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.


Again, More Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mark Smith (2031-2041)

  • Three stereotypical explanations of myth from a monotheistic perspective
    • monotheistic theology equals faith, while myth is told stories.
    • holy texts of monotheism leave no room for myth, which is polytheistic
    • monotheism is based in history, but ancient religions, which had myths, are not.
  • Mythic continuity between ancient Israel, Canaan, and Ugartic texts.
  • Baal Cycle and Epic of Aqhat are major Ugaritic myths.
    • Baal Cycleenvisions of cosmic battle for political control. Expressed in terms of kingship.
      • By modern standard of course, this constitutes religious because it involved the gods.
  • Most material is inscriptions mentioning gods and names with theophoric elements.
  • Traditions of Tyrian god Melqart may reflect Ugaritic tradition
    • Namely, those of Baal and cult of divinaized royal ancestors, present at Ugarit.
    • Meqlart is the dead hero who “awakens from the dead”.
  • Best source for Canaanite myth is Phil of Byblos’s Pheonician History
    • Embedded in the work of Eusebius and Porphyry.
    • Early evidence does not distingush greatly between Israel and neighboring regional religions.
    • Even with developing Israelite religion, other gods of Pheonicia, Edom, etc. existed within the Israelite-Judean religious context.
      • So, El, Ball, Yahweh, a dynastic god; divine council, Asherah, etc.
    • Held onto a sort of cult for the deceased and concept of divine council.
      • Council was at a low level.
    • Originally El was probably the name of the deity supporting the group.
    • Ex. 6:2-3
      • Identifies El Shaddy, El being the older god, with Yahweh.
      • Reflects that Yahweh was previously unknown; now, then it was El Shaddai.
    • Much language previously associated with Baal is used
      • Baal Shamem, though, is the Phoencian storm-god.
      • Israel also had old Levantine/Canaanite imagery of Baal in its memory.
    • Much shared imagery between HB and Baal Cycle
  • Mythic imagery was political
    • Mythic language was used as
      • way to tie divine and human kings
      • unite tribal groups
      • legitimize a ruler
  • People drew on the imagery found in things like the Baal Cycle because everybody knew it, the poor, uneducated, rich, and educated.
  • Canaanite literature was more anthropomorphic; our knowledge of Judean myth in that period reduced anthropomorphisms.

Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Karel van der Toorn (p. 2043-2058)

  • Dichotomy of Israelite religion vs. Canaanite religion should be rejected.
  • In the Iron Age (1200-500 BCE), “Israelite preachers labeled all non-Yahwhistic practices “canaanite.” A strict and uncompromising Yahwism, itself the outcome of a long process, was retrospectively presented as the original religion of the Israelites” (2043).
  • van der Toorn focuses on the fundamental “common theology” of the religious culture in ancient Syro-Palestine.
  • GODS
    • gods of ancient world inhabited the earth
      • Leviticus, god is in the tabernacle; Genesis, god chooses the enter the earth. Yahweh has a physicality in Israelite memory.
    • No such thing as “faith”.
    • Worldy phenomena was heavenly, the gods at work.
    • dwelt at fringes, such as mountains
      • Baal of Ugarit at Mount Zaphon.
      • Yahweh of Israel from “Mountainous area in the southeast of Palestine” (2044).
    • It is mistake to reduce gods to mere personifications of nature.
      • “reality of the Syro-Palestinian gods was not metaphorical but personal” (2044)
      • They had thoughts, emotions, will power, bodies, albeit incredibly large bodies.
    • Fundamental difference was in terms of power, longevity, authority, influence, and knowledge.
    • Deity is thought to be seated on a celestial throne
      • cf. Temple imagery of Ps. 133
      • Zion is the Temple/Palace of Yahweh.
    • Syro-Palestinian religions shared the idea of a “fundamentally unfathomable divine essence… in the notion of holiness” (2045).
    • Oldest pantheon is from Ebla (c. 2450-2250)
      • Dagan is the leader of the pantheon, followed by Adda (Addu/Adad/Hadad)
      • Dif. Adads worshiped in near cities
    • Cthonic deities played a role in ancient Syro-Palestinian religious thought.
    • Baal and Hadad developed into distinct deities, one Canaanite and the other Aramean.
      • Different forms of Hadad based on location.
    • Phoenicia
      • Main goddess is Ashtarte, associated with Baal Shamem.
      • Baal Shamem is also associate with Baal Malage and Zaphon.
        • Seafaring gods.
    • Philistines worshiped Dagan.
    • Transjordan inhabited by Israelite, Ammonites, and Moabites, according to HB.
      • Milcom of the Ammonites, Chemosh of the Moabites
      • Both these deities are also situated at Ugarit.
      • Group of underworld deities called the Shaddayin
        • Occurs in Ps. 106.36 as the god of child sacrifice.
    • Edom
      • Regarded by Israel as kindred.
      • Religious, this was very real; Yahweh, national god of Judah and Israel, is often associated with Mount Paran and Mount Seir.
      • “it is the nearly unanimous verdict of historians of Israelite religion that Yahweh has southeast Semitic origins, whether his first worshiper were Kenites, MIdians, or Edomnites
        • Yahweh is not a traditional member of the West Semitic Pantheon
        • Although some characteristics of Baal was transferred to Yahweh, Yahweh’s origins were not in the West Semitic pantheon (p. 2047).
  • National Theologies.
    • Each communities in Syro-Palestinian region has one or two primary gods
      • For city, tribe, or nation.
      • I.e. Adad of Aleppo is not the same as Adad of Damascus.
    • Polytheism was counterbalanced by “a particularism in the dovotion”.
    • Notion of inheritance is employed outside of Israel
      • Ugaritic texts call Mt. Zaphon the “inheritance of Baal”; netherworld the inheritance of Mot, god of death” (2048)
    • Still on the notion of inheritance
      • Philo of Byblos wrote:
        • Kronos gave Byblos to Baaltis
        • Beirut to Poseidon
        • Egypt to Thoth
    • Covenant, perhaps, popularily in Israelite religion because Yahweh was not always the god of Israel
      • He had to compete with other West Semitic gods.
      • “It may be surmised that he championed this covenant theology precisely because of the actual polytheism of his day” (2048).
        • Use Deut. 6:4 as an example.
      • Yahweh was not automatically the god of Israel
        • So it had to be constructed theologically.
    • While this approach to Yahweh’s centrality, namely the aforementioned, is unique, there are other West Semitic parallels
      • Baal at Ugarit, Dagan among Philistines, Chemosh among Moabites
        • These were the main gods; other existed, but they were lesser.
    • “Devotion to the national god became a sign of political allegiance and patriotism” (2048).
      • True, but the terms van der Toorn uses have far too much baggage in the modern period.
  • Religion and politics
    • King played an important role in religion
      • 2 Kings 11:17
        • priest Jehoiada “made a covenant between Yahweh and the king and the people, that they should be Yahweh’s people; and also between the king and the people” (2049)
      • “So intricate were their links [palace and temple] that it is often difficult to say where religion stops and politics begin and vice versa.
    • wrong to say that religion was a “state ideology in disguise” (2049).
    • priests of royal sanctuaries were like civil servants.
    • Political authorities tried to maintain power through policies on religious life.
      • Saul tried to get rid of necromancers and wizards (1 Sam. 28:3).
      • David transfered ark from Kirath-jearim to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6)
        • A political AND religious move.
      • King Jeroboam embellished Bethel and Dan sactuaries/changes date of autumn festival (1 Kings 12:25-33).
    • Incriptions throughout Syro-Palestinian area show that kings were divine elected.
      • Lady of Byblos made Yehawilk king of Byblos
      • Baalshamein make Zakkur king of Hamath and Lu’ash
      • We see this is Psalms through things like Ps. 2:7 and 110:3, both of which say, “I have begotten you.
        • Divine paternity legitimized his position.
      • Some double rulers as king and priest.
        • king of Byblos was also the priest of the Lady of Byblos (2049)
      • Some northern Aramiac kingdom referred king as a steward of the storm-god Hadad.
      • We see this in Israel as well when kings are reported to offer sacrifices at altars.
        • Find these references.
    • Ancient Israelite religion had a procession of the ark into the temple to commemorate creation, which prolaimed Yahweh’s kingship’
      • Also happens in LBA Ugarit and Emar.
      • And in Babylon.
  • Temples
    • Many open-air shrines throughout 1st and 2nd millennium.
    • Some cult installations were expanded into temples, or palaces for the temple.
      • E(2).KAL is a palace in Akkadian or a temple for a diety.
    • Temples typically contained images, and thus housing, for various gods.
      • Ugarit had temples for El, Baal, Dagan, and others.
      • Emar had temples for Ninurta, Adad, Ninkur, and others.
      • Iron Age Judah: Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.
        • image of Baal and Asherah referred to as “vessels” (2 Kings 23:4)
        • Hostpilaity for worship of sun-god and Tammuz (Ezekial 8:14-160 (2051).
    • Juridical function of temples based on theology.
      • The judge was the deity.
    • “The situation at the Israelite temple at Bethel is probably characteristic of many Syro-Palestinian sanctuaries” (2051).
      • Amos encountered a priest at a temple in Bethel while prophecying against him.  (Amos 7:10-13)
    • In short, temple was central in Syro-Palestinian religion; it was the intersection of heaven and earth; the crossroads of religion, social, economic, juridical, and politics (2052).
  • Priest
    • Priests needed to be unblemished throughout Syro-Palestinian region.
      • Cf. Leviticus 21:16-24
    • In Emar, they had the sacrificer, carrier of divine statue, diviner, singer, spouse of god, etc. (2052).
  • Worship
    • Three types of offering in Israel
      • Burnt, flour, and wine.
    • These were also offerings at Ugarit and Iron Age Phoenicia (2053).
    • Also, sheep, lamb, cows, birds, cereal, fruit, libations of win/hony/ghee/milk.
    • Some meant sacrificing animals and then eating it.
      • Meat was a rarity.
      • Usually done for thankgiving for divine favor, vow payment, or spontaneous desire (Lev. 7:11-18).
    • Annual sacrifice in Autumn, sacrifice at time of plower and sowing (October and December; end of harvent (Spring) (2053).
    • Hymns considered part of temple worship.
      • Similarities between a text at Ugarit (1.101:1-4) and Ps. 29, showing a shared tradition.
      • See all other Psalms, of course.
    • Various gestures for worship, symbolic of social relations
      • bow down, bend over, etc. (2054).
    • Sometimes, fees had to be paid to priest for sacrifice (2 Kings 12:16)
      • This also happens in late examples of Punic tariffs which require payment to priest for sacrifice.
    • Go to temples to get oracles
      • Some prophets were actually paid, some were not.
  • When I am ready to write, read pg. 2056-57 on ISRAELITE MONOTHEISM. This is an incredibly important thing to focus on when I write.