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Scholars’ Corner: Bible’s Psalm 20 Adapted for Pagan Use, BAR 11:01, Jan-Feb 1985.

2nd century bc papyrusA story about Ugarit in the September/October 1983 BARa explained how Psalm 29 had originally been composed as a Canaanite hymn to the storm god Baal and was later adapted for the Hebrew psalter. The hymn to Baal was modified for inclusion in Israel’s hymn book by replacing the name Baal with Yahweh, the personal name of Israel’s God. It was also modified in other ways, but the dependence of the Israelite hymn on the early Canaanite hymn was clear.

Some readers were offended by this suggestion. One reader said she was “dismay[ed]” and found the suggestion blasphemous (Queries & Comments, BAR 10-01). Others expressed similar views (Queries & Comments, BAR 10-03). The Hebrew psalmist would not use a pagan hymn for inspiration, these readers argued. A lively discussion ensued in BAR’s popular “Queries & Comments” section. For another reaction, see Queries & Comments in this issue.

It will be interesting to those who followed this discussion to examine an adaptation in the opposite direction—where a hymn from the Hebrew psalter formed the basis for a late paganized hymn addressed to a number of gods, including the Egyptian god Horus.

By examining this instance of cultural influence in the opposite direction, we can better understand the process by which a text from one culture may be adopted and modified for use in another.
The papyrus on which the pagan text was written has a fascinating history. It was found, apparently by local Egyptians, along with 18 other papyri, in an earthen jar in the Theban necropolis, probably in one of the tombs, on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The date of the discovery is not known, but all the papyri were purchased in about 1875 by Lord Amherst of Hackney, England. In 1912, they were purchased from Lord Amherst’s estate by J. Pierpont Morgan and left privately with a Mr. Lamacraft, the British Museum’s expert on mounting. Charles F. Nims found them at the British Museum in 1945; through his efforts, the papyri were brought to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York in 1947.

The papyrus containing the pagan prayer adapted from Psalm 20 is about 11 ½ feet long (350–60 cm) and a little over 11 ½ inches high (30 cm). It contains 22 or 23 columns of varying width. All the front of the papyrus and 60 percent of the back are covered with writing. In all, there are 422 preserved lines, of which about 290 are well preserved and the rest are poorly preserved.
The script was soon identified as a peculiar variety of demotic.b

While experts in Egyptian writing had no difficulty in identifying the script as demotic, there was a problem. They could not make any sense out of the text. True, some of the signs were rare. But the papyrus remained unintelligible even to the best demoticists, despite the fact that they all agreed the script was demotic and almost all the demotic signs had a well-known phonetic value; that is, the words could be pronounced, but they had no known meaning. The papyrus became known as the mystery papyrus.

The big break came in 1940, when a scholar named Raymond Bowman, Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, with the assistance of Egyptologist George R. Hughes (later Professor of Egyptology and Director of the Oriental Institute) discovered that although the text was written in demotic script, the language itself was actually Aramaic. Bowman announced his discovery in a lecture in the spring of 1943 and published it in the autumn of 1944.
For comparison, imagine an American trying to read a Hebrew text written in the script used for this article. Everyone who reads this article can read the signs bereshit bara elohim, but only those who know Hebrew will understand that these three words mean “In the beginning God created.” In the same way, demoticists could read the words but only an Aramaist could understand the text.
Bowman made his discovery that the text was Aramaic by an examination of a transliteration of the text by another scholar, Charles F. Nims of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. By examining the transliteration, Bowman recognized the language as Aramaic. However, he deciphered only four lines. There the matter lay until 1979.

At that time Nims, later joined by Richard C. Steiner of Yeshiva University, continued work on the papyrus. Their first publication of the partial results of their labors won the 1984 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award for one of the three best scholarly articles relating to the Bible and archaeology published in 1902 and 1983.c

Nims and Steiner have been able to date the papyrus to the late second century B.C.—about 125 B.C. The papyrus as a whole is a collection of cultic texts, mainly prayers, with a story at the end. Their article focuses, however, on eightd lines from column 11 of the papyrus.

The reason for focusing on this passage is that, in the authors’ own words, “It bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 20”—except that the gods are different.

Printed below is the passage from Psalm 20 and beside it the passage from the Aramaic hymn written in demotic script.

Bible’s Psalm 20 Compared to Pagan Hymn

Psalm 20

(2) May the Lord answer you in time of trouble.

May the name of the God of Jacob keep you out of harm’s reach.

(3) May He send you(r) help from the Sanctuary and from Zion may He sustain you.

(4) May He accept the reminders of your meal offerings and accept the

(5) fatness of your burnt offerings.

May He grant you your heart’s desire and may He fulfill your every plan.

(6) May we shout for joy at your victory and in the name of our God raise our banners. May the Lord fulfill all of your requests.

(7) Now I know that the Lord will grant victory to His anointed.

He will answer him from His holy heaven with the victorious might of His right arm.

(8) These by chariots, those by horses, but we swear by the Lord our God.

(9) They bend the knee and fall but we rise up and are strengthened.

(10) Lord, grant victory.

May the King answer us on the day we call.

Pagan Hymn

(11) May Horus answer us in our troubles.

(12) May Adonay answer us in our troubles.

O Bow in Heaven, (13) Sahar.

Send your emissary from the temple of Arash, and from Zephon (14) may Horus sustain us.

May Horus grant us our heart’s desire.

May (15) Mar grant us our heart’s desire.

May Horus fulfill (our) every plan.

May Horus fulfill—may (16) Adonay not withhold (even) in part—every request of our hearts.

These by the bow, those by the spear;

(17) As for us, Mar, our god, Horus, YHW(H), our god, is with us.e

May (18) El Bethel answer us tomorrow.

May Baal of Heaven, Mar, bless.

Upon your pious (19) ones are your blessings.

But instead of the names for God that we are accustomed to finding in the Hebrew Bible and that we find in Psalm 20, the paganized text includes the names of a variety of gods. Some of the names of these gods can be associated with Jewish worship, but others clearly cannot. Thus in Psalm 20 we find Yahweh (the personal, unpronounceable name of Israel’s God, usually translated Lord), Elohei Yaakov (the God of Jacob), and Elohenu (our God).

In the paganized text we also find forms that may well have Jewish origins, such as Adonay (the vocalized form of Yahweh in modern Jewish worship), El (as in Elohenu), El Bethel (El—or God—of Bethel), and even YHW(H) (Yahweh). But this paganized text also refers to Baal of Heaven, Mar, Sahar the moon-god, and above all, the Egyptian god Horus.

It is amazing how much Nims and Steiner have been able to learn from their intense study of this paganized text and the papyrus on which it is written. For example, they have concluded that the paganized prayer was dictated in Aramaic to a scribe who wrote the Aramaic text in demotic script. Nims and Steiner have come to this conclusion by studying parallel or repeated passages in the text. When they compared these repeated passages, which are often quite close together, they noticed that signs were occasionally omitted in one of the passages; the scribe had made mistakes. Sometimes there were other differences. In one passage the scribe would misplace signs that were used as word dividers. These misplacements suggest that the scribe did not even understand what he was transcribing. The inconsistencies in the repetitions suggest he was not writing from memory. Finally, the various differences in the text from normal Aramaic spelling suggest that the scribe was not transliterating from a written Aramaic text. Thus, he transcribed into demotic script, Aramaic dictation that he did not understand.f

All this, incidentally, makes translation of the papyrus extremely difficult. Some highly ambiguous sequences of demotic signs have dozens of possible Aramaic interpretations. The parallels in this short passage between the papyrus and Psalm 20 provide an unusually high degree of certainty about the meaning of the paganized text and will undoubtedly help solve many of the problems involved in translating the rest of the papyrus.

At least theoretically, we can ask, Who borrowed from whom? Was the paganized text taken from Psalm 20, or was Psalm 20 adapted from the paganized text?

Two considerations lead Nims and Steiner to conclude that the paganized text was in fact adapted from Psalm 20. First, only in this section of the papyrus do we find Jewish-sounding features, such as YHW(H) and Adonay. It is true that both these terms are occasionally found in non-Jewish contexts and would thus not be conclusive in isolation. But in this papyrus they are found in column 11 (containing the paganized version of Psalm 20) and in the following column. In other words, in this text we find divine names used by Jews occurring in and around a prayer strikingly similar to a Jewish psalm. Moreover, these names are absent elsewhere in the papyrus.

Second, the language of this passage, but not the rest of the papyrus, contains a distinct Hebrew component.

Thus, Nims and Steiner conclude that the direction of borrowing was from the psalm to the paganized text. In their own words, “It is clear, then, that what we have here is a paganized Jewish text embedded in a collection of pagan prayers.”

Nims and Steiner argue that some form of Psalm 20 was being recited by Egyptian Jews not simply as a prayer, but that it was being used in public worship. They base this conclusion on the fact that in the paganized text we find a transformation from “you” and “your” in the psalm to “us” and “our” in the pagan text. Presumably this replacement had occurred in the psalm by the time it was adapted to its pagan form. For example, in Psalm 20, we read, “May the Lord answer you in time of trouble … may He sustain you.” In the paganized text, the parallel passage reads, “May Horus answer us in our troubles … may Horus sustain us.” Thus, in Egypt among Egyptian Jews, Psalm 20 had been converted from a priestly blessing to a communal prayer.

This communal prayer may have been recited on various kinds of occasions, perhaps on different kinds of occasions as the prayer passed from one culture to another. But there is a hint in the paganized text that it was recited at night beneath a crescent moon. In lines 12–13, a visible crescent moon seems to be addressed-

O Bow in Heaven, Sahar.g

Send your emissary …

And in line 18, the god El Bethel is asked to “answer us tomorrow,” which also suggests that the prayer was recited at night.

But who paganized Psalm 20, Jews or Aramaic-speaking pagans in Egypt? In short, who made the substitutions—for example, from the God of Israel to the Egyptian god Horus—syncretistic or even polytheistic Jews, on the one hand, or Aramean pagans who wished to adapt the prayer for use in the cult of Horus?

To this question, there is no answer, at least for the time being.

All that can be said is that Psalm 20 was probably transmitted to the final adapters of this pagan prayer by the Jewish community living in Edfu. The Egyptian god Horus is mentioned frequently (15 times) in our prayer and in the text of an adjacent column in the papyrus that is also almost certainly of Jewish origin. In contrast, Horus is mentioned only two or three times in the entire remainder of the papyrus. Edfu, on the west bank of the Nile River, 60 miles southeast of Thebes, was a leading center of Horus worship in ancient Egypt. Scenes and texts covering the walls of the great sandstone temple of Horus at Edfu demonstrate that the cult of the falcon-god was very vigorous there from the third to first centuries B.C. Moreover, Edfu is the leading source of Egyptian Aramaic documents from this period. Finally, an important Jewish community is known to have lived in Edfu in antiquity.

A Jewish community also lived at Thebes, however, where the papyrus was found, so the Jewish community of Thebes is also a possible transmitter of Psalm 20 to the final adapters. Whether one of these Jewish communities transmitted its version of Psalm 20 to pagans in one of these communities after the pagan elements in the psalm had already been added by backsliding Jews cannot be determined.

a. “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” BAR 09-05, by Peter C. Craigie.

b. Demotic was the later and more cursive of two Egyptian scripts. Both demotic and the earlier hieratic were written with brush and ink. Both evolved from hieroglyphic writing, which used “pictographs” to record the Egyptian language. For the most part, hieroglyphic writing was carved on stone surfaces of the walls of temples, tombs, and stele, and was painted on the plaster walls of tombs. When the Egyptians wished to write on papyrus or on stone flakes and pottery sherds, they used a cursive form of hieroglyphic writing called hieratic. Hieratic has the same relation to hieroglyphic writing as our handwriting has to the printed page. Demotic came into use about 650 B.C. and was used for business documents, letters, stories and petitions. All three methods—hieroglyphics, and hieratic and demotic cursive—were used side by side for several centuries in Egypt, dying out in the fourth century A.D. In the third century A.D. the same Egyptian language was written in a fourth way, using Greek letters. This Coptic phase lasted until the 16th century A.D.

c. Charles F. Nims and Richard C. Steiner, “A Paganized Version of Psalm 20-2–6 from the Aramaic Text in Demotic Script,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103-1 (1983), pp. 261–274.

d. Since their article was published, Steiner has corrected this number from seven to eight.

e. This sentence is an improved reading, made since publication of the original article.

f. The dictation copy was probably for a priest who wanted to recite the prayer in Aramaic but who did not know Aramaic, so he needed a transliteration in demotic script much as some American Jews today who do not know Hebrew need a transliteration in Latin letters to recite a Hebrew prayer. The Egyptianized Aramean priest was probably continuing a tradition of reciting prayers in Aramaic despite his ignorance of that language. Aramaic was probably dying out in Egypt at this time.

g. The Aramean moon god.

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