In 1961 archaeologists discovered a family archive of legal papyri in a cave near the Dead Sea where their owner, the Jewish woman Babatha, had hidden them in 135 CE at the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Babatha's Orchard analyzes the oldest four of these papyri to argue that underlying them is a hitherto undetected and surprising train of events concerning how Babatha's father, Shim'on, purchased a date-palm orchard in Maoza on the southern shore of the Dead
Sea in 99 CE that he later gave to Babatha. The central features of the story, untold for two millennia, relate to how a high Nabatean official had purchased the orchard only a month before, but suddenly rescinded the purchase, and how Shim'on then acquired it, in enlarged form, from the vendor. Teasing out
the details involves deploying the new methodology of archival ethnography, combined with a fresh scrutiny of the papyri (written in Nabatean Aramaic), to investigate the Nabatean and Jewish individuals mentioned and their relationships within the social, ethnic, economic, and political realities of Nabatea at that time. Aspects of this context which are thrown into sharp relief by Babatha's Orchard include: the prominence of wealthy Nabatean women and their husbands' financial
reliance on them; the high returns and steep losses possible in date cultivation; the sophistication of Nabatean law and lawyers; the lingering effect of the Nabateans' nomadic past in lessening the social distance between elite and non-elite; and the good ethnic relations between Nabateans and Jews.
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 Interpretation 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.