Charles E. Wilbour, an American businessman and collector of Egyptian antiquities, bought nine entire rolls of papyrus and some inscribed papyrus fragments from three native women on the Nile island of Elephantine in Upper Egypt early in 1893. Eight of the rolls were still folded and sealed with strings and clay seals. Soon thereafter, he showed some of the scroll fragments to Professor A. H. Sayce and learned from him that they were inscribed in Aramaic. However, he did nothing to publicize his purchase or to have the scrolls deciphered, but put them away in biscuit boxes in the bottom of one of his trunks, where they remained until his death four years later in Paris on his way home.
Afterward, this trunk was shipped to America and stored in a New York warehouse, apparently without ever being opened until Wilbour's daughter Theodora died in 1947. At that time it came into the possession of the Brooklyn Museum along with the remainder of Wilbour's property. When these papyri were finally unrolled, they provided valuable information about a community of Jews in Egypt in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. This community was already known to archeologists, but Wilhour's papyri gave new details, and for the first time furnished a clue as to the nature of the calendar used by the postexilic Jews. This information was of special interest to Biblical chronologists because it provided precise information for the establishment of 457 B.C. as the beginning of the 2300 days/years of Daniel 8, as well as the seventy-weeks prophecy of Daniel 9.
But before discussing the problems of ancient Jewish calendation and chronology, we must find out how it happened that an ancient Jewish community existed at Elephantine, 600 miles south of Cairo, and how scholars learned about it through some remarkable manuscript discoveries.
This island lies in the midst of the Nile, just north of the first cataract that forms the ethnic and geographical border between Egypt and Nubia, the Biblical Kush (see Esther 1:1; Isa. 11:11). On the eastern bank of the Nile lies Aswan, which has gained fame in recent years through its gigantic river dam, which has created the huge, more than three-hundred-mile-long Lake Nasser for irrigation and generation of hydroelectric power. The island, called Yeb by the ancient Egyptians and Elephantine by the Greeks, served in the first place as ancient Egypt's southernmost fortress, but it was also a trading station through which were imported such African products as ivory, lion skins, and exotic animals.
It was on this island that Wilbour obtained the nine papyrus scrolls in 1893, although unfortunately he took this knowledge with him to the grave. How ever, as time went on, the local people found additional papyri and placed them on the antiquities market. But they refrained from revealing the discovery site to protect this welcome source of income. An agent of the Strasbourg Library purchased the first of these papyri, consisting of three fragments, from an antiquities dealer in Luxor in 1898. Another roll was obtained on the island itself by Professor Sayce in 1900, and in 1904 Lady William Cecil purchased three scrolls in Aswan, and Sir Robert Mond secured five more. When these were published in 1906,'1 the scholarly world was surprised to learn that they all came from a Jewish community of military mercenaries who had guarded the fortress island of Elephantine during the Persian period.
The excitement created by the discovery of these documents brought a German archeological team to the island to carry out excavations under the direction of Otto Rubensohn of the Berlin Museum from 1906 to 1908. Rubensohn had gained the confidence of the local people and learned the discovery site for the papyri appearing on the antiquities market between 1898 and 1904. Surprisingly Rubensohn's expedition succeeded in uncovering sixty-two additional Aramaic papyrus scrolls, and many fragments as well as numerous inscribed potsherds! This wealth of inscriptional material, published in exemplary fashion in 19II, 2 opened before the scholarly world almost a new discipline and made it acquainted with a phase of Jewish history of which little or nothing had been known up to that time.3
The Elephantine Jewish community
Among these Aramaic papyrus scrolls are official documents—dealing with marriages, sale of property, business contracts, governmental decrees, and freeing of slaves—as well as private and official letters and even some literary pieces. These documents were of the utmost importance for a better understanding of Aramaic, the official language of the empire during the Persian period, since they formed the largest number of Aramaic documents known to have survived from pre-Christian times. In light of the fact that several chapters of the postexilic Biblical books of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic, any sizable amount of Aramaic literature originating from approximately the same period was also of significance for Biblical linguistic studies. Furthermore, these papyri provided information about the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish community, which produced this valuable archive.
From these documents scholars learned that during the time of the Twenty-sixth Egyptian Dynasty (663-525 B.C.) Jews who had emigrated from Palestine had been forced to settle on the island of Elephantine as mercenaries to defend Egypt's southern border. These Jewish soldiers had built a temple, which they dedicated to Yahweh, although they also served other gods just as did their preexilic compatriots in Judah. When the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 B.C., he destroyed the Egyptian Khnum temple of Elephantine but did not touch the Jewish Yahweh temple on the same island, probably because as a Zoroastrian monotheist he was favorably disposed toward the Jews, who were also generally known to be monotheists. This favoritism shown by the Persian king toward the Jews must have created ugly tensions between the Egyptians of that area and the Jews, or increased the tensions that already existed.
Furthermore, we learn from these documents that the Jews were in control of their own civil and business affairs. However, they occupied only the lowest rungs on the military ladder, for they were merely common soldiers while their officers were invariably Babylonians or Persians. The commanding general was a Persian.
According to these Aramaic papyri, Egyptian soldiers stationed at Aswan crossed the river and destroyed the Jewish temple in 410 B.-C. at a time when Arsames, the Persian ruler of the country, was away on a visit to the Persian king. Apparently they had the tacit approval of Widrang, the local commanding general. When Arsames returned, the Jews of Elephantine complained to him about this attack, and he punished Widrang for his complicity in the violence, but to the dismay of the Jews, he did not grant them permission to rebuild their temple. Instead, he demanded that they obtain permission from the Jerusalem authorities before he would allow the temple to be built. Possibly Arsames was acquainted with such conservative Jews as Ezra and Nehemiah and knew that they were opposed to the,existence of any Yahweh sanctuaries rivaling the central Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, he may have deemed it the wisest course of action to let the Jerusalem authorities bear the blame for a refusal to permit the rebuilding of the temple. Furthermore, the satrap may also have wanted to postpone the rebuilding of this foreign sanctuary' as long as possible since its existence had been such a stumbling block to the Egyptians ever since their own temple had been destroyed by Cambyses.
The Jews, having no other choice, sent a letter to the two highest officials in Judah, the Persian governor Bigvai and the high priest Johanan (mentioned in Neh. 12:22, 23), requesting permission to rebuild their temple. This letter was evidently ignored by the Jerusalem authorities, since the Elephantine Jews never received a reply. After waiting two years, they dispatched another letter, this time addressed only to Bigvai, repeating their request. They also offered to pay a bribe for the desired permission and mentioned that they had placed this matter also before the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, the old archenemy of Nehemiah (see chap. 6: 1ff.). Without explicitly saying so, they thus intimated that if the Jerusalem authorities were unwilling to grant their request, the rival nation of the Samaritans might be willing to allow them to build on Elephantine a branch sanctuary of their temple.
This second letter had the desired results. Bigvai held a meeting with Sanballat's son Delaiah, so that he would not be double-crossed by the Elephantine Jews, and after this consultation granted them permission to rebuild their temple but with the proviso that it could serve only for bloodless offerings. Unfortunately, the preserved documents do not inform us whether, after receipt of this permission from Jerusalem, Arsames granted a permit to rebuild the temple on Elephantine or whether the temple was actually rebuilt. Neither has the actual site of the Jewish temple on Elephantine been discovered yet. From other historical sources we know, however, that the Egyptians rebelled against their Persian rulers a few years later and drove all foreigners out of the country. The fate of the Jews of Elephantine after this rebellion is unknown. Whether they were massacred or allowed to leave the country is uncertain.4
Calendar of the Elephantine Jews
The Aramaic Elephantine papyri have also significantly contributed to a better understanding of the postexilic Jewish calendar and chronology during the Persian period. From the chronological data presented in the books of Kings and Chronicles we know that the people of the southern kingdom of Judah possessed two calendars before the Babylonian exile. First, they had a religious calendar that began in the spring. In this calendar the months were numbered from one to twelve. 5 Second, they also had a civil calendar, which began in the autumn. New Year's Day of the civil calendar was the first day of the seventh month of the religious year. Thus the months of the civil year were counted first from seven to twelve, and then from one to six. The twelfth month, being the last month of the religious year, thus fell in the middle of the civil year.
We also know that the preexilic Jews counted the regnal years of foreign kings, including rulers of the neighboring kingdom of Israel, according to their own Jewish civil calendar, even if this meant that their reckoning would differ from the numbering used by the foreign king's own people. An example is provided by the records dealing with the capture of Jerusalem under King Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. The Babylonians dated this event in their own annals in the seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign. But the Hebrew compiler of the book of Kings put the same event into Nebuchadnezzar's eighth year (see 2 Kings 24:12). This is by no means a discrepancy between the Babylonian and Hebrew records, but merely reflects the usage of two different calendars and methods of reckoning. 6 In fact, full harmony of all chronological data in the preexilic Biblical records can be obtained only by recognizing and applying this rule. 7
The Hebrews had both names and numbers for their months. Before the Babylonian exile these names seem to have been identical with the Canaanite month names. Three of the four month names mentioned in preexilic books of the Bible—Zif the second month, Ethanim the seventh month, and Bul the eighth month—are also attested in ancient Canaanite texts. But during the Exile, the Jews adopted the month names of the Babylonian calendar as is clearly seen from the fact that in all postexilic books of the Bible—Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Esther—the month names are Hebrew variants of the Babylonian ones: Nisan for Nisanu, Sivan for Simanu, Elul for Ululu, Chislev for Kislimu, Tebeth for Tebetu, Shebat for Shabatu and Adar for Addaru. Thus it is certain that the Jews adopted the month names of the Babylonian calendar during their stay in Babylon, but Biblical scholars have been divided in their view of whether the Jews also adopted the Babylonian calendar at that time and switched their civil New Year's Day from the autumn to the spring. Most scholars believe that it is only logical to assume that the Jews took over not only the month names of the Babylonians but also their calendar, so that they had only one calendar after the Exile, namely the Babylonian, which served for both religious and civil purposes.
Two passages in Nehemiah, however, are hot in harmony with this majority opinion. In Nehemiah 1:1-3 an event is recorded that is said to have occurred in Chislev, the ninth month, of King Artaxerxes' twentieth year, while a subsequent event is recorded in Nehemiah 2:1-8 as having taken place in Nisan, the first month, of that same twentieth year. Here the ninth month clearly precedes the first month in a given year. There are only two possible interpretations: (1) one of the Nehemiah passages contains an error, as some Biblical interpreters have suggested, 8 or (2) the author of the book of Nehemiah counted the months of Artaxerxes' regnal years not according to the Babylonian spring-to-spring calendar9 but rather by the old, preexilic Jewish civil calendar, according to which New Year's Day fell in the autumn.
In order to ascertain which interpretation is correct, it is necessary to find ancient Jewish documents that carry double dates—one date expressed in a calendar the nature of which is not in question, such as the Egyptian solar calendar, and another date in which a foreign king's regnal year is presented in the calendar of the Jews. Such documents exist in the Elephantine papyri, where several legal texts carry two dates, an Egyptian one that is fixed and unassailable and one that would agree either with the Babylonian- Persian spring-to-spring calendar or with an autumn-to-autumn Jewish calendar.
An example may show what is meant. The document, Sayce-Cowley J, contains the renunciation of a claim and comes from the year 416 B.C., as ascertained from the first line, which contains the date formula. The line reads: "On the third of Chislev, year eight, that is the twelfth day of Thoth, year nine of Darius the king." The first of the two dates is expressed according to the Jewish calendar, as shown by the Chislev month name. The second date uses the Egyptian calendar with the Egyptian month name, Thoth. Evidently, the Elephantine Jews were required to use the official dating system of Egypt (in which they lived) in order to give legal force to their documents. However, they apparently felt a need also to add in many of the Elephantine papyri a date computed according to their own calendar and reckoning. Notice that in this example even the number of the king's regnal year varies by one year according to the two computations.
Unfortunately, the documents extant prior to 1947 carried double dates from that part of the year in which there was no divergence between the Babylonian spring-to-spring calendar and the Jewish autumn-to-autumn calendar. Thus it was not possible to ascertain whether the Elephantine Jews used a calendar that was different from the Babylonian.
However, the picture changed in 1953 when Emil G. Kraeling published the documents that had remained hidden from 1893 to 1947 in the bottom of Wilbour's trunk. 10 Among this latest treasure were additional double-dated documents. In one of them (Kraeling 6), the Egyptian and Jewish dates can be made to harmonize only if we assume either that the ancient scribe made a mistake11 or that he used a calendar that began in the autumn and that he counted the regnal years of the Persian kings according to this autumn-to-autumn calendar. 12 We have here a similar situation as found in the two Nehemiah passages already discussed, where one of two views is possible—either Nehemiah made a mistake or he was using an autumn-to-autumn calendar.
When Did Ezra Return?
These divergent views have their bearing on the date of Ezra's return from Babylonia in the seventh regnal year of Artaxerxes I (Ezra 7:1-9). From ancient records, primarily dated cuneiform documents, it is established that Artaxerxes' first regnal year began in the spring of 464 B.C. and ended in the spring of 463 B.C. according to the reckoning of the Persians. Consequently, his seventh year was the year 458-457 B.C., spring to spring. If Ezra counted the king's regnal years in this way, he would have returned in the spring of 458 B.C., for it is said that he left Babylonia during the month of Nisan in the seventh year of Artaxerxes and arrived in Jerusalem four months later (see verse 9). Following this reasoning, many commentators date the events described in Ezra 7 to the year 458 B.C. 13
On the other hand, if Ezra used the Jewish autumn-to-autumn calendar, as was apparently the case with his contemporary Nehemiah and also with the Elephantine Jews, the first year of Artaxerxes would have been computed by the Jews as having begun in the autumn of 464 B.C. and ended in the autumn of 463 B.C. Thus his seventh year would have begun in the autumn of 458 B.C. and ended in the autumn of 457 B.C. The month Nisan, a spring month in which Ezra and his group departed from Babylonia, would accordingly have fallen in the spring of 457 B.C., and their arrival in Jerusalem would have occurred in the summer of 457 B.C. Hence, the Elephantine papyri give strong support to our conclusion that the decree of Artaxerxes was issued and carried out in the year 457 B.C.
Seventh-day Adventists have consistently taken the date of Ezra's return from Babylon as the starting point for the longest prophetic period of history—the 2300 day/year prophecy of Daniel 8:14. At the time of William Miller and the early Adventist pioneers, chronological dates of ancient history were based entirely on Ptolemy's canon of the second century A.D. Its reliability had been verified by several astronomical data given by Ptolemy in connection with his chronological data. One difficulty is that regnal years of various kings listed in that canon (beginning with the Babylonian kings of the eighth century B.C. and continuing with the succeeding Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman rulers) were expressed in terms of the Egyptian solar calendar, which differed from the calendars of other ancient nations. Subsequent discoveries, especially the numerous dated cuneiform tab lets of the Mesopotamian valley, have corroborated Ptolemy's data in general, and at the same time have provided us with more precise dates regarding some details. In some cases, these more recent discoveries have shown that the dates in the B.C./A.D. scheme that were formerly adopted for some ancient rulers on the basis of Ptolemy's canon needed some corrections. Certain of these corrections have been also applied to Artaxerxes I.
However, the evidence that both the Jewish records of Elephantine and the book of Nehemiah used a fall-to-fall calendar and counted the regnal years of the Persian kings according to their own calendar provides ample support for designating 457 B.C. (and not 458 B.C.) as the year in which Ezra returned from Babylonia. 14
1 A. H. Sayce and A. E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri Discovered at Aswan (London: 1906).
2 Eduard Sachau, Aramdische Papyrus und Qstraka aus einer judischen Militdr-Kolonie zu Elephantine (Leipzig: 1911), 2 vols.
3 A. E. Cowley published all Aramaic papyri known until 1923 with thorough linguistic and historical discussions in the following work: Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: 1923).
4 A detailed discussion of the history, religion, and life of the Jewish colony at Elephantine can be found in Emil G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Aramaic Papyri (New Haven, Conn.: 1953), pp. 1-119.
5 In order not to complicate the discussion of the lunisolar year of the Babylonians or Jews who inserted a thirteenth month into some years at regular intervals in order to bring the year into harmony with the seasons, the thirteenth intercalary month is not taken into consideration in our brief study here. For a discussion of this calendrical problem and others, see the articles "Month" and "Year" in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, revised edition (Washington, D.C.: 1979).
6 Siegfried H. Horn, "The Babylonian Chronicle and the Ancient Calendar of the Kingdom of Judah," AUSS 5
7 Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, revised edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1965); The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: 1954), vol. 2, p. 144.
8 Wilhelm Rudolph, Esra und Nehemia (Tubingen: 1949), p. 102, corrects the year 20 of Nehemiah 1:1 to year 19. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (London: 1961), p. 192, considers Nehemiah 1:1 as "corrupt." Loring W. Batten, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, International Critical Commentary (New York: 1913), p. 182, calls the dates in Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1 "interpolations by the Chronicler," and thinks that Nehemiah 1:1 reads erroneously 20 for 19, "unless as Wellhausen. suggests, the year is reckoned after the Syrian fashion as beginning in the autumn (Is. -Jud. Gesch. 173)." Peter R. Ackroyd, I & II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah (London: 1973), p. 264, comments on Nehemiah 1:1, "There would appear to be an error here (read 'nineteenth')." Raymond A. Bowman in The Interpreter's Bible, G. A. Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: 1954), vol. 3, p. 663, considers the year 20 of Nehemiah 1:1 an "error ... for the 'nineteenth year.'"
9 The Persians adopted the Babylonian calendar. This is attested by numerous dated cuneiform texts of the Persian period.
10 On Kraeling's publication, see note 4.
11 Richard A. Parker, "Some Considerations on the Nature of the Fifth-Century Jewish Calendar at Elephantine," JNES 14 (1955):274.
12 Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood, "The Fifth-Century Jewish Calendar at Elephantine," JNES 13 (1954):14-16.
13 Martin Noth, The History of Israel, second edition (New York: 1960), p. 320; John Bright, A History of Israel, second edition (Philadelphia: 1972), p. 380.
14 For a full discussion of all calendrical and chronological problems connected with Ezra's return from Babylonia, see Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood, The Chronology of Ezra 7, revised edition (Washington, D.C.: 1970).