The Bible states (41:37-45, 50–52; 46:20) that Joseph married Aseneth (also spelt Asenath) who was Egyptian, the daughter of Potiphera, the Egyptian priest of On, and had two children by her. The Bible doesn’t say that Joseph courted her or that she wanted to marry him; but the biblical language seems to imply that Pharaoh gave Aseneth to him when he elevated Joseph to a high Egyptian position. The Bible also does not say that Aseneth converted to Judaism because Judaism didn’t exist as a religion at that time, neither did later rabbinic law, and the concept of people converting to Judaism is not mentioned in the Bible and did not exist until about 150 BCE, when one of the Judean kings forcefully converted Edomites. Whenever she is mentioned, the Bible relates that she was the daughter of the priest of On. Nothing else is known about her. However, the love story supplies imaginary details.[1]

The book

Scholars are unable to agree about most facts concerning the creation of the book. The consensus is that it was composed by a Jew or Jews in Greek around the year 100 of the common era. However, there are those who state that it is possible that it was composed by Christians as late as 350 CE[2] and there other views that the tale was originally Jewish but a  Christian added to the original story, that there were two authors one writing the romance and the other the conflict with the brothers, and there is a long and a short version of the tale.[3]

The book has two plots. One focuses on the romance between Joseph and Aseneth. The second is about the conflict between Joseph and his bothers and Joseph and Pharaoh’s son.

Aseneth’s parent try to persuade her to marry Joseph because of his prominence in Pharaoh’s government. She refuses, but when she sees him, she falls in love. Her engagement causes jealousy from Pharaoh’s oldest son and from some of Joseph’s brothers, which is the plot of the second story in this book.

[1] Many mistakenly think that the Moabite Ruth converted when she joined her mother-in-law Naomi when the latter returned to Judea, but no mention of her converting is mentioned in the book of Ruth and she is always described as a Moabite, even at the end of the book. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob went to great lengths not to marry outside the family – even Esau recognized his family’s feelings and married the daughter of his uncle Ishmael. But this had nothing to do with religion. Their concern stopped with Jacob’s children, who married Canaanites, Egyptians, and women from other nations. Even Moses married a Midianite, and King Solomon married women from many cultures. It seems clear that after the time of the three patriarchs until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, around the fourth century BCE, the Israelites were unconcerned about intermarriage and engaged in it. Ezra and Nehemiah tried on two different occasions to force the Israelites to banish their foreign wives, in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 13, with little success.

[2] Kraemer, Ross Shepard. When Aseneth Met Joseph: A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[3] Wills, Lawrence M., Ancient Jewish Novels, The Toby press, 2002.