(Photo of the papyrus requesting aid in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Elephantine)
The artifacts associated with archaeology can serve several functions. In addition to the illumination of the life of known persons or social practices or historical events from antiquity, they can also document circumstances and practices that are surprising and challenging to our own historical assumptions about the ancient world.
Papyrology is a part of the larger disciplines of historical and archaeological studies about the life and culture of ancient Egypt (principally) as well as the larger Mediterranean Basin in the ancient world. While the earliest papyri seem to come from about 3000 BC, our interest at this time is the 6th-5th century BC. Of particular interest is a selection of these papyri that are in Aramaic and pertain to the Jewish community at Elephantine, an island in the southern Nile near Aswan.
These Aramaic papyri (some are now in Europe and some in NYC) indicate that a Jewish temple to YHW (sic) had been built there in the 6th century BC, thereby making “it older than Zerubbabel’s temple in Jerusalem!” (John D. Currid and David P. Barrett, ESV Bible Atlas. Crossway, 2010, p. 186). This Elephantine Jewish temple had been destroyed by Egyptians in the 5th century BC, but by the later 5th century BC the Jews at Elephantine were requesting assistance from Judea and Samaria to help rebuild it. Those Persian (?) political leaders in Judea/Samaria agreed to support the request to rebuild the Jewish temple at Elephantine.
There are a few prominent points to be made from this information recorded in these Elephantine Jewish papyri.
Foremost is the fact that without these specific papyri we would have no knowledge of this Jewish diaspora temple in North Africa: this is the sole documentation for this temple site which lasted several generations. As far as the value of artifacts, it means we always need to be open for new information coming from artifactual materials. Sometimes these confirm our views, and other times they challenge our views.
This is also evidence of the fact that some perspectives within the Law of Moses were not always given with every imaginable circumstance in mind. Students of the book of Deuteronomy know that the people of God are told (passim, chapters 12-18) that there is only one place where God will accept worship of himself in the Land of Promise, and that is Zion. These Jews seem to have gone to southern Egypt at the time of the dissolution of the state of Judea in the early 6th century BC, perhaps at mercenary soldiers. At that time Judea is unraveling and there is no longer the prospect of a temple in Zion. It does not take a lot of historical sympathy to imagine that in distant Egypt the appeal to have a Jewish temple there was strong. A similar historical sympathy has appreciated the creation of synagogues that sprang up in Egypt and elsewhere in the post Persian period of Judaism. Unlike what the book of Deuteronomy imagines and similarly unlike the southern kingdom prior to 587 BC, there is no Jewish State when these letters are sent to the Persian governors of Judea and Samaria in the very later 5th century BC. The Jews, liberated from the Babylonians by the Persians, remained under Persian hegemony until the late 4th century BC when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire.
The Jewish settlement/temple at Elephantine vanished after the facts recorded in the Elephantine Jewish papyri (these papyri also discussed keeping the Jewish Passover at Elephantine). All knowledge of this Jewish community and its beloved temple faded away for over two millennia until the explosive discoveries of papyri beginning in the latter part of the 19th century.