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The Elephantine Papyri is a collection of documents mostly dated to the fifth century bce discovered on and near Elephantine Island, opposite Aswan in Upper Egypt. Much of the collection concerns a Jewish military colony who lived on the island with their families while serving the Persian administration, and who must have been there before about 525. Thus the papyri have been of interest for Achaemenid history, but even more for Jewish history and religion. The papyri were written in Aramaic and consist of personal, business, legal, literary, and historical materials, all of which have been useful also for the study of imperial Aramaic.

Numerous personal letters from Elephantine read similarly to the letters of the Arameans found in nearby Syene. They are concerned with household issues and other personal matters. The two writers are noted as Hoshaiah b. Nathan (TAD A3.6) and possibly Mauziah b. Nathan (TAD A3.5). Most famous among the letters are those of the Yedaniah Communal Archive (TAD A4.1–10). Yedaniah b. Gemariah was possibly the chief priest at Elephantine, and the documents ascribed to him date to the last few decades of the fifth century. One letter among the archive is written from Hananiah to inform his reader that Darius II had sent a command to the Egyptian satrap Arsames, instructing him on the observance of Passover. In this directive, the dates of 15–21 Nisan are given and there are specific injunctions listed which are also found in the Torah. Thus, while the Jews of Elephantine did not follow the Torah in its entirety, the Passover Papyrus (TAD A4.1) does suggest at least some observance of Torah legislation. Another letter (TAD A4.3) reveals that Hananiah caused controversy when he arrived in Egypt because of opposition to the priests of the ram god Khnum, and this conflict might have led eventually to the destruction of their temple. In another (TAD A4.9), the Jerusalem authorities condemned the destruction of the temple and permitted the Jews to rebuild on the island, but did not give them permission to perform animal sacrifice. These and other examples illustrate the difficulty posed by the papyri for the biblical portrayal of Judaism.

There are also papyri concerning property rights, real estate transactions, and other business, and some correspondence from Arsames, satrap of Egypt in the last quarter of the fifth century. Numerous contracts were found in the Mibtahiah (471–410) and the Anani (456–402) archives. The former contains documents on property, the estate of deceased parents, and other deeds related to marriage; the latter contains documents on the relations between two families. There are at least fourteen legal papyri, relating both to personal and business affairs of the community and to individuals within the community (Muffs 2003; Porten 1974).

Among the most important finds in the Elephantine papyri are the Proverbs of Ahiqar, advisor to Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, and the Aramaic copy of the Bisitun Inscription of Darius I.

Bibliography:


  • Kratz, R. G. (2004Das Judentum im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels. Tübingen.
  • Muffs, Y. (2003Studies in the Aramaic legal papyri from Elephantine. Leiden.
  • Porten, B. (1974Jews of Elephantine and Arameans of Syene (fifth century b.c.e.): fifty Aramaic texts with hebrew and English tranlations. Jerusalem.
  • Porten, B. et al. (1996The Elephantine papyri in English: three millennia of cross-cultural continuity and change. Leiden.
  • Porten, B. and Yardini, A., eds. (1986–99) Textbook of Aramaic documents from Ancient Egypt (= TAD), 4 vols. Jerusalem.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Ancient History