Novellas for Diverting Jewish Urban Businessmen or Channels of Priestly Knowledge: Redefining Judean Short Stories of Hellenistic Times


  • Sylvie Honigman



The Jewish literary production of Hellenistic and early imperial times includes a substantial number of short narratives displaying novelistic features. Most of these texts are in Greek, with novelistic trends also appearing in Hebrew and Aramaic works (Esther, Daniel). While this stylistic shift is undeniable, the present article questions the social and cultural implications that a number of scholars seek to read into it. Because of their shared stylistic innovations, these works are often treated as a homogeneous group, regardless of whether or not they were eventually included in the biblical canon (the Septuagint), and contrasted with the traditional narrative genres represented in the Hebrew biblical corpus. The transition to the novelistic is further taken to indicate a shift in the social context in which these works were produced, and correlatively, in their social function. Thus, in contrast with the earlier narrative literature written by temple scribes, these early novels supposedly emerged in the urban environment, where they catered to the tastes of a wider segment of the Jewish population. Furthermore, it is alleged that like their Greek counterparts, the Jewish novels had no institutionalized social use but were performed or read purely for entertainment, explaining the prominent thematization of eroticism, chastity, and marriage.

In contrast with this approach, it is argued that when it comes to works that were eventually canonized, the issue of the social environment in which they were produced and that of their social function need to be decoupled from style and tone. To bolster this stance, the discussion draws extensively on a comparison with the social context in which the contemporary Demotic literature was produced, which is archaeologically documented, and on a comparison with Demotic texts themselves in both form and content. As a starting point, it is noted that the model associating novelization and urbanization crystallized at a time when indigenous temples—not least the one in Jerusalem—were held as bastions of conservatism, and it was speculated that that Hellenization in Judea was promoted by new, secular elites. Since then, this assumption has been proven wrong. Both in Egypt and Judea, the indigenous elites who manned the royal administrations were fielded from among the local temple personnel, meaning that the temple literati were familiar with their own traditions and Greek literature alike.

On this basis, it is argued that the novelization of the works was first and foremost a matter of the reception of Greek literature by temple literati. Given that most if not all the narrative texts were aimed for oral performance, those were eager to borrow any literary devices that would make the stories livelier. In terms of their social function, however, these novelized works were no different from pre-Hellenistic narrative genres. Like their Demotic counterparts, biblical narratives provided a tool for exploring virtually all the aspects of knowledge that were of interest to their authors and audience, including the nature of the relationship between human beings and deity, history, law, prophecy, political, social, and religious matters. Their diverting tone assisted in the inculcation knowledge. In this way, the reappraisal of the biblical narratives as serious literature proposed in this article goes much further than simply stressing their connections with sapiential literature.

Author Biography

Sylvie Honigman

Sylvie Honigman is professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University. She has published numerous studies on the history and literature of Judea in Hellenistic times and on the Jews in Greco-Roman Egypt.


2020-09-07 — Updated on 2021-01-26