Papyri mentioning Jews and Judaism have been found in excavations at *Masada (dating to the period of the Jewish War against Rome in the first century c.e.), in caves in the Judean desert at *Qumran and Murabba'at (from the first and second centuries c.e., with the dramatic exception of one document thought to be from the eighth century b.c.e.; see *Dead Sea Scrolls; *Bar Kokhba), and in Egypt. The languages used are Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Nabatean. Another important discovery was the *Nash papyrus discovered by L.W. Nash and published in 1903. The earliest Jewish papyri from Egypt are written in an Aramaic not greatly different from biblical Aramaic. Such papyri, dating from the late sixth through the fifth centuries b.c.e., have been found at various sites, including *Elephantine, Memphis, and, most recently, Hermopolis Magna. At Elephantine, a Jewish and Samaritan military colony, dating from the seventh or sixth century, provides an important source of papyri from the fifth century, when Egypt was under Persian domination. Most of these papyri are legal documents concerning marriage, divorce, manumission of slaves, loans, business contracts, litigation, and sales or gifts of property. Certain private letters are found on papyri and ostraca. The papyri attest to the existence of a Temple of yhwh, and the celebration of a Feast of Unleavened Bread, though possibly not in the form which is familiar from the Bible; evidence for the observance of the Sabbath is less certain. Geographical and racial considerations made it necessary for the Jews of Elephantine to tolerate and recognize other deities. The Temple was destroyed in 410, but certainly restored a few years later. The colony seems to have survived the change from Persian to Saitic rule, but to have disappeared finally in the course of the fourth century b.c.e. The Greco-Roman material from the Ptolemaic and the two Roman periods (323 b.c.e.–641/2 c.e.) which has been collected in Tcherikover, et al. cpj (1957–60), contains over 500 documents, both papyri and ostraca, concerning Jews from many parts of Egypt, particularly the towns of the Fayum. The criteria taken by the editors for deciding whether a document is "Jewish" are, broadly: the occurrence of specifically Jewish institutions, Jewish names, and places of exclusively Jewish settlement, though the editors state the difficulty of identifying Jewish names, and have accordingly omitted many uncertain cases (ibid., i introduction). The papyri, in conjunction with ostraca and inscriptions, give a full picture of the social and economic state of the Jews in towns and villages throughout Egypt. Jews are found negotiating loans, participating in contracts, paying taxes in the same way as the other inhabitants of Egypt, fitting into the existing legal and bureaucratic structure, and even adopting Greek, Roman, and Egyptian names. The papyri provide religious information attesting to the existence of synagogues and the affirmation, at certain times, of the right of Jews to practice their religion. Evidence of the spread of Jewish religious and cultural influence can be seen in some demotic papyri and magical texts, and in the practice, among non-Jews, of adopting names connected with the Sabbath. The reliability of the papyri in points of detail provides valuable historical evidence which can be used to supplement and sometimes correct the evidence of *Philo and *Josephus, who drew their material from the richer and socially superior Alexandrian Jews. Papyri give evidence, for instance, of the spread of the Jewish Revolt of 115–7 c.e. in Egypt, information which is given by no other source.
Tcherikover, Corpus; idem, in: Sefer Magnes (1938), 199ff. (English summary); idem, Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim ba-Tekufah ha-Hellenistit ha-Romit le-Or ha-Papirologyah (19632); idem and F. Heichelheim, in: htr, 35 (1942), 2544; idem, Auswaertige Bevoelkerung im Ptolemaeerreich (1925, 19632), 100ff.; A.E. Cowley (ed. and tr.), Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century b.c. (1923); G.R. Driver (ed.), Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century b.c. (1957); E.G. Kraeling, Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953); R. Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri (1961); H. Cazelles, in: Syria, 32 (1955), 75–100 (Fr.); H.I. Bell, Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1953), 27–33; W.F. Albright, in: jbl, 56 (1937), 145–76 (includes the Nash papyrus Ms.); idem, in: basor, no 115 (1949), 10–19 (facs. of Nash papyrus). add. bibliography: K.W. Clark, "The Posture of the Ancient Scribe," in: Biblical Archaeologist, 26 (1963), 63–72; B. Porten, "Aramaic Papyri and Parchments: A New Look," in: Biblical Archaeologist 42 (1979), 74–104; M. Haran, "Book-scrolls in Israel in Pre-exilic Times," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 33 (1982), 161–73; idem, "Book-scrolls in Eastern and Western Communities from Qumran to High Middle Ages," in: huca, 56 (1985), 21–62.
[Alan Keir Bowman]