Biblical Archaeology Review 30:1, January/February 2004


If you like reading other people’s letters, or if you are fascinated by old documents, this is a book you will greatly enjoy. It includes scores of letters, legal deeds, accounts and notes written between 2600 B.C. and 100 B.C. Translated from Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Hittite, Phoenician and Ugaritic, these texts offer glimpses of life in Biblical times among social classes ranging from the well-to-do to the disadvantaged. Although most of the documents were written by professional scribes, they nevertheless reflect ordinary people’s everyday concerns and so differ markedly from the earlier volumes in this series, Canonical Compositionsa and Monumental Inscriptions.

One of the most famous collections of ancient documents was found on the island of Elephantine (ancient Yeb) in the Nile at Aswan (ancient Syene) a century or so ago. A number of Jews and Aramaeans lived there in the fifth century B.C. and, when the community collapsed, the dry soil preserved some of their deeds and letters inside the ruins of their houses. These documents were written on papyrus, in Aramaic. Thirty-one of them are translated here by Bezalel Porten, who has made the Elephantine papyri his life work, and has greatly improved our understanding of them.

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