A Jewish Temple in Egypt, B.C. 525-411.1

S. R. Driver


Great interest has been aroused among biblical scholars by the recent discovery of three Aramaic papyri found at Elephantinę, near the First Cataract of the Nile. They prove to have been written only twenty-four years after Nehemiah’s second visit to Jerusalem (432 b.c.), and bring us nearer to the Old Testament than any inscription hitherto discovered. As Professor Driver remarks, “we are sensible, as we read them!, of being in an atmosphere very similar to that into which we are brought by the (Aramaic letters and edicts in Ezra 7:11-26 (b.c. 458); 4:11–16; 17–22 (shortly before b.c. 444); and even by the earlier ones of Ezra 5:6–17; 6:2–12 (b.c. 520).” These “have just been published by Dr. Sachau, Professor of Semitic Languages, and Director of the Oriental Seminary, at Berlin (Drei Aramaische Papyrus-urkunden aus Elephantinę, Berlin, 1907, with many valuable notes). These documents were found in a chamber of a house excavated from under the mound, which now marks the site of the ancient Elephantinę.”

“The first of the papyri consists of thirty lines, written as the facsimile shows, in a clear and bold hand. It is a petition addressed by the colony of Jews at Elephantinę to Bagohi— the Bagoas of Josephus—the Persian Governor of Judah, to crave his intervention on their behalf. The ‘temple of the God Yahu’—of course, Yahweh, or, in the pronunciation with which we are more familiar, Jehovah—in Elephantinę, in which they worshiped the God of their fathers, and to which they were intensely devoted, had, to their great sorrow, been destroyed; and they ask Bagohi’s intervention and assistance to get it rebuilt… . From the description here given, it is evident that it was a substantial and handsomie building, with pillars of stone, and seven stone gates. It was used not, like a synagogue, for prayer only, but also for sacrifice; it had an altar, upon which burnt-offerings, meal-offerings, and frankincense were regularly offered; mention is also made of gold and silver bowls, bearing the same name as those used in the Temple at Jerusalem, for tossing the sacrificial blood against the sides of the altar.”

From the narrative it appears that the “Jewish colony had been settled in Elephantinę, and their Temple had been built there, for more than 120 years, from before the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses in b.c. 525. When Cambyses entered Egypt, he observed the same goodwill towards the Jews there which his father Cyrus had shown towards the Jews of Babylon; the temples of the gods of Egypt had been destroyed by him, the temple of Jehovah had not been touched. But three years before the date of the petition, in 411, when Arsam —probably the Arxames, mentioned by Ctesias as Governor of Egypt when Darius 2:became King (in 424)—had gone for some reason to the Persian Court, the priests of the ram-headed Egyptian god Chnub took advantage of his absence to bribe Waidrang, who was chief in command at Elephantinę, to destroy the Temple of the Jews. Waidrang … thereupon summoned his son, who was commander of the garrison in Syene, on the opposite side of the Nile; and he came with a body of troops, who ruthlessly destroyed the fabric of the Temple, and appropriated the gold and silver vessels, and other articles of value belonging to it, themselves. The Jews had at the time sent a letter to Bagohi, and also to Jehohanan (the Johanan of Neh. 12:22), the high-priest at Jerusalem, and his brother Ostan or Anani, and the nobles of Judah, for assistance, but had received no reply. Since its destruction, naturally, no sacrifices could be offered in the Temple, and the Jews in their trouble had mourned and fasted and prayed to Yahu continuously. Their prayers had to some extent been answered, for some disaster had overtaken Waidrang, he had lost his possessions, the Egyptians who had wished evil against the Temple were slain, and the Jews (in Biblical phrase) had ‘seen their desire upon them.’

“The Temple, however, still remained in ruins, and the Jews had no permission to rebuild it. They pray Bagohi, therefore to send authority to Egypt enabling them to do this. And they promise, if he does so, to offer sacrifices in his name in the restored Temple, to pray for his welfare, and to grant him a fixed payment on all the sacrifices offered in it. They seem, however, to hint to Bagohi that they have arranged to make him a present for his good services (so Professor Sachau). They have also, they add, sent to interest Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat, the Governor of Samaria, the well-known opponent of Nehemiah, in their behalf. In conclusion, as if to remove any difficulty which Bagohi might feel in acting contrary to a colleague, they assure him that Arsam, the Persian Governor of Egypt, had no knowledge of what had been done to them?’ Their petition was successful.

“It is surprising to find that there was a Temple in Egypt in which sacrifice was offered for more than a hundred years. The famous Temple at Leontopolis, in the Delta, built by the high priest Onias III. between 170 and 160 b.c., after his deposition by Antiochus Epiphanes, in imitation of the Temple at Jerusalem, had a precedent which, till this discovery at Elephantinę, was entirely unsuspected. Who were the original founders of the colony at Elephantinę? Were they refugees of the Ten Tribes? Or were they Jews who had found a home in Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in 586? The Jews in Egypt (including ‘Pathros,’ the ‘Land of the South’—Upper Egypt) are severely denounced by Jeremiah (ch. 44.) for their idolatry, and especially for their devotion to the Queen of heaven, and destruction is foretold for. them; but there may have been some among them who were still faithful to the God of their fathers. Whatever the origin of the colony, which before 525 b.c. had penetrated 400 miles south of the modern Cairo, and established itself at Elephantinę, its members did not feel with their brethren in Palestine, or deem themselves bound by the law of Deuteronomy (ch. 12.), which prohibited sacrifice of every kind except at the Temple of Jerusalem. Professor Sayce has remarked that they could claim for their altar the sanction of Isaiah (19:19). It is, however, important to observe that the prophet’s vision is not of a Jewish altar in Egypt in the midst of a heathen population, but gives expression to the loftier ideal of the devotion of the entire Egyptian people to Jehovah (see vv. 21, 23–25).”


1) Condensed from an article by the Rev. S. R. Driver, D.D., in the Guardian, November 6, 1907.