Rewritten Gentiles: Conversion to Israel's 'Living God' and Jewish Identity in Antiquity

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Marcus, Joel

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This dissertation examines the ideological developments and strategies of boundary formation which accompanied the sociological novelty of gentiles’ becoming Jews in the Second Temple period. I argue that the phenomenon of gentile conversion influenced ancient Jews to re–conceive their God as they devised new ways to articulate the now–permeable boundary between Jew and ‘other,’ between insiders and outsiders. Shaye Cohen has shown that this boundary became porous as the word ‘Jew’ took on religious and political meanings in addition to its ethnic connotations. A gentile could therefore become a Jew. I focus on an ancient Jewish author who thought that gentiles not only could become Jews, but that they should: that of Joseph and Aseneth. Significant modifications of biblical traditions about God, Israel, and ‘the other’ were necessary in order to justify, on ideological grounds, the possibility of gentile access to Jewish identity and the Jewish community.

One such rewritten tradition is the relationship of both Jew and gentile to the ‘living God,’ a common epithet in Israel’s scriptures. Numerous Jewish authors from the Second Temple period, among whom I include the apostle Paul, deployed this biblical epithet in various ways in order to construct or contest boundaries between gentiles and the God of Israel. Whereas previous scholars have approached this divine title exclusively as a theological category, I read it also as a literary device with discursive power which helps these authors regulate gentile access to Israel’s God and, in most cases, to Jewish identity. Joseph and Aseneth develops an innovative theology of Israel’s ‘living God’ which renders this narrative exceptionally optimistic about the possibilities of gentile conversion and incorporation into Israel. Aseneth’s tale uses this epithet in conjunction with other instances of ‘life’ language not only to express confidence in gentiles’ capability to convert, but also to construct a theological articulation of God in relationship to repentant gentiles which allows for and anticipates such conversion. A comparison of the narrative’s ‘living God" terminology to that of the book of Jubilees and the apostle Paul sets into relief the radical definition of Jewishness which Joseph and Aseneth constructs — a definition in which religious practice eclipses ancestry and under which boundaries between Jew and ‘other’ are permeable.






Hicks-Keeton, Jill (2014). Rewritten Gentiles: Conversion to Israel's 'Living God' and Jewish Identity in Antiquity. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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