Joseph and Aseneth is a “romance,” telling the story of Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, the daughter of Potiphera (called Pentepheres in this book.) Like the book of Jubilees, the book attempts to answer a question which many people have about the story of Joseph. If Joseph was such a godly Jew, how could he marry an Egyptian, especially one whose father is a pagan priest? The story answers the question, “How did Joseph get his wife?”
The Joseph and Aseneth was written in Greek and seems to have been a Jewish book, although there are Christian interpolations (possibly the honeycomb sequence, for example, which mentions the “bread of life.”) The book may have been known in the fourth century A.D. since it is mentioned in the Pilgrimage of Etheria. This book is a list of “holy sites” written about A.D. 382. The reference to Asenath’s house is found in a fragment of the work in Peter the Deacon of Monte Cassino’s On the Holy Places, which is dated to about A.D. 1137.
It is likely Joseph and Aseneth uses the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), implying the book was written no earlier than 100 B.C. If the book was written in Alexandria (the scholarly consensus), then it is unlikely to have been written much after the Jewish revolt under Trajan, A.D. 115-117. A major argument in favor of Egypt is that Asenath is the heroine, the only convert to Judaism from Egypt. If it was from Palestine, then Ruth or Rahab might have been better examples of pagan conversions (OTP 2:187-188).
This argument weakens if the book is an apologetic explaining why Joseph married an Egyptian, or an explanation of how Joseph married a gentile without punishment, aimed at Diaspora Jews tempted to marry gentiles. Like Reuben or Judah in Jubilees, the story may be intended to explain that just because Joseph “got away with it” does not mean you can!
The book can be divided into two parts. The first is the “romance” between Joseph and Asenath (chapters 1-21). This romance is more about repentance and gentile conversion than romantic love. From the perspective of the book, it is entirely possible for a gentile to truly convert to Judaism. Asenath is so thorough a convert she receives a heavenly visit which confirms her resolve. In order to convert she must completely reject her former idolatrous ways, a point made several times in the book, including the eating of food associated with these idols. This may play into the background of the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols which turns up at several points in the New Testament, especially in Pauline letters.
As Christianity spread into Gentile regions, the meal became a potential problem on two levels. Some Jews appear to have been more than uncomfortable eating with Gentiles, especially those that were not of the “God-Fearers.” A second and related reason was the potential for non-kosher foods to be eaten, included meats that had been sacrificed to idols. To the Gentile, this was not a problem, since they never cared about it before Christ, and it isn’t really a problem after becoming a Christian for them. But to the Jew, this is a sin! Such food is unclean so they could not eat it in good conscious. The issue of table fellowship appears in Galatians 2:11-18. Peter had shared the table with Gentiles, but after a visit from “certain people from James” he withdrew from eating with Gentiles. Asenath indicates that, at least for some Jews, the food laws were of critical importance for true conversion. Circumcision may be the primary “boundary marker” but it is obviously not an issue for Asenath.
The second part of the book concerns a plot by the son of the Pharaoh to kill his father to revenge his losing Asenath to Joseph. This plot goes wrong when Asenath is caught in the trap. The son of the Pharaoh is injured in the attack and dies soon after. This section has less to do with New Testament issues than the first, although there is a continuation of the theme that Asenath is more righteous than the (Jewish) sons of Bilah and Zilpah.
9 thoughts on “Joseph and Aseneth”
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Joseph and Aseneth tells a very interesting story about Joseph and his marriage to Aseneth. This book presents it as a very strange union since initially, both Joseph and Aseneth are opposed to the marriage. Aseneth despises all men and thinks highly of herself, believing that she is above them all. She lives a secluded lifestyle, living in her tower, filled with all the best things in life, speaking little, if ever to men, and devoutly worshipping her Egyptian gods. She finds all men repulsive, but especially Joseph since he was the son of a shepherd from Canaan, and she believes that he was immoral when caught with Potifer’s wife, even though we know from the story in Genesis that Joseph was innocent. But for similar reasons, Joseph was also opposed to Aseneth. The book of Joseph and Aseneth tells that Joseph never even ate with the Egyptians for this was an abomination to him. He also despised Egyptian women because they used to molest him and try to sleep with him. Joseph will not kiss Aseneth because she worships idols, but Aseneth is so entranced by Joseph’s beauty that she repents and discards her idols and mourns and weeps in sackcloth and ashes for a week. Aseneth repents from her idols and converts to worshiping the Lord, Joseph’s God. There are other examples of gentile women who have converted to the faith, from other nations, so, in some ways, it makes sense that Joseph and Aseneth tells the story of an Egyptian woman’s conversion. The book also brings up the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols, which becomes a very prominent issue in the New Testament. Even in this book, there is evidence of the struggle for Jews as they try to live in the world around them, without compromising the values of their faith. This is a theme in the Second Temple Period, the New Testament, and even still today. The question always is, how can we live in the world around us without accepting the things of the world that displease and dishonor God.
Growing up watching the movie “Joseph: King of Dreams,” and even reading the story in the Bible, I never sat down with the idea or the issue that Asenath wasn’t a Jew and had very different religious views at that. The Bible doesn’t even go into the full description of the process of a Jew and an Egyptian getting together. I find it interesting that it wasn’t more of a discussion in the Bible with the beliefs of marriage and how important it was for the Jews to know who is appropriate to marry. Even the struggle of the difference of food became an issue of discussion. The writings of Joseph and Asenath goes into greater detail of the whole process and talks about the deeper meanings and understanding of this marriage. “The message of Part I, therefore, is about conversion to Judaism: It means fullness of life, whereas paganism brings death and eternal destruction” (Burchard, 189). I think it is such a good story to bring back up for the Jews of this time since they are going through such a transition of not being so separate from the world. It even provides some openness to the ideas of Christianity later on at that point just like it is discussed in the post. Learning and knowing about this also allows more insight on how much of a process it was for Jews to accept Gentiles or any other body of people into their ideas of faith.