Joseph and Aseneth
Joseph and Aseneth is a narrative that dates from before the 6th century CE. It seems to relate the romance, marriage and children of the Israelite patriarch Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asenath. 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 CE by Moses of Ingila. The anthology was compiled around 570 CE by an individual whom 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 Happened in 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 affirming Christianity, the text is cut off.
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 CE. 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 CE. 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.
Recently some scholars have argued 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 who 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."
Suggestion that it reflects a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene
A recent book by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary the Magdalene, argues for the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene through a decoding of Joseph and Aseneth. The book has been thoroughly debunked by scholars and compared to The Da Vinci Code in 2003, as a conspiracy theory. The book contains a new translation by Tony Burke 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.
The authors claim that the story of Joseph and Aseneth was already composed during Jesus' lifetime and precedes the canonical gospels.
- "In short, to tell the truth: our Lord, our God, the Word who, at the will of the father and by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Lord, took flesh, and <became human> and was united to the soul with its senses completely..." (Simcha Jacobovici, Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel, page 384).
- 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.
- Angela Standhartinger (2017). "Intersections of Gender, Status, Ethnos, and Religion in Joseph and Aseneth". In Schuller, Eileen M.; Wacker, Marie-Theres. Early Jewish Writings. SBL Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0884142331. Retrieved 14 November 2017.
- Simcha Jacobovici, Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel. New York: Pegasus, 2014.
- Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, page 21 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. ISBN 9780664263058)
- Assessing the Lost Gospel by Richard Bauckham
- Lost Gospel claims Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, by Victoria Ward, The Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2014