January 24, 2017

The Elephantine Papyri

By Robert Hutto

Through the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth, a collection of papyri was found at and around a Jewish colony located near Aswan at Elephantine, an island in the Nile just north of the first cataract. The discoveries include papyri written in Egyptian, Greek, and Aramaic, of which the latter are the most valuable for Bible study. The documents do not contain copies of the Scriptures, but deal with a variety of matters ranging from political to religious, family, business, and literary concerns. Among these texts are letters (both official and personal), contracts, lists, literary works (a collection of proverbs called The Words of Ahikar), and accounts. The collection, which was acquired over about one hundred years through purchases from Egyptian dealers in antiquities as well as archaeological excavation, contains the largest collection of Aramaic papyri ever found. When discovered, many of these documents were still neatly folded and sealed (see photograph in LaSor’s article entitled “Aramaic” in the revised International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1979).

What is Aramaic?

The Old Testament is written primarily in Hebrew, but about two percent of it is written in Aramaic. The two languages are quite similar. They are both classified as Northwest Semitic, their vocabularies overlap, and they share syntactic features. Even the square script of the Hebrew Bible was developed from the Aramaic script (Wurthwein 3-6). Aramaic was incorrectly identified as Chaldee in places such as Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon by William Gesenius and Syrian/Syriack in Ezra 4:7 and Daniel 2:4 in the King James Version (corrected in NKJV). It apparently was developed by a rather non-descript group of people, the Arameans, whose only contribution (besides their association with Israel) is this language. The biblical passages written in Aramaic are Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26, Daniel 2:4b-7:28, one verse in Jeremiah (10:11), and two words spoken by Laban in Genesis 31:47. Its influence is also seen in New Testament words and expressions such as marana tha (1 Cor. 16:22), ephphatha (Mark 7:34), and talitha cumi (Mark 5:41).
Aramaic became the “medium of international communication in the days of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires . . .” (LaSor 229). Eventually Aramaic became the common language of the ancient Near East until the spread of Hellenism and the imposition of Greek. The Elephantine Papyri, written in Imperial Aramaic, span the fifth century B.C. By this time the Persians had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild.

Even after the spread of Greek through the ancient world, three areas continued to speak Aramaic (LaSor 231). These included Arabia (until the Christian era), Mesopotamia (in some cases to the present day), and Palestine (until the conquest by Islam). Although it is debated, it is widely held that Jews of the first century, including Jesus, commonly spoke Aramaic (for example, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” Mark 15:34).

The Elephantine Papyri and the Bible

These papyri give us some insight into the character of Judaism outside Palestine in the Persian period. Though Persia allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, many Jews chose to remain where they were. Among them were the Jews at Elephantine. This did not mean, however, that they chose to abandon the worship of the Lord (one of the features of these texts is the use of Yahu, a form of the divine name Yahweh). Unfortunately, they did not worship him according to the requirements of the Law. No doubt because of the influence of their surroundings, they combined elements of idolatry with the worship of the Lord. Kidner calls them an example of “unreformed Judaism, to set alongside that of the reformed community which came back chastened from Babylon” (Kidner 143).

The Law required that sacrifices be made in the place where God put his name (Exod. 20:24; Deut. 12:5-6; Ezra 6:12). That place was Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:3). However, the Elephantine community had erected a temple in their city, and had equipped it with an altar for offering meal-offerings, incense, and burnt offerings. This temple had been spared by Cambyses when he invaded Egypt (525 B.C.), but was subsequently destroyed by one Widrang, an Egyptian, perhaps because they found the slaughtering of lambs offensive (the priests of Khnub, an Egyptian cult, held lambs to be sacred). 

What happened next proves quite interesting. Apparently Elephantine Jews appealed to the Persian king for permission to celebrate the Passover. This they were granted (the so-called “Passover Papyrus” does not mention the Passover explicitly, though many believe the reference is suggested). The sacrifice of animals must have continued to be a point of contention, however, for in a later text we learn that the Jews were willing to limit their sacrifices to incense and meal-offerings and forgo the sacrifice of sheep and oxen. Note that the Elephantine Jews appealed to the king in much the same way as the Jews and their adversaries did in the book of Ezra. 

The Elephantine Jews also requested permission to rebuild their temple. They had sent a letter to Johanan the high priest and his associates in Jerusalem, but after three years they received no reply (which itself may show Jerusalem’s disapproval of a temple outside the holy city). A letter of request was then sent to Bagoas, Persian governor of Judea. Two things are to be noticed. First, if the Jews at Elephantine were aware of the law prohibiting sacrifice outside the precincts of Jerusalem, they must not have thought it applied to them. It may be, however, that in simple ignorance they appealed to Jerusalem for permission to build a temple. Second, they mention in the letter to Bagoas that they had also written to Delaiah and Shelemaiah, the sons of Sanballat the governor of Samaria about their case. Interestingly, the Samaritans were similar to the Elephantine Jews in that they both had connections with Judaism, but were something less than “orthodox.” Apparently, these Jews did not share the same animosity toward the Samaritans that their Judean brethren harbored. They clearly wanted someone to endorse their efforts, and it apparently mattered little to them whether it came from Jerusalem or Samaria.

We also find evidence of idolatrous influence at Elephantine in the names of gods referred to in these texts. These Jews there apparently did not hesitate to combine the name of God (Yahu) with the names of other deities. For example, one passage contains the name Anath-yahu, a combination of the name of an old Canaanite deity (Anath) and the divine name of God (Yahu). Some suggest (Rowley 257) that the Elephantine Jews thought of Anath-yahu as a consort of Yahweh, something like the Queen of Heaven referred to by Jeremiah (7:18; 44:17). 

These things remind us that there has always been a wide variety of beliefs, practices, and expectations within Judaism. We sometimes speak of “what Jews thought” or “what the Jews were looking for” as if all Jews believed the same thing. In reality, though there may have been certain core beliefs, there has always been a wide range of opinion in Judaism.

The correspondence between the Jews at Elephantine and the Persian government also sheds light on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. First, the mention of Sanballat helps both to demonstrate the historicity of these books and fix their date. Second, critical scholars once considered the Aramaic portions of Ezra spurious because the style appeared too recent to fit the traditional date. These considerations led some to date the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah as late as the third century B.C. (Phifer 812). The Elephantine Papyri show conclusively, however, that the Aramaic of Ezra was in use during the fifth century B.C. Furthermore, these papyri show that the Persians took a genuine interest in the affairs of their subjects and that letters were sent back and forth between subjects and officials of the Persian government when it became necessary. In short, the historical conditions of Ezra-Nehemiah are confirmed by the Elephantine Papyri (Harrison: 1969, 1141). Other more nuanced considerations affecting the dating of Ezra-Nehemiah can be found in the commentaries and introductions.


Again and again archaeology has confirmed the accuracy of the Bible. By mentioning a biblical character, Sanballat, and locating him in the same place and time in which the Bible places him, these ancient documents do their part to establish the credibility of the Old Testament. But work on the Elephantine Papyri is an ongoing project. These documents have made a significant contribution to this point, but what role they may yet play in helping with the interpretation of the Bible is still to be determined. For example, Bezalel Porten uses the form of the Elephantine conveyances to help interpret Numbers 18 (Porten: 1993, 257-271). 

To this point these texts have been published in various sources and not easily obtained. However, Porten and Yardeni are publishing a four-volume collection of the Elephantine Papyri in Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, Newly Copied, Edited, and Translated into Hebrew and English. Otherwise one may find some of these texts in Ancient Near Eastern Texts edited by James Pritchard and Documents from Old Testament Times edited by D. Winton Tomas.

Bibliographic Information

Harrison, R.K. “Elephantine Papyri.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Gen. ed. Geoffrey Bromiley. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. II:58-61. 4 vols.

Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.

Kidner, David. Ezra and Nehemiah. Tyndale Old Testament  Commentaries. Ed. D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979.

LaSor, W.S. “Aramaic.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Gen. ed. Geoffrey Bromiley. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. I:229-233. 4 vols.

Phifer, Robert H. Introduction to the Old Testament. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.

Porten, Bezalel. “Elephantine Papyri.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. D.N. Freedman. Vol 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992. II:445-455.
____. “Elephantine Aramaic Contracts and the Priestly Literature.” Minhah le-Nahum: Biblical and Other Studies Presented to Nahum M. Sarna in Honour of His 70th Birthday. Eds. Marc Brettler and Michael Fishbane. Sheffield, England: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1993.

Rowley, H. H. “Papyri from Elephantine.” Documents from Old Testament Times. Ed. D. Winton Thomas. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1958.

Wurthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica. Trans. Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p16  January 4, 2001