Joseph and Asenath

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JOSEPH AND ASENATH , pseudepigraphic work – the story of how Asenath, daughter of Pentephres, priest of Heliopolis, converted to the worship of the God of Israel and married Joseph. The tenuous basis of this anecdote is one verse in Genesis (41:45). The marriage of the chaste and pious Joseph to the pagan Asenath was problematic for strictly observant Jews. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan solves the problem by making Asenath the daughter of Dinah, who was raped by Shechem (Gen. 34:1–3). The author of Joseph and Asenath is clearly aware of the theory of Asenath's Jewish origin, but implicitly rejects it. He makes Asenath an Egyptian who converts to Judaism in order to marry Joseph. Joseph and Asenath is extant in Greek as well as in Slavonic, Syriac, Armenian, and Latin versions and, in common with other hagiographic texts, has passed through the hands of many editors. There appear to be one short and three long recensions. The short recension is the oldest and is witnessed to by two Greek manuscripts and the Slavonic version. The original text is Greek and most of the Hebraisms it contains are derived from the Septuagint. Joseph and Asenath should be classified among the pseudepigraphs of the Bible. It provides some interesting points of similarity with the Testaments of the Twelve *Patriarchs. Just as each of the Testaments illustrates a particular virtue, Joseph and Asenath can be held to illustrate the virtue of repentance. The book can also be compared with certain Greek and Latin romances. It contains the stock situations of ancient romantic literature, such as the exceptional beauty of the hero and heroine (1:6; 6:7), love at first sight (6:1), lovesickness (7:4), the kiss (19:3), the separation (26:1), the unscrupulous rival (24), and the hero's virginity (8:2). The author had no intention, however, of writing a frivolous romance, but rather a puritan story designed for Jewish readers, while using a literary style alien to their spirit. Joseph and Asenath presents the precise social situation of Jews and Egyptians confronting each other. One of the aims of the story is to demonstrate the mutual repulsion and attraction of these two groups. The emergence of a third group, the proselytes, is one result of these tensions. Although the author's style is restricted, the literary structure of Joseph and Asenath is sophisticated. The plot contains three elements. The first of these is the missionary story. Asenath is the prototype of the proselyte, who, through repentance, passes "from shadow to light, from error to truth, from death to life" (8:10). Then there is the roman à clef; the author has realized that the Egyptian name Asenath means "belonging to Neith." Many almost imperceptible details of the story can only be explained as referring to the goddess of Sais, such as, for example, the fact that the heroine is hermaphrodite (15:1). These references show an extensive knowledge of late Egyptian theology. Finally, there is the mystic element, which is more complex in structure. It contains an astrological allegory, in which Joseph represents the Sun and Asenath the Moon, their marriage being the "hieros gamos" of Helios and Selene. There is also the gnostic drama, Joseph representing the Savior and Asenath, Fallen Wisdom. Here, there is a foretaste of Valentinian gnosticism. The text contains a liturgy of initiation comparable in many ways to that of the mystery cults. The entry of the proselyte into the community is marked by a sacred feast. The neophyte eats "the bread of life," drinks from "the cup of immortality," and is annointed with the "unction of incorruptibility" (15:4). He is then "renewed," "reformed," and "revivified" (8:11; 15:4). Joseph and Asenath is thus seen to be valuable evidence for the "mystical Judaism," whose existence has been the subject of much controversy. The short recension of Joseph and Asenath is a Jewish version. It contains no trace of Christian modification or interpolation. The text is certainly the product of Egyptian Jewry, but is not necessarily the work of a Therapeut (Essene). The author may have been an Egyptian of the Chora ("region," i.e., outside of Alexandria) converted to Judaism, or, more probably, the Jewish issue of a mixed marriage. Joseph and Asenath must have been composed shortly before the Jewish revolt against Trajan. Joseph and Asenath is also of interest, since the story is repeated in the passions of Saint Barbara, Saint Christine, and Saint Irene. Joseph and Asenath is also the basis for the Persian tale Yūsufo Zuleikhā. There is an English translation by E.W. Brooks, Joseph and Asenath (1918).


C. Burchard, Untersuchungen zu Joseph und Asenath (1965); M. Philonenko, Joseph et Aséneth (Fr., 1968), includes bibliography.

[Marc Philonenko]