Everyone has heard of the ancient Jewish religious scrolls discovered at Qumran by the Dead Sea in the middle of the 20th century. But who is aware that nearly 100 legal papyri have been found in the same region, or that they allow unparalleled access to the ancient social world of Judea and Nabatea in the period 100 BCE to 200 CE?Babatha and her archive have been mentioned from time to time on PaleoJudaica. Substantive posts are here, here, and here. Cross-file under Nabatean Watch (Nabataean Watch).
Then, as now, you went to a lawyer (‘scribe’ to use their term) when you had a big problem or a big opportunity in your life. Legal papyri concern issues that mattered. And then, as now, it was in the parties’ interest to make sure that they stated they facts accurately; with these documents there are no issues of literary genre or religious belief to obscure our interpretation of the data. Yet the scholarship these papyri has attracted so far focuses almost entirely on their legal dimensions.
There was early success by a team at Wadi Murabba‘at in 1952. But in March 1961 a member of a team led by Yigael Yadin exploring a cave high in a cliff face in Wadi Hever hit the jackpot. A stone rocking under his foot disclosed the cunningly concealed hiding place in which a Jewish woman Babatha, daughter of Shim‘on, had hidden some of her personal possessions and a leather sachel containing her archive of 35 legal papyri. She had been hiding in the cave with other Jewish fugitives from the Romans at the end of the Bar Kokha revolt from 132-135 CE.
The Romans, who had built a camp on the plateau directly above the cave, must have captured Babatha and her companions and either killed or enslaved them. Other objects were found in the cave, including a cache of beautiful bronze vessels (see Image 2) and letters from Bar Kokhba himself, for which reason it is called ‘the Cave of the Letters.
These 35 papyri tell us so much about Babatha and her family by birth and marriage that we now know more about her than any other Jewish woman from antiquity. The Greek papyri from the archive were published in 1989 and those written in Jewish or Nabatean Aramaic in 2002.
UPDATE:: Just to be clear, the inspiration behind this essay is Professor Esler's new book, Babatha's Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (OUP, 2017).