Joseph and Aseneth
Joseph and Aseneth is a narrative that dates from before the 6th century C.E. It seems to relate the romance, marriage and children of the Israelite patriarch Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth. Some have regarded it as a Jewish midrash or elaboration on the story in Genesis (Genesis 37-50). Others question this interpretation partly because of its provenance (early Syriac Christianity), language (Son of God, Bride of God), symbolism (Eucharistic) and covering letter which appear to indicate a Christian context.
British Library manuscript #17,202 is an anthology containing a variety of writings including the oldest existing manuscript of this work. Written in Syriac, Joseph and Aseneth is a translation of an older Greek writing, made around 550 C.E. by Moses of Ingila. The anthology was compiled around 570 C.E.by an individual scholars call "Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor."
In 1870 J.P.N. Land published a transcription of Joseph and Aseneth in the third series of Anecdota Syriaca, using British Library manuscript #17,202.
The British Library acquired manuscript #17,202 from the British Museum. That institution purchased it on November 11, 1847, from an Egyptian merchant by the name of Auguste Pacho, a native of Alexandria. It had come from an ancient Syrian monastery, St. Mary Deipara, in the Nitrian desert in Egypt, where it had been housed for over 900 years.
Around 932, the monastery’s abbot, Moses the Nisibene, acquired over 250 manuscripts from Mesopotamia and Syria for the library. One of these is the manuscript we know as British Library #17,202.
From the 10th century back to the 6th century the manuscript was in Mesopotamia. In the 6th century we can pick up the trail. Manuscript #17,202 is an anthology, a collection of a number of important writings compiled by an anonymous Syriac author called by scholars Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor. He labelled his anthology “A Volume of Records of Events which have Shaped the World.” He was likely a monk. This Syriac anthology dates from around 570. It contains the oldest existing version of Joseph and Aseneth.
The compiler is called “Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor” because one of the items found in his anthology is an important church history by the real Zacharias Rhetor. Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor, whoever he was, did not compose these documents: he compiled them. In the case of Joseph and Aseneth he used the existing Syriac translation that had been made by Moses of Ingila.
Two covering letters to Joseph and Aseneth are included in the compilation and they record how this Syriac translation came to be made. An anonymous Syriac individual, probably a monk, had been looking at manuscripts in Resh’aina (near the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria) in a library belonging to the line of bishops who had come from Aleppo. This individual came across what he termed “a small, very old book” written in Greek “Of Aseneth.” The covering letter asks Moses of Ingila to translate it into Syriac, his Greek being rather rusty, and to tell him its “inner meaning.”
The second covering letter provides Moses of Ingila’s response. He says that the writing is a piece of wisdom literature whose inner meaning has to be carefully discerned. He cautions the anonymous monk to be careful. As he is about to disclose its Christological meaning, the text is cut off.
So the translation of Joseph and Aseneth from around 550, included in the 570 anthology, is the earliest manuscript we now possess. But it is based on a “small, very old” manuscript written in Greek. How much older than the 6th century is a matter of speculation.
20th century interpretation history
Two English anthologies of Old Testament Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha include translations of Joseph and Aseneth, all based on Greek manuscripts later than the oldest extant Syriac version. An introduction and translation by C. Burchard is included in James H. Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume 2. Similarly H.F.D. Sparks includes a translation by D. Cook in his The Apocryphal Old Testament. The inclusion of Joseph and Aseneth in these anthologies seem to suggest that the editors and translators were under the impression that the author was Jewish and that the work had something to do with Jewish apocryphal literature.
This accords with Burchard’s judgment in 1985. He writes: “Every competent scholar has since Batiffol has maintained that Joseph and Aseneth is Jewish, with perhaps some Christian interpolations; no one has put the book much after A.D. 200, and some have placed it as early as the second century B.C. As to the place of origin, the majority of scholars look to Egypt.”
A list of extant manuscripts and 20th century interpretation history can be found in the introductions to these two anthologies. Views as to origin include: written in Israel by an Orthodox Jew (Aptowitzer); in Israel written by an Essene (Riessler); in Alexandria Egypt composed by a member of the Therapeutae (K.G. Kuhn); and also in Egypt having to do with an obscure Jewish temple during the Maccabean period (Bohak). Cook endorsed the view of an earlier French scholar, Marc Philonenko, who thought that it was written by a Jewish author around 100 C.E. Its purpose, he maintained was twofold: to present inter-faith marriages between Gentiles and Jews in a positive light, and, secondly, to persuade Jews as to the advantages of such unions. Cook thought that this view was “likely.”
All these authors contended that the author was Jewish and written around the dawn of the 1st century C.E. And the anthologizers Charlesworth and Sparks seem to concur, with Charlesworth labelling the translation, “First Century B.C. – Second Century A.D.” The contention that the work is Jewish in origin, however, is no longer maintained in recent scholarship.
The current view is that the work is fundamentally Christian. These include Ross Shepard Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph; Rivka Nir, Joseph and Aseneth: A Christian Book. One British scholar had been overlooked by Burchard and Cook was E.W. Brooks. In 1918 he published a translation and introduction to Joseph and Aseneth in which he wrote the following: “that the book in its present shape is the work of a Christian writer will be a once recognized by any reader.”
A recent book by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel,, arguing for the existence of a Jesus bloodline through a decoding of Joseph and Aseneth contained a new translation by Barrie Wilson into English based on the oldest manuscript, the Syriac one, along with the first-ever English translation of the two covering letters that place the text in context. This translation used spectral-imaging technology to “see through” smudges and other marks to ascertain the original underlying text.
Jacobovici and Wilson advance four considerations to demonstrate that the text is Christian, to argue for a Jesus bloodline hypothesis (Joseph's two sons Ephraim and Manasseh figuratively representing the children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene).
First is the manuscript environment. Joseph and Aseneth is found in an anthology of 6th century Syriac writings – A Volume of Records of Events Which have Shaped the World. That anthology includes a work by Sylvester, bishop of Rome, on Constantine’s conversion; a writing concerning the discovery of relics of two important 1st century individuals (Stephen, the first Gentile martyr) and Nicodemus (the Pharisee who helped bury Jesus); a miracle narrative (The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus); and an important church history by Zacharias Rhetor.
Since all these writings have to do with important Christian concerns, the question arises, how does Joseph and Aseneth fit into this context? Why would it be of any interest to monks and Christian clergy if it were simply a midrash on the marriage of an ancient Jewish patriarch several thousand years prior?
Moreover, how does this writing fit into an anthology of events that have shaped the world? Alongside the conversion of Constantine, for instance, that altered the course of history; and proof of immortality as in the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. To what world altering event does Joseph and Aseneth point?
Secondly, the language is Christian. Joseph is said to be “the Son of God” (J&A 6:3; 6:5). Aseneth is said to be “the Bride of God” (J&A 4:1). She is blessed as follows: “the Lord God of heaven truly chose you to be the bride of his first-born son” (J&A 18:13). This is not Jewish language but Christian. Also the heavenly communion service parallels the ritual flow of the Christian Eucharist: the taking of symbolic elements, giving thanks, breaking the bread (or honeycomb as in the case of Joseph and Aseneth) and then eating.
Thirdly, there is the distinctive Syriac Christian context in which the typical hermeneutic method was typological analysis – not allegorical and not literal interpretation. According to this methodology, persons and events in the Old Testament prefigure those in the New. Typology is a theory of history, that one event in the past really signifies another event, in the future. Thus the Exodus is not about the people of Israel leaving Egypt some three thousand years ago. It is really about Jesus (Moses) leading humanity (the people of Israel) out of sin (Egypt) through the waters of Baptism (the Red Sea) into the Kingdom of Heaven (the Promised Land). Hence a story about Joseph, a savior figure, is really about Jesus and his doings.
Fourthly, the covering letter by Moses of Ingila tells us that the hidden message is Christological in nature, hence Christian.
Mary Magdalene was a Phoenician gentile and priestess modelled on the goddess Artemis, that she was venerated as the incarnate Artemis, being the wife and co-deity of the god Jesus modelled on Helios, according to Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson.
- James H. Charlesworth (ed), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume 2. New York: Doubleday, 1985
- H.F.D.Sparks, The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
- Ross Shepard Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Rivka Nir, Joseph and Aseneth: A Christian Book. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 2012.
- E.W.Brooks, Joseph and Asenath: The Confession and Prayer of Asenath Daughter of Pentephres the Priest. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.
- Simcha Jacobovici, Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel. New York: Pegasus, 2014.