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Repentance in Heaven and on Earth: A Foundation for Transformation in Joseph and Aseneth?

The Hellenistic Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth provides a popular quarry for those seeking parallels to various Jewish and Christian texts in antiquity. Its central theme—that of repentance—is intriguing both socially and theologically, and thus many scholars have fastened upon the figure of the heroine, Aseneth, who offers colorful prayers and striking actions of contrition. Particularly fascinating is Aseneth’s double in heaven, the mystical being Metanoia, who is beloved of God and also of the heavenly Anthropos who visits Aseneth after her extensive period of penitence. This paper will consider not only the nature and structural function of Aseneth’s penitential prayers, but also the “back-story” of her celestial Doppelgänger.  In what ways does this heavenly female character provide a conceptual foundation for Aseneth’s own return to the true God of Joseph?  How is Metanoia paired with the heavenly Visitor to Aseneth, who like Joseph is pictured as constant and sustaining, like the circuit-running chariot-sun of Psalm 19 (LXX 18)? Did the author(s) and readers of this para-biblical romance believe that the godly human actions of proclamation (on the one hand), and conversion (on the other), were facilitated or even directed by unseen events and beings in the heavenly realm?  Does this novel give any insight into how a first century audience held together a sense of human responsibility with such divine ordination or supervision? And what is the perceived relationship between repentance and transformation, as played out Aseneth’s story? This paper will interrogate the text for answers to such questions, and then suggest that the emphasis upon repentance leading to transformation was a major reason why this novel became beloved (though never canonized) in Christian communities.

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