When reading Jewish literature from the Second Temple period (the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods) in light of Nehemiah 8, one gets the impression that the Torah (the Books of Moses)—in one form or another—was the common spiritual denominator accepted by all branches of developing Judaism. But questions concerning the background, date of composition, and provenance of Ezra–Nehemiah remain unsolved. How should we assess the biblical texts as historical sources? Do they primarily reflect the viewpoints of their authors or also historical occurrences?A good essay that sums up many of the issues raised by the Elephantine papyri for our understanding of Judaism in the Persian Period.
One important set of Judaean text betrays no knowledge of a “book of law of Moses” (or other sacred writings, for that matter), the Aramaic documents from Achaemenid Egypt, documenting the Judaean community in Elephantine (Jeb in Aramaic). In the fifth century BCE Judaeans in Elephantine were a garrison community under Achaemenid Persian command, controlling Egypt’s traditional southern border close to the First Cataract of the Nile.
Two comments occur to me, both with reference to this paragraph:
Finally, a major characteristic of Judaean religion in the Aramaic texts from Egypt is that they do not reflect Biblical writings. Possible overlaps represented by words such as “Sabbath” and “Passover” need not be explained as vague hints of knowledge of any proto-version of a biblical text. Quite on the contrary, the facts that the Judaeans in Elephantine had their own temple of YHW and even tried to get support from Jerusalem in their struggles for to rebuild their second temple strongly suggest that they were totally ignorant of the so-called cult centralisation reflected in Deuteronomy 12. The two literary works that may have had some sort of authority among the Elephantine Judaeans were the wisdom literature called Words of Aḥiqar and the Aramaic version of King Darius’s Bisitun Inscription.I don't disagree with what is said here, but I do want to nuance it. First, the Passover Papyrus shows knowledge of a Judean religious festival in a form not unrelated to what we find in the biblical Priestly source. Second, Papyrus Amherst 63 is also from Elephantine and it may (this is debated) come from the same fifth-century BCE Judean community that produced the other papyri. If so, the community had a larger and even more diverse collection of religious literature than is indicated above.
Gard Granerød's recent book on the Elephantine Judean community was noted here. Other recent past PaleoJudaica posts on the Elephantine Papyri and the site of Elephantine are here, here, here, here, here, and here, with a great many links.