Babatha: The Ancient Jewish Woman About Whom We Know Most
Because of this archive we can say without fear of contradiction that we know more about her than we do about any other Jewish woman in antiquity.
See Also: Babatha's Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford University Press, 2017).
By Philip F. Esler
Portland Chair in New Testament Studies
Director of the International Centre for Biblical Interpretation
University of Gloucestershire
It is the last year of the revolt of Shim‘on ben Kosiba (also known as Bar Kokhba) against Rome (135 CE by our reckoning). A group of his Jewish supporters have taken refuge from the Romans in a cave high up the sheer face of a cliff in a wadi running into the Dead Sea a little south of En-Gedi. Among them is the woman Babatha, daughter of Shim‘on ben Menahem. But the Romans have built a camp on the plateau immediately above them and will soon have the Jews out of that cave, one way or another. So, deep inside the cave, Babatha finds a hole among the rocks and places in it many of her possessions: a pair of sandals, a bundle of balls of yarn, remains of fine fabric, two wrappers or kerchiefs, a key, two key-rings, knives, a clasp knife, a box, a number of bowls, a sickle and three waterskins (Yadin 1963: 38-39). She also hides there a legal satchel containing 35 legal documents written on papyri in Aramaic (Nabatean and Jewish) and Greek. They include contracts for the purchase of real and personal property, two wedding contracts, debts, a document for the registration of land, and documents from contested legal proceedings, both initiating process and depositions. She very carefully seals the opening of the hole with a rock. The job is done. She hopes, probably against hope, that one day she will return to collect her possessions and legal documents.
It is March 1961. A volunteer working with a team led by Yigael Yadin exploring this cave in Wadi Hever feels a rock move under his feet. The hole is discovered and Babatha’s possessions and papyri, most of them in very good condition, are retrieved. Later the papyri are painstakingly opened and examined. In due course they are published. The Greek ones appear in 1989 (Lewis 1989). The Aramaic ones come out in 2002 (Yadin et al. 2002). In 2002 a separate book containing excellent black and white photos of the papyri is also published (Yadin 2002). The 35 papyri come to be called P. Yadin 1-35 in honour of Yigael Yadin.
One would struggle to overstate the importance of what is now referred to as “the Babatha archive,” those 35 legal papyri Babatha has bequeathed to us. Among all the millions of Jews living in Judea and neighboring lands in the period from 100 BCE to 200 CE only a very few archives of legal documents survive and none of them, except for Babatha’s, has more than 10 documents or embraces the diversity of legal situations or the time span (94 to 132 CE) that hers does. Because of this archive we can say without fear of contradiction that we know more about her than we do about any other Jewish woman in antiquity.
The very character of legal documents allows them to reveal social worlds and individual circumstances in distinctive ways. We usually go to lawyers (or “scribes” as they are called in these papyri) when we have a significant problem or opportunity in our life. Legal documents accordingly concern issues that matter to us. Moreover, it is in the interests of all the parties to a document to ensure that the lawyer sets down the facts and legal relationships accurately. In addition, legal documents reveal data in a manner unaffected by literary genre and religious belief. They cast a bright light on people and situations and the social context in question.
You might assume, then, that the Babatha archive has been eagerly examined by scholars desirous of understanding her, the other people with whom she interacted and the realities of the society and culture in which she lived, close to the border between Judea and Nabatea. But, apart from a few short or more popular treatments of Babatha, you would be disappointed. Although the magnificent scholarly efforts to edit and publish the texts, some written in difficult Nabatean cursive script and in Aramaic heavily influenced by proto-Arabic, did involve limited exploration of contextual issues, most research has focused on the papyri’s legal dimensions, especially by relating them to Aramaic, Jewish, Greek and Roman legal principles and traditions (see Katsoff and Schaps 2005 and Oudshoorn 2007).
Accordingly, using the Babatha archive, and other Dead Sea legal papyri, as windows onto an ancient social world has barely begun and yet has great potential for new understanding. The author of this essay has recently published a book that seeks to do this, by applying the new historical methodology of “archival ethnography” to the oldest four papyri (P. Yadin 1, from 94 CE, and P. Yadin 2, 3 and 4, from 99 CE) to reveal the story underlying them (Esler 2017). The story concerns how Babatha’s father, Shim‘on ben Menahem, bought a date-palm orchard in the town of Maoza on the southern shore of the Dead Sea in remarkable circumstances in 99 CE. He later gave this orchard to Babatha and she registered it among her property in the Roman census of 127 CE, the registration document being P. Yadin 16. But much research remains to be done.
So let us lift the curtain a little on Babatha’s world. Her principal locale was the town of Maoza, already mentioned, that until 106 CE lay in the kingdom of Nabatea. The Nabatean capital was the fabled city of Petra. In 106 CE the Romans took over Nabatea by force and made it the province of Arabia.
Nabatea was a very distinctive kingdom in the ancient world. It had been established by nomadic tribes moving up from north eastern Arabia during the Persian period. They had reached the trans-Jordan and Petra before the time of Alexander. There is a lively debate as to whether they spoke early Arabic or Aramaic infused with Arabic vocabulary (and the latter is what we find in their legal papyri that survive).
The ancient Greek writer Diodorus Siculus provides a vivid account of the Nabateans based on a late fourth century BCE source (Biblioteca historica, 2.48 and 19.94-100). In addition, Strabo describes them at the very end of the first century BCE (Geography, 16.4). Diodorus stresses their nomadic life-style, while Strabo presents a nomadic people that were undergoing the processes of sedentarization. Although we have no surviving history of the Nabateans written by one of their own, their coinage preserves a record of major events in that history (Esler 2017: 54-60). Moreover, first century CE Nabatean tomb inscriptions from Hegra (modern Mada’in Salih) provide valuable evidence for their political/military ranks and also the extent to which they shared a Mediterranean concern for honor (Healey 1993).
Archaeological evidence suggests that one segment of the Nabatean population was engaged in nomadism as late as the first century CE (Rosen 2007). Anthropologists such as Fredrik Barth (1964) have described nomads in ways that help us understand the Nabateans better, including in relation to the relative lack of social stratification in nomadic society. It is no surprise, therefore, to find Strabo (Geography, 16.4.26) relating that when the Nabatean king held a dinner for his subjects, he himself did the serving.
Recent analysis has revealed that the earliest four papyri in Babatha’s archive, the first drafted in 94 CE and the other three in 99 CE, and all in Nabatean Aramaic, all directly concern the purchase of a date-palm orchard in Maoza (on the shore of the Dead Sea, in fact) by Babatha’s father, Shim‘on ben Menahem in 99 CE. The full story became susceptible to re-telling with the discovery of the names of the two parties in P.Yadin 4 (Esler 2017: 176-208). One aspect of the story is the notably good relationship that must have existed between Shim‘on and Archelaus, who was a strategos, in effect, a provincial governor, and hence a member of the Nabatean elite. Archelaus had purchased much the same orchard only a month earlier but then rescinded the purchase. Yet he gave Shim‘on two documents (P. Yadin 1 and 2) to help him secure his title to the orchard. This surprising behavior by Archelaus reflects the likelihood that highly placed Nabateans, because of their nomadic tradition, were less status-fixated than, say, Roman senators.
Maoza was both a Dead Sea port, just inside Nabatea near the border with Judea, but also a flourishing center of date cultivation, which was the foundation of its economy. Date-palms required regular irrigation, in Maoza meaning a weekly inundation of the fields, and the water probably came from the river Zered, which was fed by the rains in the plateau to the east and ran down into the southern shore of the Dead Sea.
Date cultivation is a remarkable process, very accurately described by Theophrastus (around the late fourth or early third centuries BCE) in his Enquiry into Plants (2.6.5). Date palms are either male or female, so that pollen has to be transferred from the former to the latter for fertilization of the fruit to occur. This has to be done by hand, which means climbing some thirty feet up the tree. When the crops are ripe, people must again climb the trees to pick the fruit.
While date cultivation provides the economic context for the relationships between people in and near Maoza from Babatha’s first document, in 94 CE, to its last, in 132 CE, the situations and relationships between people represented in the papyri who were part of Babatha’s world were remarkably varied.
In June 110 CE a Jewish man prepared a document stating that he held on deposit on behalf of his nephew, Jesus son of Jesus, a large sum of money and other property. This document (P. Yadin 5) is the earliest in Greek in the archive, written in 110 CE, just four years after the Romans had taken over Nabatea and created the province of Arabia from it. The provincial administration, as elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, was conducted in Greek. Why did Babatha have this document? Because Jesus son of Jesus became Babatha’s first husband. They probably married around 120 CE when Babatha was likely to have been 12-15 years old. It is surprising that the contract recording Babatha’s marriage to Jesus is not in the archive, given that P. Yadin 5 is included. Babatha’s parents probably handed over a substantial dowry to Jesus on the wedding, since in social systems where dowries are provided the families of bride and groom tend to be roughly equivalent in wealth and social status (Goody 1973: 25) and, as just noted, Jesus was very wealthy.
It is likely that Babatha’s father, Shim‘on, gave her the seaside date-palm orchard in Maoza he had purchased in 99 CE on the occasion of her marriage to Jesus (Cotton and Greenfield 1994: 217). In 120 CE Shim‘on made a gift of all his property in Maoza to his wife Miriam (P. Yadin 7) and there is no mention of the orchard he had purchased in 99 CE, no doubt because he had already given it to Babatha.
For some purposes Aramaic continued to be used even after the Roman take-over in 106 CE. P. Yadin 8 (in Aramaic and from 122 CE) records the sale of a donkey from one brother, Yoseph, to another, Yehudah for a modest sum; these are likely to be Babatha’s brothers (Esler 2017: 26). One has to wonder what sort of relationship existed between the two brothers for such a sale to be recorded in writing and for Babatha to be given the document, presumably for safe-keeping!
Babatha’s first husband died within a few years of their marriage, leaving her an infant son, whom they had also named Jesus. Sometime between about 122 and 125 CE she married again, this time to Judah son of Elazar Khthousion, from En-Gedi. Judah himself drafted the document, in Aramaic (P. Yadin 10). He took her as his wife “according to the law of Moses and the Judeans.” In one of its provisions he promised to pay for her ransom if she should be captured, as well as taking her back as his wife. Babatha brought 400 denarii into this marriage by way of dowry. At this time a denarius was roughly equivalent to the payment received for one day's labor (cf. Mt. 20.2). It is not without interest that Judah’s first wife (Miriam) was alive at this time (as we learn from P. Yadin 26). Judah apparently maintained a wife and house in both En-Gedi and Maoza.
It is possible that Shim‘on also owned property in En-gedi. The reason for this is that since he gave all his remaining property in Maoza to his wife Miriam in 120 CE, having already given Babatha an orchard there, there was likely to be some property still left for Yoseph and Yehudah, who were probably his sons (see above). Perhaps such property was in En-Gedi, a center for date cultivation on the western side of the Dead Sea made possible because of the copious springs above the town from which water ran down to irrigate the fields.
At roughly the same time Babatha was marrying Judah, and between 27 February and 28 June 124, the Council of Petra, the capital of the province, appointed two guardians for Babatha’s son Jesus by her first husband, one of them Nabatean and one Jewish. The verified copy of the Council’s decree is P. Yadin 12. Incredibly, within four months after their appointment, Babatha had petitioned the Governor of the province complaining that the two denarii a month the guardians were providing for the maintenance of her son were insufficient. This document is P. Yadin 13. A year later, in October 125 and using her second husband Judah as her custos ad litem, Babatha, issued a summons to the Jewish guardian of her son to answer the same charge about provision of insufficient maintenance. This summons is supported by a fascinating deposition from Babatha (P. Yadin15) in which she offers to pool her property with the property left in trust for her son, so that with the interest on the joint amount he could be raised in splendid style.
But Babatha lost this case! The last signed and dated document in the archive (P. Yadin 27) is from 19 August 132 and records Babatha’s receipt of 18 denarii from the guardian of her infant son for his maintenance for a nine month period. This proves that the litigation that Babatha had commenced against her son’s guardians eight years before had been unsuccessful, since her son was still only receiving the two denarii per month that she had complained of at that time. Babatha’s guardian, who signed the receipt on her behalf, was one Babeli, son of Menahem, and this may well have been her paternal uncle.
The solidity of Babatha’s own financial position becomes clear with the extremely well preserved document by which she registered the real property she owned in Maoza in the Roman census of Arabia in December 127 CE (P. Yadin 16). She owned four date-palm orchards, including two called “Algiphiamma” (“by the shore”) which are probably to be identified with the orchard her father had purchased in 99 CE, but now subdivided. Alternatively, one of the two was that property (with the incomplete boundary descriptions making it difficult to decide which).
Yet there was a cloud hanging over Babatha’s financial position. This took the form of her second husband, who seems to have been disastrous in his business dealings. As early May 124 CE he had borrowed 60 denarii for a year at 12% interest (the standard Roman rate) from the Roman centurion of the detachment at En-Gedi (P. Yadin 11). The centurion was probably conducting something akin to a small bank in a way that opens up interesting new avenues for understanding the centurion in Matt 8:5-13 (Esler 2014). Why did Babatha still retain this document over ten years later? Did she supply the funds for its repayment? We can be confident that she did not keep it to curry favour with the Romans, since she included it in the satchel she hid in the cave.
In any event, this loan from a centurion proved a harbinger of things to come. On 21 February 128 Judah acknowledged (in P. Yadin 17) that he had received from Babatha a loan of 300 denarii. He may have needed this money in connection with the forthcoming marriage of his daughter, Shelamzion, since the document recording her marriage only six weeks later, on 5 April 128 (P. Yadin 18), states that Shelamzion supplied 200 denarii worth of property (as her dowry). This presumably came from Judah. On 16 April 128, pursuant to P. Yadin 19, he gave Shelamzion his property in En-Gedi, half to pass immediately and half on his death. Not too long after this gift, sometime before 19 June 130, Judah died, leaving orphan sons and his married daughter Shelamzion. We know that Judah died before 19th June 130 CE from a document of that date, P. Yadin 20. In any event Babatha was widowed for the second time in ten years. Did a sickness that Judah thought might prove terminal prompt his gift to his daughter two years earlier (or even less)?
Around or after the time of Judah’s death a dispute had arisen between Shelamzion (Babatha’s step-daughter after all) and his orphan sons as to the ownership of a courtyard in En-Gedi he had gifted to Shelamzion. The sons were represented, quite remarkably, by an elite Roman woman, Julia Crispina (Berenicianus). The relevant document (P. Yadin 20, of 19 June 130) records that the dispute was settled in favor of Shelamzion’s claim to the courtyard.
But what is this document doing in Babatha’s archive? Equally interesting is the fact that Babatha also had Shelamzion’s wedding contract in her leather satchel (P. Yadin 18). Was this just a possession of her late second husband that Babatha had kept? Or had Babatha formed a good relationship with Shelamzion and was looking after her wedding contract for her?
More interesting and far better attested in the archive is the litigation that Judah’s inability to manage his money caused for Babatha after his death. For he died owing her not only the 300 denarii mentioned above that he borrowed from her in February 128 CE, but also the 400 denarii she had brought into her marriage with him as dowry (pursuant to P. Yadin 10). We do not know when Babatha lent Judah her dowry. However, in 130 CE, to obtain repayment of both amounts, she seized control of the late Judah’s three date-palm orchards in Maoza so she could sell their date harvest. There are two documents in the archive covering these sales (P. Yadin 21 and 22, from 11 September 130). Although Babatha’s seizure of these dates was legally permissible under both her marriage contract and the deed of loan, the orphan sons of Judah, again represented by the highly placed Roman Julia Crispina Berenicianus, challenged her right to do so in the court of the provincial governor (P. Yadin 23, 24 and 25). In P. Yadin 25 we actually witness Babatha counter-summoning Julia Crispina, notwithstanding her Roman elite status, to court, and claiming, inter alia, that a false charge of violence had been made against her.
Since both Shelamzion and Babatha had crossed swords with Julia Crispina, did this bring them together in some way, or indicate that they were close for some other reason? Had Miriam favored her sons in their earlier dispute with Shelamzion, leaving her to turn to her step-mother for support?
Litigation also broke out at the same time between Babatha and Miriam, Judah’s living first wife. Miriam sought orders preventing Babatha seizing property from her husband’s house (it is not clear if it was in En-Gedi or Maoza) and then Babatha sought orders as to why Miriam had taken property from Judah’s house since she (Miriam) had no claim against his estate.
Who eventually won these two further sets of litigation is unknown. What is known is that in 132 CE the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokha began. Precisely how Babatha ended up in a cave in a wadi not far from En-Gedi with other Jewish fugitives from the Romans at the end of the Revolt is not known. We may guess that she had long-standing links with people in En-Gedi and for one reason or another found her way there and to them in 135 CE, when they were all forced to take refuge in the cave.
But none of this would be known, nor anything of the complex world of Maoza that her archive opens up for us so brilliantly, if Babatha had not had the foresight to take her family legal documents with her and hide them with such care. An intriguing question is whether Shelamzion accompanied Babatha into that cave, leaving in her custody (and satchel!) her wedding contract (P. Yadin 18) and the document settling the dispute with her brothers about the courtyard in En-Gedi (P. Yadin 20). These were documents of absolute concern to Shelamzion but of much less interest to Babatha.
Millions of ancient Jewish women have disappeared without trace. But Babatha has not. She was plainly an extremely resourceful, courageous and determined woman, devoted to her son. Because of the survival of her archive, she can be honored in eternal memory.
Barth, Fredrik (1964) Nomads of Southern Persia. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Cotton, Hannah and Greenfield, Jonas C. (1994) ‘Babatha’s Property and the Law of Succession in the Babatha Archive,’ ZPE 104: 211-224.
Esler, Philip F. (2017) Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and An Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
____(2014) “Reading Matthew by the Dead Sea: Matthew 8:5-13 in Light of P. Yadin 11, HTS Theological Studies, Volume 70.
Goody, Jack (1973) “Bridewealth and Dowry in Africa and Eurasia.” In Jack Goody and S. J. Tambiah, Bridewealth and Dowry. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 1-58.
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Katsoff, Ranon and Schaps, David, eds., (2005) Law in the Documents of the Judean Desert. Leiden: Brill.
Oudshoorn, Jacobine G. (2007) The Relationship between Roman and Local Law in the Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives: General Analysis and Three Case Studies on Law of Succession, Guardianship and Marriage. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Lewis, Naphthali, ed., (1989) The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Rosen, Steven A. (2007) “The Nabateans as Pastoral Nomads: An Archaeological Perspective.” In The World of the Nabataeans: Volume 2 of the International Conference, The World of the Herods and the Nabataeans held at the British Museum, 17-19 April 2001, ed. Konstantinos D. Politis, 345-372. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.
Yadin, Yigael (1963) The Finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society.
____(2002) The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic and Nabatean-Aramaic Papyri. (Plates) Judean Desert Studies. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University and Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum.
Yadin, Yigael, Greenfield, Jonas C., Yardeni, Ada and Levine, Baruch A. eds., (2002) The Documents from the Bar Kochba Period in the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic and Nabatean-Aramaic Papyri. Judean Desert Studies. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University and Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum.
 Hannah Cotton is the leading scholar on the legal aspects of these papyri from the Judean desert, in publications too numerous to list here (but for a selection, see: http://www.huji.ac.il/dataj/controller/ihoker/MOP-STAFF_LINK?sno=9660&Save_t=)