views updated May 14 2018


ELEPHANTINE (Aram. יֵב, yb; Eg. ' ibw, ' bw; Gr. ieb), "the city of ivories," situated at the eastern bank of the southern end of a small island in the Nile, just north of the First Cataract and opposite the City of Sun (the Syene of Ezek. 29:10 and opposite modern Aswan). Its name relates to the natural rock formation along the river which, from even a short distance, looks like a herd of elephants. The Greek name Elephantine (΄Ελεφαντίνη; cf. Jos., Bellum, 4:611; Strabo, 16) was a rendering of the Egyptian name, itself preserved in the Aramaic name. Elephantine was sacred to the ram-headed god Khnum who was believed to control the annual inundation of the Nile from the First Cataract.

During the Old Kingdom, Elephantine was known as "The Door to the South" because it was the southernmost city of Egypt, and a frontier fortress defending access to Egypt from Nubia. During the Middle and New Kingdoms it was the center of the Egyptian administration of Nubia. Under Persian rule from 525 b.c.e., it was the center of Persian military command in Egypt, and there was a large mercenary camp at Elephantine which included companies or regiments (degalim, "banners") of Jewish soldiers (חילא יהודה).

Elephantine became known to the modern world at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of the Aramaic documents known as the Elephantine Papyri, which were first published by A.E. Cowley in 1923. A second collection, edited by Emil G. Kraeling, was published in 1953.

The Jewish military colony is well known from the Elephantine Papyri. These describe the lives of the mercenaries who lived in Elephantine in the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. as well as their families and others.

Much of the significance of the papyri lies in their forensic detail, such as those relating to marriage and divorce or with matters relating to commerce and inheritance. Others shed light on previously unknown or obscure historical occasions.

History of the Jewish Colony at Elephantine

There are no external sources on the history of the Elephantine community. When the southern frontier was exposed to Nubian raids, Jewish soldiers were sent to defend it, perhaps as early as during the Assyrian regime. The Jewish temple at Elephantine may have been built in the second half of the seventh century or at the beginning of the sixth but was constructed, in any event, before the Persian conquest of Egypt in the days of Cambyses' rule, as mentioned in the letter of the Elephantine Jews themselves (Cowley 1923: 30). It is sometimes said that there is a connection between the building of the temple at Elephantine and Isaiah's prophecy (19:19) concerning the "altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt" and the "pillar at the border thereof."

It is not thought that the soldiers of the garrison built the temple. The description contained in the Elephantine Jews' letter to Bagoas, the governor of Yahud (Cowley 30:9–12), attests to the great magnificence of the building, and apparently the Jewish mercenaries could not by themselves afford to erect such a splendid structure. Since there were also Jewish civilians living at Elephantine, the temple was probably not built until the civilians, together with the soldiers, financed the building project. Hence the temple was presumably not built in the early days of the Jewish settlement at Elephantine, but later when the community was better established and had achieved some prosperity and local standing.

The papyri indicate that there was a developed trade in property, such as homes and land. Other types of commerce also provided the Elephantine Jews with their livelihoods, for it was not only a frontier military post but also a center of commerce with Nubia, trading especially in ivory. The elite section of Elephantine society was probably small and its wealth limited. From the contributions to the temple (Cowley 22) and also from the gifts to Mivtahyah the daughter of Mahseiah (Cowley 15), it can be seen that silver was both uncommon and expensive.

In general, relations between the local Egyptians and the Jewish mercenaries and civilians were strained, although there were instances of marriage between Jews and Egyptians, in which case it would seem that the Egyptian partner had to convert to Judaism. This is inferred by several scholars from the fact that the Egyptian Asḥor's sons had Jewish names (Yedonyah and Mahseiah (Cowley 20)). However, as Bohak has stated (2002: 185), it is not possible to trace a single Jewish family over several generations to accurately establish the constancy of their Judaism in the face of intermarriage with locals.

In any event, the position of the Jews declined with the ascension of Egyptian power. While they were soldiers in the service of the Persian king their position was relatively secure, but with the expulsion of the Persians from Egypt at the end of the fifth century b.c.e. and the rise of the Egyptian kingdom, the position of the Elephantine Jews worsened (cf. the fragmentary document Cowley 37, which refers to a dispute between the Elephantine Jews, who were wronged and "fear robbery because they are few," and the Egyptians).

In 410 b.c.e., the temple of the Elephantine Jews was destroyed by the priests of the adjoining temple of Khnum (Cowley 1923: 30) after it was looted for gold and silver. The most common explanation for the act of destruction is that the priests of Khnum were angered by the sacrifice by the Jews of animals sacred to Khnum, particularly the sacrifice of sheep during Passover (Cowley 1923: 21). Three years after the destruction, the Elephantine Jews applied to the Persian governor of Yehud for permission to rebuild the temple. Permission was given, but on condition that animal sacrifices would no longer be made there (Porten 1968: 292). It is not known how much longer after this the Jewish temple stood, but the account of the community in the papyri ends in 399 b.c.e.

Even after the end of Persian rule in Egypt, it is not certain whether the Jewish colony at Elephantine persisted or not. Military requirements probably made it necessary to keep an army on the frontier even after the expulsion of the Persians, and it was unlikely that even a new administration would dispense with the Jewish soldiers who, for several generations, had been trained and experienced in guarding the southern frontier. By the end of the Ptolemaic period, Egypt's eastern frontier at Pelusium was run by a Jewish guard, and the Macedonians at the beginning of the Greek period in Egypt probably did not dispense with the services of the Jewish guards on the southern frontier, although there was a fundamental change in organization.

The Legal Papyri

The legal papyri shed light on the daily life of the Jewish military colony at Elephantine. Interestingly, both a husband and a wife had apparently equal power to unilaterally dissolve their marriage (Cowley 15; Kraeling 2, 7). Thus, the prospective bride had to consent to the marriage, and the prospective bridegroom was unable to obtain the father's consent without the girl's also: if she refused, her father could not compel her to marry him. As set out in another papyri (Cowley 15), a man asked the head of the family for the hand of the woman. If both agreed, the man recited the formula: "She is my wife and I am her husband from this day for ever," and also paid a dowry to the bride's father.

The gifts presented by the bridegroom to the bride Mivtaḥyah, the daughter of Mahseiah b. Yedonyah, are also set out in Cowley 15, with a note of their value, which is explicitly given in case the marriage is dissolved. This could be effected at the request of either husband or wife by one of them declaring in public that he or she "hates" the other. The results differed depending on who initiated the divorce. According to Cowley, in the event of Mivtaḥyah's rejecting her husband Asḥor, she would have to cover the cost of the dissolution of the marriage contract, that is, seven and a half shekels but, even then, the goods and chattels which she brought into the marriage remained hers after the dissolution of that union.

However if Asḥor dissolved the marriage, he forfeited the dowry, but Mivtaḥyah had to return all that her husband had given her during their marriage. To protect a wife against her husband's capriciousness, a further regulation was laid down to the effect that if the husband arbitrarily divorced his wife with the plea that he had another wife or other children, he had to pay a heavy fine (according to Cowley 15, 20 karsah = 200 shekels) and all the conditions of the marriage agreement in whatever concerned the wife were annulled. All these stipulations refer to a marriage between free persons.

Dated 449 b.c.e., Kraeling 2 is the marriage document of Tamut, the handmaiden of Meshullam b. Zaccur. Married to Ananiah b. Azariah, she remained a handmaiden even after her marriage, but another papyrus (Kraeling 5) shows that she and her daughter Yehoyishma eventually gained their freedom after Tamut had been married for 18 years, although they both remained closely aligned to the family.

A woman's status at Elephantine could also be gauged from the gifts she received as a wife and a daughter (Kraeling 5, 9; Cowley 8). Inheritance laws were also revealed in the Elephantine papyri. It is evident that sons inherited, but less so in the case of daughters (where there were also sons in the family). It seems likely that a daughter's right to inherit existed only when there were no sons. Possibly this was the origin of the institution of the gifts made to daughters – a compensation for their being discriminated against in the matter of inheritance.

In three papyri, Cowley 15 and Kraeling 2 and 7, there are illuminating comments on the inheritance of a widow and a widower. Cowley 15 states that if Mivtaḥyah died without male or female issue, Asḥor "inherited her goods and chattels"; but if Asḥor died without Mivtahyah having borne his children, male or female, "she had the right to his goods and chattels." This difference in wording is explained by scholars as indicating that in such a case the widower's right to inherit the assets was established in law, but in the case of the widow it was a matter of some sort of agreement or negotiation.

The Elephantine papyri also give instances of transactions in landed and other property, the site of which was fixed according to the adjoining land or houses, a procedure familiar from many papyri of the Ptolemaic period and the days of Roman rule of Egypt. With the help of these documents it is possible to reconstruct with some degree of certainty the location of the Jewish temple at Elephantine (cf. the plan in Kraeling, p. 81).

The Religion of the Jews in Elephantine

The Elephantine Jews brought with them the religion of the early prophets shortly before the destruction of the First Temple. This religion placed the God of Judah, Yahu (a name which occurs in several variants in the papyri), at the center of faith and worship. This is revealed by the fact that those who ministered in the Elephantine Jews' temple are referred to in the papyri as kohanim ("priests"), while the gentile cults are said to have kemarim ("idolatrous priests") – exactly as in the Bible.

It is interesting to note that the Elephantine Jews saw nothing amiss in having their own temple even though a temple to the God of Israel existed in Jerusalem. They appealed to the high priest Jehohanan to take steps to rebuild their temple, destroyed by the priests of Khnum, without any thought that he might regard it as a grave sin. It is evident from the Elephantine Papyri (Cowley 30), that those who wrote the letter to the Persian governor were surprised that the high priest in Jerusalem had not answered them. However, perhaps the Jews at Elephantine were unaware of the upheaval in Jerusalem, the ousting of the temple hierarchy by the returnees from the Babylonian exile and their establishment of the old/new Temple and Torah-based cult.

The Elephantine Jews' temple was originally established to serve as a focus of worship for the Jewish military and civilian colony which, remote from the land of Judah, needed some religious center. If the Temple of Zerubbabel was built more or less according to the plan of the First Temple, the description of the Elephantine temple given in papyrus Cowley 30 shows that it had an altogether different shape. It was adorned with stone pillars and hewn stone and had a roof of cedar and five gates with bronze hinges. In the temple were also various articles of furniture as well as bowls of gold and silver.

On the altar, the full range of sacrifices were offered before the destruction of the temple (by the priests of Khnum in 410 b.c.e.) and after the rebuilding of the temple, animal sacrifice was no longer permitted. Whether the order of worship was like that observed in the Temple at Jerusalem cannot be ascertained. However, this is improbable, if only for the reason that Yahu was not the only god housed in the Elephantine temple, since a list of the Elephantine Jews' gifts to their temple (Cowley 22), totaling 31 karash and 8 shekels, states that 12 karash and 8 shekels were for Yahu (ibid., p. 70:123), 7 karash for Ashambethel (ibid., loc. cit.: 124), and 12 karash for Anathbethel (ibid., loc cit.: 125).

It seems clear that two goddesses dwelt alongside Yahu, and may have been worshipped with Him in the Elephantine temple. The element 'Asham' in Ashambethel is to be identified with the Ashmat of Samaria mentioned in Amos (8:14), while Bethel as an element in a compound proper noun current in Judah in the days of Darius I is mentioned in Zechariah 7:2. The same applies to Anathbethel: Anath was well known in Ereẓ Israel, as is indicated by place-names such as Anathoth and Beth-Anath.

This situation in Elephantine supports the assumption that the Jewish garrison there was an ancient one, with its origins in (if not before) the days of Manasseh. In the fifth century b.c.e., the relationship between the Jews at Elephantine and Jerusalem was not close, and no remains of the Pentateuch have been discovered at Elephantine, although the finding of the "Book of Ahikar" there shows that the community contained lovers of ethical and wisdom literature. It may also explain another, more interesting fact, namely that of the festivals of Israel only the observance of Passover is mentioned at Elephantine. Passover was observed in Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah (ii Chron. 30:13–27) and Josiah (ii Kings 23:21–23; ii Chron. 35:1–18). During the First Temple period no mention is made of Tabernacles – the first mention of its observance in Jerusalem belongs to the Second Temple period, in the time of Ezra (cf. Neh. 8:13–18), and its reintroduction in the fifth century had not yet spread beyond the borders of Judah. As some papyri are earlier than Ezra and Nehemiah and others only a few years later, the observance of Tabernacles was therefore unknown to them. The document referring to Passover (Cowley 21) contains King Darius ii's edict of 419 b.c.e. (the fifth year of his reign) to the governor Arsames that the Jewish forces (and perhaps also Jews outside Elephantine) were to celebrate Passover.

Detailed religious instructions were given on what the Jews were to do to preserve the sanctity of the festival. The document is a copy of the original edict which was brought to the attention of Yedoniyah by Hananiah, apparently a Jew influential with the authorities. The contents of the document show that the rules of eating unleavened bread and of abstaining from leaven were known and properly observed at that time, in keeping with the commandments of the Torah.

Organization of the Military Colony

With the help of the Elephantine Papyri, an extremely clear picture can be drawn of the organization of the Jewish military colony as it existed at the end of the fifth century b.c.e. The Elephantine Jews constituted a military unit known as "the Jewish force" (חילא יהודה). There were also Jews at Elephantine who were not part of the military establishment. Every Jewish soldier belonged to a degel (company or regiment), and was referred to as "a man of the degel" (ba'al degel, בעל דגל), the Jewish civilian as "a man of the town" (ba'al kiryah, בעל קריה; Cowley 5:9, 13:10). The names of the degalim are not Jewish but Persian or Babylonian, and the same applies to the higher command. At the head of the Jewish force was a commander of the garrison (יב חילא), above whom was the fratarak, corresponding more or less to a general. These were non-Jews.

The Elephantine documents also mention "a hundred" as a military unit, apparently smaller than a degel. Despite the extensive civilian freedom granted to them, as attested by the Elephantine papyri, the Jews there, being soldiers, required the Persian regime's permission for any change which interfered with their military duties. As soldiers subject to military discipline, they were tried by the military authorities at Elephantine or at Syene. Nevertheless, they enjoyed a large measure of civilian freedom in everything pertaining to their personal lives. They led a normal family life, were allowed to transact business among themselves or with non-Jews, to buy and sell landed property and houses, and to bequeath these to their children. As soldiers, however, they received their rations from the king (Cowley 24), being allotted a monthly ration in grain (usually barley) and legumes (Cowley 2; Kraeling 11:3ff.) and payment in silver (Cowley 2:16, 11:6). At Elephantine there was a "royal storehouse" (Kraeling 3:9, et al.). Accountants (Cowley 26:4ff.) and scribes (Cowley 2:12, 14) supervised the disbursement of goods and funds. One administrative document (Cowley 24) shows:

Ardab (c. 1 quart):1

The monetary system combined the Persian karash (83.3 grams) with the Egyptian shekel (8.76 grams), a half-shekel agio being added to make 10 shekels equal 1 karash.

It is nonetheless clear that their wealth derived from commerce. The documents show that the Elephantine Jews attained a certain degree of wealth and some of them, especially the civilians, a measure of opulence. They occupied an intermediate position between a professional soldier living by his sword and a civilian engaged in a craft, in commerce, or in cultivating the soil. The same situation obtained in the Hellenistic period when, for example, the cleruchies were both soldiers and farmers. The status of the fifth-century Elephantine Jews can also be compared to that of the Babylonian Jewish military colony sent at the command of Antiochus iii to Phrygia and Lydia, where the colonists were settled on the soil and in the cities and constituted a garrison loyal to the Seleucids, at the same time cultivating the land allotted to them by the king.

An active civilian life at Elephantine is attested by the various civilian officials mentioned in the papyri, such as judges (Cowley 16:4–5, 9), state scribes (ספרי מדינתא: Cowley 17:1, 6), and others. It is however probable that these officials were not Jews but Persians or other non-Jews. At the head of the Elephantine Jewish community was its most prominent personality, who represented it both internally and externally. At the end of the fifth century b.c.e. the leader of the community was Yedonyah b. Gemariah who with his colleagues sent the famous letter about the temple to Bagoas.


Z. Ben-Ḥayyim in: Eretz Israel, 1 (1951), 135–9; G. Bohak, "Ethnic Continuity in the Jewish Diaspora in Antiquity," in: John R. Bartlett (ed.), Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities, Rout-ledge (2002); E. Bresciani and M. Kamil, in: Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, ser. 8, vol. 12 (1966), 357–428; U. Cassuto, in Qedem, 1 (1942), 47–52; A.E. Cowley, "Some Egyptian Aramaic Documents," in: psba (1903), 25: 202–8, 259–63; idem, Aramaic (1923); G.R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century bc (1954, 1957); A.S. Hirschberg, in: Ha-Tekufah, 8 (1920), 339–68; W. Kaiser, Elephantine: The Ancient Town, dai: 1998; E.G. Kraeling (ed.), Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953); E.Y. Kutscher, Qedem, 2 (1945), 66–74; E. Meyer, Der Papyrusfund von Elephantine (1912); B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (1968); idem, "Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine," in: bar (May/June 1995); idem (2003), "Elephantine and the Bible," in: L.H. Schiffman (ed.), Semitic Papyrology in Context (2003), 51–84; S.G. Rosenberg, "The Jewish Temple at Elephantine," in: nea, 67:1 (2004); E. Sachau, Aramaeische Papyrusund Ostraka aus einerjuedischen Militaer-Kolonie zu Elephantine, 2 vols. (1911); A.H. Sayce and A.E. Cowley (eds.), Aramaic Papyri Discovered at Assuan (1906); E.L. Sukenik and E.Y. Kutscher, Qedem, 1 (1942), 53–56; C. von Pilgrim "The Town Site of the Island of Elephantine," in: Egyptian Archaeology, 10:16–18; R. Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri (1961); idem, Ha-Mishpat shel Mismekhei Yev (1961); idem, in jss, 2 (1957), 33–61; 3 (1958), 1–39.

[Abraham Schalit /

Lidia Matassa (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 14 2018

Elephantiné. City situated on an island in the Nile river. Elephantiné was the site of the discovery of a collection of papyri written in Aramaic dating back to the 5th cent. BCE. They include legal documents, fragments of the Book of Ahikar and letters. Two goddesses seem to have been worshipped there as well as the Hebrew God.


views updated May 29 2018

el·e·phan·tine / ˌeləˈfantēn; -ˌtīn; ˈeləfənˌtēn; -ˌtīn/ • adj. of, resembling, or characteristic of an elephant or elephants, esp. in being large, clumsy, or awkward: there was an elephantine thud from the bathroom.