“The Real Love Story of Joseph and the Fair Egyptian”

I went looking for something in 1919 today. I didn’t find it, but I found this instead.

This appeared in the Boston American, but as “The Real Love Story of Joseph and the Fair Egyptian” was a syndicated article, you’ll find it easier to read here. The story is, of course, not true, but I am always delighted and interested to find out something untrue that I hadn’t heard before.

There is no reference to the biblical Joseph in Tell el-Amarna. Although I cannot pinpoint its location, the line drawing above is an unmistakable depiction of two members of the royal family of Pharaoh Akhenaten, their faces and names obliterated by the damnatio memoriae that wiped them from history. The Amarna art style was so delicate and androgynous that it isn’t quite possible to tell the characters from here — Akhenaten? Nefertiti? The princess Meritaten? The prince Smenkhara?

None of them, however, are Joseph. The story related here is from the apocryphal tale of Joseph and Aseneth, known from Greek manuscripts many hundreds of years younger than the city at Tell el-Amarna. How the stories have been conflated just here I do not know, but a rummage around the internet will show you that inserting prominent biblical characters into exciting points of ancient Egyptian history is a profitable and widespread hobby. Some claim that Akhenaten’s grandfather, the nobleman Yuya, was the biblical Joseph, since it is possible that he was from Canaan, but the archaeological establishment has received this claim with a strained smile and a polite “no.”

The author of this newspaper article is hard to identify from his clipped byline, but I believe he may be the Rabbi Clifton Harby Levy (1867-1962). Rabbi Levy, best known as an influential member of the Reform rabbinate in New York and as a founder of the Center for Jewish Science, also wrote on biblical art and archaeology. If so, he would not be the first or the last erudite man to write an unintentionally misleading article on popular science.