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CHAPTER 1 Buried Treasures Archeological Bvidence from the Ancient Near Bast OVERVIEW The history of Judaism does not really begin until the late sixth century B.C.E. when many of the people of Judea were exiled from their own land and sent to Babylonia (present-day Iraq). Before the exile, they were a loose confederation of tribes with a central religious focus. After the return of some Jews from Babylonia, approximately seventy years later, a new pattern began. A Jewish state now "co-existed in a symbiotic relationship" with active Jewish communities in the Diaspora.1 Much of what can be proven about these formative years comes from archeological discoveries. Archeology offers the most dependable THE EARLIEST DISCOVERIES In ancient times seals were used instead of signatures to give legitimacy to any document issued by an official. In the 1970s, a cache of seals was discovered dating from the period of Jeremiah (seventh century B.CE.) until shortly after the return of the exiles from Babylonia. Included in this collection of seals were a small number belonging to women. "Abigayil, wife of Asayahu" and "Shelomit, maidservant of Elnatan the Governor" are two examples of women with Hebrew names who possessed seals of their own. Such ownership suggests that despite female subordination-a given in many of the biblical and post-biblical bookssome women did have public power and could sign contracts and documents even after marriage.2 I 2 The JPS Guide to Jewish Women FIG. 1. This seal, for Ma'adana, daughter of the King, dates from approximately the seventh century B.C.E. It is one of a group of West Semitic stamp seals belonging to women. (Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem) evidence available, because it is untouched by later civilizations. Such tangible remnants of the past continue to be unearthed both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora and account for some of our expanding knowledge of early Jewish communities and the women who lived in them. The evidence used in this chapter is based solely on archeological findings dating from the sixth century B.CE. to the sixth century CE. Elephantine, an Early Diaspora Community Shortly after the Babylonian exile, a small number of Jews fleeing from the war and destruction of their homeland made their way south to Egypt. They settled on an island in the southern part of the Nile River called Elephantine. By the last quarter of the sixth century B.CE., a large and developed Jewish community existed there. These Jews remained in Elephantine even after the temple was rebuilt.3 When Cyrus's son Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 B.CE., he found a thriving community of Jews. They had their own temple and their own communal structure. Because of past Persian policies encouraging the resettlement of Jerusalem, the Elephantine Jews were well disposed toward these conquerors . From that time on, Elephantine functioned as a Persian military colony known as Yeb the Fortress and remained a Persian stronghold in Buried Treasures 3 Egypt even after the rest of the country became independent. The Jewish community was a dynamic component on the island until the end of the fifth century B.C.E. Evidence of this early Jewish community was first uncovered in 1901. Among the hundreds of papyri unearthed on Elephantine, many expanded our knowledge of Jewish women's lives, suggesting different interpretations and new possibilities. A number of scrolls concerned a Jewish woman named Mibtahiah,4 who owned property independently, both by gift and inheritance; contracted marriages that carefully safeguarded her rights; and was free to initiate divorce. In light of what we know of biblical law, such options do not seem probable. Yet, since they were untouched for almost two thousand years, the scrolls were unaffected by subsequent rabbinic decisions and interpretations and are true witnesses to Jewish family life at that time. The Spread of Greek Culture After the Jews returned from Babylonia to rebuild and resettle Jerusalem in 537 B.C.E., the population of Judea gradually increased. Temple sacrifices were reestablished and land reclaimed. There was a high degree of Jewish self-government that continued even after Persia and its territories were taken over by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. and large parts of the Jewish population became hellenized.5 Following Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E., his empire was divided into two parts, and from 320 to 198 B.C.E. Judea was ruled together with...


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