Hanani-Hananiah: Biblical Personage Discovered in the Aramaic

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah permit a deeper insight into the many-sided struggles of the Jews who had returned from Babylon.

C. G. Tuland is a retired worker living in Santee, California.


ARCHEOLOGICAL discoveries of material relevant to the Bible still continue. Quite frequently manuscripts, clay tablets, sherds, and many kinds of objects are found that are directly or in directly related to the history or religion of the Bible. Furthermore, texts of manuscripts and inscriptions that were discovered and translated decades ago are again being checked on account of the continually growing knowledge of Near-Eastern languages. Unfortunately, much of such information re mains buried in scholarly journals and other publications without much benefit to the interested public. If such material could be made available to all it would broaden the understanding of Biblical backgrounds, just as it contributes to the improvement of Bible translations.

Shortly before the turn of the twentieth century, the discovery of what are now called the Aramaic papyri, on the island of Elephantine in the Upper Nile, caused exceptional interest among Biblical scholars. These documents, writ ten between 495 and 406 B.C., contain considerable information about a Jewish garrison that had been stationed there already in the days of the Neo-Babylonian empire, but continued to serve under the Persian kings. This garrison of Jewish soldiers with their families constituted a civic community as well as a religious congregation that through time had been subject to the considerable influence of their pagan environment. They worshiped Yahweh, the God of their fathers, in a temple of their own on the island, and they offered sacrifices to Him in spite of the Mosaic command, which prohibited the erection of temples or other sanctuaries and the offering of sacrifices on altars outside of Jerusalem (Deut. 12:5, 6).

Their "theology" and religious practices appear to have been highly unorthodox with a strongly syncretistic tinge. They even shared their gifts be tween Yahweh and heathen deities, and included the latter's names in their oath-formulae as witnesses in legal documents.

Other Aramaic documents known as the Brooklyn papyri were published later on by Emil K. Kraeling, followed by the "leather letters" of G. R. Driver. All of these letters contain a wealth of information about many aspects of life during the Persian period, including legal matters, the position of woman in the community, civil and legal administration, matters pertaining to military organization, caravan routes, and other problems.

According to letters number 30 and number 31, written in 411 B.C., the Jewish temple on Elephantine had been destroyed. Responsible for this act was Waidrang, the commander of an Egyptian detachment, also stationed on that island. Yedoniah and the leaders of the Jewish community wrote a long and detailed report of the destruction, asking that the temple be rebuilt. To this end they needed the authorization of Arsames, the Persian satrap of Egypt. However, he was reluctant to grant such permission since the Jewish sacrificial rituals were obnoxious to the Egyptians. The Jews sacrificed such animals as oxen, sheep, and rams. This was an affront to the Egyptian cult and to the priests of Khnum (the ram-god), whose temple was also found on Elephantine. Since the destruction of their sanctuary was an unjustified act of violence, the Jews requested restitution of the dam age in their letter to Arsames (papyrus number 100, ca. 410 B.C.), but without success.

The community had also turned to the high priest in Jerusalem, Johanan, known from Nehemiah 12:23, 24, but even here they failed. The high priest did not even reply. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem evidently objected to the building of another sanctuary outside their national temple, the only place where, traditionally, sacrifices could be offered. Another probable reason was the unorthodox religious practices of that community, already referred to.

After another three years of futile waiting, the Jews on the island decided to write another letter, this time to Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, and his sons, Shelemiah and Delaiah. This must be considered as a rather clever diplomatic move, since Sanballat had been the chief opponent of Nehemiah and had fought the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall (Neh. 4). For San ballat to become the mediator between a Jewish community and the Persian satrap to the exclusion of the high priest in Jerusalem was not only a blow to the orthodox leaders in Jerusalem and their religious authority but was certainly a delight to Sanballat. Thus the Samaritans promptly dispatched an envoy to the court of Arsames, asking him to give favorable consideration to the petition that the Jewish temple on Elephantine be rebuilt.

The intervention was successful. However, it was a negotiated settlement. Since the main obstacle to the revival of the Jewish cult was apparently the sacrificing of certain animals, the Jews were asked to suspend bloody sacrifices. This stipulation to present only meal or similar offerings was made in papyrus number 30 (lines 11, 21, 25, 26). The same condition was made by Bagoas, the Persian governor of Judah, as well as by Delaiah, the son of San ballat (papyrus number 32). Papyrus number 33 is a report of the successfully concluded negotiations, for "sheep, oxen, and goats will not be offered as burnt sacrifice there, but incense, meal-offerings, and drink-offerings only." And not to forget that bribes are not a modern invention, it is interesting to note that the Jewish community was willing to pay a substantial sum to "his lordship," Arsames, the Persian satrap of Egypt.

Even when we admit that the problems of the Jewish garrison on Elephantine and the destruction of their temple were largely caused by religious factors, it does not seem to answer several other questions. The people had sacrificed and observed their rituals for at least 120 years before tragedy struck. What, then, was the immediate cause for this act, and why did Waidrang and his detachment burn their sanctuary at that point of time?

It seems that a reasonable answer can be found in the Biblical records, as well as through some of the Aramaic papyri of that period. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah permit a deeper insight into the many-sided struggles of the Jews who had returned from the Babylonian captivity after 538 B.C. Not only was theirs a fight against the outside opposition of their hostile neighbors or material poverty but there were internal frictions of a religious nature. After almost a century they were still few in number, poor in possessions, and Jerusalem—their pride—was still a small settlement without walls and with only a few inhabitants (Neh. 7:4). There were also Jews, including members of the high-priestly family, who were intermarried with heathen neighbors.

The leading orthodox Jews of the Babylonian school who had not returned from Babylon were extremely concerned about these developments. They started reforms destined to keep their brethren in Judah religiously and racially pure. The books of Ezra and Ne hemiah demonstrate that these reforms were not introduced without intense opposition and struggles of all kinds. The great leaders of these reforms were "Ezra, the Scribe," a priest, and Nehemiah, a eunuch, Judah's governor, builder of Jerusalem's wall, and as zealous as Ezra for the faith of their fathers. But the split in Judaism was never healed. The orthodox as well as the liberal parties continued through the centuries, although under different names. We meet them in the days of Jesus as the conservative party of the Pharisees, and the Hellenistic modernists, the Sadducees.

Hananiah Puts Pressure on Elephantine Jews

The Aramaic papyri seem to indicate an intimate relationship between the religious developments in post-exilic Judah and the events on the island of Elephantine. Darius, King of Persia, sent a message to Arsames, his satrap, instructing the garrison to observe the Passover. In a letter (Cowley, number 21) of the year 419 B.C., a man by the name of Hananiah informed the community about the decree of Darius, obviously adding some instructions about the time and manner this had to be done, as prescribed by Mosaic law. The name of Hanani-Hananiah appears in several others of the papyri (numbers 21, 30, 31, 33) always as a person of considerable political and religious influence, whose residence, however, was not in Egypt. It seems that he attempted a strict enforcement of Jewish law, ac cording to the orthodox teachings of the Babylonian school among the more than liberal Jewish colony on Elephantine. It is evident that they responded at first, but their change of ritual and customs even in civilian life apparently provoked the Egyptians.

In a letter written approximately 415 B.C. (Cowley, number 38), before the destruction of their sanctuary, the Jewish leader on Elephantine complained: "So when they find no fault in you, they will acknowledge to you that Khnum (the Egyptian ram-god) is against us from the time that Hananiah was in Egypt till now." This seems to suggest that evidently the pressure of Hananiah upon the Jewish community created strong tensions between them and the Egyptians, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Jewish temple by Waidrang, the commander of the Egyptian detachment.

As we compare the events described in the Aramaic papyri with the book of Nehemiah, we discover some striking similarities. Like the papyri, the book of Nehemiah refers to a prominent Jewish leader, alternately called Hanani-Hananiah. It was Hanani, one of Neheniiah's brethren, who reported the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem to the men in Susa (Neh. 1:1-3). Albright, Bowman, Kittel, Rudolph, and other outstanding scholars believe him to have been a true blood-brother of Nehemiah.

A grammatical correction of Nehemiah 7:2 removes several obscure points from the text which have survived even in recent versions, since they translated the Hebrew "waw" as the conjunction "and," whereas it should be rendered as an "explicative waw," which signifies "namely" or "that is" or "meaning." The text then reads as follows: "I gave my brother Hanani, that is, Hananiah, the governor of the castle, charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many" (cf. C. G. Tuland, "Hanani-Hananiah," in Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 77, Part 2, 1958, pp. 157-161). Thus it is evident that Hanani and Hananiah are but one person in both the Aramaic papyri as well as in Nehemiah; the first being a shortened form of the latter.

The testimony of Nehemiah concern ing his brother agrees perfectly with the impressions we receive from the papyri. In the Biblical records Hanani-Hananiah is not only a Jewish patriot but he is also a religious zealot. He travels from Babylon to Jerusalem to investigate the condition of those who had re turned from the captivity. He becomes the mayor of Jerusalem "because he is a more faithful and God-fearing man than many," representing the Babylonian orthodoxy in Jerusalem.

The Hanani-Hananiah of the Aramaic papyri, too, was a politically as well as religiously very active person. From other papyri it is evident that he was rather influential at the court of the Persian satrap of Egypt as well as at the court of Darius himself. It is, there fore, natural that his brother Nehemiah considered him a valuable supporter in his struggle against the ever increasing religious liberalism in Jerusalem. But conditions on Elephantine were not the same as in post-exilic Judah. The Jewish garrison on that small island had been separated from its country for perhaps as long as a century and a half. The golah, as the Jews who had re turned from Babylon were called, had experienced a religious renewal, a re turn to the law and strict ritual. They also had the advantage of being a racially homogeneous group in their own country, however small it was, with a large amount of political independence. But even in postexilic Judah there was considerable friction between orthodox and liberal Judaism; there was intrigue and even murder. They were strong enough, however, to endure it. It was different with the Jewish garrison on Elephantine. The demands of religious reform brought them into conflict with the Egyptians, priests, and soldiers, which ended with the burning of their temple and the eventual liquidation of the garrison.

Additional Evidence

The fact that the activity of Hanani-Hananiah is chronologically exactly established, both in the Biblical records as well as in the Aramaic papyri, serves as an additional evidence that both sources refer to one and the same per son. Nehemiah was Judah's governor from 444 to 432 B.C. After this he re turned for a second term, but there is no information as to when it terminated. As to Hanani-Hananiah we know that he met his brother in Susa in 445 B.C. We can follow some of his activities during the administration of Nehemiah in Jerusalem, until we find him again on his mission to Elephantine in 419 B.C.

There seems to be little doubt that we have discovered this Biblical personage in the secular records, another indication of the historical trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Records which also furnish a wider historical back ground for a better understanding of the Bible.

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C. G. Tuland is a retired worker living in Santee, California.

August 1976

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