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Asenath: Bible

by Angela Standhartinger

Although the Bible does not have much to say about Asenath (Osnat, LXX: Aseneth), the wife of Joseph, she became the main character of a widely disseminated Jewish novel from Hellenistic or Roman times, now called Joseph and Aseneth (JosAs). One Targum and some Midrashim tell different stories in which she is either the daughter of the wife of Potiphar (Jub 40:10; Bereshit Rabba 85.2; comp. Origenes, Commentary on Genesis MPG 12.136 ) or the offspring of Dinah’s rape, who was brought to Egypt, where she married Joseph and was reintegrated into the family of Jacob (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen 41:45, 46:20, Soferim 21 (43b), Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 36, 38, Aptowitzer).

In the Bible, Pharaoh honors Joseph by giving him Asenath, “the daughter of Potiphera, priest from the city of On” (LXX: Heliopolis), as his wife (Gen 41:45). She is the mother of Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen 41:50, 46:20). Most Jewish authors in Hellenistic and Roman times seem to have no problem with her Egyptian origin or religion (Philo, De Josepho 121, De Somniis 1.78, Josephus, Antiquitates 2.91–92). But Joseph and Aseneth tells of her conversion, her marriage to Joseph, and how she is saved from being raped like Dinah (Gen 34) and Joseph (Gen 39) before her. On the surface this is a love-story that belongs to the genre of the ancient erotic novel (Pervo, Wills, Hezser): A heroine and a hero fall in love at first sight, marry after some inner struggles, are unfortunately separated, have to travel through all the Mediterranean world, and finally find each other through the help of a God (other literary examples are Xenophon of Ephesus, Ephesiaca, and Chariton, Callirhoe). While the romantic struggles of the heroine and hero occupy only a few paragraphs in ancient novels, they constitute the principal part in Joseph and Aseneth (Standhartinger, 1995).

At the beginning, Asenath is—like the heroine of the ancient romance—the most beautiful Egyptian priestess, desired by all kings, but living ascetically in a tower beside her father’s house (JosAs 1-2). She refuses to marry Joseph, whom her father describes as “powerful in wisdom and bearer of God’s spirit” (JosAs 4:7/9). But when she sees Joseph for the first time she realizes her mistake, because she sees the “son of God, whom nothing hidden escapes” (JosAs 6). This description of Joseph could be an interpretation of his Egyptian name, Zaphenathpaneah (Gen 41,45, Josephus, Antiquitates 2.91, Bereshit Rabba 90.4). Joseph, too, is not happy when he first sees her, but then blesses her and asks God for her renewal (JosAs 8). After his departure, she repents for seven days with fasting and self-abasement (JosAs 9–11). On the eight day, she prays to God with a psalm that picks up many biblical motifs (JosAs 12 comp. Ps 135, 104, 27, 142 and others). Then a man (anthropos) appears from heaven in the shape of the angel of Dan 10:5–10 and tells her that she is heard and renewed by God, who has already given her as a fiancée to Joseph. Her name is no longer Asenath but “city of refuge.” At this point (JosAs 15,7–8), the text describes the heavenly figure Metanoia (change of mind, repentance), who is modelled upon the personified wisdom (Prov 8, Sirach 24, Wisdom of Solomon 6-10, 1 Enoch 42, Philo, De Somniis 2.292; TestGad 5:7-8). Her transformation is shown by new shining clothes (comp. 2 Enoch 22). Then Asenath shares a honeycomb with the heavenly being (JosAs 16) before he leaves, like Elijah, on a chariot of fire (JosAs 17). This scene and others probably have one or more symbolic meanings, which have not been fully deciphered. In the next chapters, Asenath meets Joseph again, reunites with him and marries him (JosAs 18–21). Although some interpreters think that the story comes to a happy end here, there are seven chapters more which are an integral part of the story. The son of Pharaoh—first mentioned in JosAs 1—plans to capture and rape her, as the wife of Potiphar planned to capture Joseph in Gen 39 and its renarrations (Test Jos, Josephus, Antiquitates 2.39–59). However, unlike her sister-in-law Dinah (Gen 34), Asenath is not raped, but stops the revenge through the ethical maxim “Do not repay evil for evil to anyone” (JosAs 28, 1 Thess 5,15, Rom 12,17). With this, Joseph and Aseneth participates in the discussion of Gen 34, one of the most discussed biblical texts in Hellenistic- Jewish literature (Standhartinger, 1994).

Joseph and Asenath was written in Greek and is preserved in over ninety manuscripts in seven languages (Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic and others). At present two different modern reconstructions of the text are available (Philonenko, Burchard). In transmission Joseph and Aseneth shares the fate of other ancient novels. Retelling and oral transmission affects the text so that there was probably never one sole text, but rather several that reflect an ongoing discussion on the subject, especially on the image of women (Standhartinger, Kraemer). The social context and purpose of the book are under discussion. Some scholars have situated it as a roman à clef both in the historical situation of Egyptian Judaism, the founding of the temple at Heliopolis (Bohak) or the pogrom in Alexandria in 38 C. E. (Sänger). While most scholars agree that it is a Jewish work written before 115–117 C. E. (Trajan’s prohibition of circumcision, Kraemer has a later date), some believe it was written for a gentile audience to show the attraction of Judaism (Nickelsburg), while others think of a Jewish audience, who need to be reminded of the blessings of Judaism and the blessing of gentile converts to Judaism (Chesnutt). Conversion is central in Joseph and Aseneth, but nothing is mentioned about Torah and Sabbath. While there is a separate table for Joseph in Potiphera’s house (JosAs 7), he eats together with Pharaoh and all the Egyptians on the day of his wedding (JosAs 21). The writing reflects biblical exegesis and forms part of the discussions of biblical texts and other writings from the Second Temple period or shortly thereafter. The appearance of the heavenly being reveals to Asenath that Metanoia is heavenly wisdom and indicates that she is the main agent in Asenath’s life. This shows that Joseph and Aseneth like Wisdom of Solomon and Philo of Alexandria, belongs to the speculative branch of Jewish wisdom-theology. The story relates not only a conversion to Israel’s God but also a change of mind that opens Asenath to her true heavenly reality. As a daughter of God she is bound to God’s other sons and daughters. Together with them she is no longer vulnerable in this world but studies the heavenly scriptures with Levi (JosAs 22) and helps to change the world for the better, because the wise and righteous ones rule the country (JosAs 28–29).

Bibliography

Text

Philonenko, Marc. Joseph et Aséneth. Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes (Studia post-biblica 13). Leiden: 1968.

Critical text and French translation and commentary of the shortest text (family d). Some scholars consider this as text-family as to be the oldest text (Standhartinger 1995, Kraemer, 1998). The introduction and notes give an extended interpretation of the text and its parallels in religious history. Unfortunately Philonenko gave new numbers to verses of the text.

Cook, D. “Joseph and Asenath.” In The Apocryphal Old Testament, edited by Hedley Frederick Davis Sparks, 465–503. Oxford: 1984.

English translation of Philonenko’s text.

Burchard, Christoph. “Ein vorläufiger griechischer Text von Joseph und Aseneth.” In Gesammelte Studien zu Joseph & Aseneth, 161–209. Leiden, New York and Köln: 1996.

Text of the longest text-family b. Most scholars refer to this text.

Burchard, Christoph. “Joseph and Aseneth.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha II, edited by James H. Charlesworth, 177–247. New York: 1985.

English translation and introduction to the longest text (family b).

Burchard, Christoph. Joseph und Aseneth. A critical edition. Pseudepigrapha Veteris Testamenti Graece 5. Leiden, Boston: 2003.

Burchard’s Vorläufiger text with footnotes annotating the manuscript traditions for the text.

Secondary Literature

Aptowitzer, Victor. “Asenath, the Wife of Joseph. A Haggadic Literary-Historical Study.” HUCA 1 (1924): 239–306.

Discusses the rabbinical legends on Asenath.

Bohak, Gideon, Joseph and Asenath and the Jewish Temple in Heliopolis (SBL Early Judaism and its Literature Series). Atlanta, GA: 1996 (Bibliography).

JosAs was written by a Jew from Heliopolis, who was intimately connected with Onias’s temple and lived in the second century B.C.E.

Burchard, Christoph. Gesammelte Studien zu Joseph & Aseneth. Leiden, New York, Köln: 1996.

Burchard’s most important articles and the text of JosAs are collected here. Including an updated bibliography on page 435–459.

Burchard, Christoph. “Der jüdische Asenethroman und seine Nachwirkungen. Von Egeria zu Anna Katharina von Emmerich oder von Moses aus Aggel zu Karl Kerényi.“ Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 20.1 (1987): 543–667. See also Gesammelte Studien zu Joseph & Aseneth, 321–436.

On the aftermath of JosAs.

Burchard, Christoph. “Nachlese zur Überlieferungs- und Wirkungsgeschichte von Joseph und Aseneth.” In Mousopolos Stephanos. Festschrift für Herwig Görgemanns, edited by Manuel Baumbach, Helga Koehler, and Adolf Martin Ritter, 473–497. Heidelberg: 1998.

Updated bibliography on page 493–497.

Chesnutt, Randall D. From Death to Life. Conversion in Joseph and Aseneth (Journal for the study of the pseudepigrapha: Supplement series 16). Sheffield: 1995 (Bibliography).

Gives an extensive overview of the history of research and reads JosAs sociologically. Chesnutt considers the narrated tensions between Jews and Gentiles and inside the Jewish community to reflect the real social matrix in which the book was composed.

Chesnutt, Randall D. “Revelatory Experiences Attributed to Biblical Women in Early Jewish Literature.” In Women Like This. New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World (Society of Biblical Literature Early Judaism and its Literature 1), edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 107–125. Atlanta, Georgia: 1991.

Compares Asenath to other female heroines in Jewish-Hellenistic literature.

Humphrey, Edith M. Joseph and Aseneth (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha). Sheffield: 2000.

A guide to the research of JosAs on the question of texts, provenance and date, genre, socio-historical background and Feminist Readings. The history of research is followed by a “rhetorical-literary reading” of the book.

Hezser, Catharine. “Joseph and Aseneth in the Context of Ancient Greek Erotic Novels.” Frankfurter Judaistische Beiträge 24 (1997): 1-40.

Comparison of JosAs and ancient erotic novels.

Kraemer, Ross S. When Aseneth Met Joseph. A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. Oxford: 1998 (Bibliography).

JosAs is a writing from the third or fourth century C.E. whose Jewish origins are questionable. Kraemer examines biblical themes and motives including allusions to Song of Songs and the Creation Stories. For a detailed discussion see my review: Journal of JAOS 120:3 (2000): 488–89.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. “Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times.” In Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period (CRINT 2.2), edited by Michael E. Stone, 33–87. Assen: 1984.

JosAs is missionary propaganda for Gentiles.

Pervo, Richard I. “Aseneth and Her Sisters: Women in Jewish Narrative and in the Greek Novels.” In Women Like This. New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World (Society of Biblical Literature, Early Judaism and its Literature 1), edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 145–160. Atlanta, Georgia: 1991.

Compares the heroines of ancient novels with JosAs.

Sänger, Dieter. Antikes Judentum und die Mysterien. Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu Joseph und Aseneth (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament II/5). Tübingen: 1980.

Discusses biblical motifs and the provenance of the text and compares it to Apuleius, Metamorphoseis 11.

Sänger, Dieter. “Erwägungen zur historischen Einordnung und zur Datierung von ‘Joseph und Aseneth.’” Zeitschrift für alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 76 (1985): 86–106.

Reads JosAs in the context of Alexandria in the first century C.E.

Standhartinger, Angela. “‘Um zu sehen die Töchter des Landes’: Die Perspektive Dinas in der jüdisch-hellenistischen Diskussion um Gen 34.” In Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World. Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (NT Supp 74), edited by Lukas Bormann, Kelly Del Tredici and Angela Standhartinger, 89–116. Leiden: 1994.

On the interpretations of Gen 34 in Jewish literature of Hellenistic and Roman times including JosAs.

Standhartinger, Angela, Das Frauenbild im Judentum der hellenistischen Zeit. Ein Beitrag anhand von Joseph und Aseneth (AGJU 26). Leiden: 1995.

Textual criticism in its redaction-critcal dimensions can be used for clarifying the background of this fictitious narrative.

Standhartinger, Angela. “Weisheit in Joseph und Aseneth und den paulinischen Briefen,” New Testament Studies 47 (2001): 482–501.

On wisdom theology in JosAs.

Wills, Lawrence M. The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Ithaca and London: 1995.

Discusses JosAs within the ancient Jewish novel (157–184).

More on: Bible, Fiction

How to cite this page

Standhartinger, Angela. "Asenath: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/asenath-bible>.

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