Sunday, March 01, 2009

Jewish women mystics

I just sent in my paper proposal for the Society of Biblical Literature meeting this fall:

Female Jewish mystics in late antiquity: real women or literary construction?

The Egyptian Jewish philosopher Philo reports on the Therapeutics, a first-century C.E. Jewish monastic group with both male and female members, who engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures and ecstatic ritual celebrations. The Testament of Job, a retelling in Greek of the book of Job, describes Job’s three daughters as hymning God in the languages of the angels, and Joseph and Aseneth, an expansion in Greek of the biblical story of Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, describes how Aseneth’s prayers invoke the angelic captain of the heavenly host. Why could these works depict the contact between women and angels in a positive fashion? What factors made it possible for the Testament of Job and Joseph and Aseneth to portray a mystical ideal for women as well as for men? Do these works offer any evidence that real women engaged in mystical contemplation, or do they simply explore the exegetical possibilities through literary depictions? Does Philo’s account of the Therapeutics provide any guidance towards the social setting of composition of the Testament of Job or Joseph and Aseneth, or hint towards the type of woman likely to be involved in mystical contemplation?

Last summer in Israel I did quite a bit of research on Joseph and Aseneth and discovered how thorny the questions are about its composition. There is a real difference of opinion between those who think that it's probably a first century BCE or CE Egyptian Jewish work, and those who think it's much later and may be of Christian provenance (Ross Kraemer argues that the book is later). One problem has to do with the manuscripts and figuring out the recensions and which one might be older than the others. Kraemer argues that a shorter recension is earlier and more original, while other scholars like Christian Burchard argue that the longer recension is the earlier one. I tentatively decided to follow their lead, because their arguments seemed better, but I have the sense that it's very hard to tell without devoting a couple of years to going through all the manuscripts and trying to figure out the process of recension myself, something which I don't have the time to do.

It is really a fascinating book, however, and regardless of when it was written or by whom, it's well worth spending time on it and trying to figure out what's going on in it.

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