BMCR 1998.12.02

When Aseneth Met Joseph. A late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and his Egyptian Wife Reconsidered


Readers of the work usually known as “Joseph and Aseneth” (preferred by Kraemer, not without reason, as Aseneth, and hereafter, only for the sake of convenience and convention, abbreviated as J/A) have puzzled since the last century over its purpose, its date, milieu and the provenance. At first glance, J/A reads like a love story that fits rather comfortably into the genre of the Greek novella or romance. It features a beautiful heroine vowed to chastity who falls in love with a handsome man who nevertheless rejects her advances. It tells how her determination to win him over and to become worthy of his love leads her to embark on a lonely and rather curious path along which she experiences angelic visions, dead bees and delicious honey. At the end of that road, but not before she renounces her past and is being transformed into “a city of refuge” , she is reunited with her lover who is happy to accept her transformed self. They settle into happily married life and have two lovely sons. Yet, just as in the musical ‘Into the Woods’ the famed tale of Cinderella and her prince is extended to “twenty years later”, the happily married heroine of J/A becomes the center of family intrigues initiated by a spurned lover. In the end, however, but not before she is subjected to an abduction, betrayal and violence, she is restored to the arms of her loving husband who even becomes a regent of all Egypt. Banal as this may all sound, J/A appears to possess unique features, not the least a self-initiated process of “conversion” of a woman motivated by love for a man who had rejected her as a potential bride on the basis of religious disparity. Modern readers of J/A have, for the most part, seen in the tale an allegory of conversion to Judaism. This is one of the numerous notions that Kraemer’s book challenges.

As has been recognized long ago, the point of departure of J/A are a few curt comments in Genesis recording the marriage of Joseph, son of Jacob, with Aseneth, daughter of the (pagan) Egyptian priest Potiphera, the birth of their two children Manasse and Ephraim, future eponyms of two Israelite tribes, and the appointment of Joseph as Pharaoh’s regent over all of Egypt. This said, the rest of J/A bears resemblances to recognizable Jewish literary traditions as well as to a number of other non-Jewish literary products, as Kraemer sets out to show in her study. This is just one reason why Kraemer’s search for literary affinities is important. Her book also appears at a time when I started to have my own doubts about the traditional identification of J/A as a Hellenistic-Jewish-Egyptian tale. And while I may not, as yet, renounce this context, Kraemer’s criticism of scholarly consensus is both pertinent and timely. Kraemer’s book also appears at a time of a mini-renaissance for J/A seen, among other works, in two dissertations (Chesnutt and Bohak) published in 1995 and 1996 respectively.

Kraemer’s study is divided into two parts, preceded by a useful introduction and followed by an excellent summary, by way of conclusion, of the salient points of her complex argumentation. The first part (‘Reinterpreting Aseneth’) analyses surviving versions of the work and highlights similarities with compositions that feature a variety of subjects from adjurations of angels, to Neoplatonism, and from “magic” in general to Jewish mystical writings in particular. The common denominator of these works is their location within a late ancient intellectual context, when a date can be appended to them. In the second part (‘Relocating Aseneth’) Kraemer reviews the questions of date, authorship, and provenance, reaching the skeptical but probably realistic conclusion that we may never be able to locate J/A with any degree of certainty in any precise cultural milieu, Jewish or otherwise. Such pessimism, however, has not deterred her from insisting that J/A is best understood as a late ancient composition(s) written between the fourth and the sixth centuries that fits comfortably into several contexts, including Jewish, Christian and even that of ‘God-Fearers’. Such a wide range highlights the flexibility and pliability of J/A that must have been its chief source of appeal.

J/A has survived in several versions and numerous manuscripts in various languages, the oldest being a sixth century Syriac (Christian) version. There is one modern edition of what is usually called the Greek ‘shorter version’ by Philonenko (1968) and a provisional one of what is termed ‘the Greek longer version’ by Christoph Burchard, a scholar who has practically devoted most of his working life to J/A (Gesammelte Studien, 1996). The most accessible English translations are those of Sparks (in The Apocryphal Old Testament, 1984, the ‘shorter’ version), and Burchard’s, with introduction and numerous comments (in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapaha [1985, ed. J. H Charlesworth], vol. 2, 177f., the ‘longer’ version). One problem is that of an archetype, since the work, as it stands, has clearly been interpolated, in either its longer or shorter version. It forms now part of the so-called pseudepigrapha, of which the two outstanding representatives are the book of Enoch and Jubilees. Like J/A, neither was included in the Septuagint but both were transmitted by the Ethiopic canon of the OT, a product of Syrian Monophysite missionaries (M. Haran, The Biblical Collection. Its Consolidation to the End of the Second Temple Times and Changes of Form to the End of the Middle Ages, Jerusalem 1996, 96-8). Unlike J/A, both Enoch and Jubilees were also included in the Qumranic “canon”. Their appeal may have resided in the Qumranic preference for a solar calendar. Another pseudepigraphic work found in Qumran, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, has reached us as a composite Jewish-Christian composition, not unlike J/A.

In the debate surrounding the priority of the two versions of J/A, Burchard’s claim that the longer version of J/A is the ‘original’ one, or rather more representative of an original J/A, while the shorter one presents an abridgement of sorts, has found many adherents. Kraemer reviews scholarly opinions on this subject (ch. 2: Composing Aseneth: The construction of Aseneth out of traditional elements and techniques) and is quick to point out their flaws. While any discussion of what may have been the ‘original’ of J/A is severely limited by the available evidence (as Kraemer correctly notes), a comparison of the longer and shorter version (ch. 3: Recasting Aseneth: The enhancement of traditional elements in the longer reconstruction) has led Kramer to conclude that the shorter version preceded the longer one. Following Angela Standhartinger (1995) Kraemer maintains that the longer tale was an attempt to enrich the narrative in various ways, and to bring it to greater conformity with the biblical narrative, as well as “to cloth it in more mystical garments” (p. 135) and to raise issues of gender. This view, to which I subscribe with some reservations (primarily relating to their purpose and date), makes considerably more sense than its opposite. Accordingly, Kraemer carefully distinguishes in her translations between the shorter and the longer versions. This is a welcome innovation. It would have been equally useful if Kraemer were given space to produce the two versions as she does the excerpts, namely highlighting the ‘additions’.

Kraemer’s main purpose is to locate J/A within a late ancient matrix, and this is both her point of departure and her conclusion. Accordingly, she searches for analogues in a wide variety of literary and visual expressions ranging from the Bible to mysticism and from cosmology to synagoge mosaics (Chs. 4-6, Aseneth and the adjuration of angels, and mystical transformation in the Hekhalot literature, and late antique religious sensibilities). Her range of erudition is impressive. Much is made, for example, of the angelic figure in J/A and its affinities with Metatron and archangel Michael in the context of late ancient Jewish mysticism (Ch. 5: Aseneth and Mystical Transformation in the Hekhalot Traditions). I am no expert of the hekhalot material or of rabbinic magic (to paraphrase Michael Swartz’s Scholastic Magic : Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism, 1996), but I have some misgivings about comparing a work such as J/A, in which the heavenly being (=a twin celestial of the earthly Joseph) is fully engaged in guiding the steps of a single woman on her way to becoming a worthy bride, with works that focus on the mystical nature of the Torah and on the acquisition of full (male) mastery over its texts and subtexts. Was J/A meant as a subversive commentary on the exclusive application of rabbinic magic to erudite men? Nor am I certain that the similarities which Kraemer points out help to date J/A to late antiquity. Alan Segal who, like Kraemer, believes that Metatron and Michael share the functions of the so-called Prince of the World as hierophants and angelic guardians of Israel, nevertheless claims that such form of anthropomorphization is best seen in a first century context rather than later (‘Ruler of This World: Attitudes about Mediator Figures and the Importance of Sociology for Self-Definition’, in E. P. Sanders et al., Jewish and Christian Self-definition (Philadelphia 1981), II, 248.).

The search for late ancient analogues also leads Kraemer to Palestine and to synagoge mosaics, and in particular to those that feature non-Jewish themes such as the zodiac and Helios. The comparison is imaginative and there are certainly curious and even striking resemblances between the description of Joseph’s first appearance (J/A 5.4-11/5.4-7) and Helios on his chariot. There are, of course, also dissimilarities, most notably the absence of Joseph’s olive branch and twelve precious stones from any known depiction of Helios. The two were, in all probability, reminiscences of the olive branch carried to Noah’s ark (Genesis 8:1) and of the twelve stones fixed to the high priest’s mantle as a symbol of the unity of the twelve tribes of Israel. What is certainly common to both literary depiction of Joseph and artistic imagery of Helios is their complex world of associations—the typically ‘pagan’ Helios and zodiac are embedded in typically Jewish symbols while the description of Joseph likewise displays a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish elements. Kraemer is particularly taken with the mosaic of Hamath Tiberias, dated (on stylistic grounds) to the fourth century. On this basis Kraemer concludes that J/A must be a product of the third or the fourth century, at the earliest.

That the description of Joseph was either conceived or adapted to match that of Helios remains a likely hypothesis. But it should not be forgotten that it also carefully balances and prefigures the depiction of Aseneth as a bride, right after her transformation (J/A 18). From the moment of his appearance on the scene the text casts Joseph as an eminently eligible bridegroom, both visually and mentally. Any prospective bride had thus to match this ‘divine’ man. Aseneth, whose first appearance is depicted in terms that echo Hesiod’s Pandora, was an inappropriate match on the basis of religious incompatibility. Once ‘transformed’ she became a suitable companion and then her appearance matched that of Joseph, detail for detail (J/A 18).

Another aspect of Aseneth’s transformation or conversion that has puzzled commentators is her depiction as a ‘city of refuge’. Upon her metamorphosis, the angelic being pronounced Aseneth no longer a mere mortal female but ‘a city of refuge’. Biblical associations for this metaphor have been suggested long ago, and most notably with Numbers 35:27f where actual cities are designated as asylum. Changes of name from one given at birth to a symbolic one chosen by God himself are also familiar from the Bible (Gen 17:5, 15). Similarities with Philo in this connection have also been pointed out and Kraemer emphasizes in this context the echo of this terminology in the Acts of Thomas and in Ephrem, the fourth century Syriac poet. But none of these texts casts a woman as a city of refuge, metaphorically or otherwise. The Christian texts regard Jesus and the Church as cities of refuge, thus supporting an interpretation that regards proselytism as the main thrust of J/A. Attractive as all these parallels may be, the most inviting parallel that explains the association of a woman-virgin with an asylum is found in Athenian attitudes to the ‘parthenos’ par excellence, Athena, and her role as a founder and representative of their city (N. Loraux, The Children of Athena, passim). Isocrates lists the names the Athenians gave their city, “at once a nurse, a fatherland, and a mother” ( Paneg. 25 with Loraux, 66). Perhaps J/A deliberately appropriates and subverts Athenian myths in order to emphasize the transformation of its heroine into a different being. And since the ultimate aim of such a process was to join the Israelite commonwealth through marriage, Aseneth had to recreate religious boundaries in her own person.

These are only a few examples of the rich texture of analogues that Kraemer finds for J/A in a variety of late ancient literary genres. Yet, J/A is ultimately an assemblage, even a collage of numerous references that can be conveniently read in practically any ancient context. Each of its symbols has a long and venerable parentage that precedes the mental and literary world of Late Antiquity. (The bee is just one of numerous such examples, see B. A. Asen, Deborah, Barak and Bees: Apis mellifera, Apicultures, and Judges 4 and 5, JAW 109 (1997), 415-533.) On the whole, a late ancient context for a work like J/A, in its present forms, is not altogether unlikely. As many studies have taught us, the realm of holy men in Late Antiquity, like that of Aseneth, for example, was defined by a transformation of his person “through a spirit-filled ascetic discipline and through the imaginative alchemy associated with the return of Adam, in the desert, to his Paradise Regained” (Peter Brown, ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity 1971-1997’, JECS 6 (1998), 371). But this was also a realm of socially constructed genders from which women were excluded. The liminality of Aseneth, then, invites a probe.

Kraemer accordingly devotes a chapter to the question of gender (ch. 7: Why is Aseneth a woman? The use and significance of gender in the Aseneth stories). Few are better qualified than Kraemer to analyze this aspect of J/A. Since this has been also a fruitful field of scholarship in recent years it bears close scrutiny. Kraemer draws attention to analyses of late Hellenistic and early Christian fiction and specifically to the notion that, although these compositions feature women in prominent roles, what they really express are male concerns about identity. This, of course, is familiar to any reader of contemporary scholarship on gender. Gayatri Spivak put it in a nutshell when she claimed that “The discourse of man is in the metaphor of woman” (apud H. Michie, The Flesh made Word: female Figures and Women’s Bodies, New York 1987, 7). Susanne Kappeler expanded this critique into an assertion that “culture, as we know it, is patriarchy’s self-image. The history of representation is the history of the male gender representing itself to itself” ( The Pornography of Representation, Minneapolis 1986, 52-3). Froma Zeitlin’s presentation of the Greek theatre as an arena in which “the self that is really at stake is to be identified with the male, while the woman is assigned the role of the radical other” (in eadem and J. J. Winkler, eds., Nothing to do with Dionysos ? 1990, 68) demonstrates how useful feminist approaches to deciphering ancient material are. Kraemer’s question is, therefore, legitimized through recent associations. With the help of studies of Tobit (Levine) and of women in Hellenistic and early Christian fiction (Perkins and Cooper) Kraemer claims that “for a woman, the acquisition of wisdom (as A. seems to experience) appears to include recognition and acceptance of her subordinate status” (p. 196). This is all very true. But gender as an explicit element appears only once in J/A, when Aseneth, unveils “as a young man” (J/A 15.1) and hence “asexual” (Kraemer, 198. Cf. M. Miles, Carnal Knowing, Boston 1992, 53f. on becoming male). Again, a late ancient context appears appropriate. No less alluring, however, is the link with Athena, another male-female protagonist and an emblem of a city as well.

Since, ultimately, Aseneth is veiled to become a bride of Joseph (J/A 18.6), comparisons with Greek novels are inevitable. Kraemer also explores the construct of marriage in J/A. She claims that J/A perceives marriage as an egalitarian union (versus a patriarchal institution) which is based on fidelity and concord (p. 204). If this is the case, J/A provides a striking exception to Christian marital theology of Late Antiquity, at least as expounded by Jerome, Chrysostom and even the Acts of Thomas. It would have also struck a jarring note in late ancient Jewish concepts of marriage. Although the rabbis never opposed marriage as such they did not set out to extol it the way their Christian counterparts endeavors to demolish it. In a context of marital inquiry, Roman-Christian and Jewish attitudes to adultery are particularly illuminating (Sivan, Revealing the Concealed: Rabbinic and Roman Views on the Crime of Adultery in Late Antiquity, ZSS.RA 1999), as they invariably emphasize the role of a woman as a transgressor of the marital male code. If Aseneth’s marriage is neither quite Jewish nor quite Christian, perhaps it is ‘pagan’. Here, however, differences between a ‘Christian’ and a ‘pagan’ form of marriage are largely artificial (J. Evans Grubbs, Law and family in Late Antiquity, Oxford 1995, 54f.). J/A, then, as an expounder of an egalitarian form of concrete marriage, remains unique if not revolutionary in any ancient context. Perhaps, then, J/A is a novelistic advocate of what became known as spiritual marriage (D. Elliott, Spiritual Marriage. Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock, 1993), esp. 16ff.). Read as a parable on the move to dissociate the conjugal act from marriage itself, J/A offers an ideal platform for advocating such a separation.

Any direct reflections on the nature of marriage are largely provided by the second part of J/A. It has received much less attention than the first. Yet, it is precisely here that the author of J/A set out to demonstrate that even a reconciliation of religious principles (that dictated the submerging of the woman’s religious identity under that of her husband’s) did not quite solve the question of the acculturation of the transformed being into her new environment. Behind the tale of conspiracy, abduction, and brotherly betrayals of chapters 22 to 29 of J/A, in which, in fact, Aseneth has a minor role as a victim and Joseph none, lurks an exploration of the dissension caused by the incorporation of the ‘other’.

Kraemer’s late ancient analogies further delineate Aseneth’s journey as one to self knowledge. Why it had to conclude with marriage, and even more with a sordid episode involving a near rape, is another question. Aseneth’s chastity, another much discussed topic in Kraemer’s chapter and in numerous other studies of Christian women in late antiquity, leads her not to sexual renunciation but to marriage and to children. Is J/A, then, a perverse kind of male discourse, of the type that Kate Cooper highlighted for the Christian Apocryphal Acts, and therefore a Christian work, used by males to advance their own agenda in a universe dominated by male competition? Here, too, J/A does not provide a clear cut answer. It may be well to remember that even in the most famous cases of aristocratic female ascetics, the models of feminine virtue in late antiquity, the choice may not have been entirely theirs, as prosopography shows (Sivan, ‘On Hymen and Holiness in Late Antiquity, JAC 1993). Becoming a Christian, at least officially, also entailed a well-defined process, including a ritualized baptism. In Margaret Miles’s analysis of baptism as a gendered ritual ( Carnal Knowing, 45f.) Christian conversion of females was a carefully orchestrated process conducted by men. In J/A, it is Aseneth herself who engineers her initiation without the help or the guidance of any terrestrial being. Neither mainstream Christianity, nor Judaism, then, would have embraced what J/A proposes, namely a self initiated and self conducted “conversion”. But in Judaism the phenomenon of conversion for love is certainly discussed by the rabbis who preferred to it what they termed ‘conversion for the sake of heaven’ (BT Yeb 47a). In this context, at least, Aseneth’s transformation or conversion in J/A fits a Jewish framework more comfortably than it does others.

The second part of Kraemer’s study is devoted to a lengthy examination of the thorny issues of date, author(s) and provenance (chs. 8-10). She correctly points to weak links in scholarly hypotheses with regard to each of these subjects. Indeed, J/A is a work that does not lend itself readily to a precise categorization or chronology. Nevertheless, Kraemer’s conclusion is that “the cumulative evidence overwhelmingly places our Aseneth no earlier than the third or fourth century CE, on both negative and positive criteria” (p. 237). The ‘negative’ evidence consists of both the absence of any reference to J/A in Jewish sources and the exclusive Christian transmission of the work. The ‘positive’ consists of the numerous analogues that Kraemer had found with late ancient literary and artistic compositions.

While Kraemer’s criticism of previous scholarly suggestions is often justified I would not depend as much as she does on the vagaries of transmission in any effort to identify the text’s provenance, author or date. If we had to depend on rabbinic transmission of works written in Greek and Aramaic by Jews about Jewish history and Judaism, we would still have been without either Josephus or Philo. In spite of solid epigraphical evidence regarding the wealth and literacy of the Jewish communities of Asia Minor and Syria (the latter is Kraemer’s preferred provenance for J/A), we do not possess a single sample of a sustained literary effort that can be affiliated with any of these communities. In Palestine itself, although Greek continued to be used as the preferred epigraphic language, there is no literary composition in Greek after the first century CE that can be identified with a Palestinian Jewish author. And how is one to account for the sudden flourishing of Hebrew as a poetic language in Byzantine Palestine when Hebrew, as is usually assumed, was all but dead?

These are questions that highlight the problems of any scholar who attempts to find a period and a creed for a work like J/A that, in its present forms, appears to have deliberately suppressed a precise theological context. Given Kraemer’s justifiable criticism of existing scholarship on J/A, even a reviewer, like myself, who still supports a Hellenistic Jewish milieu and an early date, has to take her comments into account and to follow her in exercising prudence before assigning a religious, ethnic, authorial, chronological and geographical provenance to J/A. Kraemer has successfully demonstrated that J/A can be read in more than one context. Whether or not J/A will be firmly accepted into the circle of late ancient works is another question. I leave it to other readers to judge. My feeling, for whatever it is worth, is that an exploration of J/A as a counterpart of Philo’s Joseph may yield interesting results. For my part, I read the original J/A as a product of the late second/early first century BCE, and specifically as a contribution to the debate over intermarriage and matrimonial impediments in the last two centuries before the common era (Sivan, Rabbinics and Roman Law: Intermarriage in Late Antiquity, REJ 1997).

The book concludes with an important appendix that reflects, as elsewhere in this work, the author’s outstanding familiarity with a huge range of ancient sources. Nor does the term ‘appendix’ do justice to this section since it not only includes a presentation of numerous rabbinic traditions relating to Aseneth, unfortunately without a translation, but also an excellent analysis aimed at demonstrating the tenuous link between J/A and such sources. One feature, for example, that has drawn much scholarly attention is the bizarre genealogy that the rabbis manufactured for Aseneth by making her a daughter of Dinah and Schechem, the protagonists of a tale of “rape” and murder (Genesis 34. See Sivan, ‘Dinah Revisited: Marital Strategies and Abduction Marriage in Patriarchal Canaan’, ZAW, forthcoming). It will take too much space to discuss the possible sources and implications of this fanciful midrashic proposal. Kraemer’s main aim is to dissociate Aseneth from both rabbinic traditions and proselytism, primarily on the basis of their late date. She is aware of the notorious problems involved in dating rabbinic material and of the fact that the dates of midrashic redactions do not reflect that of the traditions that they incorporate and transmit. Given these limitations, I have no problem in subscribing to Kraemer’s dissociation of the Greek J/A from a late ancient Jewish midrashic and aggadic milieu. What rabbinic traditions about Aseneth and Joseph show is the existence of other Jewish interpretations of the biblical material, none directly relating to the Greek J/A.

In brief, When Aseneth met Joseph is a challenging, provocative and refreshing book that should help to bring J/A closer to classicists and to ancient historians. Even if this present reviewer is ultimately unconvinced by its central thesis, such an opinion is personal and is not meant to detract from the enormous value of Kraemer’s book. Overall, Kraemer’s work is an impressive and dynamic display of scholarship and an excellent point of departure for any future exploration of J/A.