Historical fiction is a popular way for non-historians to learn about and relate to the past. Whether from books like The Red Tent, Sarah, or The Dovekeepers, the world of the ancient Jewish personalities comes into the foreground on a semi-regular basis. It is no surprise that these stories continue to surface; the bible and ancient texts introduce us to some of the best storytelling ever.
This method of interacting with the biblical text is not modern but ancient. Ancient biblical fictional stories have been preserved not just in the Agadta – non-legal sections of the Mishna and Gemara – but also in “pop-fiction”.
These stories’ preservation was for centuries a well-kept secret. Christian monks living in isolated monasteries included within their walls treasures of the past. Monastic libraries, which are now coming under scholarly scrutiny, include manuscripts composed during the end of the Second Temple Period but not included in the Jewish or Christian canons.
Pseudepigrapha are texts that were written by Jews in the Greco-Roman period and not canonized in most major religious traditions. These writings included different genres from wisdom texts to apocalyptic documents to adventure tales. Most include the casting of a biblical character in these stories or ascribing apocalyptic prophecies to biblical personalities. The motives behind the authors are also varied. Some serve to satirize contemporary Jews, some are fan fiction.
Included in pseudepigrapha is the story of Joseph and Aseneth (Osnat), which is based on verses from this week’s Torah portion. Three copies of this story were found in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. The copies were written in the 10th, 15th and 16th/17th centuries but were based on much older texts. Scholars believe that there was one original written somewhere in the late Second Temple period or late Roman period (2nd century B.C.E. – 4th century C.E.) by a Jewish author.
The basic gist of the story has all the elements of a Danielle Steele novel. Asenath, daughter of the priest Pentephres, is an idol worshipper and reacts in disgust when her father says he is giving her in marriage to Joseph – a lowly Israelite. When she sees him, however, she falls in love and renounces her idols. Some of Joseph’s older brothers, Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher (the son’s of Bilha and Zilpa), ally with Pharaoh’s son to kill Joseph and steal Asenath. When Leah’s sons hear, they fight their brothers and save the happy couple.
The story of Joseph and Asenath would have appealed to the Second Temple Jews. Here we have our hero, Joseph, living outside of the land of Israel in Egypt. At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Egypt. Joseph was respected by the Egyptians; he found a balance between his Judaism and modern culture. The story is crafted within the literary Greek tradition with an unlikely romantic pairing, threats to the hero’s life and a fight between good and evil.
The question remains: Why did the Orthodox Christian monks save these stories? They didn’t really see them as Jewish writings but rather as Christian texts since there is no mention of the major external Jewish customs: Shabbat and holiday observance, circumcision, dietary laws or ritual purity. The Christian monks underscored the ethical concern and universalistic messages without understanding that these are core Jewish values as well.
The Jewish authors of the texts surely cared about those themes. They also focus on devotion to God and clinging to Jewish traditions. In order to present Judaism as a sophisticated religion which could be combined with their modern reality, they emphasized ethical aspects rather than ritual ones. Judaism, besides being a orthopractic religion is not devoid of ethics and philosophy and these Jewish authors 2000 years ago understood how to bring these Jewish ideas to the modern reader.