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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

Joseph and Aseneth - Introduction

On two occasions Origen quotes from a work entitled ‘The Prayer of Joseph’. 1 Orig. Comm. in Ioann. ii. 31 (on John i. 6 ); Philoc. xxiii. 15 (from the lost commentary on Genesis, quoted in Eus. Praep. Evang. VI. xi. 64). On the former occasion he describes it as ‘one of the apocrypha current among the Hebrews’; and this would seem to identify it with ‘The Prayer of Joseph’ mentioned in the lists of apocryphal books. 2 For a full discussion see Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘The Prayer of Joseph’ in Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (= Studies in the History of Religions: Supplements to Numen, xiv; Leiden, 1968), pp. 251–294. Yet this work can hardly be identical with our Joseph and Aseneth inasmuch as: (1) neither of Origen's quotations (and the first is of some length) occur in any known recension of Joseph and Aseneth, and (2) the long prayer in the middle of Joseph and Aseneth (chaps. xii–xiii) is a prayer of Aseneth and not of Joseph.

The first certain notice of Joseph and Aseneth in the West is to be found in the Speculum of Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1250). At the appropriate point in his narrative in the Speculum Historiale 3 ii (118–124). Vincent gives a Latin version of the story, introducing it with the words ‘Ex historia Assenech’. This Latin version was reprinted by Fabricius in the first volume of his Codex Pseudepigraphus Veteris Testamenti 4 i, pp. 774–784. and in his second volume 5 ii, pp. 85–102. he added a fragmentary Greek text (corresponding to something like the first third of Vincent's Latin version), which had been copied for him by J.-C. Wolff from the mutilated Bodleian Cod. Gr. Barocc. 148.

To-day some twenty or more MSS containing the Greek text are known: they date from the 10th to the 19th cents; and in all of them Joseph and Aseneth appears as one of a number of miscellaneous items – mostly lives of saints and passions. Two quite distinct Latin versions have come to light, and it seems that Vincent's extract represents an abridgement of one of them. A Syriac version is preserved as the sixth chapter of the first book of the anonymous Ecclesiastical History attributed to Zacharias Scholasticus: there are Armenian, Slavonic, and Rumanian versions; and there was probably also at one time a version in Ethiopic, and perhaps versions in Coptic and Arabic as well, although these are no longer extant.

The titles given to the work in the different authorities vary a good deal. Thus, one Greek MS gives ‘The Confession and Prayer of Aseneth, the daughter of Pentephres, the priest’, another ‘The wholesome Narrative concerning the corn-giving of Joseph, the all-fair, and concerning Aseneth, and how God united them’, while the Syriac has more simply ‘The History of Joseph the just and Aseneth his wife’. The popular modern title, ‘Joseph and Aseneth’, is found in none of the authorities.

Similarly, there is considerable variation between the authorities in text. Throughout the work the Greek MSS differ widely in their wording (as in the choice of synonyms, or whether an idea is expressed by a participle or by a main verb with ‘and’): phrases, and sometimes whole clauses, appear in different places; and there are continual minor additions, or omissions, which sometimes affect the sense, but more often do not. In some cases these differences are confined to the Greek, in other cases they are reflected in one or other of the versions, or in one or more MSS of a version. From time to time the differences are more substantial: in chap. xix, for example, the dialogue between Joseph and Aseneth is much longer in some authorities than in others: between chaps. xxi and xxii some authorities have an additional prayer of Aseneth; and there are several different endings to the book, one of which gives a brief summary of the subsequent history of Joseph and Aseneth, and records their deaths, mainly in the form of an extract from Gen. 1. 22–26 . From all this it is clear that the text was treated with the greatest freedom, and it seems to have been so treated from the very beginning.

The first critical edition was Batiffol's, published in 1889–90 . Batiffol used four Greek MSS – Vat. Gr. 803 (11th–12th cent: A), Vat. Palat. Gr. 17 (11th–12th cent.: B), Bodl. Gr. Barocc. 148 (15th cent.: C – the fragment published already by Fabricius), and Bodl. Gr. Barocc. 147 (15th cent.: D). Batiffol's text is based on A (with which C generally agrees where it is available) rather than on B (with which D generally agrees). A full conspectus of variants is given in the apparatus, together with the evidence of the Syriac (quoted from Oppenheim's Latin rendering). There is a 37-page Introduction. And at the end is printed, as an appendix, the text of one of the Latin versions from two Cambridge MSS which had been collated for Batiffol by M. R. James.

Philonenko's edition of 1968 contains not only a text with apparatus, but also a French translation, notes, and a very full Introduction. When one compares his edition with Batiffol's, one becomes aware how much of the material now available for the reconstruction of the text has only become available since Batiffol's day. But, in ordering and controlling it, Philonenko had the advantage of being able to profit from several critical studies which had appeared in the interval – notably Burchard's masterly Untersuchungen zu Joseph und Aseneth, published in 1965 .

Following Burchard, Philonenko divided the Greek MSS into four groups (designated a b c d). But whereas Burchard had maintained that the most reliable text was to be found in the witnesses to b, and had held that d was an abbreviated text, a and c being in their different ways ‘improved’ texts, Philonenko preferred d (‘the short recension’) and explained b c and a as expansions of it (‘the first long recension’, ‘the second long recension’, and ‘the third long recension’, respectively). Batiffol's MSS A and C belong to the a group, his B and D to the d group. And among the versions, the Slavonic is allied with the d group and all the rest with the b group.

Accordingly, in contrast with Batiffol, whose edition was (in Philonenko's terms) an edition of ‘the third long recension’ (a), Philonenko himself set out to produce an edition of ‘the short recension’ (d). His primary authorities were the MSS B and D and the Slavonic version; and all the variants of B and D are recorded in his apparatus. In addition to these two MSS he used also five other MSS – A (Batiffol's primary authority), representing a; E (Athos Vatopedi 600: 15th cent.) F (Bucharest Gr. 966: 17th cent.) and G (Chillicothe, Ohio: 16th cent.), representing b; and H (Jerusalem, St. Sepulchre 73: 17th cent.), representing c. However, readings from AEFGH are only cited in the apparatus spasmodically. The result is that, while the reader is left in no doubt about Philonenko's views about what the true text of the short recension is, and the evidence on which those views are based, he gains little or no idea of the text of any of the three long recensions. For the text of the a recension he must still go to Batiffol: for the text of b he must rely on the versions (other than the Slavonic); 6 This is particularly unfortunate inasmuch as Burchard was of the opinion that b offered the best text of all. while so far as the text of c is concerned, he is left almost completely in the dark.

In spite of its limitations, however, it has been thought best to take Philonenko's text as the basis of the translation which follows. E. W. Brooks's translation, published in 1918 was, of course, based on Batiffol's text. Consequently, anyone who is so minded can, by the simple expedient of comparing the two translations, at least introduce himself in a rudimentary way, in English, to some of the textual complexities with which the work abounds.

As regards the origin of Joseph and Aseneth, the earliest fixed point is provided by the Syriac version. The Syriac, as already mentioned, is preserved in Pseudo-Zacharias's Ecclesiastical History, where we are told, not only that it was made from the Greek, but also that the Greek text used by the translator was found in ‘a very ancient manuscript’. The Ecclesiastical History itself, on internal evidence, cannot have been put together later than AD 570. This would seem to carry back the date of the ‘very ancient’ Greek text to the mid-fifth century at the latest. And if Philonenko is right in thinking that the b recension (to which the Syriac belongs) is secondary, then the d recension, of which it is an expansion, must be still earlier.

But further back than this it is impossible to go with any degree of certainty. The work is patently a romance based on the three passing references to Aseneth at Gen. xli. 45, 50–52, and xlvi. 20 . The Rabbinical literature shows that there were legends about Aseneth circulating in Jewish circles in the first centuries of the Christian era – in particular, a legend that she was only the foster-child of Potipherah, being in fact the daughter of Dinah, born after the rape by Shechem and spirited away to Egypt by an angel, and therefore not an Egyptian at all. But these legends have no direct contact with Joseph and Aseneth in the form in which we know it.

Yet traces of Jewish influence and Jewish interests are clear enough – for example, the statement in chap. i that Aseneth ‘was quite unlike the daughters of the Egyptians, but in every respect like the daughters of the Hebrews’, and that her charms were similar to those of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, 7 i. 7–8. or, again, Joseph's expostulation in chap. viii, when Aseneth advanced to kiss him, that ‘it is not right for a man who worships God … to kiss a strange woman. … So too it is not right for a woman who worships God to kiss a strange man, because this is an abomination in God's eyes’. 8 viii. 5–7. On the other hand, the description of ‘the man who worships God’ in the passage in chap. viii just quoted as one who ‘eats the blessed bread of life and drinks the blessed cup of immortality and is anointed with the blessed unction of incorruption’ 9 viii. 5; cp. xv. 4. seems just as clearly to betray Christian interest and influence, and the same may be said about the incident of the angel and the honeycomb in chap. xvi.

According to Batiffol the work originated in Asia Minor in the 4th or 5th cent. AD, and the author was a Christian, though he was dependent for much of his subject-matter on Jewish traditions and legends. Burchard, representing a contrary point of view, was of the opinion that Batiffol and those who followed him had not merely over-emphasized the importance of the so-called ‘Christian elements’ in the work, but had also radically misunderstood them. For Burchard there is nothing in it, anywhere, that cannot quite satisfactorily be explained as Jewish; and Burchard took the view that the author was a Jew of the Dispersion, who wrote in Egypt, either in the last century BC or the first century AD. Other views have been that the author was a nationalist and orthodox Jew of Palestine (Aptowitzer), or that he was an Essene (Riessler), or that he belonged to the Therapeutae (K. G. Kuhn).

Philonenko, in the Introduction to his edition, attacked the problem in the light of his analysis of the textual evidence. The primary d recension, he argued, is unquestionably Jewish: it was designed partly as a missionary tract, aimed at potential Gentile converts, and partly as a defence of mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles, aimed at those Jews who were unable to see the obvious proselytizing possibilities in such marriages; and it is a product of the Dispersion in Egypt, written probably about AD 100–110. About the origin, date, and purpose, of the b recension Philonenko was more doubtful: it may have been made by a Jew much given to mystic speculation, or by a Gnostic Christian. But about the c and a recensions being due to Christians Philonenko had no doubts at all.

Whatever may be thought about the details of this exposition (and it would be a mistake to press the details), the great merit of it is that it takes into account, and considers together, all the separate issues involved – historical, theological, literary, and textual. If a generally agreed solution of the problem is ever arrived at, it is likely to be along the lines that Philonenko has laid down.

But one thing is certain: Joseph and Aseneth was written in Greek. The text of the Old Testament presupposed is that of the Septuagint, and the language and style are Septuagintal throughout. There are no grounds at all for regarding the Greek as a translation of either a Hebrew or an Aramaic original.

As previously indicated, the Greek text here translated is Philonenko's. The symbols for the MSS are his; and the majority of the variants recorded in his apparatus, which are capable of being differentiated in translation, have been noted.


1 Orig. Comm. in Ioann. ii. 31 (on John i. 6 ); Philoc. xxiii. 15 (from the lost commentary on Genesis, quoted in Eus. Praep. Evang. VI. xi. 64).

2 For a full discussion see Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘The Prayer of Joseph’ in Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (= Studies in the History of Religions: Supplements to Numen, xiv; Leiden, 1968), pp. 251–294.

3 ii (118–124).

4 i, pp. 774–784.

5 ii, pp. 85–102.

6 This is particularly unfortunate inasmuch as Burchard was of the opinion that b offered the best text of all.

7 i. 7–8.

8 viii. 5–7.

9 viii. 5; cp. xv. 4.

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