We come now to the Post-Exile and Second Temple periods in the Old Testament history of Israel. Cyrus the Great of Persia decreed in about 538 BC that Jews could return to their homeland from Babylonian exile. That is the beginning of what is called the Post-Exilic period where Jews lived under the rule of the Persians. Cyrus ordered that the Jews rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. After delays because of opposition, the temple was completed about 516 BC during the reign of Darius I of Persia.
That’s a lot of history, so there should be at least “some” archaeological evidence for it. Right?
[I say “some” archaeological evidence because only a small number of archaeological sites have been discovered and excavated in the Middle East. Even the small number of sites that have been discovered and excavated have not been examined thoroughly and published.]
Let’s see what evidence was available when I was investigating the Old Testament texts in 1971.
As I researched the Old Testament to see if it was a credible historical document, I came across the writings of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Malachi. They all refer to a time following the forced exile of Jews to Babylon. According to the Bible that forced exile began under Babylonian King Nebuchaddnezar in 605 BC (Daniel 1) and ended when Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judah in about 538 BC.
The writings of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Malachi deal with the life of Jews after that time: Ezra – 537 – 456 BC … Haggai – 520 BC … Zechariah – 520 BC … Esther – 483 – 472 BC … Nehemiah – 445 – 432 BC … Malachi – 430 BC.
My interest at the time of my investigation was whether what was written in those writings was (1) Historically accurate, and (2) Evidentially supported. Here’s what I discovered.
Evidence for Ezra
The Book of Ezra begins with these words –
“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put itin writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who isamong you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.” Ezra 1:1-4
As we have seen in previous posts there have been many archeological findings that support the existence of King Cyrus, his conquest of Babylon and orders that captive people return to their homeland (e.g. Cyrus Cylinder (article), Cyrus Brick Inscriptions , Tomb at Pasargadae ).
Ezra 1 also mentions King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Mithredath the treasurer and Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. While I found many archaeological evidences for King Nebuchadnezzar (e.g. Babylonian Chronicles, Ishtar Gate, Behistun Inscription, East India House Inscription, Royal Brick Inscriptions), I did not find as much for Mithredath and Sheshbazzar. That didn’t surprise me given that Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful Babylonian king and Mithredath and Sheshbazzar had lesser positions with the Persian government.
Mithredath (Persian name meaning “given by Mithra” or “dedicated to Mithra) is mentioned in Ezra 1 and 4 and may be different people. Mithredath is listed in Ezra 1:8 as being treasurer to King Cyrus. Mithredath is listed in Ezra 4:7 as being an officer who joined with others in protesting Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in a letter written to King Artaxerxes of Persia. Given that Mithredath received a direct order from King Cyrus to bring out articles from the Temple in Jerusalem for the rebuilding the house of the Lord, it would seem odd that he would be part of a group opposing the rebuilding of the Temple during the reigns of King Cyrus, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) and King Artaxerxes.
Archaeological finds for King Xerxes I include – Silver Bowl of Artaxerses I, Tomb at Persepolis, Elephantine Papyri, and Palace wall relief in Persepolis. Archaeological finds for King Artaxerxes I include – Silver Bowl Inscription, Elphantine Papyri, and Tomb at Persepolis.
Ezra 4:7 states that Mithredath, Bishlam, Tabel and other men wrote to King Artaxerxes asking him to stop the Jews from rebuilding the city. Artaxerxes became King of Persia in 465 BC, which would have made Mithredath a very old man if he was the same treasurer of Persia who serve King Cyrus in 538 BC (73 years difference). It seems reasonable to conclude that the two mentions of Mithredath in Ezra may have been different men.
Sheshbazzar (Persian name meaning “may Shamash [sun god] protect the father”) is mentioned in Ezra 1 and 5. [The Bible often lists the Babylonian names that Jews were given in captivity — e.g. Daniel’s Babylonian name was Belteshazzar, Hananiah was called Shadrach, Mishael was called Meshach, and Azariah was called Abednego]. Ezra 1 says that Mithredath counted out thousands of articles from the original Jerusalem Temple (“thirty gold platters, one thousand silver platters, twenty-nine knives, thirty gold basins, four hundred and ten silver basins of a similar kind, and one thousand other articles”) to Sheshbazzar (called “the prince of Judah”) who took the articles with him and the Jewish captives who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. That would have been in 538 BC. Ezra 5 mentions Sheshbazzar again when a complaint against the Jews rebuilding the Temple was sent to King Darius. Darius was king of Persia from 522-486 BC. Ezra 6 includes the answer of King Darius to the complaint against the Jews. It was a decree to allow the Jews to complete the rebuilding of the Temple.
“Then Tattenai, governor of the region beyond the River, Shethar-Boznai, and their companions diligently did according to what King Darius had sent. So the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they built and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the command of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” Ezra 6:13-15
Another king mentioned in Ezra is King Esarhaddon –
“Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” Ezra 4:1-2
Archaeological finds for King Esarhaddon include – Letters of Esarhaddon, Stone Prism of Esarhaddon (British Museum Photo), Wall relief of Esarhaddon, Esarhaddon Chronicle, Royal Brick Inscription, and Stone Lion’s Head with Inscription.
Many people and people groups are mentioned in Ezra, including captives who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon (they are listed by name in Ezra 2). According to Ezra 3, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the rest of the Jews who returned from Babylon began rebuilding the Temple by laying the foundation “in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem.” That would have been about 537-536 BC.
What archaeological evidence do we have for the ancient Temple Mount? We’ll look deeper in the next part of Convince Me There’s A God.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.