“Joseph and Asenath” is in the news this week, with some tabloid Discovery Channel show breathing heavily about a lost Gospel and (of course) Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene.
The story “Joseph and Asenath” is well-known. It’s an apocryphal (Bible fanfic) story about the Old Testament figure of Joseph, and the wife that Pharaoh gave him, Potiphar’s daughter Asenath. They fall in love before they get married, because they both hear about the good character of the other. But Joseph is reluctant to marry a Gentile. Asenath is upset, and Joseph prays for her conversion. Asenath also fasts and prays to Joseph’s God and is converted. On the eighth day, an angel comes to tell her that her prayer is granted. He finishes the job by miraculously giving her various things to eat (bread, wine, honeycomb, honey that turns to blood — there are a lot of different versions!) and thus transforming her into a Jewish girl. She and Joseph get married and live happily ever after.*
Then there’s a second part, where the same brothers who avenged Dinah by killing her rapist (and the rest of town…) protect their new sister-in-law from Pharaoh’s son, who wanted to marry Asenath instead. This is opposed by some of the other brothers (the kids of Leah and Rachel’s maids), who want to kill Asenath (and Benjamin, while they’re at it) and blame it on Pharaoh’s son. The good guys win, they bind up the bad guys’ wounds, and everybody becomes friends in the end.
It’s a probably Jewish-written apocryphal text. (There is a legal principle in Jewish law that converts are “new bodies,” and therefore anything that applied to their Gentile selves doesn’t apply to their new Jewish selves.) But Christians liked the story also (love story! angels! Gentiles enter the Covenant!), so there’s about five zillion copies in five zillion vernaculars. Asenath was a popular heroine to Christians of the Middle Ages.
So this particular ms of this widespread story (the ms that is featured in the Discovery Channel show, which is in Syriac and from the 5th century) apparently there’s some comment about “Oh, yeah, and I just told you this story because it’s an allegory for Our Lord and how He brought the Gentiles into God’s family.” The comment is incomplete, so the tabloid documentary guys are theorizing that the missing part said, “It’s an allegory for how that Jesus guy married that hot Magdalene! Totally!”
And apparently idiots are not getting the point. Mary of Magdala may have been a lot of things, but she sure as heck wasn’t a Gentile. Gentile-born Jewish converts and Gentile-descended Christians were the point.
Anyway, I advise you to read “Joseph and Asenath” and ignore the Discovery Channel silliness. It’s a good story.
“Joseph and Asenath” translated by Brooks. The foreword lists the medieval Latin, German, French, Icelandic, and Greek versions, among others.
Notes on “The Storie of Asneth,” a Middle English poem. The actual poem. Like the Latin version, this poem has Asenath as a sort of young Belle Dame Sans Merci who falls in love with no man, but is particularly reluctant to marry an ex-slave. However, when she actually sees him she realizes he is worthy of respect, and begins a process of repentance that leads to conversion. This version also reprints Vincent of Beauvais’ Latin text of the story.
Scholarly roundup of news stories and academic reactions at the Paleojudaica site. (The general reaction is “Shyeah, no.” Scholars love “Asenath,” and they teach various versions of the text in various disciplines, so they’re not being shy about it.)
*The other versions are “Joseph wasn’t too worried about it, because Jewish guys were still okay with marrying Gentiles,” “Asenath converted non-miraculously and that counts too,” and “Asenath was the daughter of Dinah, whom you never hear anything more about because she moved to Egypt to get away from her brothers, and then Dinah died and Potiphar’s wife took Asenath as her daughter, or maybe Dinah was Potiphar’s first wife who died.”