In the last part of our series about archaeology we began looking at archaeological evidence for the Old Testament writings of Hebrew prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Prior to that we looked at evidence for the writings of the Hebrew leader and scribe Ezra. All three contain specific information about the relationship of Jews to the Persian government. The historical data of the Old Testament can be compared to historical information from extra-biblical sources, meaning the Bible can be tested.
I “tested” the Bible as an atheist in 1971 to see if the writings were credible. Was the Bible, as I believed at the time, only legends and fables? Or was it history? If it was just legends and fables, then it didn’t matter what it claimed was true .. but if it was historically accurate, then what about its truth claims? Would that make a difference to me as an atheist? Should it?
As we saw in earlier studies, the Persian defeat of Babylon in the 6th century BC is well-documented. The empire had its humble beginnings in the 7th century BC with Achaemenes and grew through the leadership of Teispes into two lineages that included Ariaramnes, Cyrus I, Cambyses I, Cyrus II, and Cambyses II, Darius I, Xerxes I, Darius II, Artaxerses II, and Darius III. Knowing the ruling dates of these Persian kings will help us date and test several Old Testament writings.
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Judah, destroyed the capitol city of Jerusalem, and took Jews captive to Babylon during the early part of the 6th century BC. The Jews remained in captivity until the Persians defeated the Babylonians at the Battle of Opis in 539 BC.
Ezra mentioned in the first few sentences of the writing that bears his name that the Persian King Cyrus made a special proclamation during his first year that would have an amazing impact on the Jewish people who had been in Babylonian exile for several decades.
“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 it in 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.” Ezra 1:1-2
Which King Cyrus was Ezra referencing? Cyrus I was king of Anshan and reigned during the end of the 7th century and/or early part of the 6th century BC. Cyrus II was king of Persia and reigned during the middle of the 6th century BC.
Archaeologists discovered a clay cylinder in Babylon in 1879 AD that is known as the Cyrus Cylinder. It is currently housed at the British Museum. The cylinder dates from the 6th century BC and identifies the king as Cyrus II –
“I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king,, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves … From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Qutu – the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds.” Cyrus Cylinder, Translation by Irving Finkel, Curator of Cuneiform Collections at the British Museum
This is similar to what Ezra wrote about King Cyrus –
“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 is among 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 1:2-4
And in Chronicles –
“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 it in 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 is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!” 2 Chronicles 36:22-23
King Cyrus II ruled from about 549–530 BC. His famous edict on the Cyrus Cylinder dates the writing to about 539 BC, which concurs with the dating of the event written in Ezra and Chronicles.
Ezra recorded that the children of Israel who returned from captivity in Babylon gathered together in Jerusalem “when the seventh month had come” and built the altar of the God of Israel and offered burnt offerings on it in obedience to the Law of Moses (Ezra 3:1-2).
“From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, although the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not been laid. They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia.” Ezra 3:6-7
Ezra wrote that Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the the priests and Levites who came out of the Babylonian captivity began rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem in the second month of the second year of their coming to Jerusalem (Ezra 3:8). That would have been about 537 BC. It was an emotional moment for the Jews, especially for those who remembered the first temple.
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.” Ezra 3:12-13
Many of the people who lived in the region and were “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” attempted to get involved in the rebuilding of the temple. However, Zerubbabel and Jeshua told them they couldn’t be involved. So, the people who lived in the region tried to discourage the people of Judah. “They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:4-5)
Cambyses II became king after his father, Cyrus II, died, but his rule was only about seven years (529-522 BC). Cambyses did not have a son, so Darius I became king and ruled the Persian Empire for 36 years (522-486 BC). Darius was one of Cambyses’ generals and a member of the Achaemenid family. He is believed to be the King Darius in Ezra 6 – “Then King Darius issued a decree, and a search was made in the archives, where the treasures were stored in Babylon.” (v. 1)
The reason Darius searched the archives was because of a letter sent to him by Tattenai who was governor of the region that included Jerusalem. Tattenai opposed the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel and Jeshua were leading the rebuilding of the temple because of the prophesies of Haggai and Zechariah. This is how the Hebrew elders responded to Tettenai –
“We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and completed. But because our fathers provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and carried the people away to Babylon. However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to build this house of God. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple that was in Jerusalem and carried into the temple of Babylon—those King Cyrus took from the temple of Babylon, and they were given to one named Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor. And he said to him, ‘Take these articles; go, carry them to the temple site that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its former site.’ Then the same Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundation of the house of God which is in Jerusalem; but from that time even until now it has been under construction, and it is not finished.” Ezra 5:11-16
Tettenai asked Darius to search for proof of what the elders claimed – “Now therefore, if it seems good to the king, let a search be made in the king’s treasure house, which is there in Babylon, whether it is so that a decree was issued by King Cyrus to build this house of God at Jerusalem, and let the king send us his pleasure concerning this matter.” (Ezra 5:17)
Ezra wrote that King Darius found a scroll at Achmetha that King Cyrus had decreed many years earlier and instructed Tettenai to allow the rebuilding in Jerusalem to continue. Tettenai did as he was told and Ezra recorded that 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 6:15). That would have been about 516 BC.
Achmetha was one of the capital cities of the ancient Median Empire. It was located in western Iran at the location of the modern city of Hamadan. Another spelling of the city is Ecbatana. Archaeological findings that confirm the reign of King Darius I include the Behistun Relief and Darius Stele (2016 discovery). The Behistun Relief was discovered in the early 19th century AD and led to the translation of the famous Behistun Inscription.
Xerxes was the son of Darius II and ruled Persia from 486-465 BC. Jewish writers used the name Ahasuerus, which came from the Old Persian name Khshayarsha. Ezra mentioned him (Ezra 4:6) as did Daniel and Esther –
“Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia), in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel, that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants—the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him— when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all.” (Esther 1:1-4)
Esther, who was Jewish, became the wife of Ahasuerus “in the seventh year of his reign” (Esther 2:16). That would have been about 479 BC. Though nothing is written in the Book of Esther about the king’s direct involvement with Jerusalem, Esther played a pivotal role in foiling a plot intended to destroy all of the Jews in the Persian Empire. It happened “in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus” (Esther 3:7), which would have been about 474 BC. The decision of Ahasuerus to void his own decree saved all of the Jews, including those living in Jerusalem and Judah.
The next king mentioned in Ezra is Artaxerxes. Ezra was a priest and “skilled scribe in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6) and wanted to take another group of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem. Ezra’s desire was “to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10). Artaxerxes granted Ezra’s request in the “seventh year” of the king’s reign (Ezra 7:7).
Artaxerxes I ruled Persia after the death of his older brother Xerxes who ruled Persia 485-465 BC. Artaxerxes ruled from 464-424 BC. The “seventh year” of Artaxerxes would have been about 458 BC.
Artaxerxes gave Ezra a royal letter to take with him during his travel from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:12-26). It gave Ezra and the Jews who traveled with him protection and provisions. After Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he dealt with problems that had risen since the dedication of the temple many years earlier (e.g. intermarriage with pagan women).
Nehemiah was a cupbearer to Artaxerxes and lived in “Shushan the citadel” (Nehemiah 1:1), which was one of the residences of the Persian kings (also known as Susa). Nehemiah wrote that a man named Hanani brought “men from Judah” to him with news about Jerusalem –
“And they said to me, ‘The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.” Nehemiah 1:3
The news deeply troubled Nehemiah and he mourned for many days with fasting and prayer. King Artaxerxes saw that Nehemiah was sad and asked him why.
“So I became dreadfully afraid, and said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lieswaste, and its gates are burned with fire?’ Then the king said to me, What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.’ Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), ‘How long will your journey be? And when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.” Nehemiah 2:2-6
Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah to be governor in the land of Judah and traveled to Jerusalem in the 20th year of the kings’ reign (444 BC). Nehemiah began the process of acting as the governor of Judah and leading the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. He wrote this about the process –
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions. But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people, and took from them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Yes, even their servants bore rule over the people, but I did not do so, because of the fear of God. Indeed, I also continued the work on this wall, and we did not buy any land. All my servants were gathered there for the work.” Nehemiah 5:14-16
Nehemiah returned to see the king “in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon” (Nehemiah 13:6), but came back to Jerusalem a short time later to continue serving as governor of Judah. Nehemiah ended his book with these words –
“Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan. I also assigned duties to the priests and the Levites, each to his service, and to bringing the wood offering and the firstfruits at appointed times. Remember me, O my God, for good!” Nehemiah 13:3-31
More Archaeological Information
Artaxerxes is the last Persian king mentioned in the Old Testament. The armies of Alexander the Great defeated the Persians less than 100 years after the death of Artaxerxes. The impact of the Greeks on the Jews living in Judah after the defeat of the Persians can be found during the time many scholars call the “Intertestamental Period.” That’s thought to be the time between the writing of the last Old Testament prophet (Malachi) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early part of the 1st century AD, or the completed writing of the New Testament by the apostles of Jesus Christ (end of 1st century AD).
Jerusalem and Judah remained under the control of the Persian Empire until about 332 BC when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Jews had been allowed to rebuild their temple and worship in it under the Persians, but that would change under the rule of the Greeks. Alexander brought Greek philosophy and politics to the lands he conquered. The Old Testament was translated into Greek (Septuagint) and Greek culture was promoted throughout the empire.
Judea had many Greek rulers after Alexander died and one of them, Antiochus Epiphanes, desecrated the temple and overthrew the rightful line of the priesthood about 167 BC. This action by Epiphanes led to the Maccabean Revolt. Judas Maccabeus signed an agreement with the Roman Republic in 161 BC. That led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea. It continued until Rome deposed the Jewish high priest Antigonus and installed Herod the Great as king of Israel in 37 BC.
We first read about Herod the Great in the New Testament in this familiar story in Matthew’s Gospel account –
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.’ When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.” Matthew 2:1-12
Evidence from the New Testament
In the next section of our study, Convince Me There’s A God, we will look at the evidence for the existence of God in the New Testament of the Bible.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.