Reviews of

Aseneth’s Transformation

In Aseneth, De Gruyter, Deuterocanonical, Kristen Marie Hartvigsen, R. Gillian Glass on July 3, 2020 at 6:00 pm

2020.07.12 | Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen. Aseneth’s Transformation. DCLS 24. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. XII + 246. ISBN: 978-3-11-036337-1.

Review by R. Gillian Glass, University of British Columbia.

In her second book, Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen (hereafter H.) presents readers with a multi-disciplinary analysis of Joseph and Aseneth, an ancient Judeo-Greek romance, in which she examines the multiple symbolic and ritual elements of the heroine’s transformation. H. applies three modern theories to this ancient narrative in order to explicate and contextualize the interpretations of these elements that have been advanced by scholars (34).

Her book has a clear structure. After an introduction (chapter 1) with the requisite review of scholarship of Joseph and Aseneth, and presentation of her methodology, H. dedicates a chapter to each of her three chosen methodological frameworks: Intersectionality (chapter 2), Conceptual Blending Theory and Intertextual Blending (chapter 3), and Cognitive Theory of Ritual and Ritual Efficacy (chapter 4).

The first of these (chapter 2) considers Aseneth’s character at the intersections of ethnicity, religious adherence, gender, social position, age, and physical ability (in this context, her beauty). It argues that the book’s two most significant shifts are of ethnicity and gender. Aseneth’s move from Egyptian to Hebrew is a transformation that profoundly impacts her gender performance, ritual observances, and religious adherence. Additionally, the transformation shifts her conduct as a woman: she moves from a more independent, “masculine” version of herself to a meek, acceptable wife for Joseph, adhering thereby to the “feminine values and ideals which are portrayed in the novel” (64). H. concludes that both shifts centre on Aseneth, a focus that could suggest a largely female audience for the novel. (40).

In chapter 3, H. introduces two “Blending” theories to analyse the symbolic features of Aseneth’s characterisation. H. recognises that the story’s author(s) may have deliberately or inadvertently drawn on a wide array of symbols and cultural sources, and that the audience could have interpreted the novel’s symbolic elements in a variety of ways. The LXX materials are not direct references, but rather a broad cultural backdrop for Joseph and Aseneth. Other Jewish texts may also underlie Aseneth’s characterisation, including 1 Enoch, and Wisdom of Solomon. Altogether they reference feminine metaphors such as the City as a Woman (specifically Zion/Jerusalem (87-119)), and the Strange/Foreign/Foolish Woman, and Woman as Wisdom (119-135). H. concludes by reminding the reader that Aseneth would have sparked different mythic and literary references for different audiences.

The penultimate chapter considers the ritual dimensions of Joseph and Aseneth, and asserts that the rituals display varying levels of permanence (154). Scholars have long disagreed about the presence of historically enacted rituals within the novel (140-142). For her part, H. considers the ritualised function of certain elements within the constructed narrative world of Joseph and Aseneth, without connecting them to any real-world rituals—conversion, Eucharist or otherwise. The focus of this analysis is on the ritual act of blessing certain divinities and in ritual food consumption in their story context. In other words, H. considers what the narrative itself tell us about how the acts of blessing and eating function either explicitly or implicitly in Joseph and Aseneth. Thus, while the heavenly honeycomb consumed in chapter 16 has the ability to transform Aseneth from Gentile to Jew (a permanent engagement with the divine), the trilogy of wine/bread/ointment only allows for a temporary transformation and a periodic and limited engagement with the divine sphere (182-184).

The fifth and final chapter summarises the arguments and conclusions of each chapter. H. concludes by reiterating the importance of studying the significance of each narrative element in its story context and refraining from drawing extra-textual (i.e. “real world”) comparisons.

H.’s book contributes to the growing academic trend of studying Joseph and Aseneth with a literary or narrative approach. This is particularly evident in the chapter on ritual efficacy, which this reviewer considers to be the best chapter. By considering the efficacy of certain rituals of blessing or eating within the narrative context, H. draws attention to the permanency of ritual transformation and ritualized action—a fascinating point with regards to the mysterious honeycomb scene.

This reviewer found H.’s possible contributions to be overshadowed by two structural aspects of this book which cannot be overlooked. The first is the author’s tendency to centre the works of previous scholars, rather than her own analysis. In doing so, the author’s contributions are obscured by an over-emphasis of secondary sources. The second drawback of this book is its heavy use of theory and jargon. Both of these can be helpful. In this case, however, they obscure arguments and make it difficult to understand the analysis or conclusion. The theoretical frameworks introduced are complex, and their integration into the analysis is inconsistent.

With regards to the conclusions themselves: by and large, the literary analysis is reasonable. The study of these particular allusions is tired. Where the conclusions go wrong is in the attempt to contextualise them for an ancient audience. Hartvigsen does not actually tell us who this ancient audience was, nor in which centuries or regions of the world they lived. Moreover, the only modern scholarship H. uses to determine the ancient audience is Tomas Hägg’s 1980 book The Novel in Antiquity. H. reasserts the now-defunct claim that women were the primary audience for the ancient novel, and so we should assume the same for Joseph and Aseneth (18). This has not, however, been the prevailing opinion in the study of the ancient novel for at least twenty years, as it relies on the (sexist) assumption that the literary and linguistic quality of the novel (and so its audience) was subpar. Fortunately, Hartvigsen’s assertions about the audience do not diminish her literary analysis, which maintains its methodological integrity.

It is difficult to recommend this book, as the destined audience is unclear. A person looking to better understand the theories used should study them directly. Scholars of Joseph and Aseneth will mostly find here an outdated understanding of the text. The best source for a detailed review of scholarship remains Standhartinger (2014). As for students new to Aseneth, the best sources remain works such as Humphrey because of its clarity (2000). The reader is, in spite of this, optimistic about the contributions Hartvigsen could make to the future study of Aseneth.

R. Gillian Glass
University of British Columbia [at]

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