To whom were such narratives addressed? On the face of it, they would appear to belong to ‘popular culture’, a form of literature that appealed beyond the élite and the sophisticated. Yet, although they may have contained some folk-tales and traditions that originated in oral form, the texts themselves took shape as writings, transmitted, rewritten, and circulated over the generations. And literacy in the ancient world was not high. But a dichotomy between élite and popular culture is too simplistic. The texts can work on several planes, and they appeal to a diverse readership.
Joseph and Aseneth serves as an example. The entertainment value of the novella is high: a dramatic transformation of the two chief figures from bristling antagonists to a loving couple, and the adventure story that has the ‘good’ brothers of Joseph prevail over the wicked sons of Leah and the nefarious plots of Pharaoh's son. But more serious and complex elements prompt a deeper probing: matters of Jewish/Gentile relations in the Diaspora, the nature of ‘conversion’ and the mystical symbols involved in Aseneth's encounter with the angel. Different audiences would have different reactions.
Similarly, the tale of Susanna straddles a highbrow/lowbrow divide. The story of the wise youth outsmarting the wicked elders, or the innocent woman victimized but vindicated, has numerous folk-tale features and certainly carried wide appeal. For most audiences the good yarn, the happy ending with virtue rewarded and villains punished, would have sufficed. But on a more nuanced reading, the text not only depicts the elders as corrupt and immoral, but portrays the populace that rendered hasty judgement on Susanna as compliant, easily swayed, and not very bright. The husband and family of Susanna are more concerned with their reputations than with supporting the defendant. And even the victorious Daniel succeeds not as a devout adherent of the faith but as a crafty prosecuting attorney. All the characters in this plot—the wicked, the inept, and the flawed—are Jews, which would prompt some self-reflection. The fable carried import at more than one level, and could have resonance with more than one stratum of society.
The book of Judith as a narrative of Jewish success against heavy odds, a triumph of piety over villainy, has a strong hold on popular imagination. But here too currents of a less distinct and more subterranean character come into play. Judith is an ambivalent figure, an adherent of law and ritual who does not hesitate to practice deceit. She is both more devout and more ruthless than the males in her society. Reversals and surprises abound in the text, thus subverting a simplistic reading. The text plays with chronology and geography, turns history into fantasy, casts doubt upon Jewish leaders' grasp of their own precepts and traditions, both asserts and questions religious values, and confuses gender roles.
These works and others operate at more than one level. The idea that they could be appreciated only by either a ‘popular’ mentality or by a sophisticated élite breaks down upon examination. Folk-tales and romances are regularly transformed through retelling over time, with a range of readers or auditors. Populace and intelligentsia alike could take pleasure both in their narrative charm and in their subversive character.