Esther dans la Grotte 4 de Qumrân.” Revue de Qumrân 15 (1992), 321–399. .
- Puech, Émile. “La Prière de Nabonide (4Q242).” In Targumic and Cognate Studies: Essays in Honour of Martin McNamara, edited by Kevin J. Cathcart and Michael Maher, pp. 208–228. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 230. Sheffield, 1996.
- Wills, Lawrence M. The Jew in the Court of the Foreign King. Minneapolis, 1990. .
Sidnie White Crawford