Jewish community on Elephantine, Egypt
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.
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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.”
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.
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.
Subscribers: Read the full article “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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