The Elephantine Letters: News of Egyptian Jews from the Close of the Biblical Era
WE are told in the Book of Jeremiah that, after the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, a considerable number of Jews emigrated to Egypt and settled there. Jeremiah gives a gloomy picture of the religious and moral state of this new Jewish colony in the land of the Pharaohs. Nothing, however, was known about its later development and fate, until in 1905 the discovery of papyri at Jeb (Elephantine), on an island near Assuan, brought that hidden chapter of Jewish early history again to fight. Through these records, written in Aramaic, the world became acquainted with the existence and life of a Jewish colony established in Elephantine probably between 585 and 570 B.C.E. It would seem that originally some of the Jews who escaped into Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem were settled on the southern borders of Egypt and entrusted with the duty of guarding the frontier, but that subsequently the community lost its military character. It did not, however, become absorbed in its surroundings, and retained its Jewish faith. Probably in 568 a big temple was erected in Elephantine. Here sacrifices were offered to Ya'u, the 'God of Heaven', although the cult of secondary deities was not excluded. The Elephantine papyri consist mostly of legal deeds, contracts and literary works. They also include, however, a certain number of letters and fragments of letters. We owe to the preservation of this correspondence the disclosure of some of the most interesting facts concerning the Jews of Elephantine.
The following letter bears witness to the revivalist efforts which were made during Nehemiah's lifetime in the remote colony on the Nile, and to the influence exercised by the Jews recently returned from Babylon to the Holy Land, and even by the Persian kings themselves, upon the religious life of the Egyptian Jews. Hananiah, the writer of this letter, was possibly identical with Hananiah, the ruler of the palace, who, according to Nehemiah vii. 2, was in charge over the restored Jerusalem. The letter itself is a religious appeal worthy of a 'faithful man' who 'feared God above many'. Oddly enough, its formula of greeting contains the Aramaic expression for 'the gods', which, however, as A. Cowley assumes, perhaps had become