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Ezra in Egypt? The Significance of Hananyah’s Mission

In: Vetus Testamentum
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  • 1 Universiteit van Amsterdam
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Abstract

The history of the Jewish community at Elephantine plays a crucial role in the reconstruction of the early history of Judaism. One document in particular sheds a light on the emerging Jewish identity in the diaspora. It is Hananyah’s so-called Passover Letter. This contribution investigates the significance of Hananyah’s mission in Egypt, and more particularly its relationship with the missions of Ezra and Nehemiah. The investigation permits three conclusions. One, the Persians did not distinguish between ethnicity and religion; two, the codification of Jewish ritual preceded the codification of the Torah; and three, Jewish identity in the late 5th century allowed significant latitude in matters of doctrine and lifestyle.

Abstract

The history of the Jewish community at Elephantine plays a crucial role in the reconstruction of the early history of Judaism. One document in particular sheds a light on the emerging Jewish identity in the diaspora. It is Hananyah’s so-called Passover Letter. This contribution investigates the significance of Hananyah’s mission in Egypt, and more particularly its relationship with the missions of Ezra and Nehemiah. The investigation permits three conclusions. One, the Persians did not distinguish between ethnicity and religion; two, the codification of Jewish ritual preceded the codification of the Torah; and three, Jewish identity in the late 5th century allowed significant latitude in matters of doctrine and lifestyle.

The So-Called Passover Letter

In 419 bce, the leader of the Jewish community at Elephantine received a letter from Memphis sent by a man named Hananyah (A4.1).1 The remains of this letter turned up during the German excavations of the island and were first published in 1911.2 Despite the damage to the text, it stirred a great interest among scholars. The message seemed to give directions about Passover, one of the great festivals of the Jewish calendar and an annual reminder of the exodus from Egypt. The text came to be known as the Passover Papyrus.3 As it turns out, the title is misleading since the Passover Papyrus is actually not about Passover but about the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Mazzoth). Lines 3-9 contain detailed instructions about dates and procedures. Much of what has been lost in the papyrus can be plausibly restored on the basis of a comparison with such biblical passages as Exodus 12:15-20 and Deuteronomy 16:1-4. Mazzoth and Passover were distinct celebrations only later brought together. But if the Elephantine Jews celebrated Mazzoth, they must have observed Passover as well. In fact references to Passover in the ostraca show that the community was familiar with the festival by the beginning of the 5th century bce, generations before Hananyah came to Egypt.4 One Elephantine Passover ostracon is concerned with the precise date of the festival: “Let me know when you observe the Passover” (D7.6:8-10). Hahanyah sent directions about the cultic calendar. His purpose was not the introduction of a new festival, but the clarification of the days on which it should be held, as well as the proper rites to be observed.

Aside from his name, there is very little we know about Hananyah. The Passover Papyrus is the only letter he left us. Elsewhere in the documents from Elephantine, his name occurs one other time. In 411 bce, the Persian commander of the garrison at Syene arrested the secretary of the Jewish community of Elephantine. The event took place in Abydos, a city located some 330 km downstream from Syene, beyond Thebes. Shortly after his release, the secretary wrote home to solicit the cooperation of the community in the investigation that two Egyptian officials were coming to conduct (A4.3). The historical background of the incident—a precious stone, reported stolen by the Egyptians, then found in the possession of Jewish merchants—deserves a longer treatment in its own right. In the present connection, the point of interest is the letter’s reference to Hananyah. The secretary reminds his colleagues of the fact that “Khnum has been against us since Hananyah was in Egypt until now” (A4.3:7). Khnum stands for the Egyptian community of Elephantine. Hananyah’s mission of 419, then, had led to a deterioration of the relations between Egyptians and Jews on the island. So what had actually happened that would produce this effect?

Some authors have speculated that Hananyah’s mission antagonized the Egyptians of Elephantine because his instructions for Passover—or Mazzoth, to be precise—were an implicit reminder to the Jews that they were celebrating victory over the Egyptians and liberation from the House of Servitude.5 But there is nothing in the papyri that warrants such a theory. In the one letter we possess, Hananyah does not even hint at the tale that came to be part of the story of Passover. Nor is there any evidence to the effect that the sacrifice of a Passover lamb was a source of unease among the worshippers of Khnum.6 Such and similar conjectures assume that the tensions between Jews and Egyptians were religious in nature, because the mission of Hananyah was about religious ritual. But Jews and Egyptians had been living side by side on the island for more than a century; each group had celebrated its own rituals without for that reason hurting the religious sensibilities of the other. Besides, Hananyah did not bring a new ritual to Elephantine. His instructions were about dates and procedure.

In fact, the most significant part of Hananyah’s letter is not in the main body of the text but in the lines that precede it. First of all, Hananyah has a peculiar way of addressing his readers. “To my brothers Yedanyah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananyah” (A4.1:1, cf. 10). This is the first occurrence of the expression “the Jewish garrison;” the only other time is in the heading of the List of Temple Contributions from 400 bce (C3.15:1). In an important study from 2002, Ingo Kottsieper has argued that the use of this expression reflects the official recognition on the part of the local Persian authorities of the Jews as a distinct group.7 Since the Jews were in fact serving in the Syenian garrison (the ḥylʾ swnknyʾ, C3.14:32)—for which reason the leadership of the community referred to itself in 407 bce as “Syenians” (A4.10:6)—it is questionable whether the term ḥaylāʾ, literally “the force,” is to be taken in the narrow technical sense of garrison as a military unit. The more likely interpretation takes the term in the wider meaning of “community.”8 Yet the stress on the Jewish identity of the Elephantine community is unmistakable. Hananyah addresses them as “my brothers” (ʾḥy), thereby emphasizing their membership in an ethnic community living across the Persian Empire—in Babylonia, Judah, and Egypt. The formulas used in Hananyah’s salutation reflect a distinct awareness of Jewish identity.

The second element of significance is the reference to a Persian decree. “And now, this very year, year 5 of King Darius, it has been sent to Arsames [as follows: . . . .].” Before Hananyah proceeds with outlining the rules to be followed in connection with Mazzoth, then, he quotes the text of an official decree of Darius. Its content can only be guessed at. There is room for 5 to 7 words. Because the decree is quoted to legitimize and lend authority to the instructions about Mazzoth, it must have been about the Jews and their right to practice their own religion; something along the lines of “Let the Jews observe the rites of their religion.” The significance of Hananyah’s letter does not reside in the details about Mazzoth, but in the Persian decree on which his mission was founded. The Jews had been recognized as a distinct nation entitled to practice its own religion. The prerogative was a duty too. Hence Hananyah’s emphasis of the Jewish identity of his audience; being part of the Jewish nation, they were to perform their rituals according to the prescriptions that were valid for every Jew in the Persian Empire.

The Persian Millet System

In the scholarly discussion of the Passover Letter, the Darius decree is frequently called a firman—the very word also used in connection with the Artaxerxes decree legitimizing the activities of Ezra (Ezra 7:12-26).9 The term firman suggests a parallel between the Persian policy towards the various ethnic groups in their empire and the millet system practiced in the Ottoman Empire. Firman is a Persian term and refers to a written order issued by the sovereign. Applied to the decrees of the ancient Persian kings, however, the word is an anachronism since it makes its first appearance only in the 17th century ce. The practice of the firman is best known through the fermans of the Ottoman sultans (ferman being the Turkish term). There is indeed a remarkable parallel between the mechanics of power in the Ottoman Empire and that of the Persians—more specifically the Achaemenids. Although the Ottoman Sultans were Muslims, the empire over which they ruled was not Islamic. The majority of their subjects may have been Muslims, but there were large groups of non-Muslims as well—most notably Christian communities from various backgrounds, persuasions, and traditions, as well as significant groups of Jews. These were not expected to adopt the religion of the Sultan. The Ottomans followed a policy that promoted loyalty to the Sultan as core virtue in all their subjects, while allowing the various “nations” (the Turkish word is millet) to live in accordance with the rules and laws of their own religion. The various millets were largely defined on the basis of their religion; also, their leaders were usually men of religion. As long as a millet paid its dues to the Sultan, in terms of taxes and services, it would enjoy a great deal of autonomy. Eventually, the millet system would collapse under the impact of nationalism in the 19th century.

About 2000 years earlier, the Persian rulers followed a similar policy. They promoted a millet system without the benefit of the term. Loyalty to the King—and, through the chain of command, the satrap, governor, and garrison commander—was the first commandment; but the second commandment recognized that the different communities in the Empire had a right to live by the rules of their own religion. Once an ethnic community was recognized as such, the Persian administration focused on two aspects. One was the creation and maintenance of a properly functioning infrastructure in terms of administrative centers and leadership. Second was the written codification of the rules and laws in vigor within the community. It was the Persian way to deal with diversity. Under these circumstances, the claim to nationhood was almost as politically significant as it is today, when nationhood implies the right to an independent state. Nationhood and religion were intimately linked; the Persians did not make the difference. Once an ethnic group was formally recognized as a distinct nation, it had the right to conduct its life by its own religious code.

Ezra in Egypt?

Hananyah’s mission has been compared with the missions of Ezra and Nehemiah. “Hananiah was for the Judeans at Elephantine what, according to the biblical account, Ezra and Nehemiah were for the Judeans in the province of Judah.”10 The comparison is intriguing; how perfect is the parallel? The principal analogy between Hananyah, Ezra and Nehemiah concerns their role as ambassadors authorized by royal decree to carry out reforms in the Jewish community, either in Egypt or in Judah. Their ways part when it comes to the nature of their reforms. The reform of Hananyah seems minor; he established the official ritual calendar of the Jews in Elephantine, specifying what should be done at what particular time. There is no hint at any doctrinal reform. Though the books of Ezra and Nehemiah do pay attention to the observation of the Jewish festival calendar, the purported activities of Ezra and Nehemiah had a different focus.11 Nehemiah’s name is linked, first and foremost, to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem; secondarily, he is said to have endorsed a program of ethnic and cultic purification. Ezra, on the other hand, is the scholar, the man who promulgated the Torah of Moses as the law of the Jews.

Some authors have suggested Hananyah’s mission led to bad blood between Jews and Egyptians because Hananyah came after Nehemiah; the mission of Hananyah in 419 bce, would have been an extension of the reform program of Nehemiah in the days of Artaxerxes (r. 465-424).12 Especially the new policy toward mixed marriages would have touched a nerve among the Jews of Elephantine. Leading members of the community had married Egyptians. Lady Mibṭaḥya, aunt of the community’s leader at the time of Hananyah’s mission—Yedanyah son of Gemaryah—had two sons from Eshor, an Egyptian architect in government service.13 And a man who was steward in the Temple of Yaho—Ananyah son of Azaryah—had married an Egyptian girl.14 In other cases, marriage with an Egyptian partner can be deduced from the fact that one or more of the children received Egyptian names.15 If Hananyah had indeed been exporting the Nehemiah reforms from Jerusalem to the diaspora in Egypt, the Egyptians of Elephantine would have had excellent reasons to dislike him.

However, there is very little evidence, if any, of a deliberate change in lifestyle among the Elephantine Jews under the impact of Hananyah’s mission. Hananyah acted on the authority of the Persian government; he was an envoy from Persia; there is no reason to believe he came from Jerusalem charged with a mission by the authorities in Judah.16 The possibility that Hananyah was the brother of Nehemiah—for some authors a possibility so wildly attractive that in their mind it assumes the certainty of a fact—is just that—a possibility and nothing more.17 There were many Hananyahs at the time. The only piece of evidence that might point to a new attitude toward mixed marriage among the Elephantine Jews is the name substitution of the husband of Mibtahyah. In texts from before 419 he is called Eshor (as in B2.9, dated 420 bce); in texts after 419 he goes by the name of Natan (as in B2.10, dated 416 bce). By 419 bce, however, Mibṭaḥyah’s Egyptian marriage had ended since years—either by divorce or through the death of her husband.18 So if the change from Eshor to Natan is evidence of a conversion to the Jewish religion, it was a posthumous one. Almost anything is possible—there are people who baptize themselves for the dead—but the presumed post-mortem purge of the records fails to carry conviction. Double names were quite common; Natan is a very common Jewish name; there is no reason to be surprised if the Egyptian husband of Mibṭaḥyah would be referred to as Natan in his day-to-day relations with Jews. Also, the presence of a number of Egyptian names in the list of payments to the Yaho temple (C3.15, date: 400 bce) suggests that mixed marriages had not become a subject of opprobrium.19 Marriages with Egyptians are likely to have decreased in number because Jewish-Egyptian relations had suffered; but there is no evidence of a ban on mixed marriage at Elephantine.

If the mission of Hananyah bears little resemblance to the mission of Nehemiah, how about its connection with the work of Ezra? On the face of it, the question is almost impossible to answer in the absence of hard data. Ezra was a historical personality, but the Bible has turned him into a symbolic figure. The actual dates of Ezra’s mission have been, and still are, hotly debated. According to the Bible, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem “in the 7th year of Artaxerxes” (Ezra 7:7-8). But which Araxerxes is this, number i (465-424) or number ii (404-359)? The traditional view puts Ezra in the reign of Artaxerxes i, which gives him historical precedence over Nehemiah. Today, many scholars tend to reverse the chronological order: first came Nehemiah, then Ezra (under Artaxerxes ii). Some might say that these are trivial technicalities since the historical reliability of the biblical data is questionable anyway. But it does matter to establish the status of the Torah at the time of Hananyah’s letter (419 bce). Had the Pentateuch gained a place as the written law of the Jews? Both the content of Hananyah’s letter and what we know about the literature familiar to the community at Elephantine makes it difficult to believe this. In his instructions about Mazzoth, Hananyah does not mention either Moses or a Sacred Text. His authority derives from a ferman of the the Persian King. If there had been a formally codified Jewish law, Hananyah would have mentioned it as his source. He does not for the Pentateuch was as yet only a virtual reality. The Elephantine Jews were Jews without a Bible. They knew Aḥiqar and—by the witness of Papyrus Amherst 63—quite a collection of hymns and prayers, including a few Psalms—but that was it. And those were texts with the authority of tradition not divine revelation.

In fact, the so-called Passover Papyrus is a key witness for the fifth century being the terminus post quem for the rise of the Pentateuch to canonical status. The Torah gained its authority sometime “between Elephantine and Qumran,” to quote a phrase by Reinhard Kratz, meaning between 400 and 150 bce.20 The distinctive features of Hananyah’s mission allow an important observation about Jewish diaspora identity after Darius and before the Pentateuch. What did it mean to be Jewish at Elephantine? Apparently Jewish identity at Elephantine did not coincide with the Jewish identity purportedly promoted by Nehemiah in Jerusalem. When the Persians formally recognized the Jews as a separate ethnic-religious community, they did not define it in terms of a formal body of doctrine. In their eyes, Jews were recognizable through their worship of Yaho (or variant forms of the divine name) and a common ritual calendar. The priority of ritual over doctrine may come as a surprise for those who think that behavior follows belief; this, however, is a view that finds little support in the history of religions. In the Persian Empire, the Jewish community was a diaspora community with great internal diversity. Hananyah’s mission marks a step toward greater conformity in the observation of the ritual calendar; it did not impose ethnic purity nor adherence to a strict monotheism. Hananyah was not Ezra in Egypt. Ezra was yet to come; his codification of Jewish tradition would go well beyond the modest codification of Mazzoth which Hananyah brought to the Jewish diaspora.

1

All references to the Elephantine texts are to the copies published by Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt (4 vols; Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1986-1999), the letters A, B, C, and D being used to designate the pertinent volume.

2

Eduard Sachau, Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka au seiner jüdischen Militärkolonie zu Elephantine (Altorientalische Sprachdenkmäler des 5. Jahrhunderts vor Chr.; Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1911), 36-40 and Tafel 6; Arthur Ungnad, Aramäische Papyrus aus Elephantine: Kleine Ausgabe unter Zugrundelegung von Eduard Sachau’s Erstausgabe (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1911), 13 no. 6 (“Sendschreiben betreffend das Passahfest”).

3

Instead of a complete list, the reader is referred to some of the more significant studies. See Albert Vincent, La religion des Judéo-Araméens d’Éléphantine (Paris: Geuthner, 1937), 234-311; Pierre Grelot, “Le papyrus pascal d’Éléphantine et le problème du Pentateuque,” vt 5 (1955), 250-265; Ingo Kottsieper, “Die Religionspolitik der Achämeniden und die Juden von Elephantine,” in: Reinhard G. Kratz, ed., Religion und Religionskontakte im Zeitalter der Achämeniden (Veröffentlichen der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft für Theologie 22; Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser, 2002), 150-178, esp. 150-158; Reinhard G. Kratz, “Temple and Torah: Reflections on the Legal Status of the Pentateuch between Elephantine and Qumran,” in: Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson, eds., The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 77-103, esp. 84-87; Angela Rohrmoser, Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: Archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten (Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 396; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014), 341-357.

4

For references to Passover in the ostraca see Cl.-G. 62, cv 4, for which see Hélène Lozachmeur, La Collection Clermont-Ganneau: Ostraca, épigraphes sur jarre, étiquettes de bois (Paris: De Boccard, 2006), 229-230; D7.6; and D7.24.

5

See, e.g., Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1968), 281-282.

6

So already Arthur Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), 62.

7

Ingo Kottsieper, “Die Religionspolitik der Achämeniden und die Juden von Elephantine,” in: Reinhard G. Kratz, ed., Religion und Religionskontakte im Zeitalter der Achämeniden (Veröffentlichen der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft für Theologie 22; Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser, 2002), 150-178, esp. 157.

8

So already Albin van Hoonacker, Une Communauté, 82-83: “Il est evident que cette ‘armée’ dont Jedonja-bar-Gemarja et consorts sont les chefs, et dont font partie les femmes, n’est pas autre chose que la société nationale-religieuse des serviteurs de Jahô à Éléphantine; c’est l’équivalent du qhl ou du ʿm hébreu.”

9

See, e.g., Vincent, La religion, 259; Pierre Grelot, Documents araméens d’Égypte (lapo 5; Paris: Cerf, 1972), 381. For the use of the term in connection with the Ezra decree see, e.g., Reinhard G. Kratz, “Judean Ambassadors and the Making of Jewish Identity: The Case of Hananiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah,” in: Oded Lipschits, Gary N. Knoppers, and Manfred Oeming, eds., Judah and the Judeans in the Achaemenid Period (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 421-444, esp. 432; Gary N. Knoppers, “The Construction of Judean Diasporic Identity in Ezra-Nehemiah,” Journal of Hebrew Scripture 15 (2015), 1-21, e.g. pp. 8, 10, and passim; Dieter Böhler, I Esdras (trans. Linda M. Maloney; International Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2016), commentary to 1 Esdras 8:8.

10

Reinhard G. Kratz, “Temple and Torah: Reflections on the Legal Status of the Pentateuch between Elephantine and Qumran,” in: Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson, eds., The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 77-103, quotation p. 88. See also Reinhard G. Kratz, “Judean Ambassadors and the Making of Jewish Identity: The Case of Hananiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah,” in: Oded Lipschits, Gary N. Knoppers, and Manfred Oeming, eds., Judah and the Judeans in the Achaemenid Period (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 421-444.

11

Note the references to Mazzoth and Passover (Ezra 6:19-22); and the Festival of Booths (Succoth, Nehemiah 8:13-18).

12

The Book of Nehemiah reports two tours of duty in Judah; Nehemiah’s first term as governor (peḥah) lasted from 445 to 433 (Nehemiah 5:14; 13:6); his second term ran presumably from 428 to 426.

13

Mibṭahyah’s archive is conveniently accessible in a recent English translation by Bezalel Porten, see Bezalel Porten in Porten et al., The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (Second Revised Edition; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 154-202 (nos. 23-33). For a recent study of Mibṭaḥyah see Annalisa Azzoni, The Private Lives of Women in Persian Egypt (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 134-136.

14

For the Ananyah archive see Porten et al., The Elephantine Papyri in English, 203-253, nos. 34-46.

15

See, e.g., Isi-weri daughter of Gemaryah, B5.5:2; Hosea son of Peṭe-Ḥnum, Cl.-G. 177 (= Lozachmeur, La collection, 326-327); B2.2:17; Yigdal son of Psamy, Cl.-G. 143 (= Lozachmeur, La collection, 296); Zekaryah son of Psamy, B5.3:9.

16

For the opposite view see Pierre Briant, Histoire de l’Empire Perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre (Paris: Fayard, 1996), 603-604, who argues that the Persian King had conferred upon Jerusalem the right to intervene in the religious practice of the Jewish diaspora.

17

See, e.g., Albin van Hoonacker, Une Communauté Judéo-Araméenne à Éléphantine, en Égypte, aux VIe et Ve siècles av. J.-C. (The Schweich Lectures 1914; London: Humphrey Milton, Oxford University Press, 1915), 40. For references to Hananyah (Hanani) the brother of Nehemiah, see Nehemiah 1:2; 7:2.

18

The marriage between Mibṭaḥyah and Esḥor took place in 449 bce (see B2.6). In 440 a colleague of Esḥor wrote Mibṭaḥyah a withdrawal from goods, after her oath to the goddess Sati. It has been speculated that this colleague—one Peu son of Pakhoi—was another husband of Mibṭaḥyah (either the second or the third), see Grelot, Documents, 189. I interpret the document a settlement between Mibṭaḥyah and a colleague of her former husband Esḥor about her legitimate possessions after the end of the marriage.

19

See C3.15:72, 81, 82, 84, 88.

20

Reinhard G. Kratz, “Temple and Torah: Reflections on the Legal Status of the Pentateuch between Elephantine and Qumran,” in: Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson, eds., The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 77-103.

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