[by Dean Smith] Even though there is no Jewish Temple today, at one point there were actually two temples in operation at the same time and it caused some conflict.
In the late 1800s, ancient papyri showed up in Middle East antiquity markets that intrigued archaeologists. Written in Aramaic, the Jewish documents referred to a temple, but incredibly not the temple in Jerusalem, but a second one built hundreds of miles away in Egypt.
Archaeologists finally tracked it down to Elephantine Island on the Nile River. Egypt’s dry climate slows papyri deterioration and further work at the temple site uncovered dozens more papyri including divorce documents, legal documents and letters.
The papyri often included both Jewish and Egyptian calendar references. From the documents, the Jews mentioned they were already on the island when the Persians defeated the Egyptians in 525 BC.
The Elephantine Jews developed a religious community complete with a functioning temple. The colony clearly defined themselves as Jews — versus Samaritans who were of mixed of descent.
Most of the papyri were written between 500 and 400 BC during the Persian occupation of Egypt and they were contemporaries of both Ezra who initiated the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and Nehemiah who returned to build the city walls. These events took place around 450 BC.
Where did the Elephantine Jews come from?
It is commonly believed these Jews were descendants of those who fled to Egypt after Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 586 BC.
After defeating Jerusalem, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar set up an interim government under a man named Gedaliah. Jeremiah, who had been imprisoned by the former Jewish King was released and stayed with Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:11).
A renegade group of Jews looked upon Gedaliah as a traitor and assassinated him (Jeremiah 41:1-18). Fearing repercussions, they decided to flee to Egypt. Prior to leaving, they approached Jeremiah for a word on their situation (42:1-3). Jeremiah prophesied they should stay in Babylon and God would give them peace and use them to rebuild Israel (vss 9-12). Jeremiah also prophesied if they left, these Jews would begin worshiping Egyptian gods (vss 13-22).
But they rejected the prophet’s word and left, but oddly kidnapped Jeremiah and forcibly took him along (43:6-7). The group settled in Tahpanhes (43:7) and lower Egypt (44:1) and as prophesied took on many of the religious practices of the Egyptians to fit in (44:3-8), including sacrifices to a female deity — the queen of heaven (44:18).
Many suspect a remnant of this group eventually made their way to Elephantine to avoid Egyptian persecution.
The Elephantine temple
Once on Elephantine, the group built a temple, and one inscription suggests the temple was in existence before the fall of Egypt to the Persians in 525 BC, putting its construction nearly a century earlier than the temple rebuild by Ezra.
The Elephantine temple featured an altar on which sacrifices and burnt offerings were made to Jehovah, who they called “Yahu.” However, their worship was not totally pure and included worship of other gods such as Herem bethel and Anath-yahu. The adding of Yahu to the name may have been an effort to make this god seem Jehovah-like.
Though protected by the Persian occupation, the Elephantine community was not completely immune to conflicts with Egyptians on the island. The letters spoke of ongoing friction with Egyptians associated with a temple dedicated to the ram-headed deity Khnum.
Egyptians abhorred the Jewish practice of sacrificing bulls and particularly rams who the Egyptians considered gods. This may have been the source of tension between the two groups.
In 410 BC, the priests of Khnum orchestrated a riot destroying the Jewish temple. Though the Persians eventually punished the Egyptians responsible, the Jews were unable to come up with the cash needed to rebuild the temple.
Elephantine Jews appeal to Jerusalem for help
Aware of the restoration taking place in Jerusalem, the Elephantine group wrote a letter to the High Priest in Jerusalem, Johanan, requesting financial help to rebuild the temple on Elephantine. From their letter, it was obvious they did not think their temple conflicted with the main temple in Jerusalem.
However, this opinion was not shared by those in Jerusalem. Johanan didn’t even bother to reply.
Undaunted by his rejection, three years later (407 BC), the Elephantine colony sent two letters — one to Bagoas who was the governor of Judah and the second to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat the former governor of Samaria.
This second letter exposed the political friction that had developed in Jerusalem with the arrival of Nehemiah and Ezra.
Before Nehemiah arrived, Sanballat, a gentile, was governor of Israel. However, Nehemiah — who was a cup bearer for the Persian King — not only received permission to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, but was also named Governor of Judah (Nehemiah 5:14; 10:1). This severely undermined Sanballat’s power base in the region.
Outraged, Sanballat formed an alliance with Tobias another regional governor to stop the wall construction. This conflict would brew in the background for years.
In their letter to Sanballat’s sons, the Elephantine group said:
“Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the Kingdom of Egypt, and who Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They (the Persians) knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did damage to this temple.”
This was done to show the Elephantine Jews — similar to Nehemiah and Ezra who received Persian aid in rebuilding the walls and temple in Jerusalem — had the favor of the Persians as well.
In this second letter, the Elephantine community also made a major concession. They promised to no longer make animal sacrifices at the temple, limiting their sacrifices to just meal, drink and incense offerings.
This would not only appease the local Egyptians, but as well reduce the simmering conflict with the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem.
Both Bagoas and the sons of Sanballat replied favorably — perhaps just to spite the ruling Jews — and said the Elephantine community should approach Arsames, the Persian satrap for help.
The Elephantine appeal was successful. They received funding and the temple was rebuilt and still standing in 402 BC.
What happened to the colony at Elephantine?
The last dated letter is 399 BC. The Egyptians were finally able to throw off the Persian yoke under the Egyptian Pharaoh Nephrites 1. With their Persian overlords gone, the Elephantine Egyptians probably turned against the Jews forcing them to flee the island.
The significance of Elephantine
The Elephantine papyri give significant, independent verification of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as they independently confirm the existence of a several key players. This has proven hard to swallow for most Liberals who have written off the books as little more than fabrications.
- The papyri mention Sanballat
The Elephantine letters mention Sanballat one of the major bad guys in the Nehemiah account. As noted earlier, he along with Tobias resisted Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the Jerusalem walls.
By the time they wrote this letter, Sanballat was either dead or very old, but his family still had significant clout in the region.
One letter stated, “Also the whole matter we have set forth in a letter in our name to Delaiaha and Shelemiah the sons of Sanballat governor of the Samaria.”
This reference also helps us understand the conflict brewing between Nehemiah and the Sanballat/Tobias alliance.
Sanballat, by his name was a Babylonian, yet his children’s names according to the Elephantine texts were both Jewish suggesting Sanballat married a Jewish woman. This confirms a reference in Nehemiah, that Sanballat’s daughter married into the Jewish High Priest’s family (13:28).
It also explains why Nehemiah was initially so secretive about the rebuilding the walls, going out in the middle of the night to inspect them (Nehemiah 2:12). He did not know at this point who he could trust, even within the Jewish community.
- Reference to Nehemiah’s brother
The Elephantine texts also refer to a man named Hananiah, a Jew, who was regulating Jewish affairs in Jerusalem under the Persians. We know from the book of Nehemiah, that Nehemiah had a brother named Hananiah who was in charge of affairs in Jerusalem (7:2). This is probably the same person.
Hananiah is mentioned in a letter Jerusalem sent to the Elephantine community giving instructions on how to observe the Passover. The letter was given authority by stating it was handed down via the Persian Satrap Arsames and Hananiah.
- Reference to Johanan the High Priest
The Elephantine letters also refer to a High Priest named Johanan. He was the grandson of Eliashib, the High Priest in Nehemiah’s day (see Nehemiah 3:1; 12:10-12; 12:22). Since, the High Priest’s position was hereditary, we are now witnessing the grandson sitting as Israel’s High Priest. (AHOI 391).
This is probably the same Johanan whose chamber Ezra went to after confronting the priests about their marriage to non-Jewish women (Ezra 10:6).
The Ark of the Covenant
Over the years, there has been much speculation on the mysterious disappearance of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant. After Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 586 BC, the list of temple booty hauled away by the Babylonians did not include the Ark of the Covenant.
Though there was no mention of the ark in the Elephantine papyri, the fact they so boldly built a temple, suggest construction of an Ark would not have been out of the question.
There have been reports of the Ark of the Covenant being at a monastery in Ethiopia. Though the Ethiopians claim to have the ark, no one has seen it. Some have speculated if the Ethiopians do have the ark, it may have come from the Jewish temple on Elephantine and not Jerusalem.
- Archaeology and Bible History by Dr. Joseph Free (Scripture Press: Wheaton, ILL)
- A History of Israel by John Bright (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY)
- Elephantine Papyri (Wikipedia encyclopedia)