Businesswomen Before Bar Kokhba

Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold 

by Philip F. Esler

Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $45

Sometime toward the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.), a Jewish woman named Babatha, daughter of Shimon, fled Ein Gedi with a group of fellow Jews. She had been visiting her stepdaughter and ended up in a remote cave in the Judean desert, accessible only by a narrow ledge carved into sheer cliffs 650 feet above the canyon floor. Like fleeing refugees of other times and places, Babatha carried her most important papers with her, so that she would be able to reclaim her property and re-establish her life when the war was over. However, she and the Jews she was hiding with either died of starvation when Roman soldiers cut off their supply lines or were killed outright when the soldiers penetrated the refuge. Sometime before that happened, she hid her satchel with its 35 documents, including wedding contracts, a property registration, legal petitions and summonses, deeds, and loan notes, in a recess of the cave. These documents were written between 94 C.E. and 132 C.E. in Nabatean Aramaic, Judean Aramaic, and Greek. More than 1,800 years later, in 1961, a research team led by the Israeli general turned archeologist Yigael Yadin discovered Babatha’s archive when a rock wobbled under the feet of a volunteer, revealing the satchel. They also found several other items that likely belonged to Babatha, including a pair of sandals, balls of yarn, two kerchiefs, a key and two key rings, bowls, a clasp knife, and three waterskins.

Yadin’s more famous find in the “Cave of Letters” was the correspondence between Bar Kokhba and his generals Yehonathan and Masabala. What Philip F. Esler demonstrates in Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold, an ingenious and meticulous work of reconstruction, is that the documents in Babatha’s satchel shed light on the everyday lives and business practices of Jews and Nabateans who were caught up in the conflict. In contrast to most surviving ancient literature (which was written by and for men), these documents feature women prominently, wheeling and dealing, acting as sellers, buyers, lenders, litigants, and trustees. 

Esler’s book focuses on the earliest four documents of Babatha’s archive, all written in Nabatean Aramaic with execution dates ranging from 94 C.E. to 99 C.E., before Babatha was born. One of them records the sale of a date palm orchard to Babatha’s father Shimon in 99 C.E. It is easy to see why Babatha would have held on to this document, since her father had apparently given her the orchard (she registered it as her own in a Roman property census in 127 C.E.). But the other three papyri record transactions among Nabateans who have no apparent relationship to Shimon or Babatha. The question at the center of Esler’s clever microhistory is, simply, why? Why did a Jewish woman living 30 years after these contracts were executed and with no obvious connection to the named parties have them in the first place? And why did she consider them important enough to carry into hiding? 

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About the Author

Elizabeth Shanks Alexander is professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. She is co-editor of Religious Studies and Rabbinics: A Conversation (Routledge).


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