The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names.
Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495-399 BCE. The Jews had their own temple to Jahweh which functioned alongside that to the local ram-headed deity, Khnum Legal documents and a cache of letters survived, turned up on the local 'gray market' of antiquities starting in the late 19th century, and were scattered into several Western collections.
The "Petition to Bagoas" (Sayce-Cowley collection) is a letter written in 407 BCE to Bagoas, the Persian governor of Judea, appealing for assistance in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Elephantine, which had recently been badly damaged by an anti-Semitic rampage on the part of a segment of the Elephantine community. In the course of this appeal, the Jewish inhabitants of Elephantine speak of the antiquity of the damaged temple:
The discovery of the Brooklyn papyri is remarkable story itself. The documents were first acquired in 1893 by New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour. After lying in a warehouse for more than 50 years, the papyri were shipped to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. It was at this time that scholars finally realized that “Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri”
The Elephantine papyri have been translated into English, indexed and published as The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change, edited by
Bezalel Porten, with J.J. Farber, C.J. Martin, G. Vittman, 1996.