The Shadow of God: Stories
from Early Judaism
The dialogue is fiction, and it is probably fiction even when I quote ancient dialogue, such as from Philo and Josephus, who themselves felt at liberty to recreate dialogue for the principle actors of their histories. The main critique of fictional dialogue is whether or not it is plausible. And the story plots are fiction, although some are tied very closely to the plot given us by ancient sources. Both dialogue and plot, however, are constrained by the limits of the historian: 1) the picture must be localized in space and time; 2) all history must be consistent with itself; 3) the historian’s picture stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence. (Collingwood, Historical Imagination 18.)
In short, I am not primarily concerned with what did occur but with what might have been possible responses to what probably did occur. By this means, the goal is to clarify how Judaism developed over six centuries. The emphasis is on the journey itself, not a description of the milestones. The journey is imagined, just as history is the imagined reconstruction of the past by a single subjective mind whose reconstruction may be critiqued by others, if and only if, they have an equally firm grasp of the data of the past. The stories in The Shadow of God are my reconstructions of Jewish history. And I echo the sentiments of Keith Hopkins: that to re-experience life in antiquity, “we have to combine ancient perceptions, however partial, with modern understandings, however misleading.” (Hopkins, A World Full of Gods, 6.)
I had three structural goals for the project: 1) the development of key themes: the universalism of God and of Torah, the particularism of Jewish identity, and the development of Jewish Christianity; 2) a fairly complete portrayal of society: the major stereotypes, but including non Jews, men and women, servants and masters; and 3) anchoring the stories to significant historical events that in themselves demonstrate the growth of Judaism. Beyond these goals of content, I hoped to engage the reader with the plots, narrative, and dialogue, that is, to draw the reader into the world of the story.
Historical imagination strives for authenticity of the era in thought as well as setting. In recent times, filmmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths for historical accuracy in the settings and minutia. The description of the background and the minor details of daily life ought to reflect our best knowledge of the era. The reader should have a confident sense of being there, not being in a poorly furnished museum. But more importantly, the thoughts expressed must also be limited to the potential for thought during the era.
Here I should say something about anachronism. Like cholesterol, there is good and bad anachronism. Anything that does not belong, whether catus in first-century Palestine or codices and candles before they were invented, is bad for the historical setting and unnecessary because life was lived without them. If we are to recreate an accurate worldview in a distant time, we are helped by an accurate view of the world in which people lived. What people did not have could not influence them. What they needed to survive became life sustaining and highly valued, such as water and salt and herbs. We need only remember that today people in more primitive societies do see life differently from those in the opulent societies.
Some anachronism, however, is necessary because we are engaged in translating ancient thought into modern understanding. Good anachronism usually takes the form of idiom and dialect. We have a sense of the way provincials speak and act, so for the sake of economy, we may apply modern stereotypes to ancient stereotypes. The danger lies in a dialogue too easily identified with a modern locale or ethnicity that will draw the reader out of antiquity. We are on firmer ground when portraying the wealthy elite of antiquity for we have writings to help us along, but still, it is useful to use modern stereotypes, and when I think of high society, I think in a British accent. Humor is another potential area for good anachronism, so long as the joke works in antiquity. We have examples of ancient humor, but often it does not translate easily, and to have to explain it, even in a footnote, misses the humorous punch in the narrative itself. In my view, Yiddish humor, though clearly anachronistic, can be reworked for early rabbis and Pharisees.
In order to facilitate cohesion and the necessary historical background to each story, I use the voice of a named narrator, Leontius, who happens to be a scribe and librarian by training in the employ of Flavius Josephus. Leontius is the omniscient narrator of story telling, but because he is set within space and time, he is limited to what might be known in his space and time, the end of the first century of the Common Era. I doubt that I succeeded completely in keeping to this limitation, but I tried.
The dialogue then is fiction, but for the sake of the goal of historical imagination, we must try to limit our dialogue to that which might have been said, imitating and, when possible, quoting our historical sources. In The Shadow of God, I use ancient dialogue as often as I can, and I give the reference to my source whenever I feel it is warranted. For example, the first story, “Figurines of Clay,” deals with the Jews exiled in Babylon, and the only historical character is the prophet Ezekiel. I use as many quotes from the book of Ezekiel as I could within the confines of the story, sometimes verbatim, other times in summary or condensed form. Ezekiel speaks his own words in a reconstructed setting which pits him against imaginary opponents whom we know existed because his preserved words were delivered against his opponents or to those in exile. In all of the stories, then, I describe people who must have existed, and in that sense it remains a priori imagination, and who say things people might have said, which is fiction.
Let me continue to expand on this approach by illustrating a few stories. The first story, set in 569 B.C.E., finds the Jewish people in the Babylonia settlement of Tel-Aviv, between the Tigris and Euphrates. They exhibit three basic responses to exile. One response is to remain faithful to Yahweh and hope for a return to Judah. But others of a more pragmatic bend of mind have rejected Yahweh and seek the blessings of greater gods, Marduk or the Queen of Heaven (as demonstrated in Jeremiah, chapter 44, by those Jews who fled to Egypt and rejected the call of the prophet Jeremiah to return to God). Others, perhaps the majority, hold a middle ground: they are uncertain about the power of Yahweh or that exile was a punishment for sin, so they live for the present and hope for the best. (This spectrum of belief is probably consistent across the centuries of human history: the devout, the apostate, and the vast majority between the bold extremes.) The task of the story is to give voices to each attitude and do so within a real life conflict setting, that is, a story plot.