Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Celebrating the New Year with the Israelites: Three Extrabiblical Psalms from Papyrus Amherst 63

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Celebrating the New Year with the Israelites: Three Extrabiblical Psalms from Papyrus Amherst 63

Article excerpt

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This study presents three Israelite psalms that are not in the Bible. They were found in an Egyptian papyrus with Aramaic texts written in demotic characters. Though the papyrus is from the mid-third century BCE, the material it contains is considerably older. I will show that the three psalms come from the northern kingdom at the time it was still a distinct polity. One of the texts was reworked by Judean editors and ended up in the Hebrew Bible as Ps 20. These three extrabiblical psalms-extrabiblical in spite of the obvious echoes of the first psalm in Ps 20-derive their logic, coherence, and sequence from the connection between the new wine (the autumn harvest), the new moon (hdyš), the New Year, and the renewal of Yaho's enthronement in the heavenly council. They are New Year psalms, preserving the memory of an Israelite festival among the Jewish diaspora in Egypt.

My work on these psalms has benefited from an unpublished paper by Tawny Holm (Pennsylvania State University) given at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, in 2014. In addition, I am indebted to Tawny Holm for her comments on an earlier version of this paper.

I.The Date of the Psalms

Papyrus Amherst 63, now in the collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library, was discovered around 1890 in Luxor (ancient Thebes). It was part of a lot of papyri dated to the third century BCE. In the 1890s Lord Amherst acquired the lot and had them catalogued, as a result of which the papyrus is now known as Papyrus Amherst 63. It is an extraordinary document. The scribes who produced the papyrus used demotic characters, but the language of the texts they wrote down is Aramaic. The analysis of the papyrus shows that it is a library of sorts. The twenty-three columns, most of them running about twenty lines or more, contain texts from the stream of tradition: hymns, divine love lyrics, historical narrative, and sundry other materials.1 Since the papyrus was produced in Egypt, the general assumption is that it reflects elements of the cultural heritage of Syrian expatriate communities. Most of those communities consisted of mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian, and later the Persian and Ptolemaic, armies. Among these Syrians, there were Jews too. We know about them from the Elephantine papyri and written evidence from various other places in Egypt (Memphis, the Nile Delta).

If Papyrus Amherst 63 was written in the third century BCE, the material it contains is often considerably older. The three Israelite psalms in columns xii and xiii (xii 11-19; xiii 1-10; xiii 11-17) are a case in point. Since one of the three psalms has a close biblical parallel, it allows us to appraise the difference between the earlier and the later version. Psalm 20 is the later version; the Amherst papyrus presents its forerunner.

The discovery of an Aramaic parallel to Ps 20 was made in the early 1980s. At that time, Richard Steiner (New York) and Jan Wim Wesselius (Amsterdam) were both working on the Amherst papyrus. Independently of each other, they discovered that the second half of column xii (column xi by the count of Steiner, who takes column v as ivb) contained an Aramaic prayer that bore a striking resemblance to Ps 20.2 Steiner was the first to bring the find to the notice of the general public. In an interview with the New York Times, he presented the Aramaic text as an adaptation of the biblical psalm-and not merely as a neutral adaptation but as a pagan one, since the Aramaic version introduced foreign gods into the text (Bethel and Baal-Shamayin).3 Should Steiner be correct, the historical priority would lie with the biblical psalm. Yet a close comparison between the Aramaic and Hebrew shows that the Aramaic is actually older; that is, the Hebrew text, which the Aramaic version has adapted, reflects an earlier stratum of Ps 20 than the version available in the MT of the Hebrew Bible.

Below is my transliteration of the papyrus based on two sets of photographs, followed by my translation of the Aramaic. …

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