Emotion, Gender, and Greco-Roman Virtue in Joseph and Aseneth

in Journal for the Study of Judaism
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Anger, courage, and philanthropia—three important elements of Greco-Roman civic life—figure prominently in the book of Joseph and Aseneth and help us uncover the book’s message. One view within Greco-Roman culture valorized manly anger—at least where appropriate—and manly courage, but, according to Joseph and Aseneth, Jews instead privileged the emotion of pity and the related virtue of philanthropia. The author strategically developed his plot around the experiences of a female convert, whose views on anger, courage, and philanthropia highlight both the distinctiveness and subversiveness of the Jewish position. His message served an important polemical goal, one which highlighted the premium that Jews place on philanthropia and challenged contemporary accusations of Jewish misanthropy.

Journal for the Study of Judaism

In the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period




Philo, Virt. 1. All translations of De virtutibus are based on the lcl edition (trans. F. H. Colson; Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1939), with modifications. On the link between anger and courage in other ancient sources, see discussion below.


Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 151, correctly notes that Aseneth is nowhere depicted as observing Jewish law, and Erich S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 94, adds that the book never mentions “Jew” or “Gentile.” Nevertheless, the book clearly distinguishes between two forms of religious devotion, so using the language of conversion to describe her transformation would appear justified.


See Danielle S. Allen, “Democratic Dis-ease: Of Anger and the Troubling Nature of Punishment,” in The Passions of Law, ed. Susan A. Bandes (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 191-214.


David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 41-76.


See ibid., 274; J. H. D. Scourfield, “Anger and Gender in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe,” in Braun and Most, Ancient Anger, 163-84, esp. 181.


See Konstan, Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, 58. Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Anger and Insubordination,” in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, ed. A. Garry and M. Pearsall (Boston: Routledge, 1989), 263-73, observes that the element of judgment associated with anger explains why dominant groups often exclude subordinate groups from the domain of legitimate anger.


Polybius, Hist. 31.29.1.


See Philo, Virt. 18-21. Consistent with the Socratic conception of virtues as gender-neutral, Plato allows for the possibility that women could possess andreia (Resp. 451c-457c), though his descriptions of that virtue and the means through which one acquires it seem to envision a generally male audience; see Angela Hobbs, Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness, and the Impersonal Good (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 244-48. Aristotle (Pol. 1260a20-24) explicitly criticizes Socrates for taking that stance.


Plato, Resp. 2.375b (Shorey, lcl). On thumos as fierce indignation in Republic, see Hobbs, Plato and the Hero, 207. Aristotle as well speaks of “spirit” as a necessary element of courage while distancing excessive anger from courage; see Eth. nic. 8.10-11: “Spirit or anger is also classed with courage. Men emboldened by anger, like wild beasts which rush upon the hunter that has wounded them, are supposed to be courageous, because the courageous also are high-spirited . . . But those who fight for these motives . . . are not courageous” (Rackham, lcl).


Linda R. Rabieh, Plato and the Virtue of Courage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 99.


Philo, Virt. 1. See also Aristotle. Eth. nic. 3.8.10, who implies that many people regard anger as essential to courage. Philo’s position also shares much in common with that of Cicero, Off. 1.65, who writes that “not those who do injury but those who prevent it are to be considered brave and courageous” (Miller, lcl). For other discussions of anger in ancient Jewish texts, see Testament of Dan and Let. Aris. 253-254.


Hobbs, Plato and the Hero, 50-59.


See David Konstan, Pity Transformed (London: Duckworth, 2001), 75-104.


Aristotle, Rhet. 2.8.2. This definition remained in force among many Greco-Roman writers; Cicero thus writes that “pity is distress arising out of the wretchedness of another who is suffering undeservedly” (Tusc. 4.18).


See Konstan, Pity Transformed, 78-87.


The first quote is drawn from Seneca, Clem. 2.5.1, the second from Konstan, Pity Transformed, 93.


Aristotle, Rhet. 2.8, 1386a25-27.


See, e.g., Polybius, Hist. 15.17.4-5, who reports that Scipio told the Carthaginians that the Romans had decided to show them humaneness (φιλανθρωπία) even though the latter deserved no pity (ἔλεος).


Konstan, Pity Transformed, 88.


See Standhartinger, Frauenbild, 173.


Ibid., 131.


Philo, Virt. 4. See also Philo, Spec. 4.146; Praem. 52; Plato, Lach. 184b, 197b; Aristotle, Eth. nic. 2.8.6; Plutarch, Virt. mor. 445a; Josephus, J.W. 6.171.


See Standhartinger, Frauenbild, 83. Cf. Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph, 195.


See Standhartinger, Frauenbild, 80.


See Philo, Spec. 4.146: “If anyone, indulging the ignorance which comes from arrogance (ἀλαζονείαν) . . . ventures to add to or take from courage, he changes its likeness altogether and stamps upon it a form in which ugliness replaces beauty, for by adding he will make rashness (θρασύτητα).” See also Virt. 2-4: “By courage I mean, not what most people understand, namely the rabid war fever which takes anger (ὀργῇ) for its counselor . . . For some under the stimulus of reckless daring (θράσει) . . . lay low multitudes of antagonists in a general slaughter . . . [a form of courage that] should properly be called reckless daring (θρασύτητα).”


See Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph, 24-25. Aseneth herself had previously lamented the “ignorance” that she expressed in her initial response to Joseph’s arrival (8:7). The descriptions of her clothing and arrogance also echo passages from Proverbs. See Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph, 22-25.


Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph, 26-27. As Kraemer (pp. 61-62) observes, the longer text includes descriptions of Metanoia that appear to embellish the connection with Wisdom.


On the penitent as wise, see Philo, Virt. 186. For metanoia as movement from ignorance to knowledge, see Virt. 177-179. According to Wilson, Philo’s ideal penitent is modeled on the Stoic sage; see Wilson, On Virtues, 359-76. On metanoia in the writings of Philo generally, see Jon Nelson Bailey, “Metanoia in the Writings of Philo Judaeus,” sblsp 30 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1991), 135-41; David Winston, “Philo’s Doctrine of Repentance,” in The School of Moses: Studies in Philo and Hellenistic Religion: In Memory of Horst R. Moehring, ed. John P. Kenney (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 29-40.


Harris, Restraining Rage, 80.


Konstan, Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, 215-18.


Jacqueline de Romilly, “Fairness and Kindness in Thucydides,” Phoenix 28 (1974): 95-100, at 100.


Wilson, “Pious Soldiers,” 19.


Ibid. See also Cicero, Off. 1.88, who views clementia (the Roman version of philanthropia discussed below) as the genuine form of courage.


Xenophon, Cyr. 7.5.73; Plutarch, Caes. 34.7; Cleom. 30.1; Alex. 44.3-5; Philo, Virt. 106-115; Polybius, Hist. 15.17.4. See Hubert Martin, Jr., “The Concept of Philanthropia in Plutarch’s Lives,” American Journal of Philology 82 (1961): 164-75, esp. 171, 173; Peder Borgen, “Philanthropia in Philo’s Writings: Some Observations,” in Biblical and Humane: A Festschrift for John F. Priest, ed. Linda Bennett Elder, David L. Barr, and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), 173-88, esp. 178.


In Cicero, see, e.g., Lig. 1.1; Deiot. 11.34; Mar. 1.1. See Miriam Griffin, “Clementia After Caesar: From Politics to Philosophy,” in Caesar against Liberty? Perspectives on his Autocracy, ed. Francis Cairns and Elaine Fantham (Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2003), 157-82, esp. 162.


Griffin, “Clementia after Caesar,” 165. Josephus (Ant. 19.246), too, seems to render Roman clementia as epieikeia when he uses the latter word to describe the pledge that Claudius made at his succession, described by Seneca (Polyb. 13.2) as clementia. In the context of his review of Gaius’s reign, Cassius Dio (Historiae Romanae 59.16.10) refers to the emperor’s philanthropia, presumably rendering clementia into Greek. From a later period, the Emperor Julian uses philanthropia in describing the mercy of Constantius; see Jürgen Kabiersch, Untersuchungen zum Begriff der Philanthropia bei dem Kaiser Julian (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1960), 15-25.


Seneca, Clem. 2.3.1. See Dowling, Clemency & Cruelty, 201.


Griffin, “Clementia after Caesar,” 171. The relevant passage is Off. 1.88. Seneca (Clem. 2.3.2-3), too, contrasts clementia with anger. On praoteis as a Greek rendering of clementia, see North, Sophrosyne, 300.


Wilson, “Pious Soldiers,” 13.


Gregory Sterling, “‘The Queen of the Virtues’: Piety in Philo of Alexandria,” SPhil 18 (2006): 103-23, at 110.


Philo, Virt. 102-104; Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2.146, 211-214.


Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, 204.


Ibid., 59-60.


See Kraemer, When Aseneth Met Joseph, 194.


See Tacitus, Hist. 5.5.2: “They sit apart at meals and they sleep apart, and . . . they abstain from intercourse with foreign women.”


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