Joseph & Aseneth:
by Dr Mark Goodacre,
Duke University


   (1) Who is Aseneth?

Aseneth appears just three times in the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis 41 and 46:

41. 41. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt." 42. Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, "Bow the knee!" Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. 44. Moreover Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no man shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt." 45. And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaph'enath-pane'ah; and he gave him in marriage Aseneth, the daughter of Poti'phera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt . . .

50. Before the year of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Aseneth, the daughter of Poti'phera priest of On, bore to him. 51. Joseph called the name of the first-born Manas'seh, "For," he said, "God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house." 52. The name of the second he called E'phraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."

46. 20. And to Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manas'seh and E'phraim, whom Aseneth, the daughter of Poti'phera the priest of On, bore to him.

This information is tantalisingly brief. Who was this woman? How did Joseph come to meet and marry her? How could he, an upstanding Israelite, the son of Jacob, have married this pagan daughter of an Egyptian priest? Had he not struggled, only two chapters earlier, to avoid the lures of Potiphar's wife? Where the Biblical narrative provided only hints, later interpreters became fascinated with these problems. Looking to fill in the gaps, they inferred what they thought must have happened. As they reflected on the few clues available, the story of Aseneth began to construct itself.

   (2) What is Joseph & Aseneth about?

Joseph & Aseneth is the story of the conversion of Aseneth, the daughter of Pentephres the priest of On, from the worship of idols to the worship of the god of Joseph. Set during the seven years of plenty (Gen. 41, above), Joseph visits Pentephres. Aseneth is taken with his beauty and simultaneously falls in love with him and repents of her idol worship. Having thrown her idols out of the window, Aseneth secludes herself in her tower and repents in sackcloth and ashes, confessing her sins and praying to the god of Joseph. An angel who looks like Joseph appears and announces to her that her prayer has been heard and that she is now a new creation. In a bizarre series of events, the angel shares a meal with her, magically produces a honeycomb from which bees emerge and tells her about her heavenly counterpart Metanoia (Repentance). Aseneth, now a suitable bride for the godly Joseph, marries him and bears two children, Ephraim and Manasseh. In the final chapters of the book, Pharaoh's son pursues Joseph and attempts to seize Aseneth as his wife, but Joseph's brothers overcome him and the book ends with Joseph reigning as king over Egypt, with Aseneth at his side.

   (3) When was it written?

There is no consensus about when Joseph and Aseneth was written. Our first evidence of it is from a Syriac version in the mid sixth century A.D. Battifol, who produced the first critical edition of Joseph and Aseneth, thought that it was a Christian work and dated it in the 4th-5th centuries. Most twentieth century scholarship has tended to treat it as a Jewish work of much earlier origin, probably in the First to Second Centuries A.D. One recent commentator, Gideon Bohak, even dates it in the First Century B.C. However, Ross Kraemer, in her recent monograph When Aseneth Met Joseph, is inclined to push the dating back towards that postulated by Battifol -- it is a "late antique" work, perhaps even written by Christians.

   (4) What language is it written in?

Joseph and Aseneth was almost certainly composed in Greek. There are versions in different languages, including Syriac, Slavonic, Armenian and Latin, all of which are important in the production of a critical text of the work. There is also a version in middle English, probably translated from the Latin.

   (5) What about the extant texts of Aseneth?

Scholarship on Aseneth has tended to speak of a short recension and a long recension. Battifol, who produced the first critical edition, thought the long recension predated the short recension. Christoph Burchard (probably the most important Aseneth scholar this century) has also produced a critical text on the assumption that the long recension is more original. His English translation in Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha is based on this text. Marc Philonenko, on the other hand, produced a critical edition (with introduction and French translation) in 1968 in which the short recension is preferred. His text is the basis for David Cook's translation in Sparks's Apocryphal Old Testament. Recently, Ross Kraemer (When Aseneth Met Joseph) has followed Philonenko in preferring the short recension, arguing that the longer recension represents an expansion of it.

   (6) What is the title of the book?

While twentieth century scholarship has tended to call the book Joseph and Aseneth, this title does not occur in any of the texts. The Syriac comes closest with The History of Joseph the Just and Aseneth his Wife. There is considerable variation among the other manuscripts, from The Confession and Prayer of Aseneth, the daughter of Pentephres, the Priest, to The Wholesome Narrative Concerning the Corn-Giving of Joseph, the All-Fair, and Concerning Aseneth, and How God United Them. On this homepage I have called the work either Joseph and Aseneth or, more simply, just Aseneth.

   (7) Who wrote Aseneth?

Aseneth is an anonymous work and we have little idea of its origin. We do not even know where it was written. Indeed, we cannot even be sure whether we should think of Aseneth as a Jewish or a Christian book (or neither). Most scholarship this century has taken the work to be Jewish, but again Ross Kraemer has challenged the consensus and has argued that it may well have been composed by a Christian (or Christians), tracing connections with works like Acts of Thomas.

   (8) Why Study Aseneth?

This is a fascinating book and there are many reasons for studying it. Because it is an ancient text featuring a woman as its central character, it raises interesting questions about the construction of gender, not least because of the statement in 15.1 that Aseneth appears "like a man". It is also worth reflecting on attitudes to romance, marriage, chastity and sex in Aseneth. If a Jewish text, it may shed light on conversion and proselytism in the second temple period and beyond (see, for example, the work of Randall Chesnutt). If a Christian text, it may witness to an on-going interest in re-telling and re-working stories from the Septuagint. And whatever the origin of the text, the study of its language and imagery, and its appropriation of Biblical motifs is a rewarding one. It is a valuable resource for ancient attitudes to prayer, angels, revelation and ritual. The bizarre events of Chapters 16-17 (honeycomb and bees) are a focus of special attention, drawing many a reader back frequently in the attempt to unravel their mysteries.

   (9) Where Should I Start?

Why not begin with the text? Read it in David Cook's translation in Sparks's Apocryphal Old Testament (based on Philonenko's shorter text) or in Christoph Burchard's translation in Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Then you can begin to explore the secondary literature. Visit the On-Line Aseneth Bibliography to see what is available. There are several important recent monographs, some of which have already been mentioned, those by Randall Chesnutt, Gideon Bohak, Christoph Burchard (a collection of his essays on Aseneth) and Ross Kraemer. If you have German, you should look at the works by Sänger and Standhartinger. For a good introduction to Aseneth, see the essay by Chesnutt in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. There is a handful of items now available on-line, for which you should refer to the External Links section.



Return to The Aseneth Home Page
Please send me your suggestions for this page.
This file was created on 12 February 1999 and last updated on 16 October 2013
To cite this page: Mark Goodacre, The Aseneth Home Page (1999-2013)

© 1999-2013 Mark Goodacre