Egyptian Papyrus Reveals Israelite Psalms

Jewish community on Elephantine, Egypt


Papyrus Amherst 63, as it came to be known, has attracted scholarly curiosity since its discovery in Egypt more than a century ago. When it was recently finally deciphered and translated, it revealed Israelite Psalms. Photo: Courtesy of Oriental Institute Museum Archives, Box 009.

Critical studies of the Bible have demonstrated that most Biblical texts have gone through a chain of stages before they reached their canonical form we know today. Uncovering and documenting the process by which the texts came to be, however, depends on discovering the material evidence—the manuscripts.

Since its publication in the 1980s, there has been general agreement that the Egyptian Papyrus Amherst 63 contains a composition strikingly similar to the Biblical Psalm 20 and that it might have originated with the Jewish community on Elephantine. But these are not the only fascinating facts about the Egyptian papyrus, which was reportedly discovered in the late 19th century at Luxor, Egypt.

Containing about 35 literary texts in Aramaic that date to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., Papyrus Amherst 63 is written in a cursive Egyptian script known as Demotic. This unusual combination of the Aramaic language and the Demotic script was among the main reasons why the decipherment took more than 120 years.

In the FREE eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

Karel van der Toorn (University of Amsterdam), who recently published a new edition and translation of Papyrus Amherst 63, argues that besides the forerunner of Psalm 20, the Egyptian papyrus contains two other Israelite psalms. In the article “Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History” in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Professor van der Toorn explains: “The two other psalms of the Amherst papyrus are not in the Bible. That does not make them any less valuable from a historical and literary point of view. These were songs the Israelites chanted before their religion turned monotheistic.” And he adds: “The three psalms clearly belong together: They were evidently composed originally in Hebrew; they celebrate Yaho (an alternate form of the name Yahweh) as king of the gods; and they are part of the liturgy of the New Year’s festival as celebrated by an Aramaic-speaking community.”


The island of Elephantine at the southern Egyptian border was once home to an Aramaic-speaking Jewish community. Photo: YuliaLim, licensed under CC BY-SA-4.0.

As if this were not enough, the story of Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Jewish community on Elephantine gets even more intriguing. Van der Toorn contends that even though the Egyptian papyrus was penned in the fourth century B.C.E. and was found in Egypt, its contents are several centuries older and must have originated not in the land of pharaohs, but in Palmyra in modern-day Syria.


This papyrus document, dated to December 402 B.C.E., is a receipt for a grain loan. Ananiah, who was a Jewish temple official on Elephantine, certifies that he borrowed two monthly rations of grain from Pakhnum son of Besa. Composed in Aramaic and written with ink on a papyrus sheet, the manuscript belongs to a group of documents that allow a unique glimpse into the lives of the Jewish community on Elephantine that in the fifth century B.C.E. shared the island with native Egyptians and the occupying power—Persians. Photo: Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Theodora Wilbour.

To learn more about the fascinating story of the Jewish community on Elephantine, their likely ancestors, and the three Israelite psalms of Papyrus Amherst 63, read “Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History” by Karel van der Toorn in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


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Read Van der Toorn’s translation of the Israelite psalms from Papyrus Amherst 63 >>


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9 Responses

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  • Wyn says

    A careful reading of the description of worship in the Jerusalem Temple in the OT does not suggest that the Hebrew religion was always monotheistic.

  • Kevin says

    How could this document, written in the 7th or 6th century BC be “the forerunner of Psalm 20”? Psalm 20 is a Psalm of David, who, lived in the 10th century BC.

    Worship of Yehovah (or Yahweh) has always been monotheistic. The nature of this religion is not changed by the fact that some Jews practiced other religions,

  • BAS says

    I will
    Like to know more Am very interested in Africans history experience Egypt

  • Robert says

    You and i both often use loose approximations as we quote God’s Word. This is no different insofar as this text is concerned. As a matter of fact though, and this text originating from the elephantine area, from mid 4th century BC to mid 5th century BC, I would tend to believe that any scripture quoted would, of necessity be from memory rather than having written texts available to check with.

    • Eric says

      Agreed. Readers should remember that the Hebrew faith was always monotheistic. There is still much to be gained from the info, if we can filter out the pre-judged bias of the authors.

      • jeff says

        “The Hebrew faith was always monotheistic”!!! What nonsense!!! There’s plenty of archeological evidence that monotheism developed over a long period — and as the Torah says, even Solomon wasn’t monotheistic. Read 1 Kings 11:

        He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites…. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.

        • Percy says

          Yes, the Hebrew faith were monotheistic but some allowed themselves to be influenced by the surrounding nations. Solomon acquired wives from those surrounding nations and thus he let his trust in the one true God to be tainted unlike his father David. Later kings were used to clean up the mess created by Solomon and prophets were sent voicing God’s disapproval until the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. After the release by Cyrus they settled back into monotheism but again were fractured by influences of the greeks and romans.

          • jeff says

            “Some” weren’t monotheistic? If the king wasn’t, who would be? The fact is, at that time NOBODY thought you should believe only in a single god, any more than in Greece or Rome. The idea you should believe only in the great god Yahweh is something added by the creative writer who penned the book of Kings hundreds of years after its alleged events.

  • hrach says

    Your organization has been a God send to our family. As the Almighty Said “knowledge will increase in the end of days.” And so it is.

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