During the fifth century before Christ, Jewish military colonies served at various locations in Persian-occupied Egypt as mercenary garrisons. The most famous of them was located on Elephantine Island, directly opposite the ancient city of Syene (modern Aswan), where it guarded Egypt’s southern border. (The name “Elephantine” reflects the importance of Egypt’s ancient ivory trade with inner Africa.)
Most scholars believe that the colony at Elephantine was originally founded around 600 B.C. by Jews fleeing the military expansion of the Babylonian Empire — just as their contemporary, the Book of Mormon’s Lehi, did.
Surprisingly, the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Elephantine eventually built their own temple outside of Jerusalem, just as the Nephites had. It was dedicated to “Yahu” or “Yaho,” a variant form of the name “Yahweh” (“Jehovah”). (See “The Lady Sariah of Elephantine” published Oct. 26, 2017, on deseretnews.com.) But two other Aramaic-speaking communities also lived in the area, religiously foreign but fairly close culturally: A group from Syria had a temple for Bethel and the “Queen of Heaven” in Syene and, nearby, a group of Babylonians had built temples for Nabu and Banit.
Papyrus Amherst 63 was discovered along the Egyptian Nile at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in the late 19th century, roughly 500 miles south of the Mediterranean. For multiple reasons, although its title isn’t particularly gripping, Papyrus Amherst 63 is one of the most interesting documentary finds from the ancient Middle East.
The papyrus is made up of about 35 literary texts in the Aramaic language (a near-cousin of Hebrew). They appear in four sections, followed by an appendix in the form of a “court novella” about the Assyrian king Assurbanipal and his brother. The first three sections contain ritual texts from the Babylonians, the Syrians and the Jews, in that order.
The fourth section is surprisingly ecumenical, often equating one god with another (e.g., Yahweh with Bethel), as if the three communities were trying to create common religious ground. (Compare the apostle Paul’s use of a pagan poem about Zeus in Acts 17, as if that poem referred to the biblical God; see “God's sheep recognize his voice,” published Jan. 27, 2011, on deseretnews.com.))
All five of the gods who had temples at Elephantine and Syene appear in Papyrus Amherst 63; it was almost certainly compiled in that region, by people belonging to those communities.
It contains three Israelite psalms, only one of which — a variant form of the biblical Psalm 20:2-6 — corresponds to anything in the Bible. (A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will think immediately of the teaching of the Book of Mormon that elements of the biblical text would be lost in transmission.)
“The three psalms clearly belong together,” says the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn in the Biblical Archaeology Review's "Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History" in the July/August 2018 edition. Among other things, they seem to have been originally composed in Hebrew and they all celebrate “Yaho” as the king of the gods. They “go back,” says van der Toorn, “to Hebrew hymns that must have been written in the eighth century at the latest.”
Curiously, though, the scribes who recorded them in Papyrus Amherst 63, most likely (according to handwriting experts) in the fourth century B.C., did so in Demotic — a cursive and relatively late Egyptian script — rather than in the customary Aramaic or Hebrew script. This delayed their decipherment for more than 120 years; although the script was clear enough, it seemed to be meaningless gibberish to the Egyptologists who studied it until they realized that the language of the underlying text wasn’t Egyptian at all.
Many Latter-day Saint scholars believe the Book of Mormon to have been written in Hebrew or something very like it, but in an Egyptian script, and they have long pointed to Papyrus Amherst 63 as evidence of an ancient biblical text recorded in precisely that way. (See, for example, William J. Hamblin, “Reformed Egyptian” published at publications.mi.byu.edu).)
Professor van der Toorn says in the article of the three Amherst psalms that “These were songs the Israelites chanted before their religion turned monotheistic.” Thus, rather like biblical Psalm 82:1, Yaho is described not as a solitary figure but as the highest of the Gods, the head of a “council of heaven.”
Note: Toorn's “Egyptian Papyrus Sheds New Light on Jewish History” in the Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2018, pages 32-39, 66-68), prompted this column, which draws substantially from it. On Yahweh as the head of a “heavenly council” rather than as the isolated deity of later monotheism, see Daniel C. Peterson, “Ye Are Gods: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind” published online at publications.mi.byu.edu.