Nehemiah’s Brother Found on Elephantine Island

Nehemiah’s Brother Found on Elephantine Island
Nehemiah 1:1-3

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 2 one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” (NRSV)

This happened around 445 BC. Susa was a capital of the Persian empire. Nehemiah is an exiled Jew and his brother Hanani has come to Susa after traveling many miles from Jerusalem.

Today, in southern Egypt, in the flow of the River Nile just north of the historic Aswan dam, lies the small island called Elephantine. One of several river islands in this broken up segment of the Nile, Elephantine sits in the large city of Aswan, in a region of southeastern Egypt which has for thousands of years been an international border area where religious, cultural, commercial, political, and strategic national interests touched and interacted.

Some scholars believe Nehemiah’s brother Hanani had business affairs with fellow Jews in southern Egypt as well as in Jerusalem and Susa.  We’ll show you why later.

First we digress.

The Bible companion books of Nehemiah and Ezra address the interests of exiled yet faithful Jews living in the environs of Babylon, Susa, and the empire of the former Babylonian empire now controlled and extended by Persia. The time period of our Bible quote is in the neighborhood of around 445 BC, and the time period covered by Ezra and Nehemiah is from about 539 to 515, and then 458 until 433.

But let’s back up even further for some context. We are interested in the life of Jews as a people of faith and political influence.

In 586 BC the Babylonians finish a gradual takeover of the state of Judah by destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. What the Assyrians began in 722 with the takeover of the northern Jewish state of Israel is now completed by the Babylonians with their conquest of Judah in the south.  The Babylonian takeover includes not just the Jewish state, but several other small kingdoms as well, in this region to the west of Mesopotamia around the Jordan and along the Mediterranean.  Babylon had crushed Egyptian influence in the region at Carchemish to the north in 605, and now, in 586, Babylon stopped toying with the idea of allowing Jewish local rule, and sent its own governor to rule the region.  The political state of Israel (and its ten tribal families) was already long gone, and now Judah (and the final two) cease to exist.

An earlier wave of Jews has already been forcibly removed to the east, to Babylon and its environs, after the Babylonians defeated Egypt and a remnant of Assyrians at Carchemish in 605. The prophet Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are part of this first wave.  These movements have continued, and the final fall of Judah and Jerusaelem in 586 now precipitates more massive forced emigration of Jews to Babylon in mass.

But a remnant of Jews remains in the area along the Jordan and Mediterranean, as do natives of other religions and cultures.

Babylon’s rule lasts only another 46 years. Weak Babylonian leadership by kings Belshazzar and his (mentally ill?) father (?) Nabonidus allows the growing military might of Persia to topple Babylon in 539. What the Persians call the “Land Beyond the River” province now belongs to Persia, and thanks to Babylon’s defeat of Egypt 66 years earlier, Persia now absorbs Babylon’s control of the Nile river valley and the resources of Egypt.

The man in charge of the Persian empire is Cyrus. The part-time capital of his empire is Susa, which today is in Shush, Iran, not far from the border of Iraq, about 250 miles from modern Baghdad, Iraq, and nearby ancient Babylon to its south.   Susa is the setting of the book of Esther, portions of Daniel, and Nehemiah’s comments in this Bible Bit. Cyrus and the Persians rule from both Susa and Babylon.

map ancient middle east Aswan Babylon Susa Judah Jerusalem google
Locations of Elephantine, Susa, and Babylon (Google Maps)

Cyrus’ toppling of Babylon brings policy changes to the manner in which the empire’s provinces are governed.  Persia will now allow a measure of local autonomy in the outlying regions forbidden by Babylon’s rulers.  Cyrus will send exiled communities and their stolen gods — the physical statues and idols and the accoutrements of their temples — back to the lands from where the came.  The Jews, having been exiled to Babylon in waves after 605 and again after 586, can now, in 539, make plans to return home.   Cyrus decrees it.

The Biblical account of Cyrus’ decree is found in Ezra 1:1-5 and it is alluded to again in Ezra 6:1-7.  Here is the opening of Ezra:

Ezra 1:1-6  1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the LORD’S message spoken through Jeremiah, the LORD stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom, announcing in a written edict the following: 2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: “‘The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the LORD God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.'” 5 Then the leaders of Judah and Benjamin, along with the priests and the Levites – all those whose mind God had stirred – got ready to go up in order to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with silver utensils, gold, equipment, animals, and expensive gifts, not to mention all the voluntary offerings. (NET)

The British Museum in London holds a clay cylinder, about the size of a football, inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform writing, declaring to all the world the virtues and power of Cyrus of Persia. This is the Cyrus Cylinder.

cyrus cylinder british museum

Included in what would perhaps be three or four pages of additional typed text is this declaration that wonderful Cyrus has returned the various exiled peoples and their captured gods back to their ancestral homelands:

All kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit [remote distric]ts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet. From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Qutu – the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may their … […] […….].” The population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship, and I have enabled all the lands to live in peace. [Irving Finkel trans., Cyrus Cylinder]

And so, for a hundred years or so following the Cyrus edict of 538, Jews exiled to Babylon by the Babylonians in the seven decades prior to this time make their way along the fertile crescent, this time from east to west, back to Jerusalem and the region of former Judah.

With the first return of Jews soon after 538 begins the effort to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, with funding support from Cyrus and Persia, leadership by Zerubbabel, but  antagonism by local administrators and the local population.

A remnant of Jews had never left Israel and Judah. Populations of other religions and culture remained there. Administrators sent by the Babylonian rulers and more recently, the Persians, were already there and believed themselves to be in charge. Into this mix of non-Jewish and lost-Jewish culture, not friendly to the Jews and their ways and their God, comes Zurbbabel and a body of faith-minded, God-following Jews.

A back-and-forth communication battle between local antagonists and the Persian rulers on one side, and our Jewish temple builders with these same rulers on the other, is document by Ezra and Nehemiah.  The antagonists gain the upper hand with the forgetful Persian bureaucracy.  Temple rebuilding which began in 536 was stopped by Persian authorities around 530 with the death of friendly Cyrus.

The principle antagonist to Ezra and Nehemiah is Persian authority Sanballat, already stationed as governor of Samaria and not at all enthusiastic with the Jewish return to Jerusalem and any power imparted to these invaders with their edict from Cyrus.  Remember this name: Sanballat.  We will see him later.

Cyrus dies in 530 and is replaced by (his son?) Cambyses, who has already ruled over portions of the empire.   The ambitious ruler continues Persian expansion with a successful invasion of Egypt in 525.  Egypt is now part of the Persian empire, and Persia sends governors to Egypt.  As we will see later, Persia probably mirrors the movement of Jews to Samaria with movement of Jews to Egypt.

In 522 Darius I comes to the throne.

In all this time since the original Cyrus edict, records have been archived or lost. Memories are forgotten. Lies are told. The Jews have to remind successive Persian bureaucracies that they did and do have permission to rebuild a city and temple in Jerusalem.  This takes time.  Temple construction has been stopped by governor Sanballat for eight years now, and our heroes Ezra and Nehemiah have been busy writing letters to the Cambyses and Darius administrations trying to counter the claims of Sanballat in his letters.

The Ezra-Nehemiah books are a collection of some of this Aramaic language business and political correspondence.

Eventually the Darius administration comes around to the side of the Jews and construction on the walls and temple resumes in 520.  The 2nd temple is finished in 516.  This is a time of great celebration and rejoicing.

As we said above, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah document events from about 539 to 515, and then 458 to 433. Ezra and Nehemiah were themselves active in this latter time period, eventually taking part themselves, with Ezra leading a group back to Judah in 458, and Nehemiah doing so in 433.

Several decades of Jewish residency in Babylon found Jews in position of some power and influence within Babylon’s — and now Persia’s — government. At the same time, Jews had not forgotten their destroyed temple and city of Jerusalem, or their devotion to the LORD.

We can surmise that Persia, now history’s largest empire in the Biblical word, has chosen a national security strategy of placing friendly native administrators in the distant provinces of the Persian state. Persia also governs Egypt and has many interests there, but also wants a buffer of friendly provinces between Egypt and the Persian capitals of Babylon and Susa, should a hostile Egyptian power reemerge.

It seems that Nehemiah, a Jew living in the Persian capitol of Susa, has managed to become an official of some power and trust in the corridors of Persian geopolitical statecraft. He wants to see Jerusalem and the temple rebuilt, and his personal religious interests happen to coincide well enough with those of the state.

So here’s what we have:  Nehemiah.  His brother Hanani.  Persia in Jerusalem.  Persia in Egypt.  A prior Jewish diaspora.  More recent Jewish migrations west to serve Persian interests.  A plethora of regional cultures.  A plethora of  regional gods, with their local champions, priests, and temples supported by the Persian empire.  And, in Jerusalem, an unfriendly governor Sanballat.

Now, finally back to Hanani.  Nehemiah’s brother.

Nehemiah 1:1-3 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. It happened in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year, that I myself was in the citadel in Susa, 2 and one of my brothers, Hanani, came with some men from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had escaped the captivity and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied to me, “The survivors in the province who have survived the captivity are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned in the fire.” (Lexham)

We are interested in this Hanani.

And something called the Elephantine Papyri.

Elephantine Papyri

Far to the south of Jerusalem, in the southeastern region of Egypt is the modern Aswan dam and the large city of Aswan.  Aswan sits alongside the Nile river, and the river at this place falls in elevation over rapids and is cluttered with a large number of small islands.  One of these islands is Elephantine.

In ancient times, the island was called Yeb and the city on the shore was called Syene.  Syene is mentioned in our Bible.  Being situated on the falls of a major river, the island had already been an important military and commercial boundary location for over 2000 years and up to the time of our interest in the late 400s.

The Biblical story of Ezra-Nehemiah, where we digressed into temple building, has a  counterpart outside the Bible in scraps of manuscripts discovered on Elephantine, in Egypt, a little over 100 years ago.

Between 1870 and 1910 hundreds of ancient papyri manuscripts and clay tablet shards from Elephantine island, and another site on shore at nearby ancient Syene, were discovered and appeared in the antiquities markets of Egypt. This was a time of energetic activity in Biblical archaeology by Americans and Europeans, both enthusiast and professional researchers, so European museums and collectors snatched them up, and organized their own searches.  The subsequent Elephantine collection represents three millennia of activity, six languages, many more non-Egyptian cultures, a variety of religions, business records, political correspondence, personal correspondence, legal records, and family matters.

It turns out that during the period of Persian control over Egypt (and perhaps longer), there was a military outpost of Jewish soldiers and an accompanying Jewish community on Elephantine island and at nearby Syene.  During the time period of Ezra-Nehemiah events and the lives of the two prophets themselves, from at least 495 until 399, the garrison of Jews and the community left records on papyrus for us to find today.

The Jewish community on Elephantine had erected a temple of their own for the Jewish LORD.  It’s reasonable to assume that it was built a few short years after the Cyrus edict of 538.  It was there when Persian ruler Cambyses completed the conquest of Egypt itself in 525 BC.  One of the papyri notes that when the Persians arrived, the temple was already there.

Right next to the Jewish temple on Elephantine was another temple to the Egyptian deity Khnum.  We will meet Khnum later.

Several sub-collections of these Elephantine papyri and shards have been sorted and organized over a century of scholarly scrutiny.  These collections vary by language, date, script type, subject matter, and so on.

Among these papyri collections is one which has come to be known as the Jedaniah Communal Archive.  These are eleven papyri, with writings covering a time period from about 419 to 405, all of them written in Aramaic language and script, all of them concerning Jewish affairs, and all written to, or from, or concerning a Jewish leader named Jedaniah.

The time period of these letters (419 to 405) is roughly 30 years later than the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah recorded in the Bible (448 to 433).

Two of the papyri mention an influential visitor named Hanani.  Our Biblical brother Hananiah.  Perhaps.

Several of them concern the matter of the destruction and rebuilding of the local Jewish temple.  Local Egyptian priests, followers of the god Khnum, threaten to destroy the temple, and with friendly military support, they do so in 410.  Following this, the Elephantine Jews mourned and appealed (with bribes) to Persian authorities for permission to rebuild and for material support.

After reading Ezra-Nehemiah, doesn’t this sound familiar?

One of these eleven letters mentions the troublesome Sanballat.

Hananiah is not mentioned in the temple-related correspondence but he is noted significantly in a letter concerning Passover and the bothersome Egyptian Khnum priests, and another concerning the desire to reward two men who have come to the aid of a community leader.

Bible Bits will show you here three of the Elephantine papyri and share translations  by Elephantine scholars A.E. Cowley and Bezalel Porten.  Cowley, Porten, and a handful of others have published extensive works on their analysis of the papyri.  Our images come from a 1911 work by original German scholar Eduard Sachau.

The Passover Letter

This papyrus manuscript and writing is dated to 419.  It is 28 x 10.5 cm in size with ten lines of text, split over its two sides.  You can see that a significant portion of the text has been lost:

Sachau image Passover papyrus Tafel 6 Plate 6 both sides
Passover Papyrus (Sachau plate/tafel 6 image, 1911)

In this Passover letter, Hananiah (our Hanani?) writes to Jedaniah and his “brothers” in the Jewish garrison concerning the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Hananiah is a visitor to Egypt from some unknown place, perhaps from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem or perhaps from Persian capital centers Susa or Babylon.  The Elephantine Jews have likely sent for him, but we have no record of previous machinations by the various players.  We can imagine with good reason that local Egyptian civil authorities have acted against the Jews on behalf of complaint and disruption by native priests of regional Egyptian god Khnum.  Khnum is believed to be responsible for the rising and falling of the precious Nile, and so here at the falls and Egyptian beginnings of the Nile, Khnum is not to be disrespected by Jewish outsiders.  This torn manuscript does not carry any reference to the Khnum and his bothersome priests however.

Nor does it carry the content of correspondence among Hananiah and Persian king Darius and Persian governor Arsames.  Satrap Arsames sits in Egypt at Memphis.  Both are mentioned in Hananiah’s letter at the point where the papyrus is torn.  In any event, we know that Hananiah has appealed to the Persian king and governor, and carries in his message backing from highest Persian authority for the Jews to observe their traditional Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Hananiah elaborates in his response with specific instruction on when this ritual is to occur, for how long, and rules for work, alcohol, and care of leavened material.  We might assume that this instruction — some Biblically based and some not — was  vetted by authorities in Jerusalem.

Here is Bezalel Porton’s translation of the Passover papyrus, heavily “cleaned” by Bible Bits:

[front:]To my brothers Jedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish Troop, your brother Hananiah.  The welfare of my brothers may the gods seek after at all times.  And now, this year 5 of Darius the king, from the king it has been sent to Arames…  Now, you, thus count fourteen days of Nisan and on the 14th at twilight the Passover observe and from day 15 until day 21 of Nisan the Festival of Unleavend Bread observe.  Seven days unleavened bread eat.  Now, be pure and take heed.  Work do not do on day 15 and on day 21 of Nisan.  Any fermented drink do not drink.  And anything of leaven do not eat [back:] and do not let it be seen in your houses from day 14 of Nisan at sunset until day 21 of Nisan at sunset.  And any leaven which you have in your houses bring into your chambers and seal them up during these days…  To (sealing) my brothers Jedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish Troop, your brother Hananiah son of  [personal name]. (trans. Porten)

Our clean translation text obscures the hesitancy, questioning and word-by-word analysis that must occur when the scholar translates the lone copy of an ancient text on poor quality material.  Scholars must do a fair amount of guesswork and speculation when dealing with ancient spellings, wordings, phrases, smudged inks, and holes in fragmentary manuscripts.  We have removed the conjecture and uncertainty from Porten’s scholarly work in our cleanup, so be aware.  Here’s a portion of what Porten’s original work looks like,  taken from his The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996):

bezalel porten translation example Passover letter papyrus
portion of Passover Papyrus translation by Bezalel Porten

Recommendation to Aid Two Benefactors Letter

The other of two places where Hananiah appears is in a letter recommending that two helpful Jews be compensated for coming to the financial aid of an Elephantine leader who found himself in jail.

The papyrus manuscript dates to the late 400s.  It is 32.5 x 13 cm in size, with 12 lines of text split between front and back.

Sachaul image two beneficiary papyrus Tafel 12 Plate 12 both sides
Recommendation to Reimburse Two Benefactors (Sachau plate/tafel 12 image, 1911)

Jewish scribe and leader Mauziah writes to community head Jedaniah and others regarding his imprisonment by Egyptian authorities for stealing a jewel, and his request that two men, Djeho and Hor, be reimbursed and rewarded for “bailing” him out of trouble.  In the mean time,  Hananiah has visited Elephantine and (again?) stirred up anger in the community of Egyptian priests of the Khnum sect.

Somebody had stolen a precious stone and sold it to local merchants.  The Egyptian regional governor and military commander Vidranga arrested Mauziah for some role in the theft and he was jailed.  Two men serving the office of senior Jewish scribe and high official Anani,  Djeho and Hor, intervene with Vidranga and another official named Harnufi, and secure the release of Mauziah and his return to the Jewish community with the support of God and a large payoff.

Hor is said to work for both Anani and for Hananiah.  The exact offices of Djeho and Hor are not known, but they are well-enough regarded that Mauziah, a mid-level authority in his own right, refers to them as “my lords.”  We can think of them as something akin to attorneys.

Djeho and Hor appeal to Mauziah for compensation for their efforts, and this letter by Mauziah is an appeal to the Jewish community stewards that they do so.  His case is made with the argument that Anani’s office we reimburse whatever is paid for by the community.  The amount in question is not stated, but we can assume that it is substantial.

Bezalel Porten’s translation:

[front side:] To my lords Jedaniah, Uriah and the priests of YHW the God, Mattan son of Jashobiah (and) Berechiah son of […]; your servant Mauziah.  The welfare of my lords may the God of Heaven seek after abundantly at all times and in favor may you be before the God of Heaven.  And now, when Vidranga the Troop Commander arrived at Abydos he imprisoned me on account of a dyer’s stone which they found stolen in the hand of the merchants.  Finally, Djeho and Hor, servants of Anani, intervened with Vidranga and Harnufi, with the protection of the God of Heaven, until they rescued me.  Now, behold, they are coming there to you.  You, look after them.  Whatever desire and thing that Djeho and Hor shall seek from you — you, stand before them so that a bad thing they shall not find about you.  To you it is known that Khnum is against us since Hananiah has been in Egypt until now.  And whatever you will do for Hor, for your […] you are doing.  Hor is a servant of Hananiah.  You, lavish from our houses [back side:] goods.  As much as your hands finds give him.  It is not a loss for you.  For that reason I send word to you.   He said to me, “Send a letter ahead of me.”  […] If there is much loss, there is backing for it in the house of Anani.  Whatever you do for him shall not be hidden from Anani.

Temple Rebuilding Appeal Draft

Within the Jedoniah Archive, several documents concern the destruction of the Jewish temple on Elephantine, and appeals to authorities in Persia and Jerusalem for approval to rebuild, amidst obstruction by local parties and some in Samaria.

None of these mention our friend Hananiah, but they provide a fascinating Egyptian-setting parallel to events in Jerusalem a century earlier recorded by Ezra-Nehemiah.

We’ll look at one of these temple-related papri.  This time we will show you the translation made by A.E. Cowley in his 1923 Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C.

This papyrus is a draft letter from Jedoniah and colleagues to Judean governor Bagavahya. Bahavahya is likely a Jew with a Persian name. The Biblical Nehemiah was Bahavahya’s predecessor as governor of Judah.

Sachau image Temple Tafel Table 1 front P13495 TADA4-7
Front side of the Temple Rebuild Request Letter (Sachau Plate 1, Cowley pap. 30)
Sachau image Temple Tafel Table 1 back P13495 TADA4-7
Back side of Temple Petition letter.  (Sachau plate/tafel 2, Cowley pap. 30)

The letter complains about local adversaries Vadranga and Naphaina, and a Samarian named Delaiah.

Delaiah is the governor of Samaria (which sits adjacent to and north of Judah), and the son of the previous Samarian governor Sanballat, who was Nehemiah’s nemesis in Judah two or three decades previously.

We met Vidranga in the Two Benefactors letter.  He is the local Egyptian governor in southern Egypt who has been plotting with Egyptian priests of god Khnum against the Jews and their temple. Vidranga has written a letter to his son Naphaina, a local military commander, urging him to destroy the Jewish temple on Elephantine. Naphaina does so, but he is punished severely and other accomplices are executed. The loss of their temple is of course highly distressing to the Elephantine Jewish community, which turns to fasting, asceticism, and (vengeful) prayer. In the mean time, they appeal to authorities in Memphis and Thebes in Egypt, plus Samaria, Judah, and the Persian capital for permission and resources to rebuild.

The temple was originally built prior to full Persian control of Egypt, and when Persian ruler Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525, destroying Egyptian shrines as he went, he left the Elephantine Jewish temple untouched. This was of course during the time of active Persian promotion of local religious autonomy following the Cyrus edict of 538.

An Elephantine papyrus document outside the Jedoniah collection, and later archaeological digs in 1967 and 1997, suggest that the Jewish temple was in fact rebuilt sometime between 405 and 400, just prior to the Elephantine settlement of Jews disappearing from history in 399.

Here’s A.E. Cowley’s 1923 translation of what he labels Papyrus 30.  Our Bible Bits edits are in [square brackets.]

To our lord Bigvai [Bagavahya], governor of Judaea [Judah], your servants Yedoniah [Jedoniah] and his colleagues, the priests who are in Yeb [Elephantine] the fortress. The health of your lordship may the God of Heaven seek after exceedingly at all times, and give you favour before Darius the king and the princes of the palace more than now a thousand times, and may he grant you long life, and may you be happy and prosperous at all times. Now your servant Yedoniah [Jedoniah] and his colleagues depose as follows: In the month of Tammuz in the 14th year of Darius [Darius the Great] the king, when Arsames [Darius’ grandfather and prior king of Persia] departed and went to the king, the priests of the [Egyptian] god Khnub [Khnum], who is in the fortress of Yeb, (were) in league with Waidrang [Vidranga] who was governor here, saying : The temple of Ya’u [Yahweh] the God, which is in the fortress of Yeb let them remove from there. Then that Waidrang, the reprobate, sent a letter to his son Nephayan [Naphaina]who was commander of the garrison in the fortress of Syene [on the river shore, Asswan] saying: The temple which is jn Yeb the fortress let them destroy. Then Nephayan led out the Egyptians with the other forces. They came to the fortress of Yeb with their weapons, they entered that temple, they destroyed it to the ground, and the pillars of stone which were where they broke. Also it happened, 5 gate-ways of stone, built with hewn blocks of stone, which were in that temple they destroyed, and their doors they lifted off (?), and the hinges of those doors were bronze, and the roof of cedar wood, all of it with the rest of the furniture and other things which were there, all of it they burnt with fire, and the basins of gold and silver and everything that was in that temple, all of it, they took and made their own. Already in the days of the kings of Egypt our fathers had built that temple in the fortress of Yeb, and when Cambyses came into Egypt he found that temple built, and the temples of the gods of Egypt all of them they overthrew, but no one did any harm to that temple. When this was done, we with our wives and our children put on sack-cloth and fasted and prayed to Ya’u the Lord of Heaven, who let us see (our desire) upon that Waidrang. [That Vidranga be punished.] The dogs tore off the anklet from his legs, and all the riches he had gained were destroyed, and all the men who had sought to do evil to that temple, all of them, were killed and we saw (our desire) upon them. Also before this, at the lime when this evil was done to us, we sent a letter to your lordship and to Johanan the high priest and his colleagues the priests who are in Jerusalem, and to Ostanes the brother of ‘Anani, and the nobles of the Jews. They have not sent any letter to us. Also since the month of Tammuz in the 14th year of Darius the king till this day we wear sack-cloth and fast. Our wives are made widow-like, we do not anoint ourselves with oil and we drink no wine. Also from that (time) till (the present) day in the 17th year of Darius the king, neither meal- offering, incense, nor sacrifice do they offer in that temple. Now your servants Yedoniah and his colleagues and the Jews, all of them inhabitants of Yeb, say as follows: If it seem good to your lordship, take thought for that temple to build (it), since they do not allow us to build it. Look upon your well-wishers and friends who are here in Egypt, (and) let a letter be sent from you to them concerning the temple of the God Ya’u to build it in the fortress of Yeb as it was built before, and they shall offer the meal-offering and incense and sacrifice on the altar of the God Ya’u on your behalf, and we will pray for you at all times, we, our wives, our children, and the Jews, all who are here, if they do so that that temple be re-built, and it shall be a merit to you before Ya’u the God of Heaven more than a man who offers to him sacrifice and burnt- offerings worth as much as the sum of a thousand talents. As to gold, about this we have sent [a bribe] (and) given instructions. Also the whole matter we have set forth in a letter in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah the sons of Sanballat [former] governor of Samaria. Also of all this which was done to us [Persian king who had left Egypt] Arsames knew nothing. On the 20th of Marheshwan the 17th year of Darius the king. (Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., 1923)

So, in the two papyri where we see the name Hanani, have we found the Hananiah mentioned in Nehemiah 1:2 as Nehemiah’s brother?

It is certainly easy to imagine that the Jewish governor of Judah under the Persians, a transplant from Susa to Jerusalem, has a brother who runs in the same commercial or diplomatic or military or Jewish governance circles.  It’s not hard to imagine Hananiah  serving as a Jewish attorney, diplomat, fixer, consultant, and get-it-done guy in a widespread Jewish temple and community rebuilding industry, not only in Jerusalem and Elephantine, but in a variety of other Persian empire outposts.

Something Hanani / Hananiah (?) has done in Elephantine seriously irritates the Khnum priests in southern Egypt.  Or is it merely Hanani’s international reputation as successful builder of Jewish communities and infrastructure?

He has an ally in the Judean governor’s house with this brother Nehemiah.  He has a long-running adversarial relationship (as does his brother) with Sanballat and Delaiah, both governors of adjacent Samaria.

Unfortunately he is mentioned in only two surviving Elephantine papyri.

Fortunately however, since 1907 we have had a second Jewish temple destruction-and-rebuilding-amidst-politics story which parallels the original story in our Bibles.  The Bible account of Jerusalem temple rebuilding — with all its messy politics — is mirrored a century later in southern Egypt.  The political battles fought by Ezra and Nehemia a half-generation earlier in Judah and Samaria are fought by similar parties in a highly similar context in Elephantine and Memphis.  Some of the similar parties may in fact be the same persons.  Is one of them Hananiah from Nehemiah 1:2?

Be sure to read the actual Bible for yourself!  Blessings to you from God and Bible Bits!


We cannot keep all these dates straight.  Here’s a timeline.  Note that the book of Ezra chapters 1-6 covers the time period 537 to 515.  Ezra chapter 7 and the 13 chapters of Nehemiah cover 458 to 433.  There is a gap.

The Elephantine papyri cover a time period of about 3000 years, but the period of interest in the Jedaniah Collection is the last quarter century of the 400.

Egypt kicks out the Persians and resumes its several thousand year self-control of the Nile in 404.  Elephantine disappears from records in 399.

722 Sargon II becomes king of Assyria.  Samaria, including the northern Jewish state of Israel falls to the Assyrians.  The ten tribes of Israel go into captivity, are widely dispersed, and lost.
715 Hezekiah becomes king of Judah (715 to ~686)
705 Sennacherib becomes king of Assyria
701 Judah invaded by the Assyrians
686 Manasseh becomes king of Judah (~687 to 642)
681 Esarhaddon becomes king of Assyria
669 Ashurbanipal becomes king of Assyria
648 Nahum predicts the fall of Nineveh
642 Amon becomes king of Judah (642 to 640)
640 Josiah becomes king of Judah (640 to 609)
634 Zephaniah begins to prophesy
628 Josiah implements reforms
627 Jeremiah begins to prophesy
627 Revolts in Assyria, empire weakens
626 Nabopolasser becomes king of Babylon
622 Revival in Judah
619 Habakkuk begins to prophesy
612 Coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Persians  destory Assyrian cities including Ninevah.  Assyrian empire falls.  Babylon rules Assyrian regions.  (612 to 539)
609 Neco II becomes pharaoh of Egypt
609 Jehoahaz becomes king of Judah.  He reigns only three months.
609 Jehoiakim becomes king of Judah (609 to 598)
605 Nebuchadnezzar II becomes king of Babylon (605 to 561)
605 Battle of Carchemish.  Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II defeats the Egyptians under Necho II along with Egypt’s Assyrian remnant of allies.  Babylon now effectively controls all of Syria including the Jewish land of Judah, which remains for now under Jewish leadership.  Babylon extends its influence into defeated Egypt.
605 An early wave of Jews are exiled to Babylon and Babylonian territory to the east in modern Iraq.  Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego are part of this group of exiles.  Daniel begins his prophecies.  This is the first forced migration to Babylon.
598 Johoiachin (aka Jeconiah) becomes king of Judah for one year
597 Jerusalem attacked directly by the Babylonians, who increase their direct control over Jewish affairs in Judah.   Nebuchadnezzar II takes exiles east to Babylon including Jehoiachin and Ezekiel.
597 Zedekiah becomes puppet king of Judah for one year. (597 to 596)
597 Jerusalem attacked by Babylonians. Increased direct control by Babylon over Judah
597 Jewis exiled to Babylon, inc Jehoiachin and Ezekiel
597 Jerusalem attacked by Babylonians. Increased direct control by Babylon over Judah
597 Zedekiah becomes puppet king of Judah for one year
597 Jewis exiled to Babylon, inc Jehoiachin and Ezekiel
593 Ezekiel begins to prophesy
593 Ezekiel begins to prophesy
593 Ezekiel begins to prophesy
586 The Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Jewish state now ceases to exist.  What the Assyrians began in Israel in 722 is completed by the Babylonians in Judah in 586.  Israel does not emerge as a Jewish state until modern 1948.
586 Mass deportation of Jews from Judah to Babylon and Babylonian controlled areas.
586 Gedaliah becomes governor of Jerusalem
586 The rabbis preempt the priests as the holders of divine truth
556 Nabonidus becomes king of Babylon (556 to 529). He goes into exile for a period after 550, likely from mental illness
550 Belshazzar becomes co-regent King of Babylon along with (perhaps his father) Nabonidus.  He was killed by the Persian invadors of Babylon in 539.  The Book of Daniel reports that Belshazzar is the son of Nebuchadnessar.  Cuneiform inscriptions found in 1854 state that he was the son of Nabonidus.  Both Daniel reports on Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall and dying the next day.  Both Daniel and Greek historian Xenophone (Cyclopaedia) report on Belshazzar.
550 Cyrus becomes king of Persia
550 The temple of Artemis erected at Ephesus
550 Babylon weakens under Belshazzar and Nabonidus to 539
539 Cyrus of Persia conquers the Babylonian empire then ruled by King Nabonidus.  Cyrus rules this new Persian empire from Susa and Babylon.  (539 to 530)  The Persian empire extends from modern Iran and northern India westward through Mesopatamia into the “Land Beyond the River” (modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel).  Persia extends a heavy influence into Egypt.
539 Sometime after 539, we suspect, Jews in Elephantine build a temple on the island, with Persian influence and support.
538 Cyrus decree allowing foreigners previously captured by Babylon to return to their homelands.  This includes the Jewish population.  See the “Cyrus Cylinder.”
537 Period of Jewish exiles returning to former areas of Judah and Israel from Babylon (537 to 445)
537 Zerubbabel and priest Jeshua organize a small party to return Palestine.  This is the first of multiple immigrations from Babylon to Jerusalem.  Zerubbabel is appointed governor of Judah.
537 Zurbbabel and Jeshua lead a small party back to Jerusaelm. The first of several return migration waves.
536 Temple rebuilding in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel begins
530 Temple construction stopped.  Will not resume for ten years.
530 Cambyses becomes king of Persia (530 to 522)
525 Cambyses invades and conquers Egypt.  Cambyses’ invasion extends to Syrene (Aswan) and Yeb (Elephantine) and into Ethiopia.
522 Darius I bcomes king of Persia (522 to 486)
521 Darius I  becomes king of Persia (521 to 485)
520 Zechariah begins to prophesy
520 Haggai begins to prophesy
520 Construction of the Jerusalem Temple resumed
520 Zechariah begins to prophesy
520 Haggai begins to prophesy
520 Construction of the temple resumes
520 Zechariah begins to prophesy
520 Haggai begins to prophesy
520 Construction of the temple resumes
516 The Temple completed
516 Temple completed. 2nd Temple period begins. 516 BC to 70 AD
509 The Roman Republic founded
486 Xerxes I (=Ahasuerus) becomes king of Persia (486-465)
484 Herodotus the historian born
479 Greeks defeat Xerxes at Salamis and Thermopalye
478 Esther becomes queen of Persia in the palace of Xerxes I.  Esther saves Jews. Feast of Purim begins.
469 Socrates born
464 Artaxerxes I becomes king of Persia (465-425)
458 Ezra takes a small contingent of Jews back to Palestine.  This is the 2nd return of exiles to Jerusalem.
458 Ezra leads a small contingent of Jews back to Judah This is the 2nd return.
458 Ezra leads a small contingent of Jews back to Judah This is the 2nd return.
447 The building of the Parthenon in Athens begins
445 Nehemiah takes a small contingent of Jews back to Palestine.  This is the third return of exiles to Jerusalem.
445 Hanani reports to Nehemiah in the Persian capital city of Susa, delivering an account from Jerusalem.  Nehemiah appeals to King Artaxerxes I to travel to Jerusalem.  He does and inspects the newly finished fortifications of Jerusalem.
445 Jews in Israel gather, fast, pray, confess sins and celebrate the first Feast of Booths
445 Nehemiah leads a small contingent of Jews back to Judah. This is the third return.
445 Hanani reports to Nehemiah in the Persian capitol city of Susa, delivering an account from Jerusalem. Nehemiah appeals to King Artaxerxes I to travel to Jerusalem. He does and inspects the newly finished fortifications of Jerusalem.
445 Jews in Israel gather to fast, pray, confess sins, and celebrate. The first festival of Booths.
445 Nehemiah leads a small contingent of Jews back to Judah. This is the third return.
445 Hanani reports to Nehemiah in the Persian capitol city of Susa, delivering an account from Jerusalem. Nehemiah appeals to King Artaxerxes I to travel to Jerusalem. He does and inspects the newly finished fortifications of Jerusalem.
445 Jews in Israel gather to fast, pray, confess sins, and celebrate. The first festival of Booths.
443 Nehemiah and Ezra read the Scriptures to the Jews
443 The beginnings of the Midrash; the Sopherim (Scribes) flourish
443 Nehemiah and Ezra read the Scriptures to the Jews
443 Beginnings of the Midrash, interpretation and commentary on scripture
443 Nehemiah returns to Susa
443 Nehemiah and Ezra read the Scriptures to the Jews
443 Beginnings of the Midrash, interpretation and commentary on scripture
443 Nehemiah returns to Susa
436 Malachi begins to prophesy
436 Malachi begins to prophesy
436 Malachi begins to prophesy
433 Nehemiah returns to Susa
425 Cambyses invades Egypt and conquers for Persia.  Cambyses destroys many Egyptian religious shrines but does not harm the Jewish temple at Elephantine
423 Darius II becomes king of Persia (423 to 404)
410 Egyptian military units aligned with Egyptian priests serving Khnum destroy the Jewish temple at Elephantine.  Their leader Naphaiana, son of Vidranga, is punished.
407 The Jedeniah Archive of Elephantine papyri are written in this timeframe.
405 The Jewish temple at Elephantine is rebuilt in this timeframe.
404 Artaxerxes II becomes king of Persia
404 Egypt regains self-rule.  Persians overthrown.
400 The Midrash begins to develop
399 Socrates condemned to death
359 Artaxerxes III becomes king of Persia
359 Philip becomes king of Macedonia
342 Epicurius teaches his philosophy
336 Darius III Codomannus becomes king of Persia
336 Alexander the Great becomes king of Greece
335 Aristotle teaches at Athens
333 The Battle of Issus fought; Alexander defeats the Persians
333 Alexander takes Egypt
332 Alexander destroys Tyre
331 Alexander seizes Babylon
330 Darius III of Persia slain

For further serious investigation of the Elephantine papyri, start with these sources:

Bezalel Porten. The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996)
A.E. Cowley. Aramaic papyri of the fifth century B.C. (1923)
B. Porten and A. Yardeni. Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt (1987). Often abbreviated TAD. Four volumes.
Eduard Sachau. Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer jüdischen Militär-Kolonie zu Elephantine (1911)

The Elephantine papryi and shards themselves are held in museums in Berlin (Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung), New York (Brooklyn Museum), and Cairo (Egyptian Museum).

Our featured image at the top of this post is from the Berlin Museum website.

The Elephantine papyri seem to have been given different identification numbering schemes by every researcher who ever published a report on the collection.  Likewise, museums have their own labeling taxonomies.

For the three documents we discussed, here are their labels in a few — about half — of these scholarly collection systems:

State Museum of Berlin
Egyptian and Papyi Collections
Sachau images in Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer jüdischen Militär-Kolonie zu Elephantine (1911) Cowley Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (1923) B. Porten and A. Yardeni. Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt (1987) B. Porten.  The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996)
Passover / Unleavened Bread Instructions P.13464 Tafel/Plate 6 Papyrus No. 21 TAD A4.1 B13
Compensation for Two Benefactors Egyptian Museum in Cairo, #89407 Tafel/Plate 12 Papyrus No. 38 TAD A4.3 B15
Temple Reconstruction Recommendation Draft P.13495 Tafel/Plates 1 and 2 Papyrus No. 30 TAD A4.7 B19