BMCR 2014.03.07

The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections. Ancient narrative supplementum, 16

, , , The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections. Ancient narrative supplementum, 16. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing; Groningen University Library, 2012. xx, 230. ISBN 9789491431210 €70.00.


Everybody loves a good story. The sentiment appears no less true today than it did in antiquity. In the ancient world peoples of various ethnic and religious groups told stories for purposes both of entertainment and edification. The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative: Fictional Intersections explores critical aspects of this literature, focusing in particular on points of convergence where the writings from different groups intersects and interacts. The thirteen essays represent a selection of papers presented at the Fourth International Conference on the Ancient Novel in Lisbon in 2008. As a whole the volume makes significant contributions to a body of literature that up until not that long ago was widely dismissed in academic circles as trivial. The volume includes valuable discussions of ancient Greek novels and a variety of early Christian texts, particularly the Apocryphal Acts. Readers interested in Jewish narratives (as indicated in the book’s title), however, will be sorely disappointed, as only one essay examines this literature.

Jennifer Eyl (“Why Thekla Does not See Paul”) focuses her attention on theme of eros in the Acts of Paul and Thekla (APT). Beginning with comments on Achilles Tatius’s Kleitophon and Leukippe, Eyl reviews the well known connection in this and other Greek works between erotic desire and vision. By contrast Thekla’s desire comes not from the visual apprehension of Paul but on the “focus on the word of Paul” (13). In so doing, APT eradicates the power of eros over Thekla and thus presents her as a model for an encratite ethos that values sexual renunciation. The intersection between APT and the Greek novelistic traditions occurs not only in different treatments of erotic love, but also in the convergence over the importance in exclusive attachments. Here again, however, APT departs from its contemporaries by rejecting attachments established through romantic love, and instead promoting desire fulfilled in “monotheistic zeal” (17).

Robin Greene (“[Un]Happily Ever After”) continues the focus on APT. Like Eyl, Greene notes the numerous subversive elements in APT in relation to the Greek novels. “Society at large, the patron, the potential ‘bridegroom,’ and the family are each in turn encountered, addressed, and finally abandoned in a neat inversion of the expected novelistic blueprint” (25). Greene focuses primarily on the work’s ending. In the original version of the work, Thekla’s decision to locate herself within the conventional social structures (except for family) “mimics the ‘happy endings’ of the Greek novels” (25). In later centuries, some versions of the work circulated with a new ending that speaks of Thekla’s sufferings brought on by Satan and recounts an attempted gang-rape that she escapes only through her own death. The different endings reflect not only contrasting understandings of who qualifies as a martyr, but also a divergence within Christian attitudes towards society, with some Christians reconciling a life dedicated to God with most social norms, while others imagining that society presents never-ending dangers to those who wish to live a life of true piety and devotion.

Paola Moretti (“The Two Ephesian Matrons”) takes the book’s interest in intersection seriously through a comparison between the Milesian tales, particularly as represented in Petronius’s Satyricon, and the Acts of John. She argues that the similar motifs (e.g., longing for death; the return to life) suggest that not only did this Christian writing draw upon the erotic Milesian traditions (both written and oral), but it may have been produced in part as a moralistic and missionary response to that literature. Most helpful are Moretti’s comments suggesting not only that Christians appropriated pagan literature, but also that the audiences for this disparate material may have held many characteristics in common, including, “a taste for stories of love, adventure, travel, magic” (44). The analysis serves as a helpful reminder that the boundaries between religious communities in the ancient world were not nearly as rigid as sometimes described.

Vincent Giraudet (“Virginity at Stake”) continues an analysis of the Acts of John and the novelistic tradition, this time with a close comparison with Nonnus’s Dionysiaca. While the latter text often embraces the power and importance of eros typical of the Greek novel, a glaring exception comes in the story of Morrheus and Chalcomede, which, with its apparent glorification of virginity and sexual renunciation, depicts characters who resemble those found in the Acts of John and other apocryphal acts. In so doing, Nonnus’s writings may indicate common approaches that pagan and Christian literatures developed in their treatment of sexuality.

Janet Spittler (“Wild Kingdom”) demonstrates that the apocryphal acts can be serious fun. She analyzes the common appearance of animals in apocryphal acts to demonstrate not only that such characters are common to both the Greek (and other ancient writings) and the Christian Acts, but that for the latter animals serve as an important vehicle for “to illustrate theological points” (65). The appearance of bed bugs, a wild ass, or dog not only supplies entertainment value, but exemplifies key “themes in the broader narratives, a narrative technique at work also in the ancient novels” (75).

Nina Braginskaya (“ Joseph and Aseneth in Greek Literary History”) offers the volume’s only treatment of Jewish literature. She locates the writing of Joseph and Aseneth in the later second century BCE amid other Jewish literature associated with the diaspora’s heroes (83). She shows that motifs often adduced as comparisons between JA and ancient novels (e.g., Apuleius’s Metamorphosis), are better understood as having developed within the context of biblical texts and Jewish culture (96). While the arguments for the dating and literary relationships between Joseph and Aseneth and the ancient novel are sound (although not without dissent), her most striking conclusion is that the Greek novel “was invented under the impact of exotic ‘provincial’ work” such as Joseph and Aseneth ” (103). This conclusion leaves open the tantalizing suggestion that Greek writers were both aware of Jewish writings and influenced by them. If correct, this conclusion would significantly rewrite the standard understanding of relations between Jews and pagans in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods.

Judith Perkins (“Jesus Was No Sophist”) offers a compelling examination of the relation between Christian writings and the Second Sophistic movement. Whereas the Second Sophistic promoted a connection between elite, sometimes even arcane, education and power, Christian literature challenged this association by presenting the apostles as powerful individuals noted for their lack of education. Indeed, it is the very “absence of linguistic and rhetorical sophistication… [that] manifest[s] the highest power” (114). Celebrating the absence of education as a virtue, even if the authors themselves were often quite well-educated, “undercut the pretensions of those justifying their privilege and power on the basis of their education” (116). Perkins primary example is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which shows how “Jesus’ wisdom surpasses that of human teachers and their learning” (120). Education functioned not only as a badge of honor, but carried associations with political power and justified violence directed toward the humiliores in Roman society. If knowledge is power, then Christians, who transmit the true knowledge that is available to all regardless of social status, wield a power that is most true and just.

Oliver Ehlen (“Reading the Protevangelium Jacobi) applies literary modes of analysis, particularly diegesis and focalisation, to a reading of the select passages in the Protevengalium Jacobi. By employing an extradiegetic narrator and internal focalisation, the text draws the reader into the story and provides a more emotionally laden experience. Such techniques were common among ancient Greek novels, and prefigure certain modern narrative strategies.

Rosa Andujar (“Charicleia the Martyr”) takes the subject of intersection in a different direction. She acknowledges the common themes between Greek novels and Apocryphal Acts, but reverses the standard valence and argues that the latter were the inspiration for the former. As with Braginskaya, the essay presents a provocative way to think about not just literary intersection but also potential social interactions. Andujar focuses her analysis on a comparison of Acts of Paul and Thecla and Heliodorus’s Aethiopica. The parallels she adduces may suggest some literary dependence, but are hardly decisive. Moreover, the claim that “Thecla is critical to Heliodorus’ treatment of beauty and chastity” (150 n. 34) seems to go beyond the evidence provided here, and lacks the sort of analysis found in Perkins and other contributors of why Heliodorus would be interested in reframing or responding to a work of Christian literature.

Martina Hirschberger (“Marriages Spoiled”) takes a focused look at the role of marriage in several of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Whereas Greek novels end with the happy union of the once-separated, now-united lovers, Christian writings display women rejecting the bonds of conjugal harmony, and living “according to the ideals of their new faith” (165). While Hirschberger correctly locates an element of subversion of pagan culture in these stories, the Christian women, despite their own agency, display a level of allegiance and devotion toward the male apostles that reifies a male hierarchy and thus lessens the radical nature of their actions.

Warren Smith (“We-Passages in Acts as Mission Narrative”) tackles the long-standing question of why Acts of the Apostles occasionally employs the first-person plural (“we”) as the narrative voice. Smith’s solution to the sporadic, almost random (174) use of “we” is to connect the we-passages with the westward spread of the Gospel and the “growth and widening of the Christian community” to Europe (177). According to Smith, the author introduces the “we” passages as a way to “draw the reader him/herself into the story, as though in being extended to Europe the Christian mission has been widened in syntactical submission to Jesus’ prophecy to include the reader him-herself” (176). Smith notes similar narrative shifts in other Christian (e.g., Didache) and non-Christian (e.g., Life of Apollonius) writings. Smith never explains, however, why the mission in Europe becomes a significant moment for the reader. Are we to assume that Acts was written for a Christian community living in Europe? Given that the first “we” passage (Acts 16) appears immediately after the decision in Jerusalem to accept gentile converts without circumcision (Acts 15), it seems equally as plausible to argue that the “trigger” is more ethnic than geographic, and that the “we” passages were meant to engage a gentile audience whose own rejection of circumcision has just been given official approval.

Petr Kitzler (“ Viri mirantur facilius quam imitantur ”) focuses on the story of Perpetua and how it evolved in the hands of Christian authors. Unlike the other essays which draw comparisons and contrast between Christian and non- Christian texts, this essay finds its intertexts solely amid Christian writings. Kitzler notes how Christian writers retold the story of Perpetua to advance their own theological positions. Tertullian, for instance, uses the story as “the crown witness of his doctrine of the soul’s fate after death” (191). Centuries later, Augustine seeks to normalize the more radical elements of her story (e.g., sexuality, relation with her father), and present Perpetua as a model of Christian asceticism.

Timo Glaser (“Telling What’s Beyond the Known”) examines three New Testament works known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles. Using the examples of ancient epistolary novels (e.g., Aeschines and Euripides), which were written as apologetic efforts to present the “correct” accounting of the person’s life, Glaser argues that the Pastoral Epistles fill the gaps and correct the record of Paul’s life that might arise from a reading of his letters and Acts. While the argument appears sound, Glaser provides only a couple of examples of how the Pastoral Epistles “rewrite” the story of Paul. This short essay contains no mention, for instance, of the way the Pastoral Epistles could be read as domesticating aspects of Paul’s apocalyptic teachings.

In general, the volume, intended for an audience already familiar with the writings under discussion, explores the literary relationships among this chronologically, geographically, and culturally diverse body of materials. The editors performed a splendid job not only in selecting the thirteen essays, but also in creating near stylistic uniformity throughout the pieces, although they could have asked some of the contributors to provide translations of the ancient texts. While overall a valuable work, two lacunae are worth mention. First, the collection would have benefited from additional analyses of Jewish texts, not only because of the significance of the literature, but also to reflect more accurately the book’s title. Second, the almost exclusive attention to literary features gives rise to questions about the social relations among the writers of audiences of this material. Perkins does an excellent job in this regard, and one would wish that others had followed, and in so doing expanded and complicated our understanding of the ethnic and religious identities represented in these texts and the boundaries between them.