Review: “Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine” by Karel van der Toorn

BecomingDiasporaJewsKarel van der Toorn. 2019. Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine. Yale: Yale University Press.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Elephantine Papyri were revealed to the world. Unsurprisingly, the texts were popular because they reflected the lives of Jews in exile. As early scholars expressed, they were texts from the people of the bible. Since then, scholarship on Amherst Papyrus 63 provided opportunities to revise and reconsider traditional narratives about Elephantine. A few years after van der Toorn’s critical edition of Amherst Papyrus 63, his newest book reconsiders the Elephantine community’s relation with Arameans, their origins, and the history. After the book’s summary, I will note various places where van der Toorn’s analysis could be developed, providing further considerations that build off van der Toorn’s work.

Chapter One reviews how the papyri were discovered, scholarly trends of the 20th century, and terminological choices, especially Jew versus Judean and diaspora. Notably, readers will find van der Toorn’s narrative remarkably similar to contemporary, questionable actions by the Museum of the Bible and its affiliates.

Chapter Two describes the Aramean heritage of Jews at Elephantine. First, he convincingly hypothesizes that Aramaic was present in the early history of the community. Second, he highlights the “Sayings of Ahiqar” as indicative of a link between the Aramean diaspora and the Jewish community at Elephantine. Third, on account of a papyri instructing shekels to be divided between Yaho and two Aramean gods, there is strong reason to conclude Elephantine Jews were Aramean. Fourth, drawing from onomastics and titles, he argues that the reference to Elephantine Jews as “Jews of Elephantine,” “Aramean,” and “Syenian” indicate they were viewed administratively as Arameans. Similar patterns are evident for the Iranian community. Simply put, “the Jews were technically Arameans but, in reality, Judeans.”

Chapter Three focuses on the Aramean diaspora in Egypt to figure out how Jews at Elephantine were connected to Arameans. After briefly reviewing the terms Aramaic, Aram, and Aramean, he analyzes onomastic data to suggest two Aramean groups: a Bethel group from central Syria and a Babylonian Nabu group. Having laid out these ethnic boundaries, van der Toorn highlights social links and contact between Jews of Elephantine and Syenian Arameans via mundane social interactions and military activity. Notably, his analysis clearly shows that the traditional hypothesis of Jews adopting Aramean culture is implausible.

Chapter Four attempts to identify their origins and explain practices by analyzing Papyrus Amherst 63. Describing the three sections of the text (Syrian, Samarian, and Babylonian), he draws from Ps 20, New Years references, and content throughout the papyri in order to suggest the text was compiled in the 7th century BCE. He suggests that, with the disintegration of the Neo-Assyrian empire at the end of the 7th century, Samarian Arameans began speaking Aramaic when they were becoming the garrison of Syene.

In Chapter Five, van der Toorn explores two aspects of Elephantine in light of the previous discussion: Elephantine Jews as a military colony and as a religion. First, van der Toorn contextualizes the colony, highlighting how Egypt and Persia had been hiring mercenaries since the Samarian migration to Egypt. After discussing relevant textual evidence, he concludes that individuals did not receive wages; rather, battalions held land as possessions, akin to the Babylonian land-for-service system. Due to peace on the southern front, they were relatively inactive, allowing them to work fields and develop wealth. Second, he describes religious practice at Elephantine. The temple, he argues, was not unique, providing examples of Jewish temples at Edfu and Leontopolis. In any case, in functioned as the material guarantee of Yaho’s presence. Socially, the boundary between religious and political, or sacred and secular, was porous, providing various examples of individuals who functioned as political or religious leaders depending on their social context. Finally, drawing from Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Elephantine Papyri, he offers a discussion of the gods of the Elephantine Jews: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, Herem-Bethel, and the Queen of Heaven. Strong practices and beliefs at Elephantine show that—contrary to Babylonian Jews—there was no desire to return “home.”

In Chapter Six, van der Toorn details three phases leading to Samarian Arameans being identified as Jewish. Early on, “Judean” was a collective term for Samarians and Jews, evident in mixture of Judeans and Samarians together moving to Egypt in the 7th century without conflict, the relation between Jews at Elephantine and other places throughout Egypt, and Persian perception of “Judean,” a geographic term, into the broader notion of a Judean diaspora. For the second phase, van der Toorn highlights Hananyah’s “Passover” letter because the “salutation reflects a self-conscious Jewish identity” (122), an identity possibly creating a sort of “religious nationalism” and fueling conflict between Egyptians and Judeans. Third, political and social conflict between the Jewish Elephantines and Egyptians—namely, Egyptians destroying the Jewish temple in 410 BCE and Persia’s sympathy for them by 407 BCE—cemented Elephantine identity as Jewish, as letters from the period show their communications with Judah and Samaria. The event cementing their identity, van der Toorn argues, was not necessarily religious violence; rather, by examining social conflict at Elephantine prior to the temple’s destruction in 410 BCE, he clearly demonstrates that the conflict was more about personal gain and political choice than anti-Jewish sentiments.

The book concludes with a short epilogue and a full translation of Papyrus Amherst 63.

As a whole, van der Toorn’s analysis of Elephantine, use of onomastica, and inclusion of Papyrus Amherst 63 are extraordinary. Rather than reading like an academic monograph, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a story. It is engaging, flows relatively well, makes strong arguments, and is eye-opening. That said, rather than listing the exquisite aspects of the volume, which are too numerous to list here, I will shift into discussing the finer points of his volume, considering how different perspective could enrich our understanding of the Elephantine Jews.

First, I propose that his perspective on the Persians’ first interactions with Judeans should be more specific. He claims that “the Persians’ first encounter with these Judeans was with the community of Judean exiles in Babylonia” (120). This statement is too ambiguous. Is he claiming that the Persians met the Judeans as they were working in the fields of Babylonia or that Persians knew of Judeans via other means? The details of van der Toorn’s statement, I think, are pertinent. If Persians knew about Judeans and Al-Yahudu, the Judean community in Babylonia, via personal interactions with the community, the implication is that Persian government developed an approach to ethnic groups independent of Babylonian approaches to Judeans.

Records, though, indicate otherwise: “The Achaemenid administration inherited the administrative system and the system of taxation from their Neo-Babylonian predecessors in Babylonia” (Kleber 2015). That is, Persians transferred Neo-Babylonian methods of administration to themselves. And though conjectural, it is more likely that Persians first learned of Judeans through Neo-Babylonian documents. If this is the case, it also provides insight into how the Neo-Babylonian administration approached the Judeans of Al-Yahudu, many of whom were Samarian. Therefore, van der Toorn’s comment that the geographical term “Judean” came to be an ethnic term due to the Persian perception of the Judean diaspora should be pushed back to at least the Neo-Babylonian period. Namely, Judean was an ethnicity because the Persian administration inherited them from the Babylonians as an ethnicity.

Second, van der Toorn regularly notes the three deities present in Yaho’s temple, at least according to the papyrus: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, and Anat-Bethel. I wonder, though, how the unique identity of Jews at Elephantine could be further defined by viewing the deities in the temple as a divine triad. That is, how do perspectives change when we view the three deities as reflective of the “structural element of Egyptian religion” to describe triads of deities (te Velde 1971, 80)? Though conjectural, it is plausible that the Judean divine triad is indicative of how they adapted to their social and religious environment.

In a similar vein, social network analysis of Jewish Elephantine deities could be used to explore social bonds between various groups in Egypt, drawing from both texts and onomastica. For example, Alstola et al. (2019) uses a computational social networking model in order to analyze the role of Ashur in the Mesopotamian pantheon during the 1st millennium. Through mapping a social network of deities throughout Egypt during the Persian periods, it may provide further socio-religious explanations for the conflict between the Egyptians and Jews [1]. That is, while van der Toorn is undoubtedly correct that events prior to the destruction of the Jewish temple at Elephantine are indicative that Egyptians did not act out of anti-Jewish sentiment, the degree to which Elephantine deities among the Elephantine community can be linked to other groups throughout the region may provide a more nuanced explanation of the events, an explanation which takes into account the degree to which social networks—themselves shaped by religious ritual, practice, and belief—created space for conflict to occur.

Another method to explore the social links between Jews at Elephantine and the region is through archaeological developments. As Müller (2016) highlights, Elephantine is settled throughout the first millennium; however, Demotic and Aramaic documentary texts only appear in the second half of the millennium. That said, it may be helpful to bring into the conversation how the archaeological sites—like the fortress—developing during the 1st millennium (e.g., von Pilgrim 2010) [2]. Though beyond the aim and method of van der Toorn, perhaps future analysis of Elephantine will further explore this issue.

In conclusion, van der Toorn’s Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine is an excellent and needed historical re-construction of the Jewish Elephantine community. More importantly, he draws into the conversation Papyrus Amherst 63, providing innovative and important insights to the Jews at Elephantine prior to their being in Egypt. Frankly, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a must-read for students and scholars of Jewish studies (broadly construed) and Egyptian history.

[1] As Wilkinson (2000) comments, “Interaction between cults also extended beyond the religious to the economic and social spheres. Though these latter areas are more difficiult to document, it seems that interaction was to the advantage of most temples, as smaller cults might profit from the prestige and power of larger ones and the larger cults could often accept their smaller neighbours as part of their own extended theological cosmos rather than as competitors” (85).

[2] As I do not have access to a library, the degree to which Rohrmoser (2014) discusses this subject is unclear. The closest access I had to it was a review by Cornell (2017).




Alstola, Tero, Shana Zaia, Aleksi Sahala, Heidi Jauhiainen, Saana Svärd, and Krister Lindén. 2019. “Ashur and His Friends: A Statistical Analysis of Neo-Assyrian Texts.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71: 159–180.

Cornell, Collin. 2017. Review of Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten by Angela Rohrmoser. Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament 31 (1): 157–159.

Kleber, Kristin. 2015. “Taxation in the Achaemenid Empire.” In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Accessed December 10, 2019.)

Müller, Matthias. 2016. “Among the Priests of Elephantine Island: Elephantine Island Seen from Egyptian Sources.” Die Welt des Orients 46 (2): 213–243.

von Pilgrim, Cornelius. 2010. “Elephantine – (Festrungs-)Stadt am Ersten Katarakt.” In Cities and Urbanism in Ancient Egypt, edited by Manfred Bietak, Ernst Czerny, and Irene Forstner-Müller, 257–270. Wien: Österreichische Akademia der Wissenschaften.

Rohrmoser, Angela. 2014. Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

te Velde, H. 1971. “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57: 80–86.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.