History Through Texts in the linga franca of the Near East – Imperial and Biblical Aramaic (c. 900 – 100 BCE): Aramaic 1 - Gobbet Paper.
Let it be known that to the King that the Judeans that ascended, [came up] from you to us upon Jerusalem, they are building a wicked and rebellious city; they are completing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now, let it be known to the king that if that city will be built and it's walls will be completed, tributes, taxes and duties will not be given, and the kingdom will be destroyed.
These two verses from the book of Ezra are taken from a letter reportedly written by officials or settlers in the Province of Samaria to Persian officials, regarding the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Scholars are of the opinion that the change to Aramaic from the Hebrew of the preceding verses shows the author of Ezra using a new source in his writing, the Aramaic Chronicle, from which the Aramaic documents of the book of Ezra are taken. The writers of the letter from which the above is taken were accusing the Judeans of preparing for rebellion against Persia by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and that such an event would lead to the downfall of the Persian Empire as in v.16. The exact dating of this letter is unclear, but if it was at the time of the rebellion of Megabyzus, the satrap of Abar-nahara, Syria, in 448BCE, its requests would have been received by an anxious Persian administration much more inclined to listen. The mention of 'rebellion' מרדתא, would have had a great effect, hence the halting of the building by force in v.23. The exchange of official documents between provinces of this nature is not considered unusual given Herodotus' description of the efficiency of the Persian road system. The normative nature of this communication is further evidenced by the use of the fixed formula 'let it be known' in the extract, which appears twice later in Ezra, in the concluding formula of 4:16, and in 5:8 It also has parallels in the Assyrian formula, 'May the King, my lord know'. Clines also considers the claims of the people of Samaria to be spurious and exaggerated.
However it is unclear from the text exactly which Judeans are rebuilding Jerusalem's walls. The word used here יהודיא , could be taken as meaning the men of Judah specifically, but by this time referred to the returnees from exile in general. The phrase 'from you to us' does not imply returnees from Artaxerxes, merely from Persia, further supporting a more general meaning. There are other words that cause contention, including the phrase 'completing the walls', which seems out of place if the Judeans have not been returned from exile for very long, and is sometimes held to mean 'repairing'. The words מנדה , בלו , and והלךare specific Persian terms, a type of partly voluntary gift, a fixed tax payment and a term referring to the duty owed by vassals. It is likely that these are general terms for the income of the Persian empire.
The message the king sent upon Rahoum , the commander, and Shimshai, the scribe, and the remainder, their associates, that are dwelling in Samaria, and the rest across the Trans Euphrates , "Peace. And now the letter that you sent to us was made distinct, it was read before me.
The extract is taken from a later part of Chapter 4 of Ezra, and is the opening statement of the reply from King Artaxerxes to the people of Samaria who accused the Judeans of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in preparation for a revolt. It also contains a sentence introducing the letter. The term used for 'message' is a Persian loan word ,paiti-gāma, which translates as 'which is due to'. It gives the sense of obligation the Persians felt in replying, most likely due to the extent of the allegations in the message from the people of Samaria. Batten hypothesizes that the opening sentence would have originally read "…Artaxerxes the King sent upon Rahoum…" as there is no way of identifying which king is communicating in this extract unless it is taken to be the same king addressed in earlier letters in Ezra 4. The word בעלֿטעםcan also be translated as official, giving the reader some idea of the standing of Rahoum in the community. The greeting literally means 'Peace', but often becomes 'Greetings' in modern biblical translations. The curtness of the opening greeting is an example of a typical opening phrase in a communication between a person of higher status and a person of lower status in this era. There are other contentious words in the passage. 'Their associates' is taken in some translations to mean 'colleagues' or 'companions', which seems to agree with the idea of all these people 'dwelling' together in Samaria.
Moving to the latter part of the extract, issues with the structure arise. Some commentators believe the 'us' to be a royal first person plural personal pronoun. However, it would seem more likely that the 'us' refers to both the king and the government, or the king and his associates, such as scribes and advisors. This would especially be the case when the nature of literacy at the time is taken into account. The letter from the people of Samaria to the king was written by a scribe due to low levels of literacy in the general population, in the language of Aramaic; the diplomatic linga franca of the Persian empire. The extract, in going on to discuss how the message was made distinct before the king, highlights how Aramaic would not have been the first language of the king. 'To make distinct ' could be interpreted as 'translate', something not unusual if Aramaic was the diplomatic language with everyday affairs being broached in Persian. If indeed he spoke Aramaic at all, or could read or write it in any meaningful fashion. The selection does go on to speak of the document being read to the king, not read by him, implying at the very least that he could not read Aramaic.
Then accordingly we said to them, 'who are these men that are building this building?' And the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Judeans and they did not cease until the report went to Darius, and then/thereupon it caused them to return a letter concerning this.
Originating from a later chapter in the book of Ezra, these are two very interesting verses. They come from the report sent to Darius by Tattenai, the governor of the Trans-Euphrates, and his associates, who found work begun on the rebuilding of the Judean temple. It is as interesting for the pieces of information that have been left out consciously or unconsciously by the author, as for the contents of the extract itself. In the first sentence, confusion arises over the phrase "we said to them". It is not clear in the preceding verses which party comes to be speaking in the first of these verses, as the first person plural form of the verb makes no sense. Different versions of Ezra over time have included extra information to try and improve the clarity of this sentence. 2 Edras, the Greek Septuagint version of the Ezra text includes the words 'they [the Persians] said to them [the Jews]'. This would seem to be the most obvious way of reading the text as the elders of the Judeans would most likely know which members of their community were involved in the rebuilding of the building in question. Fensham also highlights the possibility that the word אמרנא, 'we said', was a scribal error for אמרהו, 'they said', which supports the argument that it is the Persians speaking to the Judeans.
Work was clearly allowed to continue on the temple, as the Judean builders were not made to cease by their elders until King Darius had written a letter concerning the matter. It can be argued that the author of this extract attributed this pattern of events to the Judeans being in favour with their God. Whilst the phrase 'the eye of their God was upon the elders' sounds somewhat menacing to modern ears, a closer meaning would be that the elders were so favoured that their God was actually looking ; upon them, as Clines writes, events unfolded under God's watchful providence. The mention of the elders overseeing work at the temple also brings up the question of what had happened to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the leaders named in earlier books of Ezra who pledged to complete the temple. It has been suggested that they had fallen out of favour with the Persian administration or had died. The choice of the elders to continue working until word had come from the King also illustrates how the Judean people lived and worked within the Persian system of administration, being fully aware of its loopholes and foibles.
Brooklyn Museum MS 47.218.89
Tomorrow or another day, if Ananiah stands up in the assembly and says: "I hate Tammut, my wife", silver of hatred is on his head. He shall give to Tammut 7 shekels of silver and 2/4 and all she brought in her hand, she shall take out from straw until thread. Tomorrow or another day, if Tammut stands up and says "I hate Ananiah, my husband", silver of hatred is on her head. She shall give to Ananiah 7 shekels of silver and 2/4 and all that she brought in her hand, she shall take out from straw to thread.
These two sentences that appear to mirror so carefully the language used by the other come from the marriage contract of Ananiah son of Azariah, a priest of the Judean temple at Elephantine, Egypt to Tammut, a slave girl in the household of Meshullam, son of Zakkur. It is dated as being written on the 9th August 449BCE and is one of three complete marriage contracts from the Elephantine archive. Both Meshullam and Ananiah were considered men of standing in that community. Porten notes how this contract allows the historian to examine the haggling that would have happened during the process of writing such a document over property and money. Part of line 11 in the original papyri, the section regarding Tammut's rights if she instigated the ending the marriage, was erased from the final document. Scholars have pieced together that this clause would have given half of Ananiah's land to Meshullam if he died and left Tammut a widow, which illustrates how although marriage gave Tammut some standing, she was still regarded as a slave. Whilst she can take out all she brought with her, denoted by the idiom 'from straw to thread', Tammut is not free to go as she please should the marriage end. Other Elephantine contracts allow the woman to return to her father's house, or do as she pleases.
She may have still regarded as a slave during her marriage, but the terms of the extract given would appear to accord Tammut the same rights as her husband to end the marriage as she saw fit, and take her dowry with her, being liable to pay the same divorce settlement, or 'silver of hatred', as her husband; a surprising amount of equality for the Ancient Near East at this time. The divorce fine is relatively low compared to other Elephantine marriage contracts, due to Tammut's status as a slave. This parity in marriage contracts can also be seen in other Elephantine documents, leading some scholars to believe that the Elephantine community, whilst identifying themselves as Judean, did not follow the letter of the Deuteronomic law, where only men can seek divorce. The community appears to disregard it in other areas of life, for example in building their own temple in Egypt, and by swearing by other gods in legal documents. A possible reason for this is that they were influenced by the surrounding local Egyptian culture, and this extract can also support this idea. Egyptian customs of the time regarded marriage contracts as formal documents that mainly recorded the transfer or exchange of property, something seen with the erased haggling over land in this piece. Later in this document there is mention of a child that must have been borne to the couple prior to the drawing up of this contract, which suggests cohabitation rather than ceremony being the marker of marriage, much like in contemporary Egyptian practice. Indeed, the word used regarding the end of the marriage, שנאת, shnaht, to hate, conveys a strong sense of rejection, as does its Egyptian synonym mst, also used in marriage contracts. To reject the spouse by announcing your hatred publicly and leaving the family home would end the marriage.
Brooklyn Museum MS 47.218.90
And said Tammut and Jehoshima, her daughter, "We will serve you as a son and daughter will support, maintain their father, in your life and until your death. We will support Zakkur your son, as a son would support his father, in the manner that we have worked, served for you in your life. If we rise up to say we will not to support you in the manner a son will support his father, and Zakkur your son after your death, we shall owe to you and to Zakkur your son, a fine of silver, 50 karsh of royal measure of refined silver, and no suit and no process.
This excerpt is from the manumission of Tammut, the slave girl belonging to Meshullam son of Zakkur, It was written in approximately 427 BCE which is roughly 22 years after she married Ananiah the priest. During this time, she was still considered part of the household of Meshullam, even though she was married. Slaves in Elephantine were something of a commodity, bought, sold and inherited much like land. This document did not free Tammut and her daughter Jehoshima completely; they were only released upon the death of Meshullam and were to live as bondservants during his life time. Rather than being free to do as they pleased, the above excerpt illustrates how they became part of Mesullam's family. They are obliged to support Mesullam as a daughter supports a father. They also effectively become the adoptive sisters of Meshullam's son Zakkur, being obliged to serve him after his father's death in the same manner as they served Meshullam. The word used for the term 'to serve', פלח, is a standard term for the type of service owed by a son to his father and is equal to the Hebrew word עבד, found in Malachi 3:17, "compassion a man spares his son who serves him." Porten argues that he addition of the phrase 'in your life' in the first sentence shows how Tammut and Jehoshima were willing to treat Meshullam as a father, even though their freedom would only come after his death. This can also be used to argue that although slaves were an article of trade in Elephantine, they appear to have been treated with some consideration as human beings, for example Tammut being allowed to marry a free man. Without such consideration it seems unlikely that the slaves would be willing to pledge allegiance as if a member of their owner's family.
In the latter part of the extract, the phrase 'If we rise up' is similar to the phrases found in marriage contracts, 'if Ananiah stands up in front of the assembly.' It is used in Elephantine legal documents to indicate declarations of legal importance, but only when said declarations have a negative connotation. The imposition of the huge fine was undoubtedly to discourage Tammut and Jehoshima from shirking their obligations to Meshullam and his family, much in the way that the 'silver of hatred' in marriage contracts was used to discourage divorce. Compared to the divorce fines of 7 shekels in Tammut's marriage contract, and the 20 karsh fine in the marriage contract of Mibtahiah , the possible fine here seems very large until one considers it is for the freedom of two people, and the value of a lifetime of labour , rather than paying for the departure of a single spouse. Tammut and Jehoshima, if they chose to pay the fine, were unable to recourse to the law to attest its value as the final clause in the extract notes that they were to pay it without suit or process.
And also the vessels of the house of God, of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar caused the removal of from the temple of Jerusalem, and he brought them to the temple in Babylon, Cyrus took them out from the temple of Babylon and gave them to the one whose name is Shezbozar ,whom he made a governor. And he said to him 'take these vessels and go and put them in the temple in Jerusalem in the house of God, it will be built upon its place.
The extract is taken from a later part of the book of Ezra, and is part of a letter reporting to King Darius, regarding the rebuilding of the Judean temple from Tattenai, governor of Trans Euphrates, Shezbozar and their associates. It records the reply of the Jewish elders when questioned about their right to rebuild the temple by Tattenai. Temple items taken by Nebuchadnezzar in 587/6 BCE as part of the campaign that made Judah part of the Babylonian empire, were returned by Cyrus after the Persian conquest of the Babylonians in approximately 539 BCE. Cyrus decreed the temple should be rebuilt. It is a re-iteration of the promise made by Cyrus in Ezra 1:1-11, that the temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that the temple items were placed in the care of Shezbozar, who Cyrus had appointed governor, for return to Jerusalem. This sort of re-iteration of previous statements made by earlier Persian administrations by the Judean elders shows recognition of accepted procedure. The Judean elders refer to previous decrees that the Persians had record of in their archives; in doing so, they placed themselves in Persian history, legitimising what they were doing.
Shezbozar, the 'governor' in this passage is referred to in Ezra 1:8 as a prince of Judah. The term governor has many meanings. In Ezra 5:3 it refers to the Persian satrap, and in Nehemiah 5:14, it is used to describe Nehemiah as the governor of a province. The meaning that is the most probable in this situation is that of a royal commissioner entrusted with a distinct task. For someone with clear high standing as a royal commissioner, known as a prince of Judah, it is unusual that he is referred to using the idiom 'the one whose name is Shezbozar', that Clines notes is found when referring to slaves in contemporary literature. It may be that his high standing with the Persians was actually that of an official of slave standing, which fits with the idea of him being someone free to be commissioned to a particular task, rather than a higher ranking official with more responsibility.
The arrangement of the words in Shezbozar's order from Cyrus emphasises that the temple must be rebuilt, as it would have to be standing for the temple vessels to be replaced within it. The order has a number of other possible purposes beside the obvious. It could show Cyrus' complete confidence in the fact his order would be carried out; that the temple would be rebuilt so the vessels could be replaced. The author of the book collating the Persian material could be stressing the continuity of the newly built temple with the old one, 'built upon its place'. It is also interesting to note here that the Persians were often concerned with rebuilding on ancient foundations to authenticate their actions and endear them to their newly conquered citizens, something evidenced by the Cyrus Cylinder. Whilst it does not mention the Judean people explicitly, it puts the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple squarely within the norms of Persian policy.
List of Books, Journals and Websites consulted:
'Explore/Highlights - The Cyrus Cylinder' in 'British Museum-Cyrus Cylinder', <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cyrus_cylinder.aspx >
L. Archer, (ed.), Women in Ancient Societies, (London: Macmillan, 1994).
L. Batten, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Ltd, 1980).
D.J. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1984).
R. S. Ellis, Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia, (New Haven and London: Yale Near Eastern Researches, 1968).
F.C. Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmanns Publishing Co., 1984).
D. Freedman, (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York : Doubleday, 1992).
P. Hallsall, 'Ancient History Sourcebook: Kurash (Cyrus) the Great: The Decree of Return for the Jews, 539 BC' in 'Ancient History Sourcebook' < http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/ancient/539cyrus1.html> , 12
S. E. Hertz, "To Go and Marry Any Man That You Please": A Study of the Formulaic Antecedents of the Rabbinic Writ of Divorce' in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Oct., 2001).
E. G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic papyri : new documents of the fifth century B.C. from the Jewish colony at Elephantine , (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953).
Jona Lendering, 'Megabyzus' in 'Megayzus', < http://www.livius.org/mea-mem/megabyzus/megabyzus02.html>, 12 February 2008.
B. Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English: three millennia of cross cultural continuity and change, (Leiden, New York: Brill, 1996).
F. Skolnik, (ed.), Encyclopaedia Judaica, (Detroit : Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House, 2007).
L. Swidler, Women in Judaism : The Status of Women in Formative Judaism, (Metuchen, N.J: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976).