Is the Oldest Science Fiction in the Talmud?

Anthony Le Donne suggested on his blog (and in a recent conference paper) that a story in the Babylonian Talmud, in b. Menaḥoth 29b, might be the first science fiction story. In it, Moses time travels to Rabbi Akiba’s time. But is time travel enough to make a story science fiction?

I’ve long pondered this topic, namely when the phenomenon we label sci-fi first begins. Is the appearance of science in the modern sense essential to the definition? It is because of the assumption that the answer to that question is “yes” that the usual contenders for the title of the “first” work of science fiction are relatively recent. Many would start the history of science fiction with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

But whatever one’s view on whether there can be “science fiction” prior to the rise of modern science, it should be agreed that the development of modern science does not lead to a complete disjuncture in the history of human storytelling – as the Akiba story from the Talmud makes clear.

An even earlier example I often appeal to is 1 Enoch, with its account of a human who is “abducted” by celestial beings, learns that there is interbreeding taking place between celestials and terrestrials, and that the former are behind a number of major technological innovations among humans. That narrative scenario is the mythological underpinning not just of that ancient Jewish story but also of the X-Files.

A commenter on Anthony’s post suggested that the story of Daedalus and Icarus ought to also be considered, since it explicitly involves technology.

If one avoids making too sharp a cut-off in the era of modern science, then what would you propose as the first work of science fiction? And could one suggest that, if one doesn’t draw a dividing line in the modern era, then in bygone ages religion and science fiction were essentially one and the same? It was in religion, after all, that traditions of telling stories about visitors from a world above – and occasionally travels by humans to those realms – seem to have first flourished.

Those interested in this topic may also be interested to know that the introduction to the volume I edited, Religion and Science Fiction, is now available online as a pdf book sample, courtesy of Lutterworth Press, who will be releasing an edition of the volume. There I mention, among other things, the connection of 1 Enoch to science fiction. Also available online as a pdf sample chapter from the book is Allison Bright MacWilliams’ chapter on Frankenstein, “Scientists Playing God.” Since both are related to the topic of this post, I thought I should mention them!

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  • Bill

    Is Moses’ time travel attributed to some unspecified technology, or is it just magic? If the latter, could the story be considered fantasy rather than science fiction?

    • James F. McGrath

      It’s divine action in the story. But before simply placing it in the “fantasy” category and leaving it at that, I wonder whether Doctor Who would also go into the “fantasy” category, since it does not seem to offer any even theoretically plausible scientific means for time travel. Does just saying “it’s science” make something science fiction? After all, “magic” and “science” were thought to overlap until relatively recently in human history.

      • cameronhorsburgh

        In the popular mind sci-fi and fantasy are virtually synonymous anyway. I mean, I’ve seen the Twilight saga in the sci-fi section of my local bookshop. Perhaps the term ‘speculative fiction’ might help?

        The old adage that you ‘don’t know what sci-fi is but you know it when you see it’ might also help!

        • James F. McGrath

          So in other words it is comparable to pornography – at least from a supreme court justice’s perspective? :-)

          • cameronhorsburgh

            I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, James!

  • Gilgamesh42

    But shouldn’t Lucian’s “True Histor”y be closer to deserving that title of oldest Sci-Fi than the Talmud tale? There is a trip to the Moon after all. They also get to the Moon by a natural force rather than a supernatural one (though implausible, of course). That would make it more Sci-Fi than 1 Enoch as you suggest as well,since the “abduction” is done by supernatural forces unless you go all Ancient Aliens on the story.

    • James F. McGrath

      Yes, that would be a more natural choice for the title of “first science fiction” than the Talmud, unless we have good reason to think that the story in the latter is much older than the text in which it is recorded..

  • Paul Tillman

    In my opinion, much of Ezekiel has a Sci-Fi feel to it. And what about apocalyptic literature? Is that its own genre or a subset of Sci-Fi?

    • James F. McGrath

      Apocalyptic and sci-fi at the very least overlap – end of the world stories today tend to be sci-fi, and journeys beyond the sky in ancient Judaism and Christianity are part of the apocalyptic genre.

  • Beau Quilter

    The film “2012”, starring John Cusack, is billed as science fiction. A natural disaster is causing a world wide flood, and the governments of the world work to save a select group of individuals (and animals), with the resources needed to rebuild society, aboard three enormous metal arks.

    If outlandish technology rescuing the survivors of the human race from world-wide destruction can be categorized as Sci-Fi, then that must include the original sources for Noah and Gilgamesh.

    • Beau Quilter

      Or I should say Noah and Utnapishtim, the flood hero of the Gilgamesh epic.

  • arcseconds

    It’s an interesting question.

    To pick out a definition of ‘science fiction’ as it is generally understood, I would say that the defining aspect is a projection from the current technological society to a fantastic situation, yet the situation is presented as being scientific (often the result of scientific advancement, but at any rate in principle understandable by a scientist).

    I also think it helps to think about contemporary science fiction as a tradition, so what’s important isn’t so much exactly how the content is treated, but rather what it takes over from its predecessors.

    Doctor Who, on such an analysis, while it sometimes certainly steps firmly into fantasy (the carrionites being an excellent example), is almost always working in the science ficition tradition. The important thing is not so much that there’s any plausible scientific explanation for any of the events, but rather there are spaceships, aliens, robots, time-travel, etc (all familiar from earlier science fiction) and these are presented as being the result of advanced technology.

    (Fans and critics of course distinguish science fiction which is reasonably solidly based on science or a plausible extension thereof from science fiction without this basis, but the former excludes the majority of what’s currently accepted as science fiction)

    I think it is necessary to have a notion of technological progress at least, and probably also science (which requires having a notion of science, of course, as distinct from magic or the supernatural) before you can have something that’s clearly science fiction. *Frankenstein* clearly shows the monster as being the result of advanced science, and not only was it written at a time when people had a conception of technological progress and science, but was actually commenting on this progress. Earlier examples of human creations coming to life depict the work of the supernatural, e.g. golems and Pygmalion’s statue. Homonculi are an interesting grey area, because they’re the result of alchemy. While we now consider alchemy to be magic, at the time alchemy certainly had one foot planted in the natural world.

    I’m wondering about Daedalus, because while his achievements are represented as technological, I’m not sure the cultural context makes enough of a distinction between technology and magic, or between the natural world and magic, for this to really count as science fiction (would it get a similar reception from the original audience as we receive science fiction?). Perhaps it’s better to think of him as a craftsman with an uncanny level of skill: more akin to Zeuxis, Pymalion and Orpheus than Dr. Frankenstein. On the other hand, there are other automata in Greek mythology, and the Antikythera mechanism certainly makes it a real possibility that they did have a sufficiently well worked up notion of technological progress (plus the early Greek natural philosophy may give a notion of the natural world here), and that stories of automata may have been projections of existing technology.

    But at any rate, the Daedalus stories represent a different tradition to the current science fiction tradition – there was a long gap, and the current tradition owes little to those stories.

    I’m wondering where *Frankenstein* fits in. It’s literary home seems to be more the gothic novel than science fiction per se, and it seems to me that when science fiction really kicked off it was considerably later, with Jules Verne and so forth towards the end of the century.

  • arcseconds

    As far as ancient works that explore themes or exhibit tropes that later become standard science fiction fare, consider:

    *) *Odyssey* and the story of the Argo involve long journeys to strange places (much later, the story of Sinbad does the same thing. I’m sure there will be other examples of this sort of thing.)

    *) Plato creates imaginary societies in part to conduct a societal critique, most famous of course is *Republic*, but the Atlantis story in *Timaeus* and *Critias* also counts. The Atlantis story also involves an apocalypse.

    *)Pygmalion, and several stories in Greek mythology involving automata
    I’ve mentioned already

    Not ancient, and i’m sure you’ll all have heard this before, but it’s still worth mentioning *Gulliver’s Travels*, which involves fantastic voyages, involving odd modes of transport (the whirlpool may be the first wormhole in literature), strange beings, and odd societies. Also done in part to give a societal critique.

    In addition, the tales of Baron von Münchausen involve two trips to the moon, which in the second trip is populated by odd creatures (which he somehow failed to notice on the first trip — the author actually highlights this fact by having the Baron offer an excuse).

  • James F. McGrath

    It would be appropriate if the oldest work of science fiction turned out to also have wormholes

  • llennhoff

    In a related vein, some early works of alternate history (or at least treatments of them) can also be found in the Talmud. The rabbis discuss what would have happened had Adam and Eve not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, what if the Jews had not believed the reports of the spied and the older generaration been sentenced to die off in the desert etc. I can’t think of mythological equivalents to these – in ancient times does anyone discuss what would have happened had Paris chosen Athena instead of Aphrodite to give the Golden Apple to?

  • Dietrich Killer

    I very much appreciate and support your views – but i would place the beginning of “modern” science fiction much earlier than mary shelley. in my opinion “UTOPIA” by the “sainted” thomas morus earns this honor, ’cause it is in fact an extrapolation of the social and political sciences and philosophy in a fictuous ambiente. as for the ancients – i’m totally with you – and don’t forget prometheus (and his brother epimetheus, who was given an artificial woman named pandora as a “present” from the olympians..)