Jewish sources in the narrative of Abraham in the General estoria

In a previous post I wrote about the influence of Jewish exegesis in the development of fictionality, that is, those aspects of prose fiction that serve to enhance the as-if function of fiction and make possible the suspension of disbelief required of audiences of fiction. In the past post I discussed examples drawn from the Castilian translation of the Song of Songs included in the General estoria of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284), a universal history in the Castilian vernacular that relates human history from creation through the reign of Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III (known since the seventeenth century as ‘The Saint’ and after whom Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley aka ‘The Valley’ is named).

San Fernando Valley Credit: Oakshade, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here I will examine a few examples drawn from the Abraham cycle of the General Estoria of Alfonso X in which Jewish exegesis appears to shape the Castilian vernacularization of the Vulgate text, paving the way for later Castilian writers in their vernacularization of exempla and other Latin texts, and ultimately, for the development of a more capacious Castilian literary register used to describe fictional worlds.

The work’s prologue spells out the goals of the text: men would like to know the past, present, and the future, but can only know the past. To this end they wrote many books recording the deeds and stories of great men, in which group he includes ‘God, the prophets and the saints, as well as kings, high nobility, knights, and commoners’ (“de Dios e de los profetas e de los santos, e otrossí de los reyes, e de los altos omnes e de las cavallerías e de los pueblos”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8).

The purpose of these positive portraits is exemplary, so that “men might take the example in order to do good,” (“e de los fechos de los malos que recibiessen castigo por se saber guardar de lo non fazer”) (Alfonso X , 1: 8) while the bad deeds of biblical characters serve as a reminder of what not to do. This approach puts the author Moses in same category as Herodotus, Livy, and Josephus:

[I] had them gather many texts and histories of the deeds of antiquity; I selected the truest and the best of those of which I had learned and made this book. And I also had them put in it all the best stories from the Bible, of the great things that happened throughout the world from when it began up until our own times.

ove fecho ayuntar muchos escritos e muchas estorias de los fechos antiguos escogí d’ellos los más verdaderos e los mejores que ý sope e fiz ende fazer este libro. E mandé ý poner todos los fechos señalados tambien de las estorias de la Biblia como de las otras grandes cosas que acaecieron por el mundo desde que fue començado fasta’l nuestro tiempo. (Alfonso X , 1: 8)

It’s El Cid! No, wait….
Charlton Heston as Moses Source:

The truth claims made by the General estoria, as a work of historiography, are more similar to those of the modern novel than they are to those of modern history. Medieval historiography does not aspire to an empirical referentiality. It does not intend to recreate or represent historical events in the same way we have come to expect of modern historiography. Because medieval historiography and biblical narrative both made similar types of truth claims, their combination in a text such as the General estoria is not problematic as it would be today. And because Alfonso’s goal was to produce a universal, rather than eschatological or Christological account the past, the inclusion of pagan Classical, Muslim, and Jewish courses strengthens, rather than compromises, the text’s authority.

In this reading of the second part of the Abraham cycle, my approach has been to observe where the General estoria differs from the Vulgate, and from there where it differs from its most heavily used sources: Petrus Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, Josephus’ Antiquities, and Godfrey of Viterbo’s Pantheon.

As I found in my study of the Jewish sources of the General estoria’s translation of the Song of Songs, the evidence suggests that the compilers of the General estoria rely on Jewish sources in order to develop the fictionality of the narrative; that is, in order to augment and enhance the Vulgate narrative by focusing on aspects that are suggestive of modern ideas of fiction: characterization, motivation, and narrative coherence or continuity.


‘Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham’, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615- 1617 Source:

Our first example of the influence of Jewish exegesis on the General Estoria’s Abraham cycle is in its characterization of Sarah’s servant Hagar. Now pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael, while Sarah remains barren, Hagar becomes disdainful and haughty toward her mistress. You can see the sources at number three on your handout.

The Vulgate mentions only that she is disdainful (“despexit dominam suam”) but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail, relating that she ‘began to be unruly and to sniff at her mistress and disdain her words’ (“començó a seer loçana e a despreciar a su señora e desdeñar la su palabra”) (Alfonso X 5:26, 245). Comestor, one of the General Estoria’s most common Christian sources, echoes the Vulgate with out further comment, but the Midrashic sources brought together in Ginzburg’s Legends of the Jews dramatize Hagar’s haughtiness in detail:

When noble matrons came to see Sarah, she was in the habit of urging them to pay a visit to “poor Hagar”, too. The dames would comply with her suggestion, but Hagar would use the opportunity to disparage Sarah. “My lady Sarah,” she would say, “is not inwardly what she appears to be outwardly. She makes the impression of a righteous, pious woman, but she is not, for if she were, how could her childlessness be explained, after so many years of marriage, while I became pregnant at once? (Ginzburg 201)

The Jewish exegete Rashi, whose commentaries were read widely in Spain during Alfonso’s time, also cites this Midrash in his commentary on Genesis.

Sarah and Abraham
Bible traduite en français par Jean de Sy. 15thc. BNF f.14r Source: Bibliotheque Nationale de France

At other times, the compilers enrich the version found in the Vulgate in order to explain the motivations of the characters, just as the Midrash often does. When Abraham and Sarah first arrive in Egypt, the news of Sarah’s beauty travels quickly. The Vulgate reports simply that Pharaoh’s courtiers told him about Sarah. Josephus adds a bit more detail, explaining that the Pharaoh was not content with second hand reports and insisted on meeting Sarah in person (Josephus I.8.1, 27). Comestor and Godfrey of Viterbo are silent, but the General estoria goes into a bit more detail to explain the courtiers’ motives, relating that “When the courtiers of Egypt saw her, they then tried to ingratiate themselves with the king, telling him how they had seen a young lady, a pilgrim, who was very beautiful, and praised her to him quite a bit.” (“los poderosos de Egipto pues que la vieron por engraciarse dixieron al rey cómo vieron allí una manceba que andava como peregrina e era muy fermosa, e alabárongela mucho”) (Alfonso X 5:4, 212). On this detail both Rashi and the thirteenth-century Catalan exegete Nahmanides both state explicitly that the courtiers reported on Sarah’s beauty because they thought the Pharaoh might choose her for his harem, again emphasizing motive.

One of the other concerns of the compilers is to provide more narrative coherence between otherwise discrete episodes of the Old Testament, in order to build a more comprehensive and interrelated storyworld. This is also characteristic of the prose fiction of the late Middle Ages in its development toward the modern short story or novel. The compilers here provide details drawn from Jewish sources that connect episodes that in the Vulgate are unrelated.

Isaac Isaacsz, Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham, 1640. Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Source:

Sarah’s servant Hagar, mother of Ishmael, was given to her as a gift from Pharaoh when she and Abraham left Egypt. This detail is missing from the Vulgate, and Josephus and Comestor likewise do not mention it. The General estoria explains that Hagar was in fact one of the servants given to Abraham and Sarah by Pharaoh:

Among the riches and the servants male and female that King Pharaoh, his ministers and his friends gave to that Abraham and his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, he gave Sarah, out of the great love he had for her, a young girl servant who was very close to him, and begged her to let him demonstrate his great love for her; and Sarah happily received the servant from him and brought her with her. And this servant was Hagar, of whom we shall speak further on.

E entre las riquezas e los siervos e las siervas que dend sacaron Abraham e Sarra su muger e Lot su sobrino que les dio el rey Faraón e sos privados e sos amigos dio el rey a Sarra por el grand amor que oviera d’ella una sierva mancebiella, e que era muy su privada, e rogóla que le fiziesse algo por el su amor; e Sarra recibiójela de grado, e levósela consigo. E esta sierva fue Agar, de quien fablaremos adelante. (Alfonso X 5:6, 215)

Fragments of the Qumran Genesis Apocrypha Plate 647 1Q20 1Q apGen

The text here again works to resolve the gift of Hagar from the Pharaoh to Sara. In the Rabbinic mind, it is to establish legal precedent for the Israelites’ claim to the land of Goshen. But for the compilers of the General estoria, unconcerned about legitimizing Jewish claims to this or that parcel of land, it is about fictional logic; they want to explain why Pharaoh gave Sara a parting gift. In fictional terms, this gesture serves to connect Hagar with the Egypt episode, as well as to deepen Pharaoh’s characterization, as it humanizes the love (lust) that Pharaoh had for Sarah. Furthermore, it uses the reader’s familiarity with Hagar to think ahead to her eventual expulsion and suffering in the wilderness, further deepening the characterization of both servant and mistress. In Jewish sources, the tradition of Pharaoh’s donation of Hagar to Sarah is quite old, first witnessed in the Apocrypha of Genesis in Qumran 1, but the more likely source for the compilers of the General estoria is again the Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer, which describes Hagar not only as a servant of Pharaoh, but as his own daughter by a concubine (Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. 26:2, 190).



By way of conclusion, we must say that these examples are suggestive, but not yet conclusive. The very circumstances of the compilation of the General estoria work against positive identification of its Jewish sources. The compilers often identify Christian and Muslim authorities, while specific Jewish sources aside from the Hebrew Old Testament, or rather the author Moisés, are not. Once in a while the compilers say “the Jews say” or “the Jews believe,” but for the most part they say nothing. Occasionally a when the compilers say “some say” the “some” turns out to be a Jewish source. We have no record of the working habits of the teams who compiled the General estoria and relatively little information about which versions of which exegetical texts a Jewish translator working for Alfonso might have had access to. Still, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I am increasingly convinced that the compilers made regular use of Jewish exegesis in their adaptations, and further study of the biblical material in the General estoria will teach us more about this aspect of the text’s composition, an aspect that may teach us a great deal about the role of anonymous Jewish intellectuals in the birth of Castilian fiction.

Works Cited

  • Alfonso X. General estoria. Ed. Borja Sánchez-Prieto. 10 vols. Madrid: Fundación José Antonio de Castro, 2009. Print.
  • Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Los capítulos de Rabbí Eliezer = Pirqê Rabbî ʼElîʻezer. Trans. Miguel. Pérez Fernández. Valencia: Institución S. Jerónimo para la Investigación Bíblica, 1984. Print. Biblioteca midrásica ; 1; Biblioteca midrásica ; 1.
  • Josephus, Flavius. Antiguedades de los judíos. Trans. Alfonso Ropero Berzosa. Vol. 1. Barcelona: CLIE, 1988. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I wrote for a session on Jewish sources in the Biblical translations in the General estoria for the Cultural “Symbiosis” International Research Consortium: Humanities, Ideas, and Power in Motion (Sevilla, May 16-18, 2017) organized by Francisco Peña Fernández (UBC Kelowna). Many thanks to my research partner David Navarro (Texas State San Marcos), who read the paper when I was not able to attend.

Rabbis, a Spanish Biblical History, and the Roots of Vernacular Fiction

Translate this.

Translate this. [photo: Bible Leaf. Vulgate Bible. France. Circa 1150. source: Graduate Theologial Union]

The rise of fictional literature in medieval Europe coincides with the emergence of vernacular literatures. Writers such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Don Juan Manuel are noted for localizing regional fictional narratives, ‘dressing’ them in local geography, cultural practice, and especially vernacular language. The General Estoria, [see last post on Jewish Exegesis in the biblical translations found in the General Estoria] composed by Alfonso X ‘the learned’ (1252-1284) is a universal history spanning from creation to the reign of Alfonso’s father, Fernando III (who eventually lent his same to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). It includes a series of translations from the Latin Vulgate bible into Castilian, the vernacular language of the court. In these Castilian translations of biblical narratives pressed into the service of court history, we can observe some of the earliest developments of a vernacular fictionality, some of which have their roots in the Jewish exegesis of the middle ages.

The translation of Biblical texts into the European vernaculars was one important laboratory for medieval fiction. Alfonso’s translations of biblical narratives drew on Jewish biblical commentaries that sought to bring Biblical language (and the reality it represented) in line with local, contemporary life of Jewish communities. As such, it was a model for literary fiction in that it strove to take material, ideas, and worlds described in classical language, and make them relevant to contemporary culture and daily life.

Bible as history paves the way for fiction

Hardly photographic [Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Hardly photographic
[Renoir, Chestnut Trees in Bloom (1881) Source: wikimedia commons]

Readers of medieval history did not expect histories to be empirically correct representations of historical events. Rather, they looked to them to provide stories of great deeds of the past told in an entertaining and convincing fashion. In this way, their function was closer to that of the modern historical novel than the modern history book. For us, medieval history writing is a Renoir: moving, inspiring, beautiful, but hardly photographic; we might say the same of Biblical narrative, which only the most fundamentalist regard as accurate in the same way they would expect from a history book. For this reason, it was far less problematic in the thirteenth century to include biblical texts in works of historiography than it would be today. In order to make this biblical history come alive in the vernacular, Alfonso’s translators brought to bear the tools and methods of Jewish exegesis, in ways that would have implications for the development of vernacular prose fiction.

It seems counterintuitive that a Christian king should resort to Jewish biblical commentaries in order to render the Bible into Spanish. It was not as if there were a shortage of Christian scholars who were capable of translating the Latin Vulgate into Spanish. Why bring Rabbis into the picture? Alfonso had long demonstrated a keen interest in scriptural and exegetical traditions of his subject religious minorities. His nephew Don Juan Manuel, himself an important voice in early Castilian literature, relates the following:

He ordered translations of the Muslim scriptures…. also he ordered translations of the Jewish scriptures and even their Talmud and another discipline that the Jews keep hidden that they call Kabbalah. He also translated into Castilian all laws Ecclesiastical and Secular. What more can I tell you? No man can say how much good this noble king has done to grow and illuminate knowledge (Juan Manuel 2: 510–520; Alvar 49).

Alfonso ordered translations of the major sacred texts of Islam and Judaism. He did so not in order to convert his subject Jews and Muslims, but to satisfy his curiosity about the world and its history. His court was a major center of translation of Arabic science into Castilian, and he employed Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars in these projects. After his death he enjoyed far greater renown for his patronage of science and arts than he ever did as a statesman.

By Alfonso’s time, Castile had long been an important center for Biblical translation, and Jewish translators often worked alongside their Christian counterparts to produce these translations. There are numerous episodes, motifs, and methodological earmarks of the work of Jewish exegetes in the biblical material in the General estoria (Peña Fernández). Alfonso’s translators explain aspects of the material world of the bible in contemporary terms, a tactic prevalent in the work of important medieval Jewish exegetes such as Rashi of Troyes and Abraham ibn Ezra of Navarre, both of whom brought examples from the contemporary cultural life of the community in order to give new relevance and meaning to the biblical storyworld. In my previous post on the General Estoria, I mentioned a few examples from the Song of Songs that you can read here.

The contribution of Jewish biblical commentary to the development of fictional worlds


It’s in there [Guillaume de Paris, Postillae maiores totius anni cum glossis et quaestionibus (Lyon, 1539) . souce: wikipedia]

How does this kind of evidence point up the specific contribution of Jewish exegesis to the development of vernacular fictionality in the General Estoria? While Christian exegesis focuses on subordinating the Old Testament narrative to a Christological interpretation, Midrash, and Jewish exegesis more broadly, is more concerned with filling narrative gaps (which abound in the narrative sections of the Old Testament) and explaining motives and emotional states. As such it is far more aligned with what critics commonly imagine to be the goals of fiction: plausible representations of things that could be real, but are not.

Jewish exegesis is also in large part concerned with making scripture and earlier commentaries more relevant to the lives and realities of contemporary Jewish communities. To this end they often employ the vernacular to explain an object, animal, or other realia whose meaning is unclear in the Hebrew or Aramaic. The twelfth century exegete Rashi of Troyes in particular, is well-known for his use of medieval French to explain difficult etymons and concepts, and it is perhaps no accident that he was working at the dawn of vernacular literary composition in France, when Troubadours began to sing and authors of Romances began to write in French and not Latin.

Like translations, exegetical texts are doing the work of bringing the text over, closer to the lived realities of the audience. Just as a translator is concerned with rendering a source text into a target language, an exegete is concerned with rendering the world of the text into the target vernacular culture, the bridge between classical traditions.

Translation is a form of interpretation, and just as biblical commentary expands the meaning of scripture and aligns the text with the reality of new generations of readers, the translation of scripture into the vernacular itself a form of biblical commentary, one that reflects the values and practices of the current generation.

True, but not Real [Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

True, but not Real
[Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Additional 10293, f. 199. source: British Library, Medieval Manuscripts blog]

How is this significant for the development of fiction? One of fiction’s defining characteristics is its lack of what philosophers and literary critics call ‘referentiality’; put simply, it says things that are not real. Good fiction is able to say things as if they were real, and have us believe that they are in some way true, even if they don’t refer to real events. In the middle ages, this true-but-not-real quality applied equally to tales of knights and ladies, to history books, and even to biblical stories when they were included in history books. The idea that medievals were hyper-literalist scriptural fundamentalists who believed in the perfect referentiality of scripture is more a product of our own cultural moment than of medieval culture.

Vernacular fictional worlds


Writing in the vernacular catalyzes the make-believe function of fiction, because the familiar sounds of everyday speech (even if not one’s native language) make the alternate reality of the fictional world more plausible, more believable, and more easily provoke the suspension of disbelief key to the audience’s participation in the covenant of fiction. This vernacularization enhances the ‘as-if’ nature of fiction, establishing more vivid points of reference between the fictional and ‘real’ words. Medieval Jewish exegetes knew this, and took pains to map the Biblical and ancient rabbinical worlds onto contemporary vernacular culture, making frequent use of the vernacular languages they spoke in order to do so. This was also the case in the arts: medieval biblical illuminations of stories set in the ancient fertile crescent feature characters dressed in contemporary costume. Alfonso’s translators took a page from their book in striving to make biblical texts relevant to the concerns and sensibilities of Alfonso’s court, a court that strove to elevate the vernacular of its subjects to the level of a classical tradition. In so doing, I believe they sowed seeds of what would later become modern fictionality’s attention to realistic detail and empirical plausibility in creating new worlds for new readers.

David, who's your tailor? [Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

David, who’s your tailor?
[Photo: David loads provisions in the Maciejowski Bible, New York, Morgan Library Ms M. 638, f. 27 Source: wikimedia commons]

Works Cited

Alvar, Manuel. “Didactismo e integración en la General estoriaI (estudio del Génesis).” La lengua y la literatura en tiempos de Alfonso X. Actas del Congreso internacional (Murcia, 5-10 de marzo de 1984. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1985. 25–78. Print.

Juan Manuel. Obras Completas. Madrid: Gredos, 1982. Print.

Peña Fernández, Francisco. “La Relatividad de Las Cosas: Heterodoxy and Midrashim in the First Chapters of Alfonso X’s General Estoria.” eHumanista (2013): 551. Print.

This post is a version of a paper I gave at the conference “Theorizing Medieval European Literature”, Centre for Medieval Literature, (University of York/University of Southern Denmark) at York, July 2, 2016. Thanks very much for the Centre’s directors, Profs. Elizabeth Tyler, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Christian Høgel, for the invitation.