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According to Genesis 41:45, Pharaoh gives Aseneth, the daughter of Potipherah (Pentephres in the Septuagint) priest of On to Joseph as a wife. Genesis 41:50-52 narrates that Aseneth bore Joseph two sons Manasseh and Ephraim. No more is said of her. Like many narratives in Genesis, the biblical story is tantalizingly brief, and raises questions that were to fascinate later interpreters. Why would an upstanding descendant of Jacob (Israel) marry the daughter of a pagan priest, and how could it be justifiable? How could two of the eponymous tribes be descended from union with an outsider, otherwise prohibited by the Mosaic Law? The story of Joseph and Aseneth sets out to answer some of those questions.
The twenty-nine chapters of Joseph and Aseneth narrate the conversion of Aseneth, from idolatry to monotheism and the worship of Adonai. Aseneth, a virgin who has rejected numerous worthy suitors, falls in love with Joseph when he, as vizier of Egypt, visits her father. Joseph, however, rejects her as an unworthy idol worshipper.
Aseneth then secludes herself in her tower, repents of her idolatry, confesses her sin, and embraces Joseph's God. Begging for God's acceptance, she then receives an angelic visitor (looking like Joseph), who assures her that her prayers are answered and that she is now a new creation. There follows a strange and extended ritual, where in order to confer on her immortality, the angel shares with Aseneth a magical honeycomb, and is told of her heavenly counterpart Metanoia (Repentance).
The honeycomb, which the angel marks with a cross, causes a swarm of bees to surround her, and some return to heaven though others die. The meaning and significance of this episode of the bees is uncertain, and appears to have some sort of connection to initiation rites of mystery religions. There may also be a connection with the otherwise mysterious name of the prophetess Deborah, literally bee, from one of the oldest parts of the Book of Judges. It is uncertain whether the involvement of a cross indicates a Christian influence or not.
Aseneth, promising to love, honour, and obey Joseph, is now seen as a potential wife by him, and the two marry and she bears him Ephraim and Manasseh. Then in the final chapters of the book, Pharaoh's son, in love with Aseneth himself, attempts to seize her, persuading Dan and Gad to assist him and kill Joseph. However, Benjamin, Joseph's loyal brother, foils the attempt, and Pharaoh's son receives fatal wounds. Aseneth forgives Dan and Gad, and Joseph and she go on to rule over Egypt. Enmity between Joseph and Dan and Gad is not recounted elsewhere, and nor is any between the tribes of which they are eponyms, so it is uncertain why they are mentioned in this manner by the author, unless it was due to a personal grudge.
The work is anonymous and its author unknown. The dating is contentious, and it is not even clear whether this is a Jewish or a Christian work (or neither).
The earliest version is in Syriac and dates from the sixth century AD. Most modern scholarship treats it as a Jewish work dating some time from first century BC to the second AD. Batiffol (who produced the first critical edition) and, more recently, Kraemer have argued that it was originally a Christian work, dating from the fourth or fifth centuries. Kraemer suggests connections with works like Acts of Thomas.
Early versions exist today in Syriac, Slavonic, Armenian and Latin – but there is general consensus that it was originally composed in Greek. In the manuscripts, the work is variously titled: The History of Joseph the Just and Aseneth his Wife; The Confession and Prayer of Aseneth, the daughter of Pentephres, the Priest; and The Wholesome Narrative Concerning the Corn-Giving of Joseph, the All-Fair, and Concerning Aseneth, and How God United Them. The extant manuscripts give us two versions of the work, a short recension and a long recension. There has been much scholarly debate as to which is earlier.