An Example of Jewish Fiction Writing in Antiquity

Rook_Hawkins's picture


If the Gospels are literary fictions, can you give us any other examples of a fictitious narrative written by Hellenized Jews to reflect reinterpretation of scripture with Greek influence?


Atheist Answer


ANSWER FROM ROOK HAWKINS: Yes. There are quite a few examples I could give, but because I’m short on time because my book demands so much from me, I’ll use the most simple example with the most groupings I can list without having to go into a whole lot of details. The book of Tobit. Tobit is, for lack of a better way to put it, edifying fictions. The story uses very specific literary motifs and tropes, as well as Greek folklore (the dangerous bride, the greatful dead, etc&hellipEye-wink. Nothing in this story is meant to be taken as historical narrative.

I’ll lay out some basic bullet points for you concerning Tobit and Homer. There are four main characters in both the Odyssey and Tobit (Mainly books 1-4 of the Odyssey).


(1) Odysseus (father)

(2) Telemachus (son)

(3) Mentor (The Goddess “flashy-eyed” Athena disguised in human form)

(4) Penelope (mother, weaver)


(1) Tobit (father)

(2) Tobias (son)

(3) Azariah (The angel Raphael takes on the guise of human form - sounds kind of like the whole Jesus thing, huh?)

(4) Anna (mother, weaver)

The Greek author of Tobit draws heavily on the Homeric trope, in which he portrays almost verbatim at times.  Homeric tropes through a Greek literary process called mimesis (or imitation). As was the sort of mimetic practice of the day, the authors of Jewish narratives throughout the Hellenistic period often set out to redefine, reinvent, interpret or completely recreate an event from scripture, by pulling on influence from a variety of Hellenic sources. (In this case, the author of Tobit also draws on themes and tropes from Genesis to supplement those which he draws from Homer) It is also important to remember that this was not considered blasphemous or even odd to a Jew during the Hellenic period. Many Jews, especially those born into the Diaspora, say in Alexandria, two generations out from the conquest of the land by Alexander the Great, would have grown up in a Hellenized society, having been themselves assimilated into the culture without ever really knowing that. Think of it in more modern terms: I’m an Italian, but I was born in America (second generation), so I am effectively Americanized, as was my father - my grandfather was brought up in America but was still not fully accommodated and assimilated into the American way of life like my father and I were. While we are still Italian by blood, we are American by culture and although we still maintain many Italian traditions (mainly family traditions), we also have developed many more new traditions and in most ways adapted Italian traditions to our American culture. The same thing was taking place for Jews (as well as Greeks!) in the Hellenic ancient Near East.

There was also no canon. It is important to keep in mind that many Old Testament books were still being written during the Hellenistic age, without a process of canonization until 200 CE (final), and it also was not until then that we see the Mishnah in written form and the start of the long process of collecting the volumes that form the Torah. (which would not be complete for another 400 years) So where one sees in the Letter of Aristeas a curse on those who would alter the scripture in any way (familiar to Matthew 5:17-21), such curses played no part in reality. The authors of the narratives such as Tobit, even Job, did not set out to replace or challenge the scripture, but rather to disguise it, dress it up, accompany it or act as commentary towards that literature. (One could even argue that those works that had more Greek influence were more theologically rich than those without that influence)

Sorry about the brief digression. I find it is important to have a mutual understanding of the times and cultural phenomena that were taking place before actually establishing the similarities (correlation does not always = causation, so it is important to establish a factual grounding for such causality to exist) Back to the similarities:

In both stories:

The father sends the son forth to accomplish a very important task for the family (Tobit needs to obtain a special treasure to save his family from financial ruin while curing his fathers blindness; Telemachus needs to journey away to find means to rid his household of the suitors which also threaten his families financial wellbeing), upon being given the task, a supernatural heavenly being appears in the guise of kindred (somebody related specifically to the family to gain the trust of the son). In both cases, a son is mourned by his mother who has to weave day and night (in the case of Tobit, it is to make ends meet. In Homer’s epic, it is to deal with the constant strain of the suitors who she must weave for). Upon their arrival at a city of more kindred and family friends, they enter a home where there is wedding feast taking place. Both stories have the recently married couple invite the two guests to spend time with them. While there, trials take place after which the son finds a bride and marries. Upon the finding of the wealth, there is a triumphant return home where the financial situation of the families are great and the hero’s honor is returned.

These are only brushing the surface mind you. There are so many minor similarities that to list them would take up another dozen or so pages and adequately explain their interpretative abilities. But, I hope this suffices enough for now. You may find my blog of interest. There are actually quite a few posts dealing with this issue (recently, a response to Rick Hillegas in a magazine article). You can find it at: Rook’s Content on RRS

For Additional Reading:

(1) Dennis R. MacDonald, Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity (2001)

(2) The Harper Collins Study Bible, NSRV. (2006, Revised)

(3) Erich Gruen (et al.), Hellenistic Constructs (1997)

(4) Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (1998)

(5) Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth (2007)