Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Jewish Religious Literature

Many of the most basic myths of the West originate, or take their oldest surviving form, in the ancient sacred texts of Judaism or in those later works which, engaging those texts, fundamentally shaped Christianity. These legends and tales, though rarely (if ever) written as fantasy, are inexorably part of fantasy's history.

One of the oldest surviving Jewish writings is the Yahwist, or J, source of the Bible's Genesis, Exodus and Numbers (?circa 925BC); Harold Bloom has argued that this oldest Western story was indeed meant as fantasy. It includes such basic Western myths as Eden, the Flood, the tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the burning bush, the plagues on Egypt, and manna. Bloom, in The Book of J (1990), claims that the whole book was intended as ironic fantasy, and its God as a character only. This position seems unlikely in view of J's extensive national propaganda, but cannot be ruled impossible. Regardless, J's monotheism clearly leaves room for more varied marvels than does later Judaism's. And J's strangest passages – involving half-divine Heroes (Genesis vi) and Egyptian Magic (Exodus viii), for example – provided tropes for millennia of fantasy within monotheistic faiths.

Other old stories, certainly not intended as fantasy, have also profoundly informed the genre's history. The books of Samuel combine the grimly realistic Succession Narrative of David (?circa 800BC) with the hero-cycles of Samuel, Saul and David (? before circa 900BC), whose few marvels include Goliath and the Witch of Endor. This combination – probably effected around 600BC – makes David's tale a prototype for later stories of a king's rise and fall, most obviously those about Arthur. The Elisha stories of 2 Kings ii-xxiii (circa 850BC) were probably first written as political propaganda and understood as realistic, but nevertheless present the oldest Western tales of a wonder-working holy man.

Later biblical narratives grew steadily less fantastical. The Elohist, or E, source of the Torah (?circa 800BC), replaces J's personal God with one who works through Dreams and Angels. The Deuteronomistic History (circa 600BC) encases the marvels of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings within a moralistic framework; the Priestly, or P, source encases those of Genesis through Numbers within a ritualistic one. Finally Chronicles (circa 460BC) revises Kings, sanitizing it (though building up the legend of Solomon), and Ezra (circa 460BC) and Nehemiah (circa 440BC) are entirely realistic.

Meanwhile a visionary streak, expressed in short passages full of marvels with little or no narrative content, grew in Hebrew literature. From rare early examples such as E's gateway to Heaven (Genesis xxviii) and Isaiah's vision of God enthroned (circa 700BC), these became almost common after the Babylonian Exile of 587BC.

An era of enormous literary productivity in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek came after 300BC, and in such works the spare legends of the Bible became the backdrop to new and powerful myths. While the actual origin of each is debated, these works crucially conveyed to the Christian world such basic tropes of romance and fantasy as Demons, martyrs, secret knowledge, wicked magicians, and above all Heaven and Hell. Similarly, the concepts and of Apocalypse are presaged in older works from other cultures, but most fully instantiated in the Jewish works (and their Christian descendants), from which the term was defined. The Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch, or 1 Enoch, for example, is practically an encyclopedia of the new cosmology, collects some of the oldest texts concerned with it, and is still canonical today for the Ethiopian Jews. The apocalypse genre is usually defined as a narrative one, in which a supernatural figure reveals secret knowledge to a mortal, and in which that knowledge includes information about the end of times. It has been carefully compared to sf by Frederick A Kreuziger in Apocalypse and Science Fiction (1982), but the interest for fantasy derives largely from the impetus apocalyptic literature gave to elaborations of a specifically moral and eschatological cosmos, basic to mythopoeic fantasy. Since the moral and eschatological aspects are typically stereotyped, those apocalypses most relevant are those which develop cosmic ideas, typically about Heaven and/or Hell: the Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch (2 Enoch), which includes a remarkable birth-tale at its end; the wildly visionary Apocalypse of Zephaniah; and the dazzlingly descriptive Greek Apocalypse of Baruch (3 Baruch). The most directly influential apocalypse, of course, and the best-written, is the canonical book of Daniel (circa 165BC).

Another encyclopedic work, the Biblical Antiquities attributed to Philo (date uncertain), compiles legends of the Biblical history and works them cohesively into the newer sort of cosmology. The quasi-historical 2 Maccabees (late 2nd century BC), besides introducing the idea of martyrs to Jewish literature, offered several Miracles.

Other works elaborated stories of Biblical characters. Some were entirely realistic; the best with fantastic elements are Tobit (2nd century BC) – a charming romance of angelic deliverance – Daniel, and the lives of Adam and Eve (1st century), which depict the first humans struggling for physical and spiritual survival in a story whose misogyny fails to ruin its power. Others of genuine interest include the Testament of Job (circa 1st century), the Testament of Abraham (circa 100), whose interplay of human and divine will is typical of later Jewish legend, the romance Joseph and Aseneth (date uncertain), and the brief Paralipomena of Jeremiah or 4 Baruch (circa 100), which is reminiscent of Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle".

Judaism, after the destruction of its second temple, retreated steadily from Greek, and abandoned sustained narrative as well as the memory of the post-Biblical literature. Storytelling remained pervasive, but became a fugitive presence for centuries; ironically, this occurred exactly when storytelling was separated from strict sacred status as part of the haggadah of rabbinic literature. A superb guide to the extensive and bewildering remains, including the only translations of the main texts, is Rabbinic Fantasies (anth 1990), ed David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky. More extensive collections of shorter legends from the rabbinic classics include Gates to the Old City, (anth 1981) ed and trans Raphael Patai and the classic condensation of Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (text 1909-1913 4 vols, notes and index 1925-1938 3 vols). The latter includes only legends concerned with the Bible, and is succeeded by Jewish Legends of the Second Commonwealth (1983) by Judah Nadich. A collection of later legend with comparable status is Mimekor Yisrael (1938-1945 6 vols; trans I M Lask 1976 3 vols US) by Micha Joseph bin Gorion, ed Emanuel bin Gorion. Other works of interest include: The Book of Jasher (circa 1100), a cohesive medievalized retelling of the sacred history; The Chronicle of Moses (circa 1100; trans Oliver Shaw Rankin in Jewish Religious Polemic anth 1956); and the varied Utopias reported by Eldad ha-Dani (circa 875), trans in Jewish Travellers (1930) by Elkan Nathan Adler.

Samaritans honour only the five books of Moses as scripture. In the long period covered by the preceding paragraph, their great poet Marqe (4th century) retold the story of Moses in the first book of Tibat Marqe (trans John MacDonald in vol 2 of Memar Marqah 1965), while a much later writer provided a Samaritan version of post-Mosaic history in the Chronicle of Joshua (trans Oliver Turnbull Crane as The Samaritan Chronicle 1890).

Although introductions to the Hebrew Bible abound, and books about early rabbinic literature are also fairly common, Back to the Sources (anth 1984) ed Barry W Holtz is valuable for combining these tasks with a discussion of Hasidic works, critical bibliographies, and attention to the literary values of the narratives. For the rejected literature of post-Biblical times, the standard introduction is Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah (1981) by George W Nickelsburg. [JB]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.