BMCR 2023.09.03

New Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in Berlin

, New Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in Berlin. Studies on Elephantine, 1. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xiii, 261. ISBN 9789004505575.

Open access


The Island of Elephantine lies in the middle of the First Cataract of the Nile, off the city of Siyene (modern Aswan). In the fifth century BCE it housed, among other things, a Persian army garrison, and a temple to the Judean god YHW. Judeans created many Aramaic documents, which were found at Elephantine, in organized digs and on the antiquities market, beginning in the nineteenth century. This is evinced by the moniker Yehudi, Judean, which they use to self-describe.

Preserved in the famously dry Egyptian climate, the documents, like other papyri, were edited, studied and published in multiple editions. First published by Eduard Sachau, Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraca aus einer jüdischen Militärkolonie (Leipzig, 1911), the edition most widely used today is the four-volume Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, edited by Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni (Jerusalem, 1986–1999; TAD). Porten has also written the standard history of the Jews of Elephantine, in his Archives from Elephantine: the Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, 1968). The story of the Jews stationed at the Nubian border, their religion, life and letters, have become part of the standard histories of the Jews, and fictionalized in Cynthia Ozick’s novel Antiquities (New York, 2021). Moore’s bibliography and copious notes are the best place to find additional literature.

The documents range from the mundane to the sensational: they include accounts, sale and loan documents, of interest to historians of the family, the economy, and of the legal document. Items of interest to historians of politics, colonialism and religion include a letter regarding the date of the Passover holiday, and its customs (TAD A 4.1); a collection for the temple of YHW which also includes subscriptions for other deities (TAD C3.15), and correspondence with Persian officials regarding the rebuilding of the temple of YHW on Elephantine (TAD A 4.7). Additionally, German excavators at Elephantine found a rather long section of an early Aramaic version of the Wisdom of Ahiqar (TAD C1.1). This text was later translated into many languages, and survives, among others, in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, Church Slavonic and Romanian. Taken together, these documents are a snapshot of what it was like to be a Jewish person, under Persian rule, in southern Egypt. They illustrate various modes of interaction with empire and hegemonic culture on various border zones, right before the advent of Hellenism.

The present volume is a contribution to the study of these documents: a trove of very small fragments, not published by the editors of the previously published collections, and overlooked for nearly 80 years, found in the Berlin Museum.

James Moore, the editor, does yeoman’s work in reading, editing, and explaining the contents of these fragments, including in this volume of the collection all of the Aramaic fragments on which more than one word was legible. The tiny fragments are expertly placed in the context of the letters based on the formulae found in them and Moore’s reconstruction of the way in which they were folded and stored. The introduction to the volume is a wonderful exemplar of “museum archaeology,” in which Moore details the history of the Berlin trove of documents, and places it in the context of the discovery and previous publications of the Aramaic Elephantine documents.

The book is open access and so is available online to scholars of papyri and ancient epistolography who would want to consult the excellent introduction but would not have need for the edition of the minute fragments. The edition useful mainly for scholars of Aramaic, ancient Judaism and Elephantine.