Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker
Randall D. Chesnutt
Joseph and Aseneth, an apocryphal romance now often included in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, recounts the conversion of the Gentile Aseneth to the God of Israel, her marriage to the patriarch Joseph, and the social and religious conflicts surrounding that conversion and marriage. Genesis 41:45, 50–52, and 46:20 provide the biblical point of departure for this tale by referring in passing to Joseph's marriage to Asenath (LXX Aseneth), daughter of the Pagan priest Potiphera (LXX Pentephres). The work was composed in Greek and is extant in sixteen Greek manuscripts and several versions.
The evidence remains compelling that Joseph and Aseneth was written by a Jew around the turn of the eras (Chesnutt 1995; Collins) despite a recent revival of the older view that the work may be a much later Christian composition (Kraemer). The very problem in the biblical text for which the story of Aseneth's conversion offers a solution—namely, that the revered patriarch married a Pagan woman—is a problem to the Jewish conscience. The ethnic particularism evidenced in Aseneth's physical profile (1:5: “She bore no resemblance to the virgins of the Egyptians, but was in every way similar to the daughters of the Hebrews; and she was as tall as Sarah and as graceful as Rebecca and as beautiful as Rachel”) is even more pronounced when the gap between the hero and heroine is explained in ethnic as well as religious terms: intimacy with anyone outside the tribe and kindred (phulĒ and suggeneias) is taboo (8:5–7). This taboo applies not only in the patriarchal setting of the narrative but also to the author's own social world, as discussed further below. Aseneth converts to “the God of Joseph” (6:6), “the God of my [Joseph's] father Israel” (8:9), “the Lord God of the powerful Joseph, the Most High” (11:7), and “the God of the Hebrews” (11:10), and the narrative is as concerned with her incorporation into the family of Jacob as with her acceptance by God (22:3–10). All this suggests Jewish rather than Christian authorship. Alleged affinities with late antique Christian sources are all very general; certainly there is nothing distinctively Christian in the work.
Egypt is the most likely place of composition. The pervasive contrast between Israelite and Egyptian characters and between the God of Israel and the Egyptian