Religion at Elephantine (was Judaism vs YHWHism)
- Dear Liz,
Please see my comments interlaced with yours below.
Additionally, I recently ran across some references to an ostracon from
Syene, published by Dupont-Sommer in “‘Bēl et Nabû, Šamaš et Nergal’ sur
un ostracon araméen inédit d’Eléphantine,” RHR 128 (1944): 28-39, in which
one party greets the other by the gods "Bel and Nabu, Shamash and Nergal."
All secondary literature agrees that the recipient was Jewish, but the
sender is identified as Jewish by Karel van der Toorn and Aramean by others,
none giving arguments. I haven't acquired Dupont-Sommer's article yet and
I'm champing at the bit. Can anyone on the list shed light on this text and
the evidence regarding the ethnicity of the first party?
LF: I agree with you, Russell, that the Elephantine papyri testify to a
group stranded in Elephantine for probably 200 years, and that there is
certainly no torah in evidence. Nor is there any literature besides Ahikar
and the Behistun inscription.
Certainly they arrived before the time of Cambyses (525 BCE), per C 30.14
// 31.13 (C = Cayley's edition of the Elephantine papyri). And their
practices likely represent a blurred snapshot from this earlier period. Their
connections to Samaria appear stronger than to Jerusalem.
LF: Worship is organized around the temple of YHWH, and it seems that the
leader of the community was the priest of that temple. There is also
evidence of a collection for temples to Anat-Bethel and Eshem-Bethel, but I
don't know if those other temples are on Elephantine itself, or if the
collection was to assist their Aramean degel-fellows in Syene, on the
mainland, as these are primarily Aramaic gods. In all the documents, the
priest Jedaniah is the priest of YHW alone and there are no other priests
mentioned except his brothers the priests of YHW. It should be remembered
that they had very close relations with the Arameans, serving in the same
degels with them, borrowing money from them, etc., and if something had
happened to their temples in Syene it is not improbable that the Jew of
Elephantine would raise a collection for them.
The Hermopolis papyri appear to support the existence of a distinct temple
of Bethel in Syene. (It opens with the salutation, "Greetings to the
temple of Bethel and to the temple of the 'Queen of Heaven.'" But it is hard to
discount the implications of C 22, which begins, "This is (the list of)
names of the Jewish garrison who gave silver to YHW the God, each one 2 shekels
of silver"; the 318 shekels so collected were divided up among YHW (126
shekels), Eshembethel (70 shekels) and Anathbethel (120 shekels) (C
22.122-125, where 1 karsh = 10 shekels). Eshembethel and Anathbethel appear to be
worshipped alongside YHW and/or manifestations of YHW. The latter thesis
is supported by the god Anat-Yahu that also appears in the papyri.
LF: As for people being called Jews in one document and Arameans in
that is not a difficult to understand. It is very clear that those with
YHWHistic names are called Jews and are only called Jews in their own
letters to each other. They are sometimes called Aramean and sometimes
called Jews by Aramaic scribes in the legal contracts, so that they were
evidently perceived as Aramean by Arameans and probably by Egyptians also
(tho I don't recall Egyptian scribes). This is presumably because they
Aramean. Among themselves, however, in their private letters, they are only
We know of two individuals, Mahseiah b. Yedoniah and Koniya b. Zadok,
identified as Jews in C 6.3,8, who are designated Arameans of Syene at C 5.2.
C 5 is a grant of building rights by Koniah to Mahseiah which Koniah
dictated to a scribe Petaliah ("Yah Mediated") b. Ahio, a member of a Jewish
family of scribes whose names recur in the papyri (other members also have Yah
as a theophoric element in their names). In a legal document between two
Jews, dictated by one Jew to a Jewish scribe, the designation of both parties
as Arameans must have a different explanation than you suggest.
LF: I agree with NP however in that while the members of this Persian
did self-identify as Jews and feel a strong connection to the Jerusalem
temple and the high priest there, it may be that their customs are more
illustrative of the late 7th century Judean YHWHism which existed when they
presumably arrived on the island than of the late 5th century YHWism as it
was practiced in Judah, but we don't really know. We know they had Passover
and Shabbat, but we don't know how these were observed, or what else they
had. Nor do we know if the story of the Exodus from Egypt was part of their
understanding of the Passover. So mostly we don't know. We probably know
more about them tho than we do about the Jews of Yehud in the 5th century,
having contemporary documents about them rather than 4th century literary
While we cannot take the practices at Elephantine as representative of
Judaism in the Persian period--that is not my position--we both seemingly agree
that the Elephantine Papyri are the best, most securely (i.e., only) dated
sources available. It therefore seems methodologically preferable to
make limited inferences from these contemporary documents than from later
literary sources (how much later is a separate discussion). While the
Elephantine garrison arguably preserved older practices from the time of their
temple's foundation, the correspondence shows that they maintained friendly
contact with Jerusalem's priests down to c. 400 BCE and anticipated their
support for the rebuilding of their temple. And that despite this continued
contact, their knowledge of a written Torah was nil. Surely this tells us
something regarding Judaism in Jerusalem as well as in Elephantine.
LF: Whatever differences might have existed in the practices between the
Elephantine and those of Yehud in the 5th century, it should be emphasized
that the similarities are paramount. They both self-identified as Yehudi,
Judeans, Jews; they both worshipped YHWH/YHW; and they both viewed a bloody
sacrificial cult in a temple led by a priest as normative expressions of
how that god expected and deserved to be worshipped.
True enough, to which I would add: we have no certain other independent
contemporary evidence of 5th century Judean practices and cannot assume the
differences were substantial.
All the best,
Lisbeth S. Fried
University of Michigan
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