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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  • Patrick says

    Jeff, what I think Percy is saying is that Solomon did in fact leave the proper worship of YHWH and worship ‘gods’. Your statement ““Some” weren’t monotheistic? If the king wasn’t, who would be?” shows that maybe you should read the rest of the Torah more carefully. The vast majority of the Kings (and the one Queen) did NOT serve as good role models of Israelite faith. This hardly means that we should follow their examples or treat their behaviour as exemplary.

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