Archaeology and the Bible
Ezra and Nehemiah
The Cyrus Cylinder
The impression given by the Bible is that Cyrus made a special decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland. The discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder allows us to put that decree in its historical context.
|The Cyrus Cylinder is now in the British Museum. The damage can be clearly seen.|
In 1879 Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian, was employed by the British Museum to search for treasures in Mesopotamia and among the places he investigated was Babylon, where he dug in the ruins of a large building that we today identify as Esagila, the main temple of Babylon. Buried in the foundations was a cylinder of clay completely covered with cuneiform characters. When it was brought to Britain Sir Henry Rawlinson translated it and provoked a good deal of excitement at this confirmation of Cyrus as ruler of Babylon and as liberal restorer of people and temples.
After dennigrating Nabonidus and praising Cyrus, the Cylinder records how he restored various temples in Babylon and also returned to certain named cities in Mesopotamia the gods which Nabonidus had removed from their temples and brought to Babylon and allowed the people of those cities to return to their home towns. The Cylinder does not mention the Jews; nevertheless it portrays Cyrus as someone who was willing to allow people to return to their ancestral homes and there is no reasont to doubt that he might have issued a similar decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem.
Modern Iranians follow the lead of the late Shah of Iran and claim that the Cyrus Cylinder is the first declaration of human rights. It is nothing of the kind; it is merely an astute politician ensuring his own popularity by contrasting his liberal policies with the (alleged) tyranny of his predecessor. On the other hand it is certainly true that the Persians were more liberal and believed more strongly in the rule of law than the autocrats of Assyria or Babylon, a fact which is reflected in the book of Daniel, where Darius is depicted as unable to capriciously alter a law and the phrase "laws of the Medes and Persians" has come to represent something immutable.
Various names mentioned in the book of Ezra can be identified with persons mentioned in the cuneiform record. Tatnai, a Persia governor mentioned in Ezra 5:6, appears in tablets from the first and third years of Darius Hystaspis, as "Ustnai", a governor of the province Ebirnari or "Beyond the River", which included Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine. This enables us to fix the Darius of Ezekiel as Darius I, who constructed the Behistun inscription.
There is, however, dispute concerning the Artaxerxes mentioned in the book. There were in all five Persian rulers named Artaxerxes but few would argue in favour of the later kings. However although the natural reading of the text would place the Artaxerxes of Ezra as close to Darius as possible, some have argued that he should be identified with Artaxerxes II on the basis that chronologically, Ezra should come after Nehemiah.
The arguments for and against this conclusion can be found on other websites; for me the convincing arguement against this reversal of the traditional order is the fact that Nehemiah chose Ezra to lead one of two processions at the dedication of the wall. Nehemiah himself led the other procession, so obviously he wasn't going to choose a mere nobody, a young priest or scribe without any official standing, to be a leader. This implies that Ezra was both beyond young adulthood and that he had a certain importance in the community.
This is entirely in keeping with the picture we would have if we place both Ezra and Nehemiah in the time of Artaxerxes I. If, however, we are to picture Ezra coming back to Jerusalem, armed with official powers, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II, some 47 years after the time of Nehemiah, then we would have to picture a man between 70 and 90 as the dynamic leader of a group of returning exiles, coming out to Jerusalem and accomplishing all the things listed in the book. It is not impossible, but it is, in my opinion, highly unlikely.
Ezra's journey to Jerusalem is stated as finishing in the fifth month of the seventh year of Artaxerxes. Wikipedia gives the dates of Artaxerxes I as 465-424 BC, which would make his seventh year 458 BC. At that time Artaxerxes gave Ezra the authority to establish Jewish law in the province of Judea, applicable to both Jews and Gentiles within the province and enforceable with the death penalty where appropriate. In other words, under Ezra Judea became a virtually autonomous province within the Persian empire and for this reason many understand this to be the decree "to restore and rebuild Jerusalem" referred to in the prophecy of Daniel 9.
Because of the significance of that prophecy, it is important to establish the exact date of Artaxerxes' seventh year: was it 459/458 or 458/457? It is impossible to tell from the Biblical data alone, but that is where a remarkable discovery on the Egyptian island of Elephantine comes in.
Elephantine and the Temple of Yaho
In 1893 Charles Edwin Wilbour, an American journalist, visited Aswan. For the previous twenty years he had been interested in Egyptology and when his dealings with the corrupt Tammany Hall came under scrutiny, he found it expedient in 1874 to leave America; he never returned. Instead he toured the museums and libraries of Europe in pursuit of his interest in Egypt and then travelled to Egypt itself, where he worked with Karl Brugsh and Gaston Maspero, important Egyptologists.
In 1889 he obtained his own dahabeyeh or house boat and travelled alone, visiting archaeological sites and purchasing antiquities and four years later he arrived in Aswan, where he visited the island of Elephantine. Local women, who were conducting what today would be called "looting" or "illegal digging", offered him a number of "antikas" they had discovered, among which were a number of papyrii. He bought them but did not realise their significance.
He returned to Europe and was staying in a hotel in Paris when he died in 1896. The hotel simply put his belongings - which includeda trunk containing his collection of Egyptian artefacts - into storage and did not get around to sending them to his family for nearly half a century. Wilbour's daughter had no use for these musty objects and simply put the trunk away in her attic, but when she died she left it to the Brooklyn Museum. The papyrii were finally studied and published in 1953!
Meanwhile other visitors to Elephantine had purchased and published other papyrii of the same type. The first group had been bought from antiquities dealers in Cairo and were published in 1906 and were considered so interesting that French and German archaeologists raced to excavate properly at Elephantine. The result was a further publication of papyrii in 1911.
The result of all this activity was the discovery that there had been a Jewish colony and temple in Elephantine! The exact history of this colony isn't known with certainty, but it appears that at different times Jews fled to Egypt, some perhaps to escape the persecution unleashed by kings such as Manasseh, others perhaps to escape persecution in the opposite direction by reforming monarchs such as Josiah. Another large group went down into Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor.
Once in Egypt some of these Jews took service as mercenary soldiers for the Egyptians, but it appears that when the Persians invaded, these mercenaries switched allegiance and joined the invaders. This won them both influence with the Persians and intense resentment from the native Egyptians.
|One side of the letter from Elephantine, seeking permission to rebuild the Jewish temple there.|
A group of these Jewish mercenaries was stationed in Elephantine where they settled down and before the Persian invasion had built a replica of the Jerusalem temple. Although no trace of this temple has been found - it probably lies beneath the later Khnum temple - there is documentary evidence for it, found by Otto Rubensohn and Friedrich Zucker when they excavated a cache of documents in 1907-8. Among these was the archive kept by Yedaniah ben Gemariah and one of his letters was a copy of a petition sent to the Persian governor in Judah requesting permission to rebuild the temple after it had been destroyed in a riot inspired by Egyptian priests.
These priests were probably offended both by the exclusiveness of the Jewish god and also by the fact that animal sacrifices were offered in the temple. They appear to have bribed the local Persian commander to look the other way during the riot and then to block the rebuilding of the temple.
Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the kingdom of Egypt, and when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. The Persians knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this temple.
The Judean authorities appear to have ignored the letter, so Yedaniah wrote again, this time to the authorities in Samaria and the names of Sanballat and Johanan ben Eliashib, both of whom are mentioned in connection with opposition to Nehemiah, appear in the letter. In the end the governors of Egypt and of Judah, Bagoas and Delaiah, gave the required permission and even allowed the Jews in Elephantine to offer grain and incense, but pointedly don't mention animal sacrifices. It would seem that the religious fanaticism indicated by Ezra's expulsion of the non-Jewish wives resulted in a tightening up of adherence to the letter of the law - and Deuteronomy 12:12-14 implies that Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifices could be offered.
|The front of the letter found at Elephantine, outlining the regulations for keeping the Passover.|
To my brothers, Yedaniah and his colleagues of the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah. May the gods seek after the welfare of my brothers at all times. And now, this year, year 5 of King Darius, this has been sent from the king to Arsames.
Now, you thus count fourteen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight observe the Passover and from the 15th day until the 21st day of Nisan observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now, be pure and take heed. Do not do work on the 15th day and on the 21st day of Nisan. Do not drink any fermented drink. And do not eat anything of leaven nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at sunset until the 21st day of Nisan at sunset. And bring into your chambers any leaven which you have in your houses and seal it up during these days. ...
To my brothers, Yedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah son of ...
As can be seen in the picture, the papyrus is badly damaged and the above is partly translation and partly reconstruction, but there is no doubt about the subject of the letter. Some have attempted to disparage the book of Ezra, alleging that it is impossible that the Persian authorities should have had the detailed knowledge of Jewish religious practices which the various decrees quoted in the book appear to show, or that they should have bothered to acquire such knowledge. The Elephantint papyrus shows that the Persians did indeed know about Jewish religious feasts and were concerned to see that they were celebrated correctly.
|One side of a marriage contract from Elephantine.|
A large number of marriage contracts were discovered and because these were legal documents - and because, human nature being what it is, marriage contracts were more liable to be called in question than other contracts - the contracts were dated very precisely, usually using both the Jewish and the Persian calandars, but several contracts also used the Egyptian calendar, meaning that there were three dates on the contract!
One of these contracts uses a combination of dates which fixes the regnal years of Artaxerxes and tells us that using Jewish reckoning, his seventh year was 458/7 BC. Papyrus 6 of the Brooklyn Museum Papyrii published in 1953 by Emil Kraeling, is a deed to a house that formed part of a bride's dowery. It is dated to third year of Darius, but the month and the day only make sense if we assume an autumn-autumn year. Kareling noted the possibility, but preferred the idea of scribal error - quite why ancient scribes were so prone to these careless errors I have not year discovered, now why, in such an important document, the error wasn't detected and corrected. If someone was giving me a house, I would make sure that every 't' was crossed and 'i' dotted!
The same conclusion comes from a study of Nehemiah's dealings with the king, for he received news from Judea in the ninth month of Artaxerxes' twentieth year, but received permission to go to Jerusalem in the first month of that same twentieth year. It seems clear, then, that Jews at this time counted the years of a king's reign with an autumn-autumn year, even though the religious year was spring-spring.
Ezra records that when he started to build the temple he received offers of help from the Samaritans, who claimed to worship Yahweh. These offers he rejected , partly because the people were not ethnically pure and partly because there were heterodox elements in Samaritan worship. The result was intense hostility from the Samaritans and several serious blocks to the work of rebuilding the temple. When Nehemiah arrived that hostility was still in evidence.
The Elephantine papyrii show that the names of the Samaritan opponents mentioned in Nehemiah are real people. They also indicate that both the Elephantine Jews and the Persian authorities were able to play off the one group against the other, for when the Jews ignored the request for permission to rebuild, the Elephantine Jews applied to the Samaritans, thereby compelling the Jerusalem Jews to take notice of them.
Sections of wall found in Jerusalem have been identified as Nehemiah's rebuilding of the wall, but this is disputed by some archaeologists. If those sections are indeed from Nehemiah, then the area he enclosed was much smaller than the Davidic city, which is why, as the city grew, those walls were abandoned and torn down to provide stone for houses or for the new, more extensive walls.
More to the point is the fact that at this time Egypt was in revolt against the Persian empire. A native leader by the name of Inarus inflicted a decisive defeat on the Persians at the battle of Papremis, killing the Persian leader, Achaemenes, with his own hands. The Greeks, ever willing to aid the enemies of Persia, send a naval expedition to help Inarus, but after some initial successes a Persian army of 300,000 men under Megabyzus defeated both Egyptians and Greeks. Nevertheless, it was important to the Persians to have a secure frontier with Egypt and the concessions made to both Ezra and Nehemiah probably indicate Persian willingness to allow the Jews privileges in return for allegiance to Persia.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah experienced opposition from the Samaritans and their allies. Geshem the Arabian is known from two inscriptions, one at Hegra in Arabia and the other a graffitum in a temple on the Egyptian border. The former reads:
Niran son of Hadiru, inscribed his name in the days of Gashm, son of Shahar, and Abd, governor of Dedan.
Gashm or Gashmu is undoubtedly the individual known in the Hebrew Bible as "Geshem" and we have to be reluctantly grateful that the miserable Niran didn't have access to spray cans of paint, otherwise his "tag" would have vanished long ago instead of being scratched into the rock. Although unwavering in my belief that hanging is too good from most scribblers of graffiti, I might be tempted to a more charitable view if the modern practitioners would be be similarly informative for posterity. Instead of "Kilroy waz ere 2010", how about "Kilroy was here, 2010, when David Cameron was prime minister of England and Elizabeth II was queen, and Barak Obama was president of the United States of America for the first time". How you would fit all that onto the side of a railway carriage I don't know, but in a thousand years time archaeologists of the future would bless you.
The second inscription was on one of three silver vessels found in a temple of Han-Allat, a north Arabian goddess at Tel el-Mashkhutah. The dedicatory inscriptions are also in a form of northern Arabic and the one of interest to us reads:
Qainu, son of Gusham, king of Kedar.
The style of writing dates the inscription to the time of Ezra and the words inform us that Geshem the Arabian, who is a minor figure in the Bible story, was a non-inconsiderable ruler if his territory covered northen Arabia and all the way across to the Wadi Tumilat on the border of Egypt. Ezra certainly made influential enemies!
a cylinder of clay The cylinder as we have it today is broken, but it is unclear whether it was broken when Rassam found it or broke while in his care. The former is the more likely, as the smaller piece of the cylinder ended up at Yale Univeristy in America and was only identified as part of the Cyrus Cylinder in 1970. The Americans very generously gave their piece to the British Museum (ostensibly on long-term loan but for all practical purposes permanently. In return they received a valuable tablet form the British Museum's collection) to make the cylinder more complete. Since then the two pieces have not only been glued together, but they were carefully baked to harden the clay.Return
as mercenary soldiers If the original contingent were indeed fleeing from Manasseh, then they must have come during the reign of Psammetichus I. It is recorded that during his reign the Egyptian garrison in Aswan deserted and went into Nubia because they had been offered better terms and pay by Taharqa, the Nubian king who had until recently been ruler in Egypt! Psammetichus was desperate for manpower to fill the gap and this may have been when the Jews first settled in Elephantine.
Unlike previous Egyptian monarchs, Psammetichus I was friendly towards foreigners and Greek documents show that he encouraged Greeks to settle in Egypt and hired them as mercenaries as well, making it even more likely that he was the king who introduced Jewish mercenaries into the Egyptian army. Return
Delaiah Although this name is not known from the Bible, it would appear that like Ezra and Nehemiah before him, the Persian governor of Judah was a Jew, for the name incorporates the name of God - Dela-yah - just as Nehemiah is really Nehem-yah. Return
the Jewish and the Persian calendars Although both calendars used a roughly similar method for calculating the years, the Jewish calendar ran from autumn to autumn whereas the Persian calendar ran from spring to spring. The Egyptian calendar, on the other hand, was based on a year of 365 days, which lost a day every four years. Someone who understood the three methods of calculating dates would be able to use the triple dating to pinpoint the exact day on which a contract had been signed. Return
in the first month This may not sound significant, but it appears that the number and order of the months was independent of the date for the new year. Thus whether you considered that the year began in spring or autumn, the first month was always Nisan. The only way in which you can have month 9 coming before month 1 is if you are calculating on an autumn-to-autumn year. This may sound strange to us, but our financial year runs from March to March, yet accountants don't consider March the first month - exactly the same as the Jews and their regnal years.Return
he rejected To turn briefly from archaeology to theology, I believe that Ezra was wrong to do this. The fact that the Samaritans were ethnically mixed is irrelevant, for God's house was to be "a house of prayer for all people". The heterodox worship was, perhaps, more of a problem, but he could have said, "If you will stop worshipping other gods and start doing this or that, then you can help us". As it was, he missed an opportunity to greatly strengthen the nation, speed up the building effort and avert several thousand years of hostility between the two peoples. Return