Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #20:
Lessons from the Elephantine Papyri
Regarding Book of Mormon Names and Nephi's Temple

Overview: the Elephantine Jews, Nephi's Temple, and Book of Mormon Names

One argument that has been raised against the Book of Mormon concerns the temple that Nephi built in the New World. It has long been argued that ancient Jewish people would never have thought of building a temple outside of Jerusalem, and that doing so would violate basic Jewish law. However, we have a clear precedent for Jews building a new temple when they lived too far from Jerusalem to be able to go there to worship. The precedent comes from the island of Elephantine (also known as Yeb) in the Nile river, where a small colony of Jews lived anciently, perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C. In 1925, a group of ancient papyrus documents were discovered on the island of Yeb (also called Elephantine) near the first cataract of the Nile. These documents provided numerous insights into the ancient Jewish community that had thrived there in ancient Egypt. Their history also provides some insight into the Book of Mormon.

The Jews at Elephantine built a temple to Yahweh. Through documents discovered in 1925 (the Elephantine Papyri), we can see that they were in contact with the Jews in Jerusalem, and did not seem to be in trouble for having their temple. In fact, after their temple was destroyed by enemies, they made a formal petition to the governor of Judah in 407 B.C. to rebuild the temple, and this petition appears to have been granted, though I understand that they were only to offer plant sacrifices (not animal sacrifices) in the rebuilt temple. An excellent online resource is the "Petition to Authorize Elephantine Temple Reconstruction" from K. C. Hanson's Collection of West Semitic Documents, available at, which shows the transliterated Aramaic as well as the English translation. (See also "A Passover Letter" from the Jewish official Hananiah at Jerusalem addressed to Yedaniah and the Judahite garrison at Yeb (Elephantine), giving some directions for practicing Passover, and provides no hint of concern about the existence of a Jewish temple at Elephantine.)

In addition to the precedent of distant Jews making their own temple, the Elephantine Papyri also provide interesting information about Jewish names around the time of Nephi and Lehi, showing that the ending -iah was very popular, confirming a pattern seen in Book of Mormon names--and also specifically confirming that the name Sariah (Lehi's wife in 600 B.C.) was in fact an authentic Jewish female name in ancient times, according to Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2/2 (1993): 196-200. See also "Origin of Book of Mormon Names" by Stephen Ricks.

Background: the Jews of Elephantine and Their Temple

Basic background information is provided by Raymond P. Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People, Part 1, Chapter 2, "Judea and the Origins of the Diaspora (587 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.)," New York: Macmillan Press, 1998, pp. 32-33, viewable at Google Books:

With the rise of the Persian Empire, many of the Judeans of Babylonia prospered, and some of the members of this upper echelon rose to positions of dignity in the Persian court. Such Judeans had little incentive to return to the new Persian province of Judea. The Judeans of Babylonia continued to feel connected to the people of Judea by history, family ties, culture, and religion, and they remained organized as a distinctive ethnic and religious group; but they ceased to be truly exiles, for they remained abroad by choice. A parallel development occurred in Egypt. Here, a garrison of Judean mercenaries had been established on Elephantine (an island in the Nile near Aswan) perhaps as early as the mid-seventh century B.C.E.; this colony remained in existence--and in contact with the Persian province of Judea--for over 200 years. The Jews of Elephantine had a temple at which they offered sacrifices, as was done in Jerusalem, and continued to do so long after the first Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Nor were they the only Judeans in Egypt, for after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C.E, some Judeans fled to the northern part of the country. The communities of Judeans in Babylonia and Egypt may be considered the first and longest-lived Diaspora communities, that is, communities of Jews outside the Land of Israel. The Jewish community of Iraq lasted continuously until 1951; that of Egypt, though several times reduced to near-extinction, sprang back to life several times, but it now seems to have petered out for good. . . .

Judean authorities attempted to regulate the religious practices of Elephantine, but they do not seem to have attempted to shut down the Elephantine temple itself, despite the fact that its existence was contrary to the law of Deuteronomy (as described in chapter 1). It continued to function until 410, when some Egyptian regiments rebelled against the Persian regime, while the Jewish garrison remained loyal. The priests of the neighboring temple of the Egyptian ram-god Khnum took the opportunity to destroy the Jewish temple, which offended their own cult through its animal sacrifices. On suppressing the rebellion, the Persian authorities permitted the rebuilding of the Elephantine temple, in consideration of its great antiquity; but in a bow to the sensibilities of both the Jerusalem authorities and the Egyptian priests, they restricted its sacrifices to vegetable offerings. The temple was rebuilt, but the Jewish colony in Elephantine disappears from view early in the fourth century B.C.E.

Further information on the Jews of Elephantine and their ancient authorization to build a temple is provided by Gerald A. Larue in his popular text, Old Testament Life and Literature, 1968, Chapter 25, "Life and Literature of the Late Period," available online:


From the Persian fortress known as Yeb on the island of Elephantine at the first cataract of the Nile have come a considerable number of private and public papyri written in Aramaic.13 Some of these documents afford an intimate glance into the life of a colony of Jews who lived in this military outpost of the Persian empire. Correspondence between the Jewish leaders in Yeb and Bagoas, the governor of Judah, reveal that when Cambyses invaded Egypt (525) the Elephantine Jews possessed a temple of Yahweh (spelled Yahu or Yaho) with five entrances of hewn stone, stone pillars, a cedar roof, doors hinged with bronze, utensils of gold and silver and an altar of sacrifice. This temple was destroyed in 410 at the instigation of the priests of the ram-headed god Khnum. In a letter to Bagoas requesting permission to rebuild the temple, reference was made to the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, apparently the same official with whom Nehemiah had come into conflict. No written reply from Bagoas was found, but a record of his words as reported by an emissary grants permission to rebuild the temple with an altar for incense and meal offerings, but no mention is made of an altar for sacrifice. The temple was restored and remained in use until it was again destroyed, probably by Pharaoh Nepherites I (399-393).

Some evidence of religious syncretism appears in a "treasurer's report" of temple contributors recording funds collected for Yahweh, Eshembethel and Anat-bethel or Anat-Yahu. There is also reference to "the gods." The element "Bethel" in two of the names appears as a divine name in Aramaean contexts between the seventh and fourth centuries, and the name Anat is the name of a Canaanite goddess in the Ugaritic pantheon. No information about beliefs concerning these deities has been found. Clearly, these Elephantine Jews were not governed by Deuteronomic regulations calling for a single sanctuary in Jerusalem and demanding worship of Yahweh alone.

While the Jews at Elephantine clearly mingled with their non-Jewish neighbors and may have adapted some of their ways--a common problem throughout Jewish and Christian history--the fact that they did build a temple of their own refutes the notion that Hebrews arriving in the New World would never have thought of building a temple. In fact, given the importance of the temple in the Bible, it would seem that Hebrews in a new land having religious liberty and no hope of access to Jerusalem would be moved to do exactly what Nephi did: build a temple.

Joseph Smith certainly had no access to information from Elephantine, and could not have known about the scrolls that would not be discovered until nearly a hundred years after 1 Nephi was translated. Had he relied on information available in his day, he would have been wise to stick with the generally accepted idea that Jerusalem was the only place where Jews would build a temple. But, following a pattern that is starting to become commonplace, what might have seemed like a stupid blunder in the past now has been given plausibility from newly discovered information from the ancient world. Ancient Jews could and did build a Jewish temple outside of Jerusalem.

Elephantine and the New World are not the only places where temples outside of Jerusalem were built. Other Jews in Egypt also built a temple at Leontopolis, known as the Temple of Onias. See, for example, the Wikipedia article, "Land of Onias" and its section on the "Jewish temple at Leontopolis." Also see the article, "Leontopolis" by Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss, available online at Though they seem unaware of the temple at Elephantine when they state that Leontopolis was "the only place outside of Jerusalem where sacrifices were offered," it was clearly a place where temple sacrifices were offered. This was not an act of rebellion, but apparently a necessary result of the extensive diaspora of the Jews. The authors state that:

The reputation which the temple of Onias enjoyed is indicated by the fact that the Septuagint changes the phrase "city of destruction" (Isa. xix. 18) to "city of righteousness." It may be taken for granted that the Egyptian Jews sacrificed frequently in the temple of Leontopolis, although at the same time they fulfilled their duty toward the Temple at Jerusalem....

The Temple of Onias is also briefly discussed in the online article, "The Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic Period " by Boris Milgrom:

It is also worth noting that Onias built a Jewish Temple at Leontopolis. Some historians have suggested that the Temple at Leontopolis was meant to rival the one in Jerusalem, since Onias claimed to be the rightful heir to the post of the High Priest. Its location, however, suggests that it was only meant to be a sanctuary for Jewish soldiers in the region, as Jewish soldiers played a vital part in the succession disputes that followed the death of Ptolemy Philometor.

Also see John Merlin Powis Smith, "The Jewish Temple at Elephantine," The Biblical World, Vol. 31, No. 6 (June 1908), pp. 448-459.

Some have questioned whether Nephi could have built a temple that was "like unto the temple of Solomon" as 2 Nephi 5:16 indicates. Actually, that verse says that "the manner of construction was like unto the temple of Solomon," not that it had the same scale. Nephi seems to suggest that it was generally patterned after Solomon's, but it could have been a much humbler edifice. In discussing this issue, Daniel C. Peterson refers to additional evidence for Jewish temple-like structures in the ancient world. The following excerpt is from his article, "Is the Book of Mormon True? Notes on the Debate" in Noel Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), pp. 149-177 (the excerpt is from pp. 153-154):

[S]ince we know that smaller temples [than Solomon's] did in fact exist in ancient Israel, there seems no real reason to assume, without evidence, that one could not have existed among the Nephites. "Biblical evidence," notes the Israeli archaeologist Avraham Negev, "points to the existence of numerous other cult places all over Palestine, in addition to the main Temple of Jerusalem, and such shrines have been found at Arad and Lachish, both of a very similar plan." [Avraham Negev, ed., Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Putnam's Sons, 1972), p. 311. See also Amihay Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1990), pp. 492-502.] Indeed, says Negev, "No actual remains of the First Temple [Solomon's] have come to light, and it is therefore only by study of the Bible Scriptures and by comparison with other contemporary temples that we can reconstruct the plan." [Negev, Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, p. 312.] Negev tells of one such temple, built "after the manner of the temple of Solomon," as follows: "The most remarkable discovery at Arad is the temple which occupied the north-western corner of the citadel.... Its orientation, general plan and content, especially the tabernacle, are similar to the Temple of Solomon.... Flanking the entrance to the hekal were two stone slabs, probably bases of pillars, similar to the pillars of Jachin and Boaz in the temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:21; 2 Chronicles 4:17)." [Ibid., p. 28, emphasis added by Peterson.] Yet the Arad temple was only a fraction of the size of Solomon's temple. Significantly, it survived, in use, until approximately the time of Lehi.

Peterson also notes that critics who demand to know why we haven't found actual remnants of Nephi's temple should know that it's probably for the same reason that we have found "no actual remains" of Solomon's temple.

Names from the Elephantine Papyri

The Elephantine Papyri also provide interesting evidence supporting the plausibility of the names introduced in the Book of Mormon, making it increasingly difficult for critics to explain how Joseph could have simply made these up using his imagination or other information sources from his day. Hugh Nibley was among the first to recognize the significance of the names in the Egyptian Papyri. The excerpt below comes from his essay "Two Shots in the Dark" (printed in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), pp. 108-109):

The proper names in the Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon belong to one particular period in Jewish history--the same period. Seven of the nine proper names in Letter 1 end in -yahu, which later became -iah, and during the Babylonian period lost the "h" entirely. In all the letters there are no Baal names and no El names--the lack of which was once thought to be a serious defect in the Book of Mormon. Torczyner finds "the spelling of the names compounded with -iah to be most important. The -yahu ending is also found as -yah about a century later among the Jews in Elephantine, who were "perhaps the descendants of those Jews who, after the fall of the Judaean kingdom, went down to Egypt, taking with them the prophet Jeremiah" [Harry Torczyner, Lachish I (Tell ed Duweir): The Lachish Letters (Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 27]. Here we have another control over the Lehi story. The discovery of the Elephantine documents in 1925 showed that colonies of Jews actually did flee into the desert in the manner of Lehi, during his lifetime, and for the same reasons; arriving in their new home far up the Nile, they proceeded to build a replica of Solomon's Temple, exactly as Lehi did upon landing in the New World. Both of these oddities, especially the latter, were once considered damning refutations of the Book of Mormon. The -yahu ending of personal names abounds at Elephantine, but in a more abbreviated form (-iah) than at Lachish (-yah) a hundred years earlier. The same variety of endings is found in the Book of Mormon, e.g., the Lachish name Mattanyahu appears at Elephantine as Mtn, and in the Book of Mormon both as Mathonihah and Mathoni. The Book of Mormon has both long and short forms in the names Amalickiah, Amaleki and Amlici, cf. Elephantine MLKih [Torczyner, p. 24]. The Assyrian inscriptions show that the final "II" was dropped in the Hebrew spelling after Lehi left, when the Jews "lost their pronunciation of the consonant "II" under the influence of the Babylonian language" [Torczyner, p. 25]. Of the two names in Letter 1 not ending in -yahu, the one, Tb-Shlm (which Torczyner renders Tobshillem), suggests Book of Mormon Shilom and Shelem, while the other Hgb ([Torczyner renders this] Hagab), resembles Book of Mormon Hagoth.

More significant are the indications that the -yahu names are "certainly a token of a changed inner Judaean relationship of Yhwh." "This practice," Torczyner suggests, "is in some way parallel to ... the first reformation by Moses"; what we have in the predominance of -yahu names reflects "the act of general reformation inaugurated by King Josiah (Yoshiyahu) [the father of Zedekiah]" (2 Kings 22 and 23) [Torczyner, p. 29]. Another interesting coincidence: A Book of Mormon king 450 years after Lehi undertook a general reformation of the national constitution and revival of the religious life of the people. He and his brothers had been rigorously trained by their father, King Benjamin, "in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding," familiar with the writings of the ancient prophets and also "concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass," without which records, he tells them, "even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief." "And now, my sons, I would that ye should remember to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby ..." etc. (Mosiah 1:2,3,5,7). Fittingly, this king named his eldest son, the great reforming king, Mosiah, suggesting both the early reform of Moses and its later imitation by Josiah. This would be altogether too much of a coincidence were it not that the Book of Mosiah supplies the information that fully accounts for the resemblances when it explains just how Nephite names and customs were preserved intact in the transplanting of cultures from the Old World to the New. Lehi's ties to the Yahvist tradition are reflected in the only female name given in his history, that of his wife, Sariah; such feminine names turn up at Elephantine--Mibtahyah, though in female names the yahu element usually comes first [Torczyner, p. 27-28].

Not only is the use of the "iah" ending in Sariah substantiated by the Elephantine Papyri, as Nibley noted, the actual female name Sariah is found in the scrolls. A related male name, Seriah, is known in the Old Testament, but there is no hint in the Bible that Sariah was a woman's name. Below is an excerpt from Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2., No. 2, 1993, pp. 196-198:

The conjectural Hebrew spelling of Sariah would be s'ryh and would be pronounced something like Sar-yah. The skeptic might suggest that this name was an invention of Joseph Smith, since Sariah does not appear in the Bible as a female personal name. However, in a significant historical parallel to the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew name Sariah, spelled sryh, has been identified in a reconstructed form as the name of a Jewish woman living at Elephantine in Upper Egypt during the fifth century B.C.

The reference to Sariah of Elephantine is found in Aramaic Papyrus #22 (also called Cowley #22 or C-22) and appears in Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. [Arthur E. Cowley, ed. and trans. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), 67]. Although the language of the documents is Aramaic, A. E. Cowley specifies that the names are in fact Hebrew [ibid., xv]. Line 4 of C-22 lists the personal name sry[h br]t hws 'br hrmn [ibid., 67]. The probable vocalization is Sariah barat Hoshea' bar Harman, and the text means "Sariah daughter of Hoshea son of Harman." Cowley had to reconstruct part of the text, supplying the final h of Sariah and the initial b-r of barat, but the spacing is adequate, and the comparative context of the papyrus leaves little doubt that the reconstruction is accurate. The extant final t of barat assures us that the person was a daughter, not a son, and, after the letters b-r are supplied, there is only room for one additional letter--the final h of Sariah.

A more recent and exhaustive work on the Elephantine Papyri, Archives from Elephantine, published in 1968 by Bezalel Porten, concurs with Cowley's reconstruction and translation [Bezalel Porten, Archives from Elephantine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 320]. The Porten volume includes significant research concerning the Jewish military colony on Elephantine Island and also contains a black-and-white photo of C-22, including Line 4 [ibid., plate 11].

Although sryh is not found as a female name in the Bible, it is well documented as a male name in ancient Israel, appearing nineteen times in the Hebrew Old Testament, representing eleven different men [see 2 Sam. 8:17; 2 Kgs. 25:18; 23:25; 1 Chr. 4:13-14; 4:35; 6:14; Ezra 2:2; 7:1; Neh. 10:2; 11:11; 12:1,12; Jer. 40:8; 51:59,61; 52:24]. The male name sryh is thought to be the short form of sryhw, whose full form is probably pronounced Saryahu, featuring the common theophoric element Yahu from the divine name Yahuweh, or Jehovah. The longer form sryhw is found only once in the Hebrew Old Testament (Jer. 36:26), but it is also known from several instances on Iron Age seals and clay bullae found in Israel [Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), p. 46]. In the King James Version of the Bible, the nineteen instances of the male name sryh and the single appearance of sryhw are all rendered in English as Seraiah. (The English equivalents of many biblical Yahu names omit the final syllable, such as Isaiah [Yeshayahu], Jeremiah [Yirmyahu], Zedekiah [Zidkiyahu], etc.) Cowley follows the KJV in using the S-e-r-a-i-a-h spelling to render [ry[h br]t hws�as "Seraiah daughter of Hoshea" [Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century b.c., p. 71]. The English Seraiah spelling is an effort to represent a Hebrew pronunciation of Sera-yah or Sra-yah, which would essentially mean "Yah has struggled" (the first element of s'ryh and sryhw is usually interpreted as deriving from the srh root, meaning to "struggle" or "strive"). But in light of evidence from Iron Age seals and clay bullae, Nahman Avigad suggests that sryhw may be read Saryahu, meaning "Yahuweh is prince (sr)." By extension, the shorter name sryh would be read Sar-yah, both in the case of the eleven biblically noted men and in the case of the female from Elephantine. And by the same extension, rather than Cowley's Seraiah spelling, the Book of Mormon Sariah spelling would more correctly represent the name of our lady of Elephantine.

But what had she done, this Sariah of Elephantine, to merit mention in Papyrus C-22? Line 1 indicates a contribution to Yahu Elaha, "the Lord God." And while the purpose of the monetary offering is not explained, Cowley believes that it was for the expenses of the Jewish temple on Elephantine Island [Aramaic Papyri, p. 65]. He also dates the donation and the writing to the year 419 B.C. [ibid., p. 66]. The complete text of Line 4 indicates that Sariah had donated two sheqels of silver (ksf), a generous subscription given the generally high value of silver in ancient Egypt.

However, due to the lacunae (physical gaps) in the text requiring reconstruction of a couple of letters, there was still some uncertainty about the evidence discussed by Chadwick, and his fellow professor, Paul Hoskisson, noted the need for further study to confirm the plausible but not fully certain claim that Sariah was an ancient Jewish female name. That confirmation has now occurred!

As reported in 2019 by Neal Rappleye in "Revisiting 'Sariah' at Elephantine," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 1-8, a second more complete document from Elephantine with the same name has been found and translated, providing indisputable proof for Sariah not only as a real Jewish female name, but a real female name linked to Lehi's era and his Northern Kingdom origins. It's a remarkable coincidence, like many dozens of other allegedly random coincidences that seem to continually turn obvious Book of Mormon blunders into noteworthy evidences of plausibility.

Sariah, once thought to be Joseph's errant fabrication, now joins a growing list of Book of Mormon "blunders" that have been shown to be authentic. And her name apparently was listed to remember her for her devotion to the temple of the Lord in Elephantine.

For further reference, some examples of "-iah" names come from an excerpt of one of the scrolls, provided by Samuel Kurinsky online from his work, Jews in Africa, "Part 3: Egypt, Elephantine Island, and the Jews," Hebrew History Foundation, Ltd., Fact Paper 19-III:

"On the 21st of Chisleu... Masheiah B. Yedoniah, a Jew of Yeb... said to Jezaniah B. Uriah... there is the site of one house belonging to me... Which I have given to your Mitbahiah, my daughter, your wife... Now I say to you, build and equip that site and dwell on it with your wife. But you may not sell that house or give it as a present to others; only your children by my daughter Mitbahiah shall have power over it after you. If... you build upon this land and then my daughter divorces you and leaves you, she shall have no power over it, in return for the work you have done..."


Nephi's construction of a temple in the New World now seems entirely plausible, based on discoveries at Elephantine and other places. And a class of Book of Mormon names have been given added plausibility from the papyri found at Elephantine, including a "direct hit" with the name Sariah.

There may yet be more treasures of information about ancient Hebrews to be gleaned from the Elephantine Papyri, as there surely will be from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient documents. Latter-day Saints in the past 50 years have been in the enviable position of watching discoveries from the ancient world repeatedly add plausibility to Book of Mormon elements that once seemed ridiculous.

Book of Mormon Evidences

One Day in the Life of Joseph Smith, Translator Extraordinaire of the Book of Mormon--my satirical script for a skit dealing with allegations that Joseph Smith plagiarized from numerous sources in preparing the Book of Mormon. Released Jan. 16, 2004. -- one of the best pro-LDS sites on the Web.

SHIELDS (, another important site dealing with LDS intellectual issues, including good answers to some common anti-Mormon questions.

Reformed Egyptian - an excellent article by Bill Hamblin in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 19/1 (2007): 31-35.

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