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Talk transcript: The Jews of Elephantine

The Jews of Elephantine

Rabbi Prof Bezalel Porten (HUJI)

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Elephantine is the name of an island in the Nile at Aswan. Many Egyptian places are best-known in English by their Greek names, given to them after similar-sounding Greek cities, for example, Memphis for Moph. Elephantine, however, was originally Yev. This appears in the Hebrew mishvort—a combination of words from two languages: The Hebrew for ivory is שנהב shenhav, a combination of שן הב "tooth of the hav"—the same word.

So where did the name Elephantine come from? Some suggested there was a rock formation there that looked like an elephant. Others suggested there was a cult of the elephant there. A third view: There were rapids at Aswan (before the building of the High Dam). At Elephantine you had to transship, and prominent amongst the goods being transshipped there was ivory from Nubia.

There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that there were Jews on Elephantine, except, just possibly, an indirect allusion in Isaiah 49, where Deutero-Isaiah talks about the ingathering of the Exiles: "Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim." So in the Masoretic Text; in the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, the reading is "Svenim". When a scribe is not familiar with the geographical terms, it lends itself to mistranscription; and in this case it is a small change from סינים to סונים. Possibly the name in the Masoretic tradition is mistranscribed.

Now, there are papyri from Elephantine from the earliest times down to the Arabic period, when they stopped writing on papyrus. In the Byzantine period was called the land of the Syeneans (Syene = Aswan), i.e. Svenim.

Isaiah ended up his life in exile in Egypt, where he held a big gathering and named the cities. When he referred to the south, he says ארץ פתרוס - the land of Pathros. This was not a city, it was an area. Pa-ta-something (sorry, Prof. Porten spoke too fast for me) means "the southern area" in Egyptian.

There was a hope that one day evidence of Jews from Pathros would be found. That evidence was found on ancient papyri at Elephantine. (In Egypt the climate is so dry that papyri survive well.)

Papyrus was made on rolls 32cm high, 15 cm wide, which were glued together into scrolls. When writing short texts they would be written vertically, and cut when appropriate. When writing literary texts, however, they would be written horizontally in columns, like in a megillah. This is because long texts had to be written such that the papyrus would not crack when rolled.

We also have ostraca from Elephantine. Ostraca are potsherds used for writing brief notes. (When the ancient Greeks would exile a person from the polis for the period of ten years, they would write his name on a potsherd, from which practice comes the term "to ostracise".)

Many ostraca we have are written in the one hand, i.e. written by the one scribe. If addressed אל הושיע "to Hoshea", this shows us the community in Elephantine was tightly-knit: the postman could deliver notes written on a first-name basis!

The first papyri from Elephantine were bought on the antiques market there in 1893 by Edwin ?Luger, an American political refugee who had fled to France and got into Egyptology there. In 1897 he died; but these papyri were not discovered until his daughter died in 1914. She willed them to the Brooklyn Museum, where they got published in 1915.

In 1902 Lord Cecil Mond and Lady Mond acquired papyri on the antiquities market in Cairo, and tried to give them to the Bodleian Museum (though they ended up staying in Cairo). In 1906 these were published. A German Jew called Rubenson from the Berlin Museum telegraphed saying to send an expedition to excavate.

In 1906-8 excavations were carried out on different parts of the site by both the Germans and the French. The Germans, being German, published their results straight away, whilst the French still haven't published it all!

The evidence from Elephantine we have nowadays consists of 30 intact papyri and about 50 to 70 fragments; the French have 200 ostraca the archaeological community still haven't seen.

How many Jews lived at Elephantine? There are two different views about this. They are all called Jews, not Israelites, so they came from the southern kingdom, of Judah. The migration had both push and pull factors. Herodotus tells of how Psammetichus hired Greek mercentaries to fight against the king of the Ethiopians, in 674 BCE. The story of how the Torah got translated into Greek suggests there were Jewish mercentaries, too, and Elephantine was a military colony.

As for the push factor, we know how priests who were in the Hasmoneans' bad books fled to Egypt in the time of the revolt against the Syrians. Possibly the colony in Elephantine was founded by priests fleeing from King Menashe's reign of terror and persecution of the Judaic religion, in the late First Temple period. (More evidence for this below.) They would have been fleeing from the power of the north (Assyria) to the power of the south (Egypt).

As for how many, there's a collection list in which 150 Jews give two shekels each to YHW. They all had Hebrew names.

This was a military colony; we know this because they are called חַילַי יְהוּדַי Jewish soldiers. (Yes, this is unusual vocalisation; that's the way Prof. Porten pronounced it, and he is fluent in modern Hebrew. Is this Aramaic rather than Hebrew?)

There are official documents. In one case, a man buys a house, and gives a room in it to his wife, and then gives a room to his daughter, and at the end of his life he wills it to his son, etc. From these we get a picture of life in the colony. The head of the group is called Ananya; he married Tamet, a slave-girl with an Egyptian name.

The Cecil Mond papyri are from the woman Nivtakhya. This name is also found on the Lachish letters (some of which are in the British Museum), but is there a man's name! She was a wealthy person. Her father gave her a house; after her husband died, she remarried an Egyptian builder. After the two of them died, her sons divided up her slaves.

So both of these two people married out!

The most exciting thing about Elephantine, however, was the discovery of the existence of the Jewish Temple there. Not just a synagogue where you offered up prayers, but a temple, somewhere where animals were offered up as sacrifices. And I bet you thought there were never more than two Jewish Temples! (Actually, that's simplistic, too, given that Herod's rebuilding of the Second Temple was on a large enough scale as to involve having to extend the flat top of the Temple Mount.)

This temple is referred to in letters and documents. They called it אֱגוֹרָא egura: not an Egyptian word, but an Akkadian loan-word into Hebrew originating from Sumerian. (And I've just discovered to my amazement, looking it up in Jastrow, that (half a millennium later at least) it there means heathen altar!)

The existence of a Jewish Temple in Egypt is something the Egyptians find difficult to handle, though. They do not want to believe it was there. Consequently, almost everyone who goes to Elephantine hears nothing about it.


Here follows a document found by Rubenson on 1 January 1907. The letter exists in two exemplars, not copies of each other, but a draft, and a fair copy in much better language! The first draft is written on both sides of the papyrus; the second draft is almost on one side. The third version, the one which actually went off to Jerusalem, would presumably have been on one side of the papyrus only. (The paragraphing shown below is not original.)This was written in ca. 410 BCE: the time of Ezra/Nehemiah and Esther.

The translation is provided by Prof. Porten, who leans towards the literal way of doing so, and has attempted to keep the words in their original order.

Petition of the Elephantine Jews to Jerusalem (TAD A4.7)
To our lord Bagavahya governor of Judah, your servants Jedaniah and his colleagues the priests who are in Elephantine the fortress. Ah, I'd been wondering since I read The Persian Boy what the Persian original of the Greek-mangled name "Bagoas" was!
The welfare of our lord may the G-d of Heaven seek after abundantly at all times, and favour may He grant you before Darius the king and the princes more than now a thousand times, and long life may He give you, and happy and strong may you be at all times.
Now, your servant Jedaniah and his colleagues thus say: Biblical language: Cf. "Thus says your servant Jacob" in Genesis.
In the month of Tammuz, year 14 of Darius the king, when Arsames left and went to the king, the priests of Khnub the god who (are) in Elephantine the fortress, in agreement with Vidranga who was Chief here, (said), saying: I.e. the middle of summer in Egypt.
Arsames - satrap of Egypt
Khnub: the ram god of Elephantine.
Vidranga: The local governor. "Chief" is an ?Aramaic title.
"The Temple of YHW the God which is in Elephantine the fortress let them remove from there." Trigrammaton: see below.
Afterwards, that Vidranga, the wicked, a letter sent to Nafaina his son, who was Troop Commander in Syene the fortress, saying: "The wicked": the same word the Book of Esther uses to describe Haman.
"The Temple which is in Elephantine the fortress let them demolish." "Fortress": see below.
Afterwards, Nafaina led the Egyptians with the other troops. They came to the fortress of Elephantine with their implements, broke into that Temple, demolished it to the ground, and the pillars of stone which were there, they smashed them. Moreoever, it happened (that the) gateways of stone, built of hewn stone, which were in that Temple, they demolished. And their standing doors, and the pivots of those doors, (of) bronze, and the roof of wood of cedar, all (of these), with the rest of the fittings and other (things) which were there, all (of these) with fire they burned. But the basins of gold and silver and the (other) things which were in that Temple, all of these they took and made their own.

"Implements": a euphemism.

Hewn stone: i.e. not just brick, but built of stone like Solomon's Temple.

Cedar: Imported all the way from Lebanon: a big operation. Where did they get all the money for that? Was this Temple subsidised?

And from the days of the king(s) of Egypt our fathers had built that Temple in Elephantine the fortress and when Cambyses entered Egypt, that Temple, built he found it. And the temples of the gods of Egypt, all (of them), they overthrew, but anything in that Temple one did not damage. Days of the kings of Egypt: before the Persian conquest. Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, conquered Egypt in 525. He wasn't quite as beneficent as potrayed here, though*.
And when (the) like(s of this) had been done (to us), we, with our wives and our children, sackcloth were wearing and fasting and praying to YHW the Lords of Heaven who let us gloat over that Vidranga, the cur. They removed the fetter from his feet and all goods which he had acquired were lost. And all persons who sought evil for that Temple, all (of them) were killed and we gazed upon them. Psalm 137, "By the rivers of Babylon", ends with the desire for revenge. Here it is actually seen through.
Moreover, before this, at the time that this evil was done to us, a letter we sent (to) our lord, and to Jehoḥanan the High Priest and his colleagues the priests who are in Jerusalem, and to Avastana the brother of Anani and the nobles of the Jews. A letter they did not send us. They wrote to the whole power structure in Yahud and got no reply back.
Jehoḥanan: Mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah.
Avastana (a Persian name), brother of Anani. This Anani may be last of the House of David, mentioned in I Chron. 3.
Moreoever, from the month of Tammuz, year 14 of Darius the king and until this day, we, sackcloth have been wearing and have been fasting; the wives of ours like a widow have been made; (with) oil (we) have not anointed (ourselves), and wine have not drunk. Abstinence for three years: The loss of the Temple meant a lot to these people.
Moreover, from that (time) and until (this) day, year 17 of Darius the king, meal-offering (מנחה) and ince[n]se (לבנה) and burnt-offering they did not make in that Temple. Burnt-offering: Animal sacrifice.

Now, your servants Jedaniah and his colleagues and the Jews, all (of them) citizens of Elephantine, thus say:

If to our lord it is good, take thought of that Temple to (re)build (it) since they do not let us (re)build it. Regard your obligees and your friends who are here in Egypt. May a letter from you be sent to them about the Temple of YHW the God to (re)build it in Elephantine the fortress just as it had been built formerly.

Citizens of Elephantine: בעלי יב. Elsewhere they call themselves Svenkanaya: Syenians. (-akan is an ?Akkadian ending; attached to a Hebrew word it's a loan-ending, like in "kibbutznik".)

Obligees: בעלי טובה

And the meal-offering and the incense and the burnt-offering they will offer on the altar of YHW the God in your name and we shall pray for you at all times, we and our wives and our children and the Jews, all who are here. If thus they did until that Temple be (re)built, a merit it will be for you before YHW the God of Heaven (more) than a person who will offer him burnt-offering and sacrifices (whose) worth is as the worth of silver, one thousand talents, and about gold. A merit: צדקה (lit. righteousness), used for Abraham in Genesis when he believes in G-d.

Moreoever, all the(se) things in a letter we sent in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah sons of Sanballaṭ governor of Samaria.

Moreover, about this which was done to us, all of is, Arsames did not know.

On the 20th of Marḥeshvan, year 17 of Darius the king.

Sanballat was Nehemiah's arch-enemy, but the Jews of Elephantine didn't know about this: they turned for help to anyone they can.

Since Arsames did not know, Bagavahya can act without fear of overturning anything he said.

(I wonder what word was used for "the fortress" there. Stephen Rosenberg used "fortress" to render בירה (elsewhere translated "capital", "capitol" (ArtScroll) and "palace" (KJV)) in the book of Esther, in his Esther, Ruth, Jonah Deciphered, making sense of the line (Esther 3:15) "The decree was given in Shushan the fortress. And the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed," by making a distinction between the citadel of Shushan and the surrounding city.)

* Curiously, I've just read (having picked a copy up in a charity shop) Biggles Flies South, which is about the fate of the army Cambyses led to (allegedly) plunder the famed temple of Ammon (from which, as an aside, we get the word "ammonia"), which vanished into the desert and never was seen again.

† Of which I procured a copy for a friend nearly a year ago, but he failed to arrange meeting up to collect it, and then left the country, so if anyone else would like it, I am willing to pass it on for the £10 it cost me.


Here, now, are some examples of the sorts of notes seen on ostraca excavated at Elephantine. I wrote above that the paragraphing in the previously quoted letter was not original. Here some of the line breaks occur in the middle of a word! (I can't be bothered to type up all the line numbering, or the alternate translation Prof. Porten gives to show the difficulties in interpreting this, e.g. "May Jaḥmoliah regard the/my welfare [שָלֹם]" vs. "See Jaḥmoliah and pay him [‏שָלֵם‎].")

1. Request for salt (TAD D7.2 [Clermont-Ganneau 169]

[CONCAVE] [Gr]eetings, Aḥutab. Now, dispatch to me a little salt this day. And if there isn't salt in the house, buy from the boats of grain (or: ferryboats) which are in Elephantine. Lo, I don't have [CONVEX] any salt to put in the flour.

2. Instructions to shear sheep (TAD D7.8 [Egyptian Museum, Cairo J. 43464B])

[CONCAVE] Greetings, Uriah. Now, lo, the big sheep which is yours has reached (the time) for shearing. The wool of hers already is being torn on the thorn(s). Now, come and shear her. On the day that you will wash her you should shear her. [CONVEX] And if you do not go out this day, send (word) to me that I may wash her before you go out. Greetings, Aḥutab. Now, on this bread we shall eat until tomorrow evening. An a(rdab) of flour remains here.

3a. Report of a Dream and Family Instructions (TAD d7.17 [Staatliche Museen, Berlin P.1137])

[CONCAVE] Now, lo, one (=a) dream I saw and from that time I am very hot (= feverish). May Jaḥmoliah regard (= attend to) the/my welfare.

[CONVEX] Now, if you wish, do not sell them. Let children eat (them). Lo, there do not remain (any) cucumbers.

4. Instructions re Children and Inquiry re Passover (TAD D7.6 Bodleian Aram. Insc. 7)

[CONCAVE] To Hoshaiah.

Your welfare [שלמך] (may DN seek after at all times).

Now, singly (= alone) look after the children until Aḥutab comes. Do not entrust them to others. [CONVEX] If their bread is ground, knead for them one qab until their mother comes.

Send (word) to me when you will make (= observe) the Passover.

Do send greetings (= news) of the child.

[There was, of course, no fixed calendar at that time; the date of the Passover depended on observation of the new moon, normally in Jerusalem, though whether the community in Elephantine observed their own new moons is another question.]

5. Handling of Produce and the Sabbath (TAD D7.16:1-5 [Clermont-Ganneau 152])

[CONCAVE] Greetings, Islaḥ.

Now, behold, the legumes I shall dispatch tomorrow. Meet the boat tomorrow on Sabbath. Lest, if they get lost, by the life of YHH, if not (= surely) yo[ur] life I shall take. Do not rely on Meshullemeth and on Shemaiah.

["By the life of YHH" I would guess is חי ה׳, a common oath in the Bible.]

6. Instructions re Tunic (TAD D7.18 [Egyptian Museum, Cairo J. 49624])

[CONCAVE] Regard my tunic [כיתון] which I left at the house (= building) of the House of YHH. Say to (= tell) Uriah he should drop it off [יָרִם] at Salluah('s).

One of the striking things about these and the above documents is the spelling of G-d's name. Everywhere in the Bible, Talmud, liturgy and piyutim it appears as either the Tetragrammaton YHWH or the abbreviated form YH (Yāh). Here it appears as two Trigrammatons. Prof. Porten, when I mentioned this to him said these are seen elsewhere, including in Greek transcription, and suggested that these were abbreviations, both pronounced "Yāhu"*. There is no significance in the alternate spellings: terminal ה is sometimes used for -o/-u, as in פה, איפה. (The Encyclopaedia Judaica says this spelling is an archaic retention in the Masoretic Text.)

* It is from Greek transcriptions that we know that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced (probably) "Yahweh", too, despite Pharisaic propaganda that it was never pronounced except by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, and that the pronounciation was secret and is lost. Quite possibly the religious authorities tried to stop people from pronouncing it, like they tried and failed to stop people from making oaths in the First Temple period, but enough people did actually pronounce it for the Greeks to record it.

† I am trying to be sensible about rendition of the Divine Name here: though I write it in English, I do not in Hebrew; and whilst I hyphenate "G-d" this is because I prefer to do so; I do not do so when I am quoting others.


Do we know where the Temple actually was?

In 1968, Dr Porten reconstructed a map of the Jewish colony in Elephantine based on descriptions of the neighbouring houses in the houses of Mahseiah and Mibtahiah, and Tamet and Anani.

Recently, Stephen Rosenberg discovered that making an mirror image of this map he could overlay it on the buildings actually excavated, and get it to fit. According to his scheme, where the Temple ought to be was a building with a higher-quality floor, and a layer of dust between two floor layers—perhaps between when the Temple was destroyed and when it was rebuilt? He has run with Porten's original hypothetical plan; Dr Porten did not say whether or not he agreed with this.

   _________                                
  |         |                                                                                      N
  |Pefṭua-  |                                                                                    \/
  |neith    |                                                                                    /\  
-------------------------                                                                       /
           street
 _____________________________             __________ 
|       |  Mahseiah |         |           |          |
|Konaiah ||Mibtahiah|Dargamana|           |  Jaush   |
|________||_________|_________|  _________|__________|     _________ 
  |Zechāriah|Jezan- |         | |         |Meshullam |    |         |
  |Hạzzul   |iah    |  Hosea  | | Ḥarudj  |Mahsciah  |    |  Gaddul |
  |_________|_______|_________| |_________|Mibtahiah_|    |_________|

                King's Highway
 ____________________________________________________      __________________________________________
                                                     |King| Parnu &   Shatibara
                                                     | 's | Mrdava         |         Shrine of the god
                              Temple                 |    |________________|___________     ________
                                                     |Str |          | Anani |         |Way|
                                                     | eet|  Tamet   |_______|Jehoishma|of |Treasury
_____________________________________________________|    |__________|       |_________|the|_________
                                                                     |               sr|god
                King's Street                                                         i|   
_____________________________________________________________________|_____________Sta_|    _________
                                                                              |        |   |
                          Khnum City                           Paḥi & Pemiṭ   |  Ḥor   |   |
                                                           ___________________|________|   |

Note that the Temple, like modern synagogues, faces in the direction of Jerusalem. (The earliest mention of praying towards Jerusalem is in the book of Daniel.) The Temple site has the dimensions 60x20 cubits, the same as Solomon's Temple. (The building itself is smaller.)

Why was there a Temple in Elephantine at all? Was a couple of hundred of Jews sufficient to merit a Temple? Perhaps a clue is to be found in Isaiah 19:19: "In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the LORD."

Above, I mentioned priests fleeing from the Hasmoneans in the time of the revolt against the Seleucid Syrians several centuries later. What I did not mention there, so as not to give the game away too early was that they set up their own Temple, in 164 BCE, in Leontopolis. Josephus tells us about this; their Temple was destroyed by the Romans at the same time as that in Jerusalem. This is the circumstantial evidence I mentioned above that the Temple in Elephantine may been built by priests fleeing the persecutions of King Menashe.

Were there Temples anywhere else either? A haul of Aramaic ostraca, "chits" according to Prof. Porten, have been found, dating from the 4th century BCE, in Hebron. Many are registries, describing property. One said "the mound that is below the house of Bouza [an Aramaic deity], חבל of the House of YHW". Is this another Temple? But there were not Jews living there at the time, they were Ammonites; and חבלה means "ruin". So possibly there was once a Temple here, but not now.

Also, as I pointed out, regarding the Samaritan Temple on Mt Gerizim as not being a Jewish one is a case of history being written by the victors. At the time of its foundation the Samaritans would have regarded it as being a Jewish (or at any rate Israelite) one; it was only the intransigence of Nehemiah to welcoming the Samaritans back into the fold that led to the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans.


What happened to the community afterwards? Was the Temple in Elephantine rebuilt?

There are three more documents which belong with this letter. One (the source for the above map) is a contract from Anani selling his and his wife's house to his son-in-law. In this document, dating from 402 BCE, the Temple is mentioned. So either it was rebuilt, or it was still there as a ruin.

The Syenians never got a written reply from Jerusalem? Why was this? Perhaps the authorities in Jerusalem were by then not in favour of having a Temple anywhere but in Jerusalem.

There is, however, a memorandum (זכרון) which Arsham wrote to Delaiah and Shelemiah saying that the Temple should be rebuilt and incense and meal-offering should be offered up. The next document says "we shall do this and we shall pay you" and so forth. (Prof Porten was speaking too quickly for me again, I'm afraid.)

The absence of burnt-offerings is notable from this list compared to the one in the letter above. Maybe the authorities in Jerusalem relented when they heard how the Jews had already managed to punish Vidranga with impunity from the Egyptian authorities, but were still not prepared to let the Syeneans perform animal sacrifices.

One of the handouts includes a bit of an article from Near Eastern Archaeology 67:1 (2004), p. 9, which informed me that a second condition of rebuilding the Temple was that its courtyard wall had to be clear of "the street of the king", and went on to say:

The papyri documents end in 399 BCE but it was not yet destroyed when the Persians were expelled from Egypt around 400 BCE. This is surprising, as the Jews, having served as a mercenaries in the pay of the Persians, may have lost their protectors and indeed their raison d'être on Elephantine Island. Abandoned it eventually must have been, however, and when the excavators found the tiled floor of the temple, it was covered with animal dung. The second phase of the temple, it seems, was not destroyed but was used as a stable, presumably in an act of deliberate desecration.

And finally, a question a member of the audience asked, which Prof. Porten did not give an answer one way or another to:

"Might the Jews of Ethiopia today descended from the Jews of Elephantine, and not from those of Yemen as currently thought?"

See also these notes for a little more on the temple at Elephantine.

Jewish learning notes index

Tags: archaeology, limmud, supercool
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