Who Was a Jew? Jewish Ethnicity During the Achaemenid Period

Vol. 37/No. 2 (1995)

Who Was a Jew?
Jewish Ethnicity During the Achaemenid Period

Mark Hamilton

Cambridge, MA


What defines a Jew? The question of Jewish identity is one of the most interesting and provocative "ethnic" problems of the past three millennia. Concern with the question has come both from within and without the Jewish community. Outsiders have been concerned with protecting themselves from Jews; this is true whether one thinks of Nazi descent laws, medieval Christian conversion of Jews, or the exclusionary laws of Claudius. Insiders have been equally concerned with the question, although for different and (usually) more benign reasons. For the historian interested in the nature of ethnicity, Jewishness presents a rare opportunity to study the phenomenon over a very long time span and in various environments. Such a person asks how Jewishness was expressed in the past (and perhaps how it might be again); the question remains: "Who was (or is) a Jew?"

To address this question, two kinds of sensitivity are necessary. The first is temporal. Put simply, the nature of Jewishness varied from time to time and place to place. Thus Jews could also be Christians during the first century C.E., but not during the third.(1) The second kind of sensitivity is methodological. Historical analysis must account for the variety of detail found "on the ground." The ethnic label "Jew" does not lend itself to an essentialist definition, but is best seen as "a series of nesting dichotomizations of inclusiveness and exclusiveness."(2) This means both that no single characteristic infallibly identifies a person or group as Jewish and that ethnicity is circumstantial (it can be turned on and off).

The Nature of the Evidence

This paper seeks, first of all, to study Jewish identity during a specific period of time-the Achaemenid Era (ca. 539-332 B.C.E.). This period was chosen because it is much less well known than Iron II and the Hellenistic period, which precede and follow it, and because it was under the Persians that "Jew" changed from a primarily sociopolitical term to a primarily religious one. Coincidentally, ethnic identity was a major concern in the literature of the period.

Sources related to Jewish identity during the Achaemenid period are mostly literary. Although archaeological surveys of Palestinian sites reveal a great deal about the life of a growing population,(3) it is difficult to draw boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish populations on the basis of material remains alone. Moreover, archaeological knowledge of Jewish sites outside Palestine is very poor. For example, excavation of the Persian-era stratum at Elephantine, begun by the French under Napoleon, was completely unscientific and left no reliable records. (The excavations for earlier and later strata are much better and were conducted during the 1960s and 1970s under the auspices of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.)(4) This study will rely very heavily on literary evidence. This is admittedly a shortcoming but one that can hardly be avoided.

The literary evidence for Jews under Persian rule is diverse. It includes prophetic (Haggai, Zechariah) and historiographical (Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles) texts in the Bible, as well as Aramaic contracts, letters, and accounting ledgers from Elephantine and OadAl ed-Daliyeh,(5) coins and jar seals from many Palestinian sites, and Akkadian business records from Nippur and elsewhere.(6) Jews filled different social and economic niches, from mercenary to banker to imperial administrator. It would be impossible to discuss all of this material in a short paper; therefore, I will focus on only the two most instructive corpora, the Bible and the Elephantine papyri.

Characteristics of Ethnicity

After the material to be studied has been identified, how should one study it? In several seminal publications the Danish anthropologist Fredrik Barth has pointed out that ethnicity expresses itself most clearly at the boundaries;(7) that is, one can spot a Jew (for example) when he or she is dealing with non-Jews. Since no ethnos is an island (with apologies to John Donne), ethnic character is shaped by its social and ecological boundaries. It will become clear in this paper that the boundaries of ethnicity do indeed provide information about ethnic identity. Ezra-Nehemiah and the Elephantine papyri portray the conflict and compromise with other ethnic groups that shaped Jewishness.

Nevertheless, one should note that it is not enough to look at boundaries. Ethnic groups are most conscious of their own identity at points of conflict with outsiders, yet contact, whether strained or amicable, does not create the feeling of belonging which ethnics experience. The core of ethnicity, although changing constantly in minor and major ways, is as important as the boundaries. Often, as was the case in both Judea and Elephantine, part of that core is the shared beliefs and resultant practices of the group, i.e., its ideology. Certainly religious ideology was crucial to Jewish identity during the Achaemenid period, even if by religion different persons meant different things. The trick is to discover how religion shaped ethnic identity and vice versa. Therefore, this study must ask some questions about what Clifford Geertz calls the sociology of meaning.(8) The following pages will explore these and other questions.

The Jews of Elephantine

The publication of the Elephantine papyri (and ostraca) during the first decades of this century provoked a considerable stir in scholarly circles. The papyri portrayed a Jewish military colony unlike anything seen in the Bible. The Yahwism of the group seemed unorthodox, a confirmation of the scholarly hypothesis that the homogeneous theology of the Bible camouflaged a more diverse religion in Israel.

Much of this early scholarly euphoria was justified. Elephantine was different. But how different, and why? Those are the questions I would like to address.

To begin, the Jewish community was part of a larger Aramaic-speaking, multiethnic garrison stationed at the First Cataract to guard the Nubian frontier. This region had been the border of Egypt since the Old Kingdom(9) and continued as a military center into the Roman era, when it was the home base of Legio I.(10) According to Herodotus (ii, 30),(11) the foreign garrison dated back to the time of Psammetichus (mid-seventh century B.C.E.).(12) The garrison probably perished during the Egyptian wars of independence at the end of the fifth century B.C.E.

An interesting aspect of Herodotus' note is that he labelled the group "Persians." He wrote, και γαρ εν Ελεϕαντινη Περσαι ϕρουρεουσι. This is not, of course, a claim that the garrison was ethnically Persian (the commanders probably were; witness the names Varyazata, Vidranga, but Nabukudurri). Rather, Herodotus is saying that the soldiers were not Egyptian. He does not call them Jews.

However, in his discussion of circumcision (ii, 104), Herodotus asserts that the Syrians of Palestine (Συροι οι εν τη Παλαιστινη) also circumcised. He distinguishes this ethnic group from Egyptians, Colchians, Ethiopians, Phoenicians, and Συροι δε α περι θερ μωδοντα και ποταμον Παρθεωιον. Who are these "Syrians of Palestine," if not Jews and perhaps other Aramaic-speakers of the area? For Herodotus, and perhaps for his sources, the Jews were Aramaeans because of their language.(13)

This brings the discussion to Elephantine, where the language was Aramaic and where constant contact between Jews and Aramaeans existed. How did the two groups distinguish themselves from each other and from other groups? The Elephantine papyri provide some intriguing bits of evidence.

The Boundaries of Jewishness

The papyri illustrate the boundaries of Jewishness in several ways. First, they show where the boundaries were not. They were only partially linguistic (so also Herodotus), at least insofar as Jews could be distinguished from Aramaeans and probably other members of the garrison. They were not at the level of the family, for intermarriage was possible, even if we cannot tell how frequent it was (Cowley 15; Kraeling 2). They were not at the level of business, for interethnic business was common. They were not embedded in law, for the business papyri are formally similar to other Aramaic and even Mesopotamian texts of the same time period.(14) They were not at the level of settlement patterns, for Jews and non-Jews lived cheek-by-jowl in Elephantine (Kraeling, 3, 4).(15) And they were not completely at the level of ideas, for Jewish reading material apparently included the wisdom tale of Ahiqar, which contains references to non-Jewish deities.

Second, however, the papyri do hint at where the boundaries were. The major issues which distinguished Jews from non-Jews were religion and occupation. This was particularly important in distinguishing Jews from Egyptians. The following paragraph will discuss these two ethnic boundaries.

Religion as a boundary of ethnicity

Eight letters are extant from the communal archives (or Jedaniah archives). They show a steady escalation of tension during the last decade of the fifth century between the Jewish community and the Khnum priesthood on Elephantine. The Yahweh priests Jedaniah and Uriah are said to know that "Khnum, he has been against us from the time Jedaniah was in Egypt until now" (hnwm hw lyn mn zy hnnyh bmsryn d k n [Cowley 38:7b]). This hostility culminated in the destruction of the Yahweh temple.

At first, this seems like a simple case of interethnic tension. Despite the protests of innocence lodged by the Jews in Cowley 30 and 31, there is a possible explanation for why Egyptians might have felt threatened by the Yahweh temple. Elephantine had been sacred to a series of deities since at least the third dynasty;(16) one of these was Khnum.(17) The presence of a foreign deity might have created some ill feeling, but compounding the mischief was the fact that the temple was sponsored by a community of mercenaries. At a time of Egyptian nationalism, the temple may have seemed like an insult to Egypt itself. One could understand the destruction as an episode in the mounting unrest which led to Egyptian independence ca. 403 B.C.E.(18)

However, according to Cowley 31:5, the Persian commander, or frataraka, connived with the Egyptian troops to demolish the Yahweh temple. Interestingly, the earlier draft of the letter did not mention a bribe, but had Vidranga attacking the temple without any motivation (Cowley 30:5-6). The added detail in the revised letter is important because it explains the otherwise inexplicable attack by a garrison commander upon his own subordinates. But is the explanation reasonable? Certainly we have no way of confirming its accuracy. Yet it is interesting that the first draft did not mention the bribe. In any case, the important point may be what follows in both letters, viz., a note to the effect that the Persian government had always protected the Yahweh temple, even when Cambyses had destroyed Egyptian temples in the same area (Cowley 30:13; cf. 31:12-13). The appeal to the readers of the letter (the governors of Judea and Samaria) was an appeal to imperial protection.

And this may ultimately explain the tension between Jews and Egyptians, on the one hand, and Jews and a renegade garrison commander on the other. The Jewish community saw itself as being under the direct protection of the central government, and they appealed to the most powerful Jews they knew. This must certainly have irked both Egyptians and Persian superiors. It also indicates how closely Jews could unite together when facing danger from outside their community.

Naming as a boundary behavior

One final item deserves mention. In several legal papyri the party involved is identified as a Jew or an Aramaean. Normally, the title is "Jew of Elephantine" or "Aramaean of Syene" (Syene being a town on the east bank of the Nile opposite Elephantine Island). However, "Aramaean of Elephantine" appears occasionally (Cowley 25:2, 35:2; Kraeling 7:1, 12:2, 14:2), and "Jew of Syene" once (Kraeling 11:2). The purpose of this naming is unclear. It occurs only in the introductions of a legal contract, never in the list of witnesses, even when the names in the list are of different linguistic origins. And this naming formula occurs only at Elephantine, being absent from the Samaria papyri.(19) It should be seen, therefore, as a local phenomenon, and not as a normal feature of Aramaic law.(20) Superficially, one might see the ethnic identities as related to the defension clause ("if I or my descendants renege, then penalties accrue"), but since this clause is also in the Samaria papyri, this explanation is unlikely.

A more likely possibility is that, in a multiethnic community like Elephantine/Syene, ethnic differentiation was important. The question is why it was important. Frankly, I have no answer at this time. Further study is needed.

One area that is more sure, however, is the multivalency of the ethnic identities. Ethnic labels could change. The variable controlling change was the location of the individual's residence. For example, Mahseiah bar Jedaniah was called an Aramaean of Syene in 471 B.C.E. (Cowley 5:1), a Jew of Elephantine in the 460s and 450s (Cowley 6:2-4, 8:1-2, 9:2), and an Aramaean of Syene again in the 440s (Cowley 13:1, 14:3, 15:2). Similarly, Meshullam bar Zaccur was an Aramaean of Syene (Cowley 13:1; Kraeling 7:2) and a Jew of Elephantine (Kraeling 2:2, 5:2). In other words, location was an indicator of ethnic identity, at least sometimes. Interestingly, though, one Anani bar Haggai was an Aramaean of Elephantine (Kraeling 12:2-3) and a Jew of Syene (Kraeling 11:2); it is almost as if neither community wished to claim him. All of this seems to mean that ethnic communities overlapped in the Persian garrison. Location influenced ethnic identity, but not in a rigorously predictable way. The boundary between Aramaeans and Jews existed but was porous.

The Core of Jewishness

If two of the boundaries of Jewishness were worship of Yahweh (whatever that meant at Elephantine) and attachment to the Persian imperium, the core of Jewishness was also both religious and identificatory. Frequently, the two elements intertwined. The following paragraphs will examine each element in turn.

Religion as an ethnic behavior. This intertwining appears in the so-called "Passover Letter" (Cowley 21), dating from 419 B.C.E. The letter is by one Hananiah (cf. Cowley 38:7), an emissary of Darius II who orders the Jewish garrison to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.(21) Keeping the feast was apparently felt to be a mark of proper Jewish behavior. It is interesting, but not surprising, that the Persian government was interested in Hananiah's work. Support of religious unity within ethnic groups was an important part of Persian domestic policy, as the careers of Ezra and the Egyptian scribe and reformer Udjahorressnet indicate.(22) It is impossible to know whether the Elephantine Jews had observed the feast before. Some scholars assume that they had not, but the fact that the "Passover Letter" gives only the briefest instructions as to keeping the feast (no leaven in houses) may imply that they had.(23)

Keeping Passover is only one manifestation of religious life. At least two others deserve mention. First, the Yahweh temple was important to the life of the community. When the Egyptians wished to attack the Jews, they burned their temple.

The Yahweh temple was the center of community activities. Cowley 22 is a list of names (and patronymics) and their contributions to "Yahweh the God." Dated to "year 5," the tally was executed either in 400(24) or, more likely, 419 B.C.E.(25) If the earlier date is correct, it is possible that the collection was part of a religious revival instigated by Hananiah. Whether or not this is correct, it is interesting that the total amount of money was divided among Yahweh, Eshembethel, and Anathbethel, the last two apparently being manifestations of the Aramaean god Bethel (cf. Bresciani-Kamil, 4).(26) How is this to be explained?

Interpreting this fact has generally revolved around the question of Jewish syncretism. It is difficult to deny that the Jewish community sought to contribute to the worship of Eshembethel and Anathbethel. At the same time, it begs the question to describe this contribution as syncretism: One can speak of syncretism only if the elements syncretized are known, and Elephantine Judaism is not a known datum. Therefore, one should try to seek an explanation for the worship of Yahweh and other deities by some other means.

To do that, I would point out two facts about Cowley 22. First, the names are arranged by century (m t), followed by the name of a commander. The commanders have non-Jewish names (e.g., Siniddin, Nabuaqad). Apparently, these centuries are subsets of the military daglin referred to throughout the papyri. Second, and relatedly, some of the contributors' names in the list are non-Jewish (e.g., Hori [22:38], Bagaphernes and Vashi [22:131, 132]). Names of fathers and grandfathers are still more likely to be non-Jewish. Or rather, one should say that they are non-Yahwistic. There is no reason that Jews could not have had foreign names, and foreigners Jewish names, especially when intermarriage occurred as it did at Elephantine.(27) What does all of this say about religion as a core behavior of Jews at Elephantine? Simply this: Yahwism was a given for the group, and membership in the group was linked to worship of Yahweh. Outsiders could enter the group, perhaps through intermarriage, as long as they participated in this worship. Yahwism at Elephantine did not exclude worship of other deities, and the Jews shared Eshembethel and Anathbethel with their Aramaean neighbors. There is no evidence that this money was intended for temples outside Elephantine, so it is likely that originally Aramaean elements had entered Yahwism on the island. But the history of the cult is less important for ethnic studies than the fact that the community's definition of its religion was different from what became the biblical norm.

This, though, raises a question. In the correspondence between Elephantine and Judea, the worship of Aramaean deities never arises. Cowley 32 implies Judean approval for the rebuilding of the Elephantine temple and the resumption of the grain and incense offerings (32:9). Since the Judeans are unlikely to have approved of the worship of Aramaean deities, this approval means either that they were unaware of the "syncretism" of Elephantine, or that the Aramaic deities were an insignificant portion of the Elephantine cult. There is no way to tell for sure.

Finally, what is certain is that religious identity was an important feature of the core of Jewish ethnicity at Elephantine. The fact that the soldiers there appealed to fellow Jews in Judea and Samaria (Cowley 31:28) for help in a religious matter indicates the importance of shared religious identity. In a purely civil matter, appeal to local Persian authority would have sufficed. Appealing to the ethnic center(s) was more than a case of political string-pulling; it was also an act of self-identification.


To conclude this section, one should note several implications of the evidence studied. First, the Elephantine Jews were part of a larger ethnic continuum in their area. Second, their niche jostled with other niches for survival in the continuum. Third, the identity of the Jews was part and parcel of a larger ethnic identity, even if Elephantine was quite different from other Jewish groups. Fourth, the politics of the time greatly influenced ethnic identity because of the specialized economic activities of the Jews (as mercenaries). The declining fortunes of Persia meant hardship for her supporters. Elephantine Jews, then, were a quite distinctive brand of their ethnos.

Jewishness in Judea

Turning to Judea, the first thing which strikes me as important is the contrast between this region and Elephantine. Elephantine was at the periphery of the Jewish community. Judea, together with Samaria,(28) was at its center. Elephantine Jews were socially and economically specialized and isolated from the Egyptian population around them. Judean Jews were socially and economically diverse and increasingly dominant in their region. The Elephantine community was apparently egalitarian, while that in Judea was more stratified.(29) However, contrast is not the only Leitmotif of the material to be studied. There are also similarities, as will become clear.

To examine Jewishness in Judea, I will focus on Ezra-Nehemiah. This is a purely strategic move: Including other biblical texts from the same time period (when they can be dated) would complicate the analysis by introducing data that can describe ethnicity only when placed in the context of the material of Ezra-Nehemiah. Moreover, the latter book provides several interesting examples of ethnicity at work. As before, the procedure will be to examine (1) the boundaries and (2) the core of ethnicity.

The Boundaries of Ethnicity

Several kinds of behavior delineated Judean Jews from other ethnoi. These include (1) marriage practices, (2) relationship to the central authority, and (3) the use of language. Each will receive attention in the following paragraphs.

Marriage practices

One of the more shocking episodes in Ezra-Nehemiah is Ezra's enforcement of the ban on intermarriage. According to Ezra 9, some Jewish men had married Ammonite and Moabite wives. With a few exceptions (Ezra 10:15, but what about the husbands?), everyone agreed with Ezra that intermarriage was certain to provoke divine wrath. Therefore, the heads of extended families were to see to it that divorces took place promptly.

The way in which this episode is told is interesting at several points. First, Ezra persuades his audience by a prayer which seems to reflect Deuteronomic theology.(30) The prayer depicts intermarriage as revolt against Yahweh. At stake here is not simply marriage of foreign wives, but also of foreign husbands (Ezra 9:15; cf. Neh. 10:31). In other words, the rule against intermarriage does not assume that a Jew is the offspring of a Jewish woman. Rather, a Jew has two Jewish parents. Second, Ezra 10:18-44 lists the men who had married foreign women. Commentators have examined the structure of the list and have asked why it includes only men's names.(31) But a very important question has gone largely unasked: Why does the redactor of Ezra-Nehemiah include the list at all? Was it perhaps to insure that the community did not accept the offspring of miscegenation? Third, the redactor never asks what happened to the divorced wives and their children. There is no indication that dowries were returned or fines for divorce paid. Indeed, one has the impression that the whole proceeding was highly irregular in terms of Near Eastern law.(32) His concern is with the purity of the community and the maintenance of its boundaries.

A final point on marriage is in order. Some parts of the Jewish community obviously did not share Ezra's extreme views. Ezra 9:15 records the names of a few dissenters, but it is hard to believe that the husbands affected did not dissent. This case is an interesting example of ideology at work in controlling the boundaries of ethnicity.

Relationship with the central government

Along with the mass divorce, one of the more obvious features of Ezra-Nehemiah is the repeated references to the Persian government. The central authority is behind the reconstruction of the temple, the legal reforms of Ezra,(33) and the fortification of Jerusalem. An especially relevant pericope is Ezra 4:1-5, set in the early post-exilic period. According to this story, the inhabitants of Judea sought to help the exiles rebuild the temple. The former claimed the right to build based on the fact that they had worshipped Yahweh since the mid-seventh century. Zerubbabel refused, arguing that their claim was invalid. Certainly the narrator implies that the inhabitants of Judah and Benjamin, because they were not really part of the autochthonous population, were not Jews. However, the interesting point is that Zerubbabel does not appeal directly to that fact, but says,

For we alone will build for Yahweh the God of Israel just as King Cyrus, king of Persia commanded us. . . [emphasis mine, MWH].

In one way, this answer is an evasion. But at a more important level, it shows that the exiles were claiming to be the true Jews because (in part) the Persians said they were.

It is not clear how important this pan-Persianism was in the earliest post-exilic community. If Haggai 2:20-23 is any indication, nationalistic pretensions died hard. But these ideas did apparently die out as Persian rule solidified and its beneficent effects began to be felt. It seems to me, then, that the redactor of Ezra-Nehemiah argues for Jewish support of the Persians throughout the book by including various imperial letters. Scholars increasingly believe that these letters are basically genuine.(34) The letters show, and the redactor apparently believed, that the Persian government favored a pro-Jewish policy in Palestine.

Language as an ethnic boundary

The Aramaic letters in Ezra-Nehemiah, combined with the fact that the Wâdi ed-Dâliyeh papyri are also in Aramaic, show that Aramaic was very widely understood and spoken in Palestine during the Achaemenid period. In fact, it may have been more widely spoken even than the local Canaanite dialects, including Hebrew. Therefore, I would like to suggest tentatively that the use of Hebrew in the post-exilic books of the Bible was itself a conscious act of establishing ethnic boundaries. The use of Hebrew allowed one to assert one's Jewishness simply by speaking. Such a hypothesis is hard to prove, but certainly not without precedent. One need think only of the revival of Hebrew script by Bar Kochba or the rebirth of local languages such as Catalan and Provencal in modern Europe to note the power of language in strengthening group identity. Again, this is just a hypothesis, but one well worth investigating more than can be done here.

The Core of Ethnicity

So far, this paper has shown that the boundaries of ethnicity in Judea were quite different than they were at Elephantine. Yet the core of Jewishness at both places was similar. In Judea, as at Elephantine, Jewishness was first of all seen in religion. Thus the community cooperated to build a temple, and then a wall which, whatever its significance as a defense in the increasingly unstable region, Nehemiah saw as a testament to piety. Second, ethnicity was a matter of descent in a way not possible at Elephantine. Let us examine each of these features.


To assess the religious dimension of Jewishness in Judah during this period would merit a very large book such as that by Peter Ackroyd.(35) At this point, I would like to note only one text. Nehemiah 10:28-39 is not from the memoirs of Nehemiah, but probably is older than the material surrounding it.(36) This pericope is a "covenant" in which the ethnically cleansed Jews of Jerusalem agree to support their religion by (1) avoiding miscegenation, (2) keeping the Sabbath, holidays, and the Sabbath Year, and (3) paying the temple tax and making appropriate sacrifices. Although the first two items are defined in part by contrasting Jewish with non-Jewish behavior, one is justified in seeing this pericope as a reflection of the core religious values of the group. That the covenant is the product of an enormous amount of religious reflection is indicated by the reference to previously written (?) Scripture in verse 35, by careful distinction between Levites and priests, and by the meticulous listing of temple servitors in verse 39. This text was apparently intended to describe succinctly the Jewish religion in Judea.

With the exception of the prohibition of intermarriage, this covenant would have been acceptable to the Elephantine Jews, as well. Yet the covenant masks real conflict within the Judean community over the nature of the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22), intermarriage, and possibly the distinction between priests and Levites. The community managed to contain that conflict by investing in its religious institutions considerable power (cf. the picture of the priesthood and the Davidic scion in Zech 1-2 and Hag). Without this ideological underpinning, it is doubtful that the re-creation of the Jewish ethnos would have been possible.


The importance of religion is due to its ability to influence even the most basic human behaviors, including prominently the nature of the family. Ezra-Nehemiah contains a number of genealogical lists purporting to be a census of the returning exiles. For onomastic and demographic studies, these lists are invaluable. But the question remains, Why are such lists important to a community, including the later redactor of the book? One clue appears in Ezra 2:61-63 (= Neh 7:63-65), a note to the effect that the priestly genealogy did not include the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai. These persons believed themselves to be, and were believed by others to be, priests. Yet since their names were not in the authoritative genealogy, they could not function in the role. The genealogy did not indicate Jewishness, but priestly status. A second clue is found in the fact that the genealogies are concerned with tracing lineages back to monarchic times. Throughout Ezra-Nehemiah, there is a concern with reestablishing extended families. Thus the heads of families were to organize divorces. The enemies are said to come to Zerubbabel and the ra'se ha'abot. Also, Nehemiah 12:12-21 preserves a list of family heads from the time of Jehoiakim.

What is the point of this obsession with descent? In a brilliant study, Baruch Halpern has argued that Hezekiah obliterated the old lineage structure by concentrating the Judahite population in Jerusalem and a few other centers.(37) This concentration of population was a defensive move designed to save the nation in the face of Assyrian depredations. I would argue, conversely, that refocussing attention on the lineages and scattering them over the landscape was an offensive move on the part of the Jewish community designed to reassert its control over the hill country around Jerusalem. This policy apparently enjoyed Persian encouragement, not surprisingly in view of the great loyalty felt by the Jews for their liberating overlords. More importantly, the policy of the community allowed them to view themselves as recreating pre-exilic Judah. Note that the aforementioned list of priestly headsmen dates from the reign of Jehoiakim, the last completely legitimate Davidic king. Core ethnic behavior meant a reassertion of what was believed by the ethnos to be its true historical identity.


To summarize, Jewishness in Judea had its own particular flavor, shaped not only by contact with local ethnoi, but also by intraethnic ideology (religion) and extraethnic ideology (the ideal of a Persian empire). Yet at the core lay very definite religion beliefs shaped by the literature inherited from the monarchic past, but reconfiqured by the realities of a new era.

Concluding Reflections

This brief comparison of ethnicity in a core and peripheral area of the life of an ethnos during a fairly compressed period of time has allowed a few reflections on the nature of ethnicity in general and Jewishness in particular.

To begin, this study has confirmed the notion that ethnic identity is not a fixed datum, but rather a complex series of interlocking characteristics. It has also become clearer that the boundaries of ethnicity are shaped to some extent by environment, occupational specialization or diversification, and interaction with outsiders. Yet an ethnic group has its own inner logic shaped by ideology and the game of family and community life, as Barth might put it. The core influences the periphery of ethnic existence, and the periphery influences the core.

What does all of this tell one about Jews and Judaism? Max Weber argued that Jews in this period were a pariah people, that they, as Freddy Raphael puts it, "mit der Luft, die sie atmen, bring[en] rituelle Verunreinigung mit sich."(38) But this is an oversimplification. The Jews at Elephantine may have been a pariah people from the perspective of the Egyptians; yet they were not from the Persian point of view. They were keepers of the peace. And the people of Ezra-Nehemiah community were hacking out their own little utopia, coexisting uneasily with peoples who wished to bury them. They were struggling not to be strangers in a strange land. Weber perhaps missed the point.

Finally, this paper has addressed an ageless question. May the few answers provided bring honor to those who have asked it before.



 1. Cf. L. Schiffman, Who Was a Jew? (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1985).

 2. R. Cohen, "Ethnicity: Problem and Focus in Anthropology." American Review of Anthropology 7 (1978) 387.

 3. See, e.g., A. Zertal, "The Pahwah of Samaria (Northern Israel) During the Persian Period. Types of Settlement, Economy, History and New Discoveries," Transeuphratène 3 (1990) 9-30; J. Briend, "I'Lloccupation de la Galilee occidentale a 1'epoque perse," Transeuphratène 2 (1990) 109-123; E. Stern, "The Dor Province in the Persian Period in the Light of Recent Excavations at Dor," Transeuphratène 2 (1990) 147-55.

 4. Cf. M. Heltzer, "A Recently Published Babylonian Tablet and the Province of Judah after 516 B.C.E." Transeuphratène 5 (1992) 57-61.

 5. Aramaic texts related to Jews come from two locales. (1) The Elephantine papyri from Egypt were published in several stages beginning around the turn of the century. The important editions include E. Bresciani and M. Kamil, eds., "Le lettere aramaischedi Hermopoli"; Atti delta Academia Nazionale des Lincei. Series VIII, 12 (1966) 356-428 (the authors of these texts were Aramaeans, not Jews); A. E. Cowley, ed., Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (repr. Osnabruck: Otto Zeller, 1967); E. Kraeling ed., The Brooklyn Museum Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. from the Jewish Colony at Elephantine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953); and B. Porten and J. C. Greenfield, eds., Jews of Elephantine and Aramaeans of Syene: Aramaic Texts with Translation (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1974). Texts are cited by their number in one of the first three editions (e.g., Cowley 32). (2) Frank Cross began purchasing the Samaria papyri in the antiquities markets in 1961. See Cross, "The Discovery of the Samaria Papyri," BA 26 (1963) 110-121; also his, "Aspects of Samaritan and Jewish History in Late Persian and Hellenistic Times," HTR 59 (1966) 201-211; D. Gropp published half of the texts in The Samaria Papyri from Wâdi ed-Dâliyeh: The Slave Sales (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1986). He is currently working on a complete edition.

 6. See Michael Stolper, Entrepreneurs and Empire: The Murasu Archive, the Muragu Firm and the Persian Empire (Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul, 1985).

 7. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference (Boston: Little, Brown) 9-38, and F. Barth, Features of Person and Society in Swat: Collected Essays on Pathans. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) 93-102.

 8. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973) 212. By ideology, I mean simply the radical commitment to a set of ideas and the changing of one's life to follow them. Religion is a kind of ideology, though not the only one. While "ideology" is a loaded term, it is still useful. Cf. Geertz, Interpretation, 213-33.

 9. F. Junge, Elephantine XI: Funde und Bauteile (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1987).

 10. H. Jaretz, Elephantine III: Die Terrassen von den Tempeln des Chnum und der Satet (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1980); G. Dreyer, Elephantine VIII: Der Tempel der Satet (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1986).

 11. Herodotus, Works, (ed. and trans. A. D. Godley. [LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981]).

 12. His information about Elephantine is sometimes absurd, as when he repeats the rumor that the Nile begins here in a bottomless well and flows in two directions. To his credit, he admits skepticism of that rumor. As for ii, 30, it may be that the Persians took over the old Egyptian military arrangements in toto. Psammetichus was the last of the powerful pharaohs and so was noteworthy enough to attract Herodotus' attention.

 13. Herodotus also notes in vii, 89 that the Phoenicians and Syrians of Palestine furnished triremes to the Persian navy. The Syrians are here the inhabitants of the coastal cities, which were under Phoenician influence or perhaps control (cf. J. Elayi, "Studies in Phoenician Geography During the Persian Period," JNES 41 [1982] 83-110). As Jonah 1 indicates, Jews during this period often saw themselves as connected to the coastal ports.

 14. Cf. Y. Muffs, Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri from Elephantine (Leiden: Brill, 1969); Gropp, Papyri.

 15. Cf. B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 270-75.

 16. H. Jaretz, Elephantine III.

 17. F. Junge, Elephantine XI, 43.

 18. On the revolt, see M. A. Dandamaev, A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire (trans. W. J. Vogelsang; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 270-73; E. Stern, "The Persian Empire and the Political and Social History of Palestine in the Persian Period" in The Cambridge History of Judaism (ed. W. Davies and L. Finkelstein; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 1:70-87.

 19. Gropp, Papyri.

 20. Even Muffs, Studies, does not discuss this issue, despite the heavy dependence of his work on the Elephantine papyri.

 21. Porten, Archives, 130, tries to identify this Hananiah with the governor of Judea after Nehemiah. However, Cowley 21:3 traces the authority for the decree via Arsames, satrap of Egypt, to Darius. Why would a local governor in Ebir Nari refer to the satrap of Egypt as his authority? Porten is more likely correct when he sees this Hananiah as an emissary of Darius II or a member of Arsames's staff (280). Arsames seems to have been a protector of the Elephantine Jews, who in turn vindicate him of knowledge of the plot against them (Cowley 30:4, 31:29).

 22. See the excellent discussion of Persian ethnic policy and its role in Ezra's and Nehemiah's activities in K. Hoglund, Achaemenid Imperial Administration in Syria-Palestine and the Missions of Ezra and Nehemiah, SBL Dissertation Series, 125 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1992).

 23. Porten, Archives, 131-33.

 24. Porten and Greenfield, Jews of Elephantine, 135.

 25. The papyri date formula is typically "in year X of PN." The absence of a royal name might imply a date from Egyptian independence. However, this is unlikely, not only because one would then expect a Pharaoh's name, but also because the Elephantine Jews could hardly have been accepting of an Egyptian overlord (cf. Cowley, Papyri, 66). I doubt whether the colony survived into the fourth century.

 26. Cf. Bresciani-Kamil, 4; Porten, Archives, 170-71.

 27. This fact alone renders very questionable studies like that of M. Silverman, Religious Values in the Jewish Proper Names at Elephantine. AOAT, 217 (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1985). Trying to discern religious values from names is hazardous, especially when (1) many of the names are traditional and (2) papponymy (the practice of naming children for their grandfathers) and intermarriage coexist.

 28. It is impossible to speak of Jerusalem as the center during this period. Certainly the Bible so portrays it, but then the Bible was put together in Judean circles during this period. It does not make sense to say (with Schur, History of the Samaritans, Beiträge zur Erforschung des Alten Testaments und des Antiken Judentums, 18 [Frankfurt: Lang, 1989] 30) that "Jerusalem was the center of the diffusion of . . . new ideas." Too little is known about Samaria to make such a blanket statement. See F. M. Cross, "Aspects of Samaritan and Jewish History in Late Persian and Hellenistic Times," HTR 59 (1966) 201-211.

 29. Exaggeratedly, H. Kippenberg, Religion und Klassenbildung in antike Judäa (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978) 76-77; B. Halpern, "Jerusalem and the Lineages in the Seventh Century B.C.E.: Kinship and the Rise of Individual Moral Liability," in B. Halpern and D. Hobson, eds., "Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel," JSOT, 124 (11-107) (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), has shown that extended families collapsed during Hezekiah's reign under Assyrian military pressures as the population was concentrated in Jerusalem. Whether this social change originated individual moral liability is not clear. The Levitical sacrificial system assumes such individual moral liability; the question of its age thus comes into play here.

 30. J. Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah, Anchor Bible, 14 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 76.

 31. Cf. L. Batten, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, ICC (New York: Scribner's, 1913) 351; Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah, 87. I would argue that it contained only men's names because in a patrilocal society, the intermarrying women were beyond the control of the community leaders.

 32. But see E. Lipinski, "Marriage and Divorce in the Judaism of the Persian Period," Transeuphratène 4 (1991) 63-71, who in my opinion squeezes the biblical text into an Aramaic-legal mold.

 33. J. Blenkinsopp, "The Mission of Udjahorresnet and Those of Ezra and Nehemiah." JBL 106 (1987) 409-421.

 34. Contra, e.g., C. C. Torrey, Ezra Studies (ed. Harry Orlinsky; New York: KTAV, 1970). However, I would argue that the reference to the satrapy of Ebir Nari ("Across the River") in Ezra 5 is anachronistic since the satrapy dates only from the time of Xerxes.

 35. Peter Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968).

 36. U. Kellermann, Nehemia Quellen Überlieferung und Geschichte. (Berlin: Topelmann, 1967) 40.

 37. Halpern, "Lineages."

 38. F. Raphael, "Die Juden als Gastvolk im Werk Max Webers," in Max Webers Studie über das antike Judentum Interpretation und Kritik (ed. W. Schluchter; Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981) 225.

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