Papyrus Amherst 63

After more than a century, we finally have a complete scholarly edition of Papyrus Amherst 63.[1] Let me tell you a little bit about this document and then mention some aspects of it that have intrigued Mormons.

This particular papyrus (hereafter the “Papyrus”) was discovered towards the end of the 19th century at Luxor (ancient Thebes) 500 miles south of the Mediterranean coast.[2] The Papyrus was first acquired by the British collector William Tyssen-Amherst (thus the name by which the Papyrus is known) and then sold by the family to the Morgan Library in New York. From the beginning the text was enigmatic; it was clearly written in Demotic Egyptian script, but no one could read it. It eventually took the collaboration of a Semitic language specialist and two Egyptologists to discover that the language of the document was actually Aramaic (a sister Semitic language to Hebrew; parts of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic) transliterated into Demotic.

Deciphering the text was a great challenge, which took 120 years. A brief outline of this history is as follows:

  • Papyrus is discovered (late 19th century).
  • First small portions translated by Raymond Bowman of the University of Chicago (1944).
  • Some additional sections deciphered by scholars, including a paganized version of Psalm 20 (1980s).
  • Complete scholarly edition published (2018).

The Papyrus is a compilation of about 35 Aramaic literary texts organized into four sections and an appendix. The first three sections contain ritual texts from the Babylonians (focusing on the gods Nabu and Nanay), the Syrians (focusing on the god Bethel and his female consort), and the Jews (focusing on the god Yaho [ = Yahweh]. In the fourth section there are syncretistic attempts to relate the gods to one another, apparently attempting to develop a common religious language. The appendix contains a court novella about the Assyrian king Assurbanipal and his brother Shamash-Shumukin. The perspective of the Jewish material is Israelite (i.e., northern), not Judean (i.e., southern), and it comes from a time before their religion turned monotheistic. The Aramaic literary texts date to the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E., although this copy itself dates to the 4th century B.C.E.

So why are Mormons so interested in this text? The main reason has to do with the Book of Mormon, and in particular its odd note about the language on the plates from 1 Nephi 1:2: “Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” My impression is that perhaps a majority takes this to refer to Hebrew language transliterated into Egyptian script (following Sidney B. Sperry), although a significant minority takes it as referring simply to Egyptian language only (following Hugh Nibley). The Papyrus provides a real world example of what Sperry had posited–a Jewish religious text written in a Semitic language (Aramaic) but transliterated into an Egyptian script (Demotic).[3]

As I read van der Toorn’s description of the text and its history, though, it occurred to me that there are a couple of other aspects of it that might be of interest to Mormon readers.

One has to do with apparent acknowledgment and worship of a female deity. The first Israelite psalm in the collection equates Yaho and the Aramaic deity Bethel. Bethel is an odd proper name for a god, as it literally means “House of El [or God].” Apparently, the symbol that represented him was a stele that served as the god’s house, and that became part of the way in which the people referred to him. The Jews not only equated Bethel with Yaho, but they also worshiped his consort, for in the Elephantine papyri they also venerated Anat-Bethel (the wife or consort of Bethel, more commonly known as the “Queen of Heaven”). In the Elephantine Papyri this goddess is also referred to as Anat-Yaho, or the Anat of Yahweh. So we have Jews clearly worshiping a female deity, the consort or wife of Yahweh.

The other has to do with the history of how these Israelites ended up in Egypt. A short historical note in the fourth section of the Papyrus talks about how the men first arrived in Egypt, a troop of “broken men” that reached the gate of a fortified city. (The text doesn’t identify the city, but van der Toorn deduces that it was Palmyra.) The men were Samarians (IE Israelites), but their leader was a Judean. Apparently the men were soldiers facing the Assyrian invasion in 722-721 BCE, who fled south into Judea where they picked up their Judean leader. But as soldiers they continued to be pressed into military service against the overwhelming onslaught of the Assyrians, and so the group fled further south to Egypt. At Palmyra they were welcomed and given shelter and employment as mercenaries (on a land for service arrangement). Later, additional Jews arrived in Egypt fleeing the Babylonians. These men and their descendants staffed the fort at Elephantine Island during the Persian period, where they built a temple to Yaho.

All of this fleeing as refugees to Egypt reminds us of the BoM. Lehi lived at Jerusalem, but he was of the tribe of Manasseh, meaning his ancestral lands would have been in the north, in Israel. Presumably his family had fled south as refugees into Judea for safety in the face of the Assyrian invasion in the late 8th century. Similarly, a century later Mulek and his entourage fled into Egypt in an attempt to escape the Babylonian forces. The movement of refugees south into Judea and then further south into Egypt described in the BoM mirrors the history of the men that ended up as mercenary soldiers protecting Egypt’s southern border at Elephantine.

Below I will give the text of Papyrus column XII, lines11-19, which is the poem that is related to Psalm 20:

May Yaho answer us in our troubles.

May Adonay answer us in our troubles.

Be a bow in heaven, Crescent!

Send your messengers

From all of Rash!

And from Zaphon

May Yaho help us.

May Yaho give to us

Our heart’s desire.

May the Lord give to us

Our heart’s desire.

Every wish, may Yaho fulfill.

May Yaho fulfill.

May Adonay not diminish

Any request of our heart.

Some by the bow, some by the spear–

Behold, as for us, my Lord, our God is Yaho!

May our Bull be with us.

May Bethel answer us tomorrow.

Baal-Shamayin shall bless the Lord:

“By your loyal ones I bless you!”

 

[1] Karel van der Toorn, Papyrus Amherst 63, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 448 (Muenster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2018). My description of the papyrus is based on Karel van der Toorn, “Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2018): 32-39, 66, 68.

[2] As it so happens, the Joseph Smith Papyri were also discovered in a pit tomb in that area of Egypt.

[3] See footnote 4 to my article “Enallage in the Book of Mormon,” here.

Comments

  1. Old Man says:

    Thanks Kevin. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Kevin, is the transliteration scheme purely phonetic or is there anything unusual about it?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Good question, Clark. I haven’t studied the text (nor, not knowing Demotic Egyptian, am I in a position to do so meaningfully), but if anyone happens to know I’d be interested in responses to Clark’s question. I can report that the scribes did not understand the text well, putting word dividers where they should not be thus cutting words into two, or conversely not putting word dividers where they should be and thus combining multiple words into one, and that sort of thing.

  4. Rexicorn says:

    I’ve been learning a little about early near-east/mesopotamian religions, and it’s fascinating how they overlap and come together. Especially when you weave in early Jewish history. I had no idea that Yahweh and El(ohim) were originally two separate gods, possibly from different pantheons. It’s interesting watching how they syncretize and absorb each other on their way to the single deity we have today. If anyone knows of any good books/sources on the subject, I’d love to add them to my list.

    Is Anat-Bethel related to Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte? She was also known as “Queen of Heaven” in the region, and I’ve heard some speculation that she’s the one the OT refers to with that title.

  5. So, where did you get the idea that Mulek fled to Egypt? It’s not in the Book of Mormon. I’ve seen a lot of conjecture about Mulek, but that’s all it is.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    You’re right, Wally it’s just conjecture, but one I’ve held to for a long time.

  7. Rexicorn, I really liked “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. It focuses more on the three major Abrahamic religions, but has a good balance of historical context.

  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) says:

    Interesting.

  9. Christian says:

    I always assumed Mukek escaped with the phoenician traders, that could sail away from the babylonians. They discovered Brazil while sailing around Africa, they called it the land of Iron, and it would be a perfect place to hide a refugee king. Also the close language association between Hebrew and phoenician would lead to a rapid corruption with no written record, as ammon learns they lack.

  10. Rexicorn says:

    EM, thanks for the recommendation!

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