Main Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine

Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine

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This book tells the story of the earliest Jewish diaspora in Egypt in a way it has never been told before. In the fifth century BCE there was a Jewish community on Elephantine Island. Why they spoke Aramaic, venerated Aramean gods besides Yaho, and identified as Arameans is a mystery, but a previously little explored papyrus from Egypt sheds new light on their history. The papyrus shows that the ancestors of the Elephantine Jews came originally from Samaria. Due to political circumstances, they left Israel and lived for a century in an Aramean environment. Around 600 BCE, they moved to Egypt. These migrants to Egypt did not claim a Jewish identity when they arrived, but after the destruction of their temple on the island they chose to deploy their Jewish identity to raise sympathy for their cause. Their story―a typical diaspora tale―is not about remaining Jews in the diaspora, but rather about becoming Jews through the diaspora.
Year:
2019
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Language:
english
Pages:
288 / 285
ISBN 10:
0300243510
ISBN 13:
9780300243512
Series:
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
File:
PDF, 2.28 MB
Download (pdf, 2.28 MB)
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Becoming Diaspora Jews

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Th e Anch or Y al e Bi bl e R e f e r e n c e L i b r a ry
is a project of international and interfaith scope in which
Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars from many countries
contribute individual volumes. The project is not sponsored by
any ecclesiastical organization and is not intended to reflect
any particular theological doctrine.
The series is committed to producing volumes in the tradition
established half a century ago by the founders of the Anchor
Bible, William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman.
It aims to present the best contemporary scholarship in a way
that is accessible not only to scholars but also to the educated
nonspecialist. It is committed to work of sound philological and historical scholarship, supplemented by insight from
modern methods, such as sociological and literary criticism.
John J. Collins
General Editor

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Th e Anch or Y al e Bi bl e R e f e r e n c e L i b r a ry

Becoming
Diaspora Jews
Behind the Story of Elephantine

karel van der toorn

new haven
and
AY B R L

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“Anchor Yale Bible” and the Anchor Yale logo are registered trademarks of
Yale University.
Copyright © 2019 by Yale University.
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations,
in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S.
Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written
permission from the publishers.
Yale University Press books may be purchased in quantity for educational,
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.edu (U.S. office) or sales@yaleup.co.uk (U.K. office).
Set in Adobe Caslon type by Newgen North America.
Printed in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019930737
ISBN 978-0-300-24351-2 (hardcover : alk. paper)
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British L; ibrary.
This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence
of Paper).
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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To my colleagues of the Biblical Colloquium
In gratitude and friendship

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Contents

Preface, ix

1. Elephantine Revisited, 1
2. The Aramean Heritage, 21
3. The Aramean Diaspora in Egypt, 42
4. The Origins of the Elephantine Jews, 61
5. A Military Colony and Its Religion, 89
6. Becoming Diaspora Jews, 115
Epilogue, 143

Appendix: Translation of Papyrus Amherst 63,
Adapted from AOAT 448, 149
List of Abbreviations, 189
Notes, 193
General Index, 255
Index of Ancient Sources, 261

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Preface

Reading ancient texts is not just a feat of philology. Over the years
it has become for me a way to get closer to people who are far away.
They are dead. They lived in a different world. But as the young girl
said in one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, once they
were alive like you and me. I am referring to the preface of Giorgio
Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The girl was speaking of
the Etruscans whose graves she had just seen. The Jews who lived
on the Egyptian island of Elephantine in the fifth century BCE are
the near contemporaries of those Etruscans. They are, in a way, as
strange to us as those Etruscans—even though Jews are still among
us and Etruscans are not. But these Jews seem a rare variety. I first
read about them many years ago and wondered who they were.
What was their story? Would they still have something to tell me?
It seemed the kind of curiosity that comes and goes. Mentally you
make a note, then forget about it. But the Elephantine Jews refused
to be forgotten. They seemed to be waiting for me once I had the
chance to return to a scholarly life after years of university administration. I wanted to discover their story.
I could never have anticipated spending three years or more deciphering a papyrus in Demotic characters in order to get closer to
the Elephantine Jews. I knew Hebrew and cuneiform. Why should
I want to read Egyptian? But it turned out that the descendants of
the Elephantine Jews had used the Demotic script to write down
some of their ancestral traditions. By good fortune, the language was
Aramaic—perhaps not my favorite, but one I felt at ease with. Papyrus Amherst 63 proved to be an amazing source on the traditions
of the Aramaic-speaking diaspora communities in Persian Egypt.
To me, the Elephantine Jews had been a phenomenon without a
history. They were something that just happened, without a before

ix

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Preface

or after. The after is still unclear, but the Amherst papyrus has plenty to say
about the before. It is now possible to tell the story of the Elephantine Jews
instead of looking at snapshots.
Some of us like to think of history as a way to get into the skin of those
who preceded us. I am incapable of such feats. I do believe, however, that we
can get closer and identify patterns of behavior. The latter reflect, at some
distance, what is going on in the collective mind of a community. When I
was younger I thought we should all aim for authenticity. To be your real
self seemed like the highest achievement. As I grow older I find that the
real self is quite elusive. We are part of a pattern even as we cherish the illusion of being unique. The Elephantine Jews conformed to a pattern too.
The pattern I pay attention to in this book is that of an emerging Jewish
identity. As the Aramaic text in Demotic characters shows, the ancestors
of the Elephantine Jews came from Samaria, found shelter in an Aramean
society toward 700 BCE, and moved to Egypt some hundred years later.
These migrants to Egypt did not claim a Jewish identity when they came.
Under the double impact of the diaspora experience and the Persian politics of ethnic diversity, they became the Elephantine Jews. This merging of
particular historical identities into larger ethnic communities was a pattern
in the Persian Empire. Judaism as the world would come to know it was
still in the making, but the Jewish people had entered the scene.
This book is about the Elephantine Jews rather than the Elephantine
Judeans. Let me explain why. The Aramaic term yĕhûdāy makes no distinction between “Judean” and “Jew”; it allows of both translations. By distinguishing between “Judean” and “Jew,” then, we have, in a way, created
our own dilemma. The choice between the two alternatives corresponds, in
what is perhaps the dominant perception, to the difference between ethnicity and religion. It is the difference between les Juifs and les juifs in French
orthography. The Juifs with a capital J are an ethnic community, like les
Français and les Américains. The juifs with a lowercase j, on the other hand,
are a religious group, like les catholiques and les protestants. From the perspective of the Jews or the Judeans of the fifth century BCE, this is a false
opposition. They did not really distinguish between ethnicity and religion,
as though the one could be isolated from the other. We, however, have
to make a choice. As a translation, neither “Judean” nor “Jew” is entirely
felicitous. The former emphasizes Judah as place of origin, whereas the latter seems primarily a reference to religion. After some deliberation, I have
chosen to translate yĕhûdāy consistently as “Jew” or “Jewish.” There are two

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reasons. One consideration is the fact that the original nucleus of the Elephantine Jews had its roots in Samaria. To call them Judeans is misleading
inasmuch as they are precisely not from Judah. My other reason has to do
with the meaning of the terms “Jew” and “Jewish.”
To say that there were no Jews before the invention of the Jewish religion feels to me like a strongly ideological statement. It misrecognizes the
fact that religion is part of culture and subject to constant change. Is the
Judaism of the second century BCE the real Judaism, or should the Judaism of the Talmud be our norm? Or is Jewish religion an invention of the
Western Enlightenment? In my mind, Jewish identity is a mix of ethnicity
and culture. Religion is certainly part of that culture, but you don’t need
to be religious in order to be a Jew. “Jew” and “Jewish” refer to ethnicity
first and to a religious tradition secondarily. It is true that in former times,
religion was so much part of culture that the two were inextricable. Like
everybody around them, the Elephantine Jews had religion—though they
would not call it by that name. To many Jews of a later age, this religion
was perhaps hardly Jewish. The Elephantine Jews worshipped Yaho as their
ancestral god and several Aramean deities besides him. By our standards,
they were polytheists. But that does not make them any less Jewish. Unless one subscribes to an essentialist view of what it means to be a Jew, the
religion that Jews have been practicing through the ages has gone through
many transformations. Historically, Jewish identity exhibits great variety.
The Elephantine Jews represent their segment of the spectrum.
Though research feels at times like a lonely journey, it never is. We are always part of a community of scholars. There are those before us—our teachers and their teachers—and there are those whose time is yet to come—our
students and their students. We are, as they say, standing on the shoulders
of giants. And one day others will take our discoveries and show that there
are ways to go beyond them. We are rooted in a tradition. Such knowledge
is at once a lesson in modesty and a source of pride. In the meantime we
enjoy the company of our contemporaries. This book has benefited from
the input of many colleagues. I could draw up a long list of names of those
who helped me over the past few years. Instead I dedicate this book to the
members of the Biblical Colloquium. They sum up what it means to me to
be part of a scholarly community where people speak without fear, question without condescension, and share in a spirit of intellectual passion and
curiosity.

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Becoming Diaspora Jews

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1 Elephantine Revisited
The discovery of the Elephantine Jews occurred more than a hundred years
ago. It caused a sensation. The Aramaic papyri and potsherds that came
to light during the first decade of the twentieth century documented the
existence of a group of Jewish men and women who had lived in the deep
south of Egypt all through the fifth century BCE. Never before had scholars come across such early records of Jewish history. Aside from a few Hebrew inscriptions from Jerusalem and other places, there were no written
remains from the people of the Bible other than the Hebrew Bible itself.
The Elephantine papyri promised direct and unbiased access to a Jewish
community as it had been in real life. Such access was particularly welcome
after a century of critical scholarship that had turned the traditional ways
of reading the Bible upside down. According to the new views, the law of
Moses was a late invention, and the exclusive worship of Yahweh came at
the end of a long period of religious evolution. Elephantine provided the
opportunity to put such theories to the test. Scholars flocked to the new
finds. The sheer number of publications on the papyri between 1905 and
1915 conveys a sense of the excitement that characterized the early days of
Elephantine studies.
A full century has passed since Eduard Sachau’s edition of the Elephantine papyri in 1911. Over the past hundred years, other discoveries
have made the headlines. The Dead Sea scrolls, found in 1947, have had the
greatest impact. Yet despite major new finds from the world of the Bible,
the interest in Elephantine is still very much alive. For a time it seemed that
the definitive monograph had been written when Bezalel Porten published
his Archives from Elephantine (1968). As it turned out, Porten’s study was the

1

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start of a stream of follow-up publications. Elephantine studies continue to
flourish in the twenty-first century. Counting monographs only, the secondary literature is expanding by almost one book a year. An important
impetus for the ongoing investigations is the time frame of Elephantine.
All the papyri are from the Persian period. That is precisely the era that
biblical scholars have come to regard as crucial in the formation of ancient
Judaism. Although many authors have no new evidence to bring to the debate, they feel that the data do merit a reassessment. Even if it is the same
deck of cards, a reshuffle may reveal a new pattern.

New Light on the Elephantine Jews
This is neither the first nor will it be the last book on the Elephantine Jews. Yet it does stand apart from previous studies because it presents
important new evidence. This evidence consists of a twenty-three-column
papyrus scroll. It comes from Egypt, though it is neither from Elephantine
Island nor from the fifth century BCE. According to the earliest reports,
it was part of a stash of papyri found at Thebes. The script of this scroll is
Demotic and probably dates to the mid-fourth century BCE. Named after
the English lord who acquired the scroll in the 1890s, Papyrus Amherst 63
has long been a riddle. It was hard to crack its code because the script was
at odds with the language. While the characters are Egyptian, the language
of the compositions is Aramaic. Biblical scholars have been aware of the
existence of this mysterious papyrus since the 1980s, when two teams of
scholars identified a song to Yaho in the compilation that seemed to be
almost a copy of Psalm 20. Other parts of the papyrus prove to have references to the gods Nabu, Nanay, Bethel, and Anat. As experts already suspected in the 1980s, this compilation consists of literary traditions from the
Aramaic-speaking diaspora communities in Persian Egypt. In Elephantine
and Aswan, there had been temples for Yaho, Bethel, and Nabu—the very
gods who are addressed in the ritual songs of the Amherst papyrus.
Although scholars solved the riddle of the Amherst papyrus in the
1980s, no one so far has really explored the text for the light it might throw
upon the origins and history of the Elephantine Jews. The reason is obvious. In the absence of a full-fledged edition of the text, it has been practically impossible for noninitiates to use it. All they had were treatments of
selected parts, and the interpretations these offered often seemed uncertain.
In 1997, Richard Steiner, a pioneer of the papyrus, published a translation of
the complete text in a widely used anthology of writings from the ancient

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3

Near East. It took twenty more years before Steiner made his transliteration and translation available in an online edition. A year later, I published
an edition of the text with translation, commentary, and photographs. (My
translation, with slight modifications, appears as the Appendix to the present volume.) Another scholar who has long been working on the papyrus,
Tawny L. Holm, will soon publish her transliteration and translation in the
SBL series Writings of the Ancient World. It is only recently, then, that
this long-mysterious papyrus has become available in a manner that allows
others to critically check the suggested readings. A comparison of the three
translations shows differences of interpretation that are sometimes considerable. Since the text is notoriously difficult, this was to be expected. No
doubt further scrutiny by the wider scholarly community will eventually
resolve many of the problems and uncertainties that characterize Papyrus
Amherst 63.
Meanwhile, the Amherst papyrus already warrants some conclusions
that impact our perception of the Elephantine community and its Aramean
neighbors in ancient Aswan (Syene). As will be demonstrated more fully
in Chapter 4, the ancestors of the Elephantine Jews were Samarians rather
than Judeans. Moreover, their connection to the Aramean community predates their migration to Egypt. During most of the seventh century BCE,
these Samarians had lived at close quarters with two groups of Arameans,
one from Babylonia and the other from Hamath. The three communities—
Samarian, Babylonian, and Syrian—had found shelter in a caravan city at
an oasis in the desert. Its identification with Palmyra is plausible. But whatever the precise place where they met, there can be no doubt about the early
connection between the three communities. It explains several features of
the Elephantine Jews that scholars have found puzzling, such as the use of
Aramaic as their colloquial language and the presence of various Aramean
gods in their religion. Clearly, the evidence from the Amherst papyrus necessitates a thorough revision of the story of Elephantine as it has been told
until now. This book offers such a revision. In order to put the new insights
into a proper historical perspective, we have to begin with a review of the
scholarship on the Elephantine Jews.

The Discovery of Elephantine
The story of the discovery of the Elephantine Jews is the story of the Elephantine papyri. Someone closely involved in the first encounter with the
papyri was Mary Cecil, daughter of Lord Amherst and later 2nd Baroness

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Amherst of Hackney. Her father was a longtime collector of things of
beauty and had spent much of his considerable fortune on Egyptian antiquities. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Lord Amherst himself
no longer had the stamina to travel to Egypt. But his daughter Mary was
still under fifty. She loved to spend the winter in the South. She had first
visited Egypt as a young woman and had fallen in love with the country.
Following in the footsteps of her father, she became a collector of Egyptian
antiquities in her own right. Unlike him, she looked for them not only
on the market but also in the Egyptian sands. Lady Cecil—“May” to her
close friends—was an amateur archaeologist. During the winter seasons of
1901–1902 and 1903–1904, she ran her own excavation in the vicinity of Aswan. The season of 1903–1904 had not been very successful, until a group of
peasant farmers—fellahin, in the local dialect—paid her a visit and offered
to sell a batch of papyri. We have a report of this discovery in a letter from
Howard Carter to Lord Amherst, dated March 24, 1904:
An important find of Aramaic papyri was made this season by some natives at Aswan; either in the sabach works at the south end of the Island of
Elephantine, or in the mounds of the ancient town of Aswan between the
Railway Station and the Cataract Hotel when a new road was made early
in the winter. These documents are apparently of a lady—betrothal deeds—
dating in the time of Artaxerxes I to Darius II. They are most important,
they being in the original Biblical language, and mentioned the citadel and
fortress of Aswan as well as the mixed courts (the Hebrew court being mentioned). As far as I am able to tell these are the only Aramaic papyri existing,
excepting perhaps a few fragments now at Berlin.

Today, Howard Carter is a name in Egyptology. He discovered the
tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a find that turned the hitherto tepid public
interest into a fit of Egyptomania. When he paid Lady Cecil a visit in 1904,
however, those days were yet to come. Carter was a friend and protégé of
the Amherst family. Their collection of Egyptian antiquities at Didlington
Hall had been his first encounter with Egypt. The “Assuan papyri,” as they
were known at first, confronted Carter with a side of Egypt with which
he was unfamiliar. There was something strange about them. They were,
for the most part, in excellent condition. The script presented no particular
difficulty. But the language of the texts and the names of the people were
at odds. Those names were Hebrew; they seemed to come right out of the
Bible—Hosea, Isaiah, Uriyah. But the language was Aramaic. In his letter

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to Lord Amherst, Carter called it “the original Biblical language,” but in
this respect he was wrong. The Bible is largely written in Hebrew. There are
some parts in Aramaic, but those are either very late (Daniel 2–7, from the
second century BCE) or official documents from Persian times, fictitious or
real, inserted into the biblical narrative (Ezra 4:8–6:18, 7:12–26). The names
in the papyri showed that these people were Jewish. But it seemed odd that
they should be using Aramaic as their language.
The papyri Lady Cecil bought in 1904 were in fact not the first papyri from Elephantine. In 1899, the Strasburg expedition to Egypt had
acquired an Aramaic papyrus from a dealer at Luxor (Thebes). Two years
later, Archibald Henry Sayce, professor of Assyriology at Oxford, bought a
papyrus from an Aswan dealer. Both papyri were from Elephantine. They
were published in 1903. But the Assuan papyri of 1904—the ones offered
for sale to Lady Cecil—made the real impact. There were more than ten
of them, and they clearly established the existence of a Jewish colony at
Elephantine. Suddenly the island became a focus of interest. At the time
that Lady Cecil made a deal with the sellers of the papyri, a German classicist by the name of Otto Rubensohn was leading a mission of the German Papyrus Cartel. When Rubensohn got word of a batch of Aramaic
papyri offered for sale at Aswan, he hurried to get there. As it turned out,
the papyri had already changed hands. Rubensohn went to the sellers and
asked them where they had made their discovery. They took him to Elephantine and indicated a place at the western edge of the ruin hill on the
south side of the island. Rubensohn decided the German syndicate should
try to acquire by excavation what it had failed to obtain through the market. The Germans received an excavation permit in 1905 and started digging
in the early days of 1906.
When the distinguished French archaeologist and Orientalist Charles
Clermont-Ganneau heard about the German expedition, he was beside
himself with rage. Would the “Prussians” beat the French in the race for
what could well be the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the
twentieth century? “What is our famous École in Cairo doing? . . . We
continue to lag behind across the board, both in Egypt and in Syria. All this
is extremely disturbing and discouraging. We are left to gather the crumbs
of other people’s banquet.” Clermont-Ganneau had worked as a diplomat
in Jerusalem and Constantinople. Since 1890 he had taught at the famous
Collège de France in Paris. The discoveries at Aswan had piqued his interest. He pleaded with the French authorities, both academic and political,

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and obtained permission to lead a French expedition to Elephantine starting in the winter of 1906–1907, almost one year after the Germans had
begun theirs. The Egyptian Service of Antiquities decided that the French
should dig on the east side of the ruin mound, while the Germans would
work on the west side. There was little contact between the two teams. They
were competitors rather than collaborators, the one always worrying about
the tricks of the other, each party afraid the enemy would discover an item
of interest. The Germans conducted three campaigns, leaving Elephantine
Island in 1908. The French completed four campaigns, concluding the last
one in 1911. A few years later, the armies of the two nations would pursue
a different campaign in different trenches.
During the first days of the second campaign, the German expedition
made a major discovery. Not far from the spot where the earlier papyri
had been found, at the place indicated by the fellahin, they discovered three
other papyri. Their content was astonishing—so astonishing, in fact, that
Rubensohn decided their publication could not be delayed. Without notifying the Egyptian authorities, he shipped the papyri to Berlin and asked
Sachau to publish them. The Berlin professor of Semitic languages agreed.
He presented his translation on July 25, 1907, during a session of the Royal
Prussian Academy. Two papyri were drafts of a petition sent out by the
Jewish community to Bagohi, the governor of Judah. They describe in detail
the destruction of the “temple of Yaho” in Elephantine at the hands of local Egyptian priests in the summer of 410 BCE. The third papyrus, much
shorter, was a copy of a memorandum from Bagohi and his Samarian colleague in support of the temple’s reconstruction. The impact of the new
papyri was tremendous. Henceforth, the name of Elephantine would be
associated with historic violence against the Jews and their temple.
The news of Rubensohn’s discovery reached the French team only in
the late summer of 1907. In an angry letter written on September 2, the
field director of the French expedition reported rumors about the German
find and the fact that the papyri had been smuggled out of Egypt. As the
contents of the papyri would show, the French did have cause for worry
and envy. During the four years their expedition lasted, they would make
no find that could match the German papyri. The few Aramaic papyri that
they did discover still await publication. Most of what the French found
were potsherds. These potsherds were inscribed, and they do offer important testimony of the presence of Jews at Elephantine in the first quarter of

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the fifth century BCE. The French found hundreds of such ostraca. Somehow the finds felt like a silver medal. The gold had gone to the Germans.
Two superb publications sum up the first harvest of Elephantine discoveries. In 1911, Sachau published Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer
jüdischen Militär-Kolonie zu Elephantine, with photographs of the texts that
are still a wonder to behold. In 1923, Arthur Cowley published Aramaic
Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. This was, for a long time, the definitive edition of the Elephantine papyri and continues to be a frequently cited reference. After Cowley, nothing new came to light at Elephantine for a long
time. In 1929, the French discovered the tablets from Ugarit (today’s Ras
Shamra, on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean), written in alphabetic
cuneiform signs. The discovery marked the beginning of a new discipline.
Ugaritologists have been able to significantly increase our knowledge of
the Canaanite background of the Hebrew Bible. The stream of new texts
is still flowing. In 1947 the world learned about the discoveries at Qumran,
in the rocky hills west of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea scrolls turned out
to be the most significant discovery by biblical archaeologists in the twentieth century. The scrolls’ importance for our knowledge of the history of
the Bible and early Judaism still has not been fully explored. The significance of the Elephantine papyri paled by comparison. New generations of
scholars focused their attention on Ugarit and Qumran. Elephantine was
yesterday’s news.
In the meantime, the story of the Elephantine papyri had not come to
a close. Hidden away in the vault of a museum or the attic of an old family
home, there were still other papyri waiting to be discovered, like the lost
work of some old master. In the 1890s, ten years before Lady Cecil made
her purchase, Charles Edwin Wilbour had acquired a batch of papyri that
perplexed him. Nobody knew of their existence. Wilbour was an American journalist, lawyer, entrepreneur, and amateur Egyptologist who spent
several winters in Egypt. In 1893 he bought fifteen papyri from peasant
farmers at Elephantine Island. After a few fruitless attempts at deciphering them, he gave up trying. When he died in a Paris hotel in 1896, the
staff found the papyri tucked away among his papers and other belongings.
They were sent to his family in the United States. Nobody paid them any
attention until Wilbour’s daughter bequeathed her father’s collection to the
Brooklyn Museum in 1947. Their importance was quickly established, and
publication followed in 1953.

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The longest delay to date between discovery and publication concerns
the Padua papyri. An Italian explorer from Padua—one Giovanni Battista
Belzoni—had come into possession of two Aramaic letters from Elephantine sometime between 1815 and 1819. They ended up in the collections
of the civic museum of Belzoni’s native city and were published only in
1960. These Padua letters are of singular importance because they document the contacts between Jews from the Nile delta and the community at
Elephantine.
The archaeologists had left Elephantine Island shortly before World
War I. But elsewhere in Egypt, excavations were still going on. Aramaic
papyri were not the aim of these excavations, but once in a while they did
turn up. Two such discoveries proved to be relevant for our knowledge of
Elephantine. In Hermopolis, situated over six hundred kilometers downstream from Aswan, the 1945 excavations found a stash of eight papyri in
an earthen jar. The texts were in Aramaic. Publication followed in 1966.
The papyri proved to be letters by Syrian soldiers on a mission in Memphis,
seat of the Persian satrap, that were sent to their family members in Syene
(Aswan) and Thebes. (Previously, information about Syrian soldiers from
Syene had been based exclusively on evidence from Elephantine.) The letters never reached their destination. For reasons unknown, the courier who
carried them left them halfway. Thankfully the letters never reached Syene,
since excavations are not really feasible in modern Aswan. The texts would
have disappeared, along with a lot of other information that we will probably never retrieve.
The second discovery did not consist of papyri but of sheets of leather.
They contain official letters written by—or in the name of—Arsames, the
Persian satrap of Egypt, away at the time for business and consultations
in Babylon or Susa. They cover the years 410 to 407 BCE, when the Jewish community had just lost its temple. During his absence from Egypt,
Arsames was in frequent correspondence with the steward of his Egyptian
estate. Thirteen of these letters, plus fragments of five or six others, were
offered for sale on the Cairo antiquities market in the early 1930s. First
acquired by a German archaeologist in 1932, they were subsequently sold
to the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1943–1944. Ten years later they were
published. The significance of these letters lies in their Persian perspective. Even if most of the matters that Arsames touches upon relate to his
own household, his letters provide an insight into the trappings of the Persian satrapy in Egypt.

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9

Written between 498 and 399, the Elephantine papyri span the entire fifth century BCE. It took most of the twentieth century for scholars
to discover, assemble, and publish them. In 1999, Bezalel Porten and Ada
Yardeni published the fourth and final volume of their Textbook of Aramaic
Documents from Ancient Egypt. This masterful edition crowns a century of
Elephantine scholarship. The 2006 publication of the French collections of
Elephantine ostraca by Hélène Lozachmeur closes the era of Elephantine
discoveries. It is true that many scraps of papyrus are still unpublished.
An international team of specialists based in Berlin aims to make all Elephantine texts available in an online database in the context of a research
project on four thousand years of cultural history. Both at the island and
in Aswan, German and Swiss archaeologists are still making new finds.
But the time of the big discoveries is past. Additional evidence might well
turn up in the future, but it is unlikely to change the picture dramatically.
Only the long-mysterious Papyrus Amherst 63, now published, brings a
new perspective to the history of the Elephantine Jews.

From a Chapter of the Bible to a Jewish Story
From the moment of their discovery, the Elephantine Jews have stirred
an inordinate amount of interest. The number of books about them is baffling. It seems out of proportion with the historical role of this military
colony in a distant corner of the Persian Empire. Yet many authors felt they
were looking at an extraordinary piece of history. To them, the significance
of the Elephantine community was unrelated to its size (about five hundred
persons by a conservative count) or military importance (an unspectacular
frontier garrison). Their primary value resided in the fact that these were
Jews, and Jews, these authors believed, were not like others. They were the
sons and daughters of Israel, the people of the Bible. In the early twentieth
century, the Elephantine papyri were the oldest records available written by
people from the Bible. Some parts of the Bible itself were believed to be
older, but the earliest manuscripts were from centuries later. Even today,
after the discoveries of the Dead Sea scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts
are some three hundred years younger than the Elephantine papyri. This was
handwritten evidence from the fifth century BCE itself. As one author wrote
in 1912, “A Jewish community from pre-Christian times, not too far removed
from the days of the Babylonian Exile, consisting of contemporaries of Ezra
and Nehemiah, has woken up from its Sleeping Beauty slumber.”

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Elephantine was special because it had been home to a Jewish community. Yet in the early twentieth century, many people in the West had
mixed feelings about Jews. After all, the two nations that financed archaeological expeditions to Elephantine Island were Germany and France—the
Germans started digging in early 1906, and the French later that year. In
France, the Dreyfus affair had just come to a close. It entered the history
books as one of the most blatant examples of anti-Semitism in modern
times. What anti-Semitism could lead to would be demonstrated in Germany a few decades later. These were not nations particularly fond of their
Jewish minorities. But somehow the Jews of Elephantine were an entirely
different matter. They were Jews from the biblical era, before the religion of
Israel had turned into Judaism. Christians could claim these Jews as their
spiritual forebears. They had been the channel through which the Bible
came into being. They had taught the world the truths of monotheism and
human rights (“Love thy neighbor as thyself ”). Those values were the cornerstones of Western civilization. The earliest response to the Elephantine
discoveries shows that, to people of the Christian persuasion, these Jews
derived their significance primarily from their relation to the Bible. They
were, in Sachau’s words, “a new chapter of the Old Testament.”
Carter’s identification of the Aramaic of the Elephantine papyri as the
language of the Bible may have been erroneous, but it was quite in tune with
the mood of the time. In an article for an archaeological journal, ClermontGanneau, the leader of the French mission to Elephantine, waxes lyrical
about the possible results of their excavation. Who knows, they might find
in the very near future a copy of the original Bible:
It is not from the Sinai—his cradle—nor from Jerusalem—his throne—it
is from a place quite distant from there, at the border between Egypt and
Nubia, just a few minutes from the tropic, on the edge of a small island in
the first cataract of the Nile, at a spot where you wouldn’t expect to encounter this God in exile, that the old Jehovah . . . rises and speaks, to tell us new
things by the mouth of his worshippers transplanted with Him—things
that might well change the face of orthodox exegesis. . . . From now on we
have the certainty that the Temple of Jehovah did stand . . . on the very island of Elephantine, most probably in the Jewish quarter whose location has
been revealed by our characteristic ostraca. Just a few more spades, and we
shall uncover its venerable remains, as well as—who knows?—a copy of the
Sacred Book, sleeping in some secret geniza, used for the cultic ceremonies,
a Bible from five centuries before Jesus Christ.

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Clermont-Ganneau’s enthusiasm—“we are burning,” as he writes in the
same article—had been kindled not so much by the discovery of a group
of Jews as such but by their connection to the Bible. His hope was to find
“a copy of the Sacred Book, sleeping in some secret geniza.” The sources of
the Nile were elsewhere. But at Elephantine Island, explorers believed that
they had come close to the sources of the religion that the Western world
held sacred.
A curious event that happened in 1883 is indicative of the fascination
at that time with anything historically related to the Bible. An antiquities
dealer from Jerusalem had traveled to London and contacted the British
Museum. The man, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, offered to sell the remains of
a parchment scroll he had allegedly bought from a group of bedouin near
the Dead Sea. It was a spectacular text. Displaying distinct similarities to
the book of Deuteronomy, it contained a version of the Ten Commandments that differed from the familiar Decalogue because it contained an
additional eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in
thy heart; I am the Lord thy God.” The museum was granted permission
to display two strips of the scroll. The exhibition made headlines and drew
crowds of visitors. The Shapira Bible was the talk of the town. ClermontGanneau was suspicious. He knew Shapira and, on an earlier occasion, had
exposed the man as a fraud for selling forged antiquities. Personal examination of the two strips in London confirmed Clermont-Ganneau’s worst
fears. Shapira had done it again. Other experts soon concurred with the
verdict of the Frenchman. This Deuteronomy scroll was a forgery. Shapira’s
Bible was a fake, and his reputation as a serious antiquities dealer was destroyed. Shapira left London through the backdoor. A few months later, he
shot himself through the head in a Rotterdam hotel.
The nineteenth century has been described as the period of the secularization of the European mind. Philosophers had been attacking the
truths of religion even before the French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution had brought dramatic changes to traditional lifestyles. Charles Darwin published his study On the Origin of Species in 1859. The world was no
longer the place it used to be. In this general atmosphere of uncertainty, the
public was looking to scholars to bring more comforting news. Discoveries from the Middle East might fulfill their hopes. In 1875 George Smith
had published The Chaldean Account of Genesis, according to its subtitle,
“containing the description of the creation, the fall of man, the deluge,
the tower of Babel, the times of the Patriarchs, and Nimrod.” On the

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basis of cuneiform tablets from Babylonia, Smith seemed to offer evidence
that proved the truth of the Bible. Britain’s leading newspaper, the Daily
Telegraph, sent out an expedition to Iraq to find more. The Shapira affair
occurred a few years later.
In the first paragraphs of “Jehovah at Elephantine,” Clermont-Ganneau
recalls the public’s disillusionment when Shapira’s Bible proved to be counterfeit. This time, though, he is confident they are very close to finding the real
thing, that is, “a Hebrew Bible less disappointing than the Shapira Bible, yet
as authentically ancient as the latter claimed to be.” More than a century
has passed since Clermont-Ganneau wrote these lines. No Bible has been
found at Elephantine. And while absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it would seem that Julius Wellhausen was right when he qualified the
Elephantine Jews as a “vestige of Hebraism from before the Torah.” Eduard Meyer concurred: the religion of the Elephantine Jews was completely
ignorant of the book of Deuteronomy, with its emphasis on “One God,
One Temple.” To the mind of critical Bible scholars of the early twentieth
century, the Elephantine Jews were a relic from pre-Deuteronomic times.
This survival hypothesis suited the purpose of enlightened academic circles.
Wellhausen greeted the evidence from Elephantine as a “welcome corroboration of what had already been established as the result of the critical investigation of Israelite religious history.” In like manner, August von Gall
celebrated the Elephantine Jews as “the most brilliant corroboration of the
results of the modern scholarship of the Old Testament.”
The initial response to the discovery of Elephantine showed a comparative lack of interest in the actual Jews in the texts. They seemed merely
actors in a play whose main function was to supply biblical scholars with
evidence of the religious developments of the Israelites. To the first generation of Elephantine scholars, Elephantine was about the Bible. Or more
precisely, it was about the Old Testament, since the term “Hebrew Bible”
had yet to come into fashion. The Western bias is hard to ignore. After all,
the term “Old Testament” makes sense only if there is a New Testament.
Israelite religion was regarded as an extended prologue to Christianity, in
which humankind’s religious aspirations had found their highest fulfillment. The papyri from Elephantine seemed to offer scientific support for
the theory of religious evolution. They reflected a stage in a developmental
history that would lead from polytheism to monotheism and ultimately to
the triumph of Christianity.

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In the second wave of Elephantine studies, beginning in the 1960s,
the focus shifted to the diaspora experience of the Elephantine Jews. Their
story began to be told from a Jewish perspective. The new approach received an important impetus from the new political realities in the Middle
East. In 1948, the State of Israel had come into being. After the Holocaust,
there was no moral excuse to refuse the demand for a Jewish homeland.
The new state based its legitimacy on the Bible: “The Land of Israel was the
birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political
identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created values of
national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book
of Books.” These words are from the Declaration of the Establishment of
the State of Israel, dated May 14, 1948. Save for the people who had lived
there before its foundation, the State of Israel had only Jewish citizens.
Ethnicity and religion were the parameters. In the words of the Law of
Return, “The rights of a Jew . . . are given to the child or grandchild of a Jew,
the spouse of a Jew and spouse of a child and grandchild of a Jew. Except
a person who was born Jewish and out of his own free will changed religion.” By this definition, Jewish identity is matter of roots and religion.
Jewish citizenship is the prerogative of anyone born of Jewish parents but
may be forfeited by conversion to a non-Jewish religion. Ethnic Jews who
converted to Christianity have lost their title to Jewish citizenship. They are
Jews no more.
The institutions of higher education in the State of Israel had departments for the history of the Jewish people (“the people of Israel”) that were
independent of the general history departments. Their official mission was
to study the history of the Jews as dispassionately as possible, with all the
rigor that scholarly research demanded. But the fact that they had been set
up as separate departments meant their study of the past was of national
importance. They were to highlight the antiquity of the Jewish nation. The
evidence from Elephantine served the purpose handsomely. Here, in the
diaspora, there had been Jews who were faithful to their ancestral god and
who ended up being victims of anti-Jewish violence. No matter that they
spoke Aramaic and had also worshipped Aramean deities, their core identity was Jewish. In the post-Holocaust climate, their story became a typical
Jewish story instead of a tale involving Jews but ultimately about the Bible.
The champion of the new approach is Bezalel Porten. It is not difficult
to disagree with him when it comes to the interpretation of the evidence,

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but the world owes him a huge debt of gratitude for his epoch-making
monograph on the Elephantine Jews, as well as a superb edition of nearly
all the Aramaic texts from ancient Egypt. To those who make his acquaintance in a professional capacity, Porten presents himself as “Mister Elephantine.” More than any other scholar, he deserves the title. His version
of the story of the Elephantine Jews has been hugely successful. The thrust
of his argument is that the Elephantine Jews were truly Jewish by ethnicity and religion. The argument for Jewish ethnicity is most explicit in his
discussion of the designation “Aramean” given to many of the Elephantine
Jews. Porten believes that the ancestors of the community were from Judah
and settled in Egypt toward the end of the seventh century BCE. As a result, their identification as Arameans cannot apply to their ethnicity; there
were no real Arameans at Elephantine. The Jews were so designated because of their speech; they belonged to the larger Aramaic-speaking group.
But language is an acquired trait, whereas ethnicity is in the blood. By ius
sanguinis, the Elephantine community was Jewish.
According to the definition of a Jew applied by the State of Israel, Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religion are indissolubly linked. If a Jew converts
to another religion, he stops being a real Jew. Porten agrees. It therefore
matters to demonstrate that the mixed marriages at Elephantine, as well
as the references to the respect paid to other gods, are not grounds for
casting doubt upon the Jewish identity of the community. Non-Jews who
married into the community must have gone through a ceremony in which
the newcomer indicated abandonment of polytheistic practices and adoption of Judaism. The respect paid to other gods was a formality. Greetings
by Bel, Nabu, Shamash, and Nergal were the equivalent of a Christmas
card—a polite nod of recognition that in no way implied an actual belief in
these deities. And the attribution to Aramean deities of a substantial sum
of the returns of the Yaho temple collection in 400 BCE “may have been
no more than a goodwill gesture on the part of the Jews to their Aramean
neighbors.” In religion, the Elephantine Jews were actually perfectly Jewish: “The religious influence of the Arameans was nominal and that of the
Egyptians negligible.” They were devoted to their ancestral deity Yaho, and
Shabbat and Pesach were regular features of their religious life.
The field of Elephantine studies today, half a century after Porten’s Archives from Elephantine, offers a more diffuse picture. Many scholars criticize what to them seems an apologetic way of handling the evidence. For
the public at large, Porten’s version of the story of the Elephantine Jews still

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stands. Critics have found it easier to point out the deficiencies of his approach than to present a compelling alternative—but not for lack of effort.
In fact, recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in Elephantine. It
has translated into a substantial number of publications with a particular
focus on the religion of the Elephantine Jews. There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Persian period was crucial to the development
of Judaism. Against this background, the evidence from Elephantine takes
on special significance, as it constitutes the most extensive documentation
of a purportedly Jewish community in the diaspora of the time. But this
case leaves us with more questions than certainties: Just how representative were the Elephantine Jews of the Jewish community at large? Where
did they come from, and what was their history? Who actually were the
Elephantine Jews?

Jews or Judeans?
Following a longstanding practice in Elephantine studies, this chapter
has referred to the “Elephantine Jews” as though the appellation were unproblematic. It is not. Aside from the fact that the Jews of the island referred
to themselves more often as Arameans than as Jews, the use of the term
“Jew” instead of “Judean” has become quite controversial. In recent scholarship, the debate has focused on the use of the Greek term Ioudaios (plural
Ioudaioi) rather than the Aramaic yĕhûdāy (plural yĕhûdāyin, yĕhûdāyēʾ).
The reason for the focus on the Hellenistic period is related to the fact that
the very term “Judaism” (Ioudaïsmos) makes its first appearance in writing in
the second century BCE. From this linguistic observation, many authors
draw the inference that Judaism as a phenomenon developed only in the
Hellenistic era. If we define a Jew as one who practices Judaism, then the
translation “Jew” for yĕhûdāy in the Elephantine records is an anachronism,
since technically there were no Jews in the fifth century BCE. A survey of
translations of the Aramaic term in more recent Elephantine studies shows
that a majority of scholars now prefer the term “Judean.”
But for the Ioudaioi of the Hellenistic period, the translation “Jews” is
also contested. Steve Mason is the strongest critic. He argues that “there
was no category of ‘Judaism’ in the Graeco-Roman world, no ‘religion’ too,
and . . . the Ioudaioi were understood until late antiquity as an ethnic group
comparable to other ethnic groups, with their distinctive laws, traditions,
customs, and God. They were indeed Judaeans.” Mason does not stand

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alone in his views. If he is right, the translation of yĕhûdāy as “Jew” would
be an error. On closer inspection, Mason advances a package argument.
Once we disassemble it, we find it consists of three distinct propositions:
(1) a Jew is someone who practices the Jewish religion; (2) there was no religion in antiquity; and (3) in the absence of Jewish religion, we should speak
of Judeans instead of Jews. Each of these propositions is controversial. Let
us go over them one by one.
The notion that a Jew is someone who practices the Jewish religion
seems a rather ideological statement. It does not reflect the way that contemporary writers use the term. “All Jews are atheists. Except for the ones
who aren’t, of course.” It is a phrase Paul Auster puts into the mouth of one
of his Jewish characters in The Brooklyn Follies. One could make the argument that atheism is just another form of religion, but that would be playing with words. The point is that many contemporary Jews do not practice
the Jewish religion, yet this does not stop them from being Jews. Jewish
identity is a mix of culture and descent. Religion is part of that culture, but
a Jew does not need to be religious. Also, by binding Jewish identity to the
Jewish faith, one automatically raises the question of which variety of Jewish faith qualifies as the Jewish religion. Religion is not a thing but a generic
term embracing a variety of phenomena and practices. There is no objection
against its use in scholarly discourse as long as it is understood that Jewish
religion designates a wide range of beliefs and practices of Jews in both the
past and the present. In other words, there is no Jewish religion without
Jews. It does not exist as an abstract entity. “Jew” is a term of ethnicity first,
with religion in a subsidiary role.
The second reason why Mason refuses to translate Ioudaios as “Jew” is
his belief that there was no religion in antiquity. One might argue that there
is no need to attack this proposition, since we have defined “Jew” as a term
of ethnicity. However, religion is an ingredient of culture and a significant
marker of Jewish ethnicity. So let’s consider the “no religion” argument.
Mason’s second proposition is consonant with the thesis put forth by Brent
Nongbri in his book Before Religion. Nongbri argues that religion is a
modern and not an ancient concept and therefore that it should not be
applied to premodern phenomena. Neither Mason nor Nongbri would
deny that people of the ancient world believed in gods, offered prayer and
sacrifice, and performed all sorts of rituals that most of us would qualify as
religious. Their point is that the ancients did not think of these beliefs and
practices as religion, because to them religion was not a separate province

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of human culture—as it has become in modern times. The ancients had no
word for religion because they did not perceive it as religion. So the “no
religion” argument must be redefined: there was no concept of religion.
Thus reformulated, the argument is valid. It actually reiterates a thesis put
forth by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in the early 1960s. But the fact that the
ancients did not have a concept of religion does not mean they did not
have religion. Their languages have all sorts of words for religious worship.
Their world was full of gods. They did have religion—not as a private matter but as a reality that was inseparable from everything else in their lives.
Now why should we speak of Judeans rather than Jews, as Mason’s
third proposition says? Even if they did not think of it as “religion,” the
Jews had a cultural tradition that included religious beliefs and practices.
Such was also the case before the term Ioudaïsmos came into currency. This
cultural tradition was not the exclusive possession of Judeans. Samarians
could rightfully claim the tradition too. The books of Tobit and Judith do
not employ the term Ioudaios. Therefore, they might seem irrelevant when
it comes to the issue of Jewish versus Judean. Yet both of them raise an issue that affects our understanding of the boundaries of the ethnic community those terms refer to. Their heroes are not from Judah. They are from
Samaria, that is, the territory formerly known as the kingdom of Israel.
Tobit comes from Galilee, while Judith has her home in the northern city
of Bethulia. Both are truly Jewish heroes, however. They honor the temple
in Jerusalem, observe the purity laws, and are full of zeal for the Lord and
his people. The stories celebrate these heroes for the example they set. To
the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Judith is “the great pride of our people” ( Jdt
15:9). The very same word, “people,” is used in Tobit. It refers to an ethnic
group that embraces both Samarians and Judeans. The book of Judith
designates this ethnic community with the archaizing expressions “the sons
of Israel” and “the house of Israel,” for the term “Judeans” would have too
territorial a ring to it. But the heroine of the story is Judith, meaning
“Jewess,” a programmatic name that militates against the narrow understanding of Ioudaios as “Judean.”
At Elephantine, many of the men and women that are referred to as
“Jews” had their genealogical roots in Samaria too. The Amherst papyrus still calls them “Samarians,” as opposed to a man “from Judah” who
acts as their interpreter. If the Samarians of Elephantine are qualified as
yĕhûdāyēʾ (“Judeans, Jews”), it is not on the basis of a genealogical error but
because culture had become the principal and most practical parameter of

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ethnicity. The most appropriate translation of the term yĕhûdāyēʾ in this
context is “Jews,” precisely because it transcends the division between Judean and Samarian. As this book will argue in Chapter 6, the insertion of
the Samarians in a Jewish diaspora network in Egypt brought into relief an
aspect of their identity that they had in common with migrants with a Judean background. They were Jews. At some point in the fifth century BCE,
the Persian authorities decided to officially recognize the “Jews”—a term
they knew from the Judean diaspora in Babylonia—as a separate ethnic
group. This entitled the community to follow its own traditions, including in the areas of religion and law. This privilege extended to the diaspora
Jews of Egypt too. Under the impact of this policy, men and women who
had formerly been Samarians officially became Jews. It was their ethnicity rather than their religion. Yet in practice, religion was one of the main
markers of ethnicity.

A Diaspora Story
In 2013, the historian Simon Schama published the first volume of The
Story of the Jews, a companion to his documentary series of the same name.
The first chapter is devoted to Elephantine. It reads like an adaptation
of Porten’s 1968 monograph for a television series—which, in a way, it is.
Schama generously acknowledges his debt to Porten. But he does take the
story one step farther. As he writes in the foreword of his book, “What the
Jews have lived through, and somehow survived to tell the tale, has been
the most intense version known to human history of adversities endured by
other peoples as well. . . . It is what makes this story at once particular and
universal, the shared inheritance of Jews and non-Jews alike, an account of
our common humanity.”
The world did not wait for Schama in order to appropriate aspects of
the Jewish experience. One of the central concepts that Porten highlights
in his story of the Elephantine Jews has come to be applied to others as
well. This is the notion of diaspora. It has lent its name to departments of
diaspora studies, as well as to a journal entirely devoted to the phenomenon. The transfer of the term is based on the assumption that there is an
analogy between the Jewish diaspora and the experience of other peoples.
Mirroring the Jewish diaspora, there are Greek, Armenian, Indian, Chinese, African, and many other diasporas. What was once a particular experience has turned out to be a universal phenomenon.

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As a technical term, “diaspora” entered academic discourse in the 1970s
and became a widespread and influential concept in the 1980s. “Diaspora”
is not a neutral term. It is borrowed from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and means “dispersion.” The term has an ominous
ring to it. People in the diaspora have been uprooted from their own land.
They are refugees rather than expatriates. The connotations of the term
come from the Jewish diaspora—the mother of all diasporas. It is no coincidence that, as a concept, diaspora made its appearance in academic discourse at about the same time the term “holocaust” came into use. “Holocaust,” too, is a Greek word taken from the Septuagint, where it refers to a
burnt offering, the sacrifice of a living animal burnt whole to please God.
Once the world recognized the atrocities of the Nazi death camps—we are
talking of the early 1960s, when Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (published
in English as If This Is a Man and Survival in Auschwitz) found a readership
of millions—it fixed its choice on the term “holocaust” as the most appropriate word to capture the horror of what had happened. It may be the
worst of misnomers, for though the Jews were gassed and burned whole, it
was not for the glory of God. The systematic ethnic cleansing took place in
a universe from which God had withdrawn long ago. But the term “holocaust” was there to stay. And the notion of diaspora followed in its tracks.
In a way, the Jewish people own the copyright to the terms, even as those
terms have been employed to turn the experience of a particular people into
universal categories. The story of the Jews has turned into a universal tale;
their fate has embodied and captured the human condition.
Read against this background, Porten’s version of the story of the Elephantine community falls perfectly in line with the master narrative. Here
was a community of Jews, forced out of their homeland, clinging to their
religion on foreign soil, loyal to the masters they served, but ultimately victims of an anti-Semitic pogrom at the hands of their Egyptian neighbors.
When their temple had been destroyed, they turned to their brothers in
Jerusalem for help. On the face of it, the story has all the ingredients of an
edifying diaspora tale. It is true they spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew—but
that was just for practical purposes. It is also true that they were not perfect monotheists but worshipped Aramean gods on the side—but that may
have been a mere formality. And they may have married Egyptian men and
women—but those were probably converts. Obedient to the master narrative of the Jewish diaspora, the dominant view of the Elephantine Jews

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Elephantine Revisited

pictures them as the first documented case of a Jewish community abroad.
They were an icon of the early Jewish diaspora.
Ethnicity and religion are central elements in the concept of diaspora.
To speak about the Jewish diaspora normally presupposes that the subjects
of the experience were Jews by ethnicity and religion at the time they were
forced to leave their homeland. This is indeed what Bezalel Porten implies
when he calls the Elephantine Jews a diaspora community. When other
authors invoke the notion of syncretism to explain the “mixed” religious
culture of the Elephantine Jews, they add the element of assimilation. The
diaspora community is, by definition, exposed to the danger of compromising its identity by assimilating to its new environment. Study of the data
extant in Papyrus Amherst 63 alongside those of the Elephantine Aramaic texts reveals a very different pattern. Instead of being Jews before they
came to Egypt, it was their experience at Elephantine that turned them
into Jews. In the place where they lived during the seventh century BCE
(presumably Palmyra), they had been Samarians. At Elephantine, in the
course of the fifth century BCE, the community changed into a nucleus
of the Jewish people abroad. They became part of the Jewish diaspora, as
Chapter 6 will demonstrate.
The story of the Elephantine Jews is a diaspora story but not in the
way it has traditionally been presented. It is a story about becoming Jews
abroad rather than remaining Jews abroad. Instead of preserving a Jewish
identity, the group of Samarians that had settled on Elephantine Island developed a Jewish identity. They became Jews, initially not by choice but by
circumstance. Through their place in the network of Jewish communities in
Egypt, the diaspora experience made Jewish ethnicity their most distinctive
identity. Once the Persian authorities had recognized the separate status of
Jews in their empire, the Elephantine community came to be qualified as a
Jewish settlement abroad. Religion served as a practical parameter of ethnicity. Jewish identity was not based on birth or genealogy but on worship
of the god of the Jews. Modern scholars conventionally refer to the deity
as Yahweh, but at Elephantine they called him Yaho. In combination with
the legacy of Hebrew personal names, the presence of the temple of Yaho
on the island sufficed to turn the community into a group of Jews abroad.

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2 The Aramean Heritage
The debate about the Judean versus the Jewish identity of the Elephantine community might easily lead to a neglect of its non-Jewish elements.
Chapter 6 will return to the Jewish identity of the colony. But the debate
about the correct translation of the term yĕhûdāy should not make us oblivious to the Aramean background of the Elephantine Jews. They had Jewish
names, and their temple was devoted to the ancestral Jewish god. Yet they
spoke Aramaic, used Aramaic wisdom literature to hone their scribal skills,
venerated several Aramean gods besides Yaho, and referred to themselves
as Arameans. In terms of culture, they seem to have been as much Aramean
as Jewish, if not more. They apparently had a mixed heritage. In order to
reflect this double identity, several scholars call them “Judeo-Arameans.”
It is a curious coinage. Does it refer to language, like the term “JudeoGreek”; are we to think of a common religious tradition, on the model of
the construct “Judeo-Christian”; or does it mean something else? Whatever
its precise meaning, the binomial does serve as a reminder of the complex
background of the Elephantine Jews. This chapter explores their Aramean
heritage. They have come to be defined as Jews. Perhaps they were not so
Jewish during an earlier period of their existence.

Aramaic and the “Original Biblical Language”
The archaeologist Howard Carter had no doubt in his report to Lord
Amherst: the Jews of Elephantine wrote their papyri “in the original Biblical language.” It confirmed him in the conviction that the Elephantine
colony consisted of descendants of the people of the Bible. The fact of the

21

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matter is that the Elephantine papyri are in Aramaic and not Hebrew.
There is nothing particularly biblical about Aramaic. It was certainly not
the original language of the Israelites. The oldest text that Lady William
Cecil had acquired turned out to be a contract from 464 BCE. Among the
other papyri offered for sale at the time was one from 471 BCE. The dates
are known because these are legal documents, written by notary scribes who
carefully dated the texts. Did they write in Aramaic because it was the official language of the Persian Empire and therefore standard in contracts?
Shortly after Lady Cecil made her purchase, excavations started on Elephantine Island. The French team found hundreds of inscribed potsherds
in the Jewish neighborhood. These ostraca were from the first quarter of the
fifth century BCE. They were older than most of the papyri, and their language was Aramaic too. Nearly all the ostraca contained private messages
exchanged between family members and colleagues. If the correspondents
were Judeans, why didn’t they write in Hebrew? Had they completely forgotten their ancestral tongue?
If the bulk of the Jewish colony in Elephantine had come from Judah
in the sixth century or before, we should expect them to speak Hebrew.
By the witness of the Lachish letters and the inscriptions from Arad, the
Judeans spoke Hebrew up till the time of the fall of Jerusalem. But the
Elephantine Jews did not. At home, they spoke Aramaic. At some point,
they must have adopted that language as their own. Opinions differ as to
when this linguistic change took place. The dominant view holds that the
Jews turned to Aramaic while in Egypt. That is very unlikely. The Jews only
came into the employ of the Persians after 525 BCE. Before that date, “in
the days of the Egyptian kings,” they would have had no reason to abandon
Hebrew for Aramaic. The Egyptians did not speak Aramaic but Egyptian.
The main reason that Egyptians of Elephantine never occur as witnesses
to the Aramaic contracts of their Jewish neighbors is the fact that most
of them did not speak the language. It seems the only valid explanation,
for until the final decades of the fifth century BCE, the relations between
Jews and Egyptians were generally good. It is telling, too, that the correspondence between the Persian satrap of Egypt and the Elephantine-based
priests of Khnum was in Egyptian. There were Egyptian soldiers in the
Persian forces, but they had their own battalions precisely for reasons of
language. During the time that the colony served Egyptian masters, Aramaic would have been of little use. If the Jews adopted Aramaic to better
serve their Persian masters, it must have happened after 525 BCE. Again,

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the ostraca are from the first decades of the fifth century. One generation
seems a very short period for a new language to become the private vehicle
of communication. The comparative evidence from other migrant communities, contemporary and ancient, argues against it. Linguistic assimilation
is normal in interactions with the population of the host country, but the
total extinction of the native language within the community usually takes
generations.
Since the Jews of Elephantine Island spoke Aramaic among themselves, they must have been familiar with the language for a considerable
amount of time. This means that Aramaic must have been their daily vehicle of communication well before 525 BCE. If they did not switch to Aramaic in the line of duty as soldiers of the Persian Empire, what prompted
them to adopt Aramaic? Was it collaboration with the Aramaic-speaking
communities of Syene? Theoretically this is possible. However, it is hard to
see why they would have chosen to speak Aramaic rather than Egyptian
when they were in the employ of the Egyptians. There is another possibility, seldom entertained because it seems to contradict the Jewish identity of
the community. What if these Jews spoke Aramaic even before they came
to Egypt? That hypothesis would explain the linguistic practices reflected
in the papyri and the ostraca. On the other hand, if these people had been
speaking Aramaic for generations, they cannot have come directly from
Judah. It is not certain that Samarian origins offer a more plausible explanation for the use of Aramaic. Though the ethnic and linguistic variety in
Samaria after 721 BCE may have favored the turn to Aramaic, there is no
compelling evidence to this effect. For the time being, then, we must limit
ourselves to the conclusion that the colloquial use of Aramaic points to a
period in the early history of the community during which it had been living in an Aramaic-speaking environment.

Literature
In the Jewish quarter of Elephantine Island, the German excavators
found two literary texts. One is an Aramaic translation of a Persian royal
inscription. The Persian original was carved in the high rocks of Behistun in Persia. The text is a legitimation account of the Achaemenid dynasty. Owing to the protection of Ahura Mazda, the Persian high god,
King Darius successfully suppressed all insurrections against his rule. The
copy of the Aramaic version must have circulated in the Jewish colony,

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The Aramean Heritage

as the blank space on the backside of the scroll was used for a record of
memoranda from the Yaho temple. The presence of this piece of political
propaganda reminded the soldiers that they were there to defend the Persian interests in Egypt. The second literary composition is far longer and,
in some ways, more spectacular. It is the earliest copy to date of the Life
and Sayings of Ahiqar. An Aramean sage and scholar who rose to eminence at the Assyrian court, Ahiqar held the office of seal bearer under the
kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. Unjustly calumniated by his nephew
and adopted son Nadin, whom he had groomed to be his successor, he
had to go into hiding, but eventually made a triumphant comeback to the
royal court. Attached to this narrative frame is a compilation of Aramaic
proverbs. The composition gained wide popularity in the ancient world.
Scholars knew it already from translations into Armenian, Syriac, Slavonic,
Greek, Arabic, Ethiopian, and Old Turkish before they encountered the
earlier Aramaic version.
The Life and Sayings of Ahiqar provides an intriguing insight into the
cultural background of the Jewish community. It deserves a more detailed
discussion. But prior to an assessment of the significance of this Aramean
composition, one has to take stock of the texts that the excavators had
expected to find but did not. Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the leader of
the French archaeological expedition to Elephantine, had been the most
explicit. He had been hoping to find the earliest copy of the Bible—perhaps not the whole Bible, but at least those parts that made up the core of
the Jewish religion. A version of the Ten Commandments would have
sufficed, as would a precursor of the doctrine of monotheism that Jews all
over the world know as the Shema: “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the
Lord is One.” Nothing of the sort turned up in the excavations. Theoretically, of course, the Elephantine Jews might have recited those texts. Maybe
they knew them by heart and had no need of a written reminder. But the
presence of several Aramean deities in the temple of Yaho in Elephantine
casts a strange light upon the expected monotheism of these Jews. And if
the Bible was their holy book, how come not a single fragment of it came
to light during the excavations?
We don’t know the exact purpose of the two literary compositions
that the German mission did discover. The most likely explanation is that
they were used for the instruction of apprentice scribes. For Ahiqar, at any
rate, this is the most plausible hypothesis. The notion that one would read
for personal enjoyment and edification is out of tune with the culture of
the time. There was neither a book market nor a book culture. There were

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neither public libraries nor a reading public. There were scribes, and there
was scribal education. Wisdom texts had long been the staple diet that
student scribes were exposed to in order to hone their writing skills, to
refine their rhetorical abilities, and to familiarize them with the ethics of
the scribal profession. The encounter with Ahiqar introduced them to a
“skillful scribe” whose unfailing loyalty to his foreign masters had saved him
from disgrace. The figure of Ahiqar was put before them as an example to
emulate; he was a role model. Like them, he had lived in the diaspora. Their
new home was Egypt, then under Persian rule. His new home had been
Assyria. The difference was not all that great. Even abroad, either in Assyria
or Egypt, there was a way to achieve greatness.
A couple of centuries later, the book of Tobit would present Ahiqar
as a man of Israelite extraction. The book of Tobit is a Jewish novella that
never made it into the Protestant Bible but is part of the Catholic version
of the Old Testament because the latter is based on the Greek translation of
the Hebrew Bible (the so-called Septuagint). In technical jargon, the book
of Tobit is deuterocanonical, not part of the real Bible but nevertheless
worthy of special consideration because it can aid believers in their devotion to God. The work is from the early third or second century BCE. It
was not written for the sake of Protestants or Catholics but for the Jewish
community in the diaspora. It tells the tale of Tobit, a man from Samaria,
deported to Assyria, who faithfully observed the precepts of the Jewish
religion. According to this Jewish tale, Ahiqar was Tobit’s nephew (“the
son of my brother”). But in the earliest copy of the story of Ahiqar—the
one found at Elephantine—Ahiqar was not a Jew but an Aramean. He may
actually have been a historical figure and not just a fictional hero. According to a later Babylonian text, Ahiqar had been the second-in-command
of King Esarhaddon. His official name had been Aba-Ninnu-dari, “but
the Arameans called him Ahuqari.” The hero of the Ahiqar story was an
Aramean. Later Jewish tradition transformed him into a Jew, but that fact
merely demonstrates the extent to which the story had become part of Jewish literary culture.
The Life and Sayings of Ahiqar consists of two originally independent
parts. The older one is a collection of proverbs, the younger one the Ahiqar
story. The tale of the famous Aramean scholar came to serve secondarily
as the narrative frame of the proverbs, in much the same way as the West
Asian tradition put all sorts of precepts and admonitions in the mouth of a
legendary sage of the past. The proverbs are from North Syria, and their
original language was a local form of Aramaic. The Ahiqar story is in

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official Aramaic, and there is no compelling reason to suspect the original
was in Akkadian. Yet it is clear that its author was familiar with the life of
scholars at the Assyrian court. The plot of the story, too, may well go back
to a Mesopotamian model. It is the tale of the slandered scholar. As a new
king comes into office, the sage experiences a fall from grace through the
insinuations and libel of envious colleagues. In response to his prayers, the
gods restore the scholar to his former position as confidant of the king. This
is the plot of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi (I will praise the Lord of Wisdom), a classic
of Babylonian wisdom literature. Letters from Assyrian scholars are full of
allusions to and complaints about the competition between sages serving at
the royal court. Scribal careers were precarious.
The Life and Sayings of Ahiqar departs from the Mesopotamian model
insofar as the protagonist of the story is a not a native. In this respect,
Ahiqar foreshadows later court novellas about foreign scholars, such as the
books of Daniel and Tobit. But the author of Ahiqar was apparently the
first to use the traditional motif of the slandered scholar as a topic for a
diaspora story. One difference between Ahiqar and the later Jewish tales is
the absence in the former of the references to devotion and divine intervention so emphatically present in the latter. Another peculiarity of Ahiqar is
the treacherous role of Nadin. The troubles for the Aramean scholar do not
come from his Assyrian colleagues but from a man of his own people, in
fact the very son of his sister. With family like that, who needs enemies?
While perfidious behavior by ungrateful relatives is a well-known folk motif, its presence in a diaspora story is striking. Though this is an Aramaic tale
about an Aramean hero, it cannot be constructed as a chauvinist narrative.
The message of the story is that diligence and loyalty are scribal virtues that,
in the end, will always carry the day, even at the court of a foreign king.
There is nothing supernatural about that; it is just a matter of sticking to the
code of professional scribal ethics.
Although the only surviving copy of the Aramaic text of the Life and
Sayings of Ahiqar is from the Jewish community of Elephantine Island,
the work must have been popular among the Aramaic-speaking diaspora
throughout Egypt—Arameans and Jews. At some point Egyptian scribes
adopted the Ahiqar tradition and prepared an Egyptian version of the text,
written in Demotic script. The surviving fragments are all from Roman
Egypt and date to the first century CE, but there is reason to assume that
the borrowing took place at a significantly earlier date. In all likelihood the
Demotic Ahiqar goes back to the Persian period. Interestingly, it reflects
a variant of the Ahiqar story that is closer to the Syriac version of Ahiqar

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27

than the Aramaic. It means that already in the fifth century BCE, there
were two versions of the Aramaic Ahiqar story and that the scroll from
Elephantine contains one of them and not necessarily the oldest. Also,
the Demotic Ahiqar fragments indicate that there was great fluidity in the
collection of sayings attributed to the Aramean sage. The Egyptian scribes
freely deleted and added sayings, a phenomenon found in proverb collections from many parts of the early Middle East. It corroborates the impression of a rather loose link between the Ahiqar tale and the sayings.
The fact that a work from the Aramean diaspora in Assyria should be
the main literary text discovered in the Jewish quarter of Elephantine is food
for thought. By what channels did this composition get there? The copy was
prepared in Egypt, but the mother text must have been brought by Arameans. André Lemaire has argued that the scribal training at Elephantine
was not Jewish but followed the official curriculum of the Aramaic schools
in Egypt under Persian supervision. This is possible but speculative. The
two orthographies of the name “Yaho” (yhw and yhh) reflect the existence
of different scribal traditions within the Jewish colony. This suggests that
scribal training followed the model of the master-trainee type of education
rather than that of the school. If Ahiqar was not part of the standard curriculum, its more occasional use in scribal training at Elephantine might
also be interpreted as an indication that the literary culture of the Jewish
community there was more Aramean than Jewish. There is no evidence to
show that they borrowed the text from their Aramean colleagues at Syene.
For all we know, they might have considered Ahiqar as part of their own
tradition. The later transformation of Ahiqar into a Jew—from Samaria!—
suggests that the Elephantine Jews never thought of him as someone belonging to a different ethnic group than their own. In a way, the identity
change that Ahiqar experienced in the book of Tobit is a literary reflection
of the changing identity of the Elephantine community. When they came
to Egypt, they were so much like Arameans that they might be taken for
Arameans. In the course of their stay at Elephantine, they became Jews.

Religion at Elephantine
Another significant part of the Aramean heritage of the Elephantine
Jews was their religion. As in several other areas, they displayed a double
identity in their religious practice. By the reference to their place of worship as “the temple of Yaho,” the settlers at Elephantine put themselves
squarely in the Jewish tradition, since Yaho was the god of the Jews. The

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connection was supposed to be exclusive; only Jews worshipped Yaho, and
their worship was directed to Yaho alone. As it turns out, however, the Jewish temple on the island had room for other gods as well. There is additional
evidence for the worship of non-Jewish gods, both inside and outside the
temple. Such data have led several scholars to speak about “the pantheon” of
Elephantine. The term may not be wholly appropriate because it conveys
the notion of a divine constellation that embraces all gods acknowledged as
such by the community. But by today’s terminology, the Elephantine Jews
were certainly polytheists. You might call theirs a “relative” polytheism, but
such mitigations do not annul the fact that the community worshipped
other gods besides Yaho. As we shall see, the particular nature of their
polytheism has a bearing on the identity of the Elephantine Jews. But prior
to an assessment in terms of identity, the contours of the religion of the
Elephantine Jews have to be established.
The close to four hundred ostraca from Elephantine Island are the earliest evidence concerning the religion of the Jewish colony, much of which
seems consonant with the beliefs and practices described in the Bible.
Many men and women mentioned in the ostraca carry names that refer to
Yaho, on the model of “Yeho-yishma” (Yaho will listen), a woman’s name,
and “Uriyah” (Yaho is my light), the name of a priest. Porten takes these
names as a direct echo of the devotion of the Elephantine Jews and even
uses them to delineate some of their actual beliefs and convictions. The
latter is a hazardous exercise, given the practice of naming children after
relatives, owing to which names often run in a family. It is doubtful whether
the bearers of these names were still mindful of their literal meaning. But
one could make the case that the Yaho names do reflect traditional religious loyalties. Stronger evidence for traditional religious loyalties is extant
in the references to “the house of Yaho.” Aside from the fact that this
temple is located on an Egyptian island rather than in Jerusalem, the atmosphere feels Jewish. The short messages written on the potsherds also
mention Shabbat and Pesach, familiar terms from the Jewish calendar.
The repeated occurrence of such biblical phrases as “by the life of Yaho
(I swear)” and “the Lord of Hosts” completes the impression of scenes from
the Bible transplanted to Egypt. References to other gods (Khnum, Bel,
Nabu, Nergal, and Shamash) are rare. They occur only in greeting formulas
and could be explained as mere rhetorical flourishes. If the ostraca were all
we had to go by, there would be little reason to question the Jewish identity
of this community.

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29

The papyri, however, open a different window onto the religious practices of the Jews. Their most striking revelation concerns the religion that
was practiced in the temple. The first Jewish temple at Elephantine was destroyed during an Egyptian insurrection in 410 BCE. It took the Jews almost
a decade to build a new one. In 400, there was a collection to raise money
for new furniture. Each family unit paid 2 shekels. The final compilation of
lists with names of contributors makes the addition. In all, 318 shekels are
to be divided between Yaho (126 shekels), Eshem-Bethel (70 shekels), and
Anat-Bethel (120 shekels—2 shekels have gone missing). In the present
connection this administrative document is important for its candid admission of the fact that there were three gods in the temple—although “admission” is the wrong word because the Jews had nothing to hide. Yaho, it
would seem, needs no further introduction. His companion gods are more
enigmatic. “Eshem-Bethel” and “Anat-Bethel” are both compound names
related to the god Bethel. In two Neo-Assyrian treaty texts from the first
half of the seventh century BCE, Anat-Bethel occurs as Bethel’s consort.
The treaties show that Bethel and Anat-Bethel were Syrian deities that had
been incorporated into the Assyrian pantheon. Other evidence, too, points
to Syria as the place where the worship of Bethel originated. A debt record
from Sefire, a town close to Aleppo, is full of personal names containing
a reference to the god Bethel. Zeus Betylos (“the God Bethel”) is “the
ancestral god of those that dwell along the Orontes,” as a later inscription
from Dura-Europos has it. The connection of Eshem with Bethel also
goes back to this area, in view of the occurrence of the god Symbetylos in
an inscription from northern Syria. “Symbetylos” is the Greek transcription
of Eshem-Bethel.
Yaho is the god of the Jews. But at Elephantine, the god found himself in the company of two deities from the Bethel circle. Those gods are
Aramean. It is very unlikely they were an innovation introduced in the
final decade of the century. Since the new temple had to be a copy of the
previous one, it would hardly have been on the community’s mind to build
chapels for new gods. If the two Bethel gods were in the second temple,
they must have been present in the first one as well. Two other documents
from the late fifth century add yet another dimension to the religious pluralism of the community. They are records of oath, one by Herem-Bethel
and the other by Herem the god and Anat-Yaho. There is no need to
elaborate upon the precise identity of these gods in order to establish their
Aramean background. Herem-Bethel is another god whose compound

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name links him with Bethel. And Anat-Yaho seems to be the twin sister or
alter ego of Anat-Bethel. For the time being, these gods are a mystery. They
are names whose meaning will have to be elucidated on the basis of other
evidence. But their Aramean connection seems certain. The Jewish veneration of Bethel, Eshem, and Herem is reflected in some of the personal
names from the papyri. A marriage contract from the last third of the fifth
century has one Herem-natan son of Bethel-natan, as well as Bethel-natan
son of Yeho-natan, among the witnesses. Jewish marriage contracts from
Elephantine consistently employ Jewish witnesses only. The fact that one
Bethel-natan is the son of Yeho-natan confirms the former’s Jewish identity. Presumably, then, Herem-natan son of Bethel-natan was Jewish too.
Some of the other personal names containing the divine names “Bethel,”
“Eshem,” and “Herem” were also Jewish.
Across from Elephantine, on the east bank of the Nile, there was an
important military colony of Syrians. They had a temple for Bethel and
the Queen of Heaven. One would have expected to find Anat-Bethel and
Eshem-Bethel on their side of the river. As it turns out, however, these Syrian gods had found a home among the Jews. It is further proof of the degree to which the cultural heritage of these Jews was Aramean, even more
than the worship of the compound Bethel deities lets on. The more or less
contemporaneous references to Anat-Yaho (402 BCE) and Anat-Bethel
(400 BCE), plus the absence of any mention of the god Bethel himself,
convey the suggestion that Yaho was actually identified with Bethel. Perhaps that should not come as a complete surprise. A later passage in the
book of Jeremiah denounces the worship of Bethel as one of the deviations
of Israel ( Jer 48:13). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, too, there are allusions
to this Syrian God. “Bethel” occurs with some regularity in Israelite personal names too. The evidence from Elephantine, at any rate, shows that
the Jewish community worshipped several Aramean gods related to the god
Bethel on the tacit assumption that “Bethel” and “Yaho” were names for the
same deity. The Elephantine Jews were polytheists and Aramean in their
religious outlook. Ultimately, the combined witness of language, literature,
and religion calls into question the ethnic identity of the Elephantine Jews.

Ethnicity at Elephantine
The Elephantine Papyri contain one particularly promising lead that
can be used to establish the ethnic identity of the community. Records

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of sale, loan, litigation, or donation must always identify the parties involved. To make sure there was no room for misunderstanding, the scribes
laid down the particulars of their clients in writing: name, father’s name,
ethnicity, place of residence, and army unit. For example, “Mahseyah son
of Yedanyah, Jew who is in the fortress of Elephantine, belonging to the
battalion of Varyazata.” Scribes might leave out one or another element
from the list, but they normally would not skip ethnicity. Since we possess
a significant number of contracts from the Jewish community of the island,
there would seem to be sufficient data to establish their ethnicity. As it
turns out, however, there is a strange discrepancy in the evidence. Where we
would expect to encounter unambiguous ethnic identity, we find conflicting
indications. There are several cases where one and the same person is identified one time as a Jew and the next as an Aramean, or first as an Aramean
and next as a Jew, as though the two designations were synonymous. But
that is a possibility that cannot be seriously entertained. Unless words are
meaningless, a Jew is not an Aramean. If one and the same man is both a
Jew and an Aramean, then there must be another explanation.
Prior to a search for explanations, the evidence needs to be laid out. The
contracts document five cases in which particular individuals are identified
now as Jews and now as Arameans. In none of these cases is there evidence
of a change in circumstance that might entail a change in identity. The texts
document double identity, not identity change. A sixth case of double identity emerges from a comparison between a contract defining someone as
Aramean and a letter in which the same man is referred to as a Jew. Because
the devil is in the details, the following survey of the documented cases
of double identity cites all the attested identity statements concerning the
person in question.
The first case of double identity is that of Mahseyah. Born toward the
end of the sixth century BCE, Mahseyah was still alive in 416, when he
acted as witness to a transaction between two of his grandsons. He belonged to the powerful family of Yedanyah son of Mahseyah, successive
generations of which served in the leadership of the Jewish community.
Mahseyah, also known as Mahsah, was identified as an Aramean in 471, as
a Jew in 464, and as an Aramean again in 449.
Mahseyah son of Yedanyah,
Aramean of Syene,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.

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Mahseyah son of Yedanyah,
Jew who is in the fortress of Elephantine,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.
Mahseyah son of Yedanyah,
Jew having property in Elephantine the fortress,
belonging to the battalion of Haoma-data.
Mahseyah son of Yedanyah,
Jew of Elephantine,
belonging to the battalion of Haoma-data.
Mahseyah,
Aramean of Syene,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.”
Mahseyah son of Yedanyah,
Aramean of Syene,
belonging to battalion of Varyazata.

The first two texts that mention Mahseyah also refer to Qonyah. A
neighbor of Mahseyah, Qonyah is identified as an Aramean in 471, and as
a Jew seven years later:
Qonyah son of Zadaq,
Aramean of Syene,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.
Qonyah son of Zadaq,
Jew,
belonging to the battalion of Atropharna.

The third case concerns two of Mahseyah’s grandsons—both born
from the union of his daughter Mibtahyah with her Egyptian husband,
Eshor (also known under the name “Natan”)—who experience a similar
chameleonic change in the texts. While a 420 BCE contract calls them
Jews, they are called Arameans ten years later:
Yedanyah and Mahseyah, two in all,
sons of Eshor son of Zeha, by Mibtahyah daughter of Mahseyah,
Jews,
belonging to the same battalion (that is, of Iddin-Nabu).
Mahseyah son of Natan—one;
Yedanyah son of Natan—one; all told two;

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Arameans of Syene,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.

The fourth case involves another prominent member of the Elephantine community, Meshullam son of Zakkur son of Ater. Meshullam was a
trader. He sold houses, gave loans, and had a harem of Egyptian women,
one of whom he married out to a man who was steward of the Yaho temple. The proper name of Meshullam’s grandfather was Meshullam, “Ater”
being a nickname meaning “hunchback.” Meshullam was identified as a
Jew in 456, as an Aramean in 449, and as a Jew again in 427:
Meshullam son of Zakkur,
Jew of Elephantine the fortress.
Meshullam son of Zakkur,
Aramean of Syene,
belonging to the battalion of Varyazata.
Meshullam son of Zakkur,
Jew of Elephantine the fortress,
belonging to the battalion of Iddin-Nabu.

The fifth instance of double ethnic identity concerns Ananyah son of
Haggai son of Meshullam son of Besas. Ananyah (variant: Anani) was the
man who, in 420, married Yeho-yishma, daughter of Tamet and Anani, the
temple steward. Ananyah’s exact occupation is unknown, but he did receive
a ration from the treasury of the king. Texts identify Ananyah as Aramean
in 420 and 402, while another text written in 402 calls him a Jew:
Ananyah son of Haggai,
Aramean of Elephantine the fortress,
belonging to the battalion of Iddin-Nabu.
Anani son of Haggai,
Aramean of Elephantine the fortress,
belonging to the battalion of Nabu-kudurri.
Anani son of Haggai son of Meshullam,
Jew,
belonging to the battalion of Nabu-kudurri.

The sixth instance of a double identity differs from the ones previously
cited because this man is mentioned in one contract only:

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Mattan son of Yashobyah,
Aramean, Syenian,
belonging to the battalion of [PN].

There is one other reference to Mattan, however, where it is implied that
he is a Jew. In 411 BCE, the secretary-treasurer of the Jewish community of
Elephantine wrote a letter to the leadership. The heading of his letter reads,
“To my Lords Yedanyah; Uriyah and the priests of Yaho the God; Mattan son of Yashobyah (and) Berekyah son of [PN].” The address contains
a variant of this formula: “To my Lords Yedanyah; Uriyah and the priests;
and the Jews.” A comparison between heading and address indicates that
Mattan and Berekyah represented the Jews and were, by implication, Jews
themselves.
In all, then, there are six cases where one and the same member of the
Jewish community of Elephantine is successively identified as Jew and Aramean—or vice versa. In order to obtain an overview of the formal markers
of identity, as well as the variations in their wording, the survey above has
listed all known identifications of the men in question. In fact, the overview is as good as exhaustive, since a perusal of the rest of the Elephantine
papyri yields only a few variants. The first variant consists of a combination
of the expressions “Syenian” and “property holder.” In a formal letter of
entreaty to the Persian authorities, five prominent members of the Jewish
community present themselves as “Syenians who are holding property in
Elephantine the fortress.” A second variant applies to the Jewish community as a whole. It is employed in a draft of a letter to the governor of Judah: “Your servants Yedanyah and his colleagues, and all the Jews living in
Elephantine.” Among the Jews whose names occur in the contracts, there
are many more who are identified as either “Aramean of Syene” or “Jew
of Elephantine the fortress.” It would be pointless to list them all, for this
would only confirm the fact of the double identity that has already been
established. The real question is about the meaning of this double identity.
Is this a dual ethnic identity, or are the two identities somehow different in
nature—the one being ethnic, the other something else?
In order to discover the meaning of the double identity of the Elephantine Jews, we shall proceed by elimination. Several explanations have
been advanced. All of them deserve serious consideration even if, at first
sight, one seems a little more far-fetched than the others. One possibility
is to say that there is no double identity at issue. What we interpret as the

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dual identity of one person is in fact distinct identities belonging to distinct
individuals who happen to carry the same name—a case of mistaken identity rather than one of double identity. A second solution holds that the
scribes used the term “Aramean” by error; it is a careless use of language,
triggered perhaps by the free association of thoughts. The third suggestion is based on the association of Aramean as ethnicity and Aramaic as a
language. Jews could be said to be Arameans because they spoke Aramaic.
And the fourth way out of the dilemma assumes that the Jews were Jews by
ethnicity and Arameans in terms of the Persian administration, military or
otherwise. The four solutions have been listed in order of increasing probability. Ultimately, however, we will find that none of these solutions is
completely satisfying.
The solution of the mistaken identities is linked to the name of Edoardo Volterra. In several publications, Volterra first suggested and later insisted that all the alleged cases of double identity were based on homonymy.
Yet the admirable consistency of Volterra’s theory comes at the cost of utter
improbability. One case of mistaken identities is in the realm of possibility; two is an extraordinary coincidence; but six or seven is a stretch of the
imagination that cannot be sustained. The second theory promotes error
as explanation. It goes back to one of the great pioneers of Elephantine
studies, Arthur E. Cowley. He suggested that the Aramean identity of the
Elephantine Jews was due to a “loose” use of language. Cowley did in fact
accuse the scribes responsible for these mistakes of “mere carelessness.”
This is an unsatisfactory explanation. Scribes were also the notaries of antiquity. It would be remarkable, to say the least, to find that they should be
careless when drafting legal documents. Avoiding ambiguity was part of
their training. A variant of Cowley’s solution lifts the blame off the shoulders of the scribes and argues that the Elephantine Jews mistook themselves for Arameans. Though Judeans and Arameans were distinct ethnic
groups, the Elephantine experience had blurred the boundaries between
them. As a matter of consequence, the Jews began to think of themselves
as Arameans. This variant of the error theory is hardly more likely to be
correct. As a rule, the diaspora experience does not diminish a group’s sense
of ethnic identity.
The third solution uses a semantic twist. Several authors hold that
the term “Aramean,” when applied to Jews, does not define ethnicity but
refers to language. As Bezalel Porten argues, “The designation ‘Aramean’
was probably due to the fact that the Jews were considered members of

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the larger Aramaic-speaking group.” Other authors have taken a similar stance. The language theory does not withstand critical examination.
Other mercenaries in the service of the Persian army spoke Aramaic too.
The case of the Iranian community at Elephantine is an example. Yet none
of them, other than the Elephantine Jews, were systematically referred to as
Arameans, as the discussion of the identity tags of the Iranians will show.
Perhaps one could make the argument that other mercenaries spoke Aramaic as their second language, whereas the Elephantine Jews spoke it as
their first. Witness the ostraca: Aramaic is what they spoke at home. Conceivably, the Persian authorities identified the Jews as Arameans because
Aramaic seemed to be their native tongue. In that case, however, language
would have served as a marker of ethnicity, and the term ʾărāmāy would
refer to ethnicity.
The fourth solution holds that the Jews we