Aseneth’s Eight-Day Transformation as Scriptural Justification for Conversion1by Matthew Thiessen

Journal for the Study of Judaism


History / Literature and Literary Theory / Religious studies


JOURNAL FOR THE STUDY OF JUDAISM 45 (2014) 229-249 Journal/¿r the Study of ' "• ' ' Judaism


Aseneth's Eight-Day Transformation as Scriptural

Justification for Conversion^

Matthew Thiessen

Department of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University

Adorjan #124, 3800 Lindell Blvd

St. Louis, MO 63108, U.S.A.

Abstract ;

The author of Joseph andAseneth writes a lengthy narrative about Aseneth's conversion, thereby providing a justification for Joseph's marriage to an Egyptian woman. The author explicitly connects her seven-day period of withdrawal to creation, thus portraying her conversion as a divinely wrought new creation. In addition, her eight-day conversion process imitates two similar processes from Jewish scripture. First, Aseneth's transformation parallels the circumcision of the newborn male eight days after his birth. Second, on the eighth day Aseneth partakes of an angelic existence, conversing with an angel, eating the food of angels, and being dressed in angelic garb. This elevation in her status parallels the consecration of the priestly class in Lev 8, which goes through a period of seven days before it can serve as priests on the eighth day. This process thus stresses the distance between non-Jew and Jew, while at the same time providing a scriptural rationale for how Aseneth overcame it.

Keywords angelification - circumcision - conversion - intermarriage -Joseph andAseneth - new creation 1 I am grateful to both Jill Hicks-Keeton and the anonymous reviewers ofJSJfor their insightful comments on this paper. < KONINKLIJKE BRILL NV, L E I D E N , 2 0 1 4 | DOI lD.l l(i:i/l .I 230 THIESSEN


Joseph andAseneth deals with the marriage of Joseph to an Egyptian woman, a marriage mentioned in Gen 41:45, but which many Jews of the Second Temple period would have viewed as unlawful. While the Pentateuch never declares a universal ban on intermarriage, Ezra 9:1 does, explicitly mentioning, among others, Egyptian women (cf 1 Kgs 11:1-2).^ Clearly indebted to this exegetical tradition, the author oi Joseph and Aseneth portrays Jacob warning his sons against foreign women: "Guard yourselves carefully, my children, from associating with a foreign woman (à7rà yuvaixôç à^otpiaç xoû xoivcovfjaai àuTÎ^ ).^ For her association is destruction and corruption" (7:5).^ ^ In light of this prohibition of exogamy, the author must provide a compelling explanation for Joseph's marriage to Aseneth. Presumably this is no mere Justification of this marriage, but, more broadly, a Justification of a known practice of ethnic Jews marrying ethnic non-Jews. That is, the biblical story of Joseph and Aseneth becomes the

Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 116, states, "[T]here can be little doubt that the reference by Ezra's princes to the intermarriage law in Deut. 7:1-3,6, with the notable addition of Just those peoples mentioned in Deut 23:4-9, is an intentional exegetical attempt to extend older pentateuchal provisions to the new times" (emphasis original).

Although a number of scholars, such as Ross Shepard Kraemer {When Aseneth Met Joseph: A

Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and his Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered [Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1998] and Rivka Nir {Joseph andAseneth: A Christian Book [Hebrew Bible

Monographs 42; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012]) have argued that the work is a Christian composition, most scholars believe the work to be Jewish based on this central issue of intermarriage between a Jew and a gentile. See, for instance, John J. Collins, "Joseph and Aseneth:

Jewish or Christian?"7SP 14 (2005): 97-112.

One of the most fundamental issues in the interpretation o{Joseph andAseneth is the question of which text to use. Marc Philonenko {Joseph et Aseneth: introduction, text critique, traduction et notes [SPB13; Leiden: Brill, 1968] ), followed more recently by Angela Standhartinger {Das Frauenbild im Judentum der hellenistischen Zeit: Ein Beitrag anhand von Joseph und

Aseneth' [AGAJU 26; Leiden: Brill, 1995]) and Kraemer {When Aseneth Met Joseph, 6-9), has argued for the priority of the shorter d family, while Christoph Burchard ( Untersuchungen zu

Joseph und Aseneth [WUNT 8; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1965], 18-90; "Zum Text von 'Joseph und Aseneth',"ys/i [1970]: 3-34; and, "The Text oijoseph andAseneth Reconsidered,"ySf 14.2 [2005]: 83-96) has argued for a text closer to what he formerly called the b family, but now ("The Text oijoseph andAseneth" 86) thinks of as "a clan." All translations are my own and are based upon the critical text of Christoph Burchard, Joseph und Aseneth (assisted by

Casten Burfeind and Uta Barbara Fink; PVTG 5; Leiden: Brill, 2005) in consultation with Uta

Barbara V'mk, Joseph und Aseneth: Revision des griechischen Textes und Edition der zweiten lateinischen Obersetzung (FoSub 5; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008).


ASENETH'S EIGHT-DAY TRANSFORMATION 231 cipher for a live issue in the author's community: how can a pious Jew take a non-Jewish spouse? What must a non-Jew do in order to hecome an acceptahle marrying partner?^ Other early Jewish works also provide evidence that Jews wrestled with the issue of exogamy. The author oí Jubilees, for instance, uses the story of Shechem's rape of Dinah (Gen 34) to proclaim a universal han on intermarriage hetween Jews and gentiles.^Tbe hook of Tohit stresses thatTohit married "a woman of our own lineage" (1:9). In fact, the drama of the narrative is driven hy the need to find Tohiah a woman of the seed of the patriarchs (4:12-13; 6:10-18).'^ Similarly, the Testament ofLevi censures priests for "purifying [gentile women] with an unlawful purification" (xaQapi^ ovTsc aÙTàç xaGapicT|acô 7Tapavó|.ico; 14:6; cf 7^ Levi 9:9-10), a statement which some scholars have taken as evidence of the existence of an extrahihlical purification/conversion process which was intended to make gentiles pure and therefore marriageable.^