Babatha's Orchard

The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold

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Philip F. Esler
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Babatha’s Orchard is an extraordinary accomplishment. The book has as its focus four legal documents that deal with the sale of an orchard, about as dry as situation as can be imagined, but Philip F. Esler recreates the social and personal circumstances with great imagination and scholarly insight. It is like seeing a tattered black and white photograph turned into a film of the highest quality: what is two dimensional and in poor condition is transformed into a multidimensional narration with many nuances.

The four legal texts are part of an archive found in a cave near the western shore of the Dead Sea and deal with the ownership of an orchard to the east of the Dead Sea that became part of the property of a woman, Babatha, who hid in the cave with other fugitives from the Roman military and was presumably killed or enslaved when the Romans finally captured her. Her ketubah (marriage contract) has received the most attention of the thirty-five documents in the archive, but Esler turns our attention to the four legal records showing how it came about that her father acquired an orchard before she was born that he later gave to her as a gift. He illuminates the events, personalities, the interplay between Jews and non-Jews and between villagers and a local boy who rose in the ranks of Roman society. He portrays in vivid tones the real-life circumstances and consequences of a husband borrowing from his wife’s dowry, a husband in debt to a wife, a sale to a high official made under favorable circumstances, and the collapse of that sale due to an unforeseen development, the aftermath of a father’s sudden death, and a demand made under a guarantee.

In chapter 1, Esler lays out his theoretical stance and how archival ethnography works, its benefits and its perils. He argues that a legal document can reveal the specific set of social and economic relationships that were encapsulated in legal rights and duties. It was in the interest of the parties involved that the document was accurate to their circumstances. Esler argues that such a stance makes a legal document more transparent and less distorting than ambiguous archaeological remains or texts from a literary or religious genre. Even though analyzing a legal text has its own methodological problems, which Esler hints at, there is merit to this argument: it does however require a nimble critic who can see through the boiler-plate language of a legal text.

Esler provides a social and political history of the territory of the Nabateans (in which the orchard was located) in chapter 2 and an investigation into the nature of village life for the parties to the sale of the orchard in chapter 3. Then he moves act by act as documented by the legal records, giving a richly furnished description of the likely circumstances leading to each action and portraying the real-life events that may have taken place: chapter 4, Muqimu borrows money from his wife (94 CE); chapter 5, Archelaus purchases a date-palm orchard (99 CE); chapter 6, Archelaus rescinds his purchase; and chapter 7, Shim’on purchases a date-palm orchard (99 CE). Esler demonstrates yet another dimension of his scholarship, his skill as an epigrapher and text critic in his analysis of Papyrus Yadin 4, in chapter 8, and brings it to bear on the social circumstances of the transaction in chapter 9. He concludes with a narrative akin to the story that Babatha’s father told her about how he acquired a productive orchard in a good location next to an orchard owned by the Nabatean king himself, even though he was a Judean among Nabateans.

The volume includes maps and many illustrations of the problematic parts of Papyrus Yadin 4 as well as Esler’s emended text of that papyrus and translations of the documents.

As with any book, there are quibbles that can be made. Esler’s idea that the death of Archelaus’s father was the primary cause of the collapse of the sale is attractive but is also just a guess. Who knows what other circumstances might have caused a sale to be reversed? Perhaps Archelaus himself died or had another sort of personal or financial reversal. Nonetheless, Esler brings legal documents to life with rare skill. His book is an inspiring model for scholars, and educated laypeople will find this book an enchanting entryway into a lost world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pamela Barmash is associate professor of the Hebrew Bible at Washington University, St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip F. Esler is Portland Chair of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire. He is a higher education administrator and academic who became the inaugural chief executive of the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2005, remaining in that role until 2009. From 1995 to 2010 he was professor of biblical criticism at St Andrews University. From 1998 to 2001 he was vice-principal for research and provost of St Leonard's College at St Andrews. During the years 1999 to 2003 he served as a member of the Board of Scottish Enterprise Fife. From October 2010 to March 2013 he was principal and professor of biblical onterpretation at St Mary's University College Twickenham. He had an earlier career as a lawyer, working in Sydney during 1978-81 and 1984-92 as an articled clerk, then solicitor and barrister.


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