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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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”).
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,”
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.
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.
So already Arthur Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), 62.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Note the references to Mazzoth and Passover (Ezra 6:19-22); and the Festival of Booths (Succoth, Nehemiah 8:13-18).
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.
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.
For the Ananyah archive see Porten et al., The Elephantine Papyri in English, 203-253, nos. 34-46.
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.
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.
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.
The marriage between Mibṭaḥyah and Esḥor took place in 449
See C3.15:72, 81, 82, 84, 88.
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.