“Joseph and Asenath” is in the news this week, with some tabloid Discovery Channel show breathing heavily about a lost Gospel and (of course) Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. If you don’t have time to read this post, read Jimmy Akin’s. It’s short and sweet.
The story “Joseph and Asenath” is well-known. It’s a pseudepigraphical (Bible fanfic) story about the Old Testament figure of Joseph, and the wife that Pharaoh gave him, Potiphar’s daughter Asenath. They fall in love before they get married, because they both hear about the good character of the other. But Joseph is reluctant to marry a Gentile. Asenath is upset, and Joseph prays for her conversion. Asenath also fasts and prays to Joseph’s God and is converted. On the eighth day, an angel comes to tell her that her prayer is granted. He finishes the job by miraculously giving her various things to eat (bread, wine, honeycomb, honey that turns to blood — there are a lot of different versions!) and thus transforming her into a Jewish girl. She and Joseph get married and live happily ever after.*
Then there’s a second part, where the same brothers who avenged Dinah by killing her rapist (and the rest of town…) protect their new sister-in-law from Pharaoh’s son, who wanted to marry Asenath instead. This is opposed by some of the other brothers (the kids of Leah and Rachel’s maids), who want to kill Asenath (and Benjamin, while they’re at it) and blame it on Pharaoh’s son. The good guys win, they bind up the bad guys’ wounds, and everybody becomes friends in the end. (Except Pharaoh’s son, who dies, and Pharaoh, who dies and leaves Joseph his throne. Uh….)
It’s a probably Jewish-written apocryphal text. (There is a legal principle in Jewish law that converts are “new bodies,” and therefore anything that applied to their Gentile selves doesn’t apply to their new Jewish selves.) But Christians liked the story also (love story! angels! Gentiles enter the Covenant!), so there’s about five zillion copies in five zillion vernaculars. Asenath was a popular heroine to Christians of the Middle Ages.
So this particular ms of this widespread story (the ms that is featured in the Discovery Channel show, which is in Syriac and from the 6th century) is included in a history book called “Pseudo-Zacharius Rhetor.” Actual Zacharius the Rhetor was from Gaza, and he later became Bishop of Mytilene; he wrote a history book in Greek in the 5th century which we also have, and which didn’t talk about Asenath. The Syriac “translation” of his book includes some Really Different material including Asenath, to the point that scholars call it “Pseudo-Zacharias” instead of “Zacharius.”
So along with the Asenath story, the Syriac writer says he’s copied out this story from Greek, and then wrote to Moses of Ingila to ask him for the allegorical meaning of the text. (Because Roman era Jews and early Christians really did love their allegories, if they were on the Origen-fan side of things.) So at the end, there’s a comment by the writer who is the teacher , saying, “Oh, yeah, and I just told you this story because it’s an allegory for….” Richard Bauckham says it translates as something like “the truth that our God our Lord the Word became incarnate by the will of the Father and became human and was joined to a soul with its perfect senses ….” The note isn’t translated in Brooks, I guess because he didn’t care, although there is a reference to it in his translation’s introduction.
If you read a lot of patristics, this sounds like they were talking about the theology of Christ’s Incarnation – that the Divine Son somehow was joined with a human body and soul. It’s a decent analogy, since man and wife become one, and since the word “psyche” (soul) is feminine in Greek; but obviously there was some complicated discussion of Moses of Ingila’s particular theology about this point. We don’t have all that, but it sure sounds like it was a-coming.
But the comment is incomplete, so the tabloid documentary guys are theorizing that the missing part said, “It’s an allegory for how that Jesus guy married that hot Magdalene! Totally!” Not getting the point. Mary of Magdala may have been a lot of things, but she sure as heck wasn’t a Gentile, nor was she a soul with “perfect senses.”
So yeah, Gentile-born Jewish converts and Gentile-descended Christians were the original point. Other possible allegorical interpretations are that it’s about the union of God with the Gentiles; the union of God with the individual soul; the union of Jesus and the Church; or the union of the individual believer with the happy state of virginity (if the Syriac writer is promoting the joys of being a monk).
Anyway, I advise you to read “Joseph and Asenath” and ignore the Discovery Channel silliness. It’s a good story.
The Aseneth Homepage, founded 1999. Bibliographies and links galore, along with a modern translation of the text.
“Joseph and Asenath” translated by Brooks. The foreword lists the medieval Latin, German, French, Icelandic, and Greek versions, among others.
Notes on “The Storie of Asneth,” a Middle English poem. The actual poem. Like the Latin version, this poem has Asenath as a sort of young Belle Dame Sans Merci who falls in love with no man, but is particularly reluctant to marry an ex-slave. However, when she actually sees him she realizes he is worthy of respect, and begins a process of repentance that leads to conversion. This version also reprints Vincent of Beauvais’ Latin text of the story.
Scholarly roundup of news stories and academic reactions at the Paleojudaica site. (The general reaction is “Shyeah, no.” Scholars love “Asenath,” and they teach various versions of the text in various disciplines, so they’re not being shy about it.)
A review of the Lost Gospel book with detailed info about the Aseneth text. Includes co-author of the Lost Gospel book complaining in the comments, and information about the other co-author’s previous discovery of Atlantis.
*The other versions are “Joseph wasn’t too worried about it, because Jewish guys were still okay with marrying Gentiles,” “Asenath converted non-miraculously and that counts too,” and “Asenath was the daughter of Dinah, whom you never hear anything more about because she moved to Egypt to get away from her brothers, and then Dinah died and Potiphar’s wife took Asenath as her daughter, or maybe Dinah was Potiphar’s first wife who died.”