The story of an ancient Jewish family has been told for the first time in 2,000 years after a university professor used new techniques to examine documents found in a Dead Sea cave.

The remarkable tale of how Shim‘on ben Menahem purchased a date-palm orchard on the southern shores has been revealed after four legal papyri dated 94-90 AD were examined at the University of Gloucestershire.

Ben Menahem bought the orchard in Maoza from a Nabatean woman in remarkable circumstances just weeks after a high Nabatean official tried and failed to acquire the property, explained Professor Philip Esler.

Philip Esler

Philip Esler

Shim‘on later gave the orchard to his daughter, Babatha, who kept these four papyri – written in Aramaic – to prove her title to the orchard and hid them, with 30 other legal documents, in a cave by the Dead Sea.

Along with other Jews, Babatha later sought refuge in this cave from the Romans at the end of the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 AD.

That Babatha’s legal documents and other possessions were found in the cave by Israeli archaeologists suggests, sadly, that she was captured by the Romans and either killed or sold into slavery.

“Retelling the tale of Babatha’s orchard has meant exploring the way of life in villages in Nabatea and Judea at the end of the first century AD,” said Esler, who has detailed the story in a new book, called ‘Babetha’s Orchard.’

“Women had important social and economic roles, law was practised to a very high standard and Jews and Nabateans got on well. The Romans must have captured Babatha, but her archive of legal documents survived. In retelling the story, I aim to honour the memory of two remarkable individuals: Babatha and Shim‘on, her father.”