Home > Assyriology, chronology, interpretation > >The post-exilic chronology. Part 1: A common timeline

>The post-exilic chronology. Part 1: A common timeline

>Sorting out the post-exilic Israelite chronology has its difficulties. Modern biblical scholarship relies heavily on Persian material. The ESV Study Bible is probably typical in its outline. See table below (abridged).

Event Year (BC)
Cyrus king of Persia captures Babylon 539
First year of King Cyrus; issues proclamation freeing Jewish exiles to return 538–537
Jewish exiles, led by Sheshbazzar, return from Babylon to Jerusalem 537?
Altar rebuilt. 537
Temple rebuilding begins 536
Adversaries oppose the rebuilding 536–530
Temple rebuilding ceases 530–520
Temple rebuilding resumes (2nd year of Darius) 520
Temple construction completed (6th year of Darius) 516
Ezra departs from Babylon to Jerusalem (arrives in 7th year of Artaxerxes I) 458
Hanani brings Nehemiah a report from Jerusalem (20th year of Artaxerxes I) 445–444
Nehemiah before King Artaxerxes 445
Nehemiah repairs Jerusalem walls 445
Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem (32nd year of Artaxerxes I) 433–432

The problem I have with this reconstruction (which I will refer to as the common reconstruction) is that it tries to meld the biblical data with the secular perspective of the Persian data. Reading Ezra-Nehemiah using this scheme makes less sense and constant reference to a study Bible is needed to understand when events are happening.

This is the list of Persian kings as they appear in the Bible.

King Reference
Cyrus Ezra 1:1–4:3
Ahasuerus Ezra 4:6
Artaxerxes Ezra 4:7–24
Darius Ezra 4:24–6:22
Artaxerxes Ezra 7:1–Nehemiah 13:9

The common reconstruction places Cyrus ~530 BC. The opposition described in Ezra 4:1–6 is during the time of Cyrus to Darius ~530–490 BC, so Ezra 4:7 onwards is proposed to be describing a similar situation, i.e. opposition, even though it is several years later. There is a single verse about the time of Ahasuerus ~480 BC then several verses dedicated to Artaxerxes who is placed later ~460 BC. This aside supposedly stops at Ezra 4:23 with the next sentence returning to the opposition under Darius. Effectively the text is interpreted thus,

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. [Aside on Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes.] Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

After the discussion about rebuilding the temple under Darius ~520 BC the text moves to the return of Ezra under Artaxerxes ~460 BC (some 50–60 years later).

Then Nehemiah returns some 13 years after Ezra, also during the reign of Artaxerxes.

Having laid out the common reconstruction I would like to point out what I see are the deficiencies.

Probably the most obvious issue is the distortion of the narrative around the opposition to building. We read of opposition in Ezra 4:4–5 and instead of any explanation we get a diversion some 50 years into the future. When the story returns to the previous era there are no details about the opposition previously mentioned. Ezra does go on to talk about letters sent in the days of Darius but this does not appear to be so much external opposition as enquiry. The governor Tattenai does ask about the authority under whom the Jews were acting in rebuilding the temple, but he does not stop them, and then he asks Darius if the Jewish claim can be confirmed from the archives.

There is also a possible issue with the common reconstruction in that Artaxerxes opposes the building of the city, which includes the walls (Ezra 4:12), yet he sends Nehemiah back to repair the walls in the 20th year of his reign (Nehemiah 2:8). It is possible that Artaxerxes did change his mind, but this does give one pause.

Further, the context of Ezra 4:24 fits the preceding verse 23 better than the earlier verse 5. We have a letter of opposition from the surrounding people leading to a decree by Artaxerxes to stop building the city,…

Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:23–24)

If we read these verses together it says that the Jews were rebuilding the city and were compelled to stop, therefore the work on the temple also ceased. And there was no further building until the time of Darius.

Lastly, if one were not attempting to fit his prior ideas about the reigns of the Persian kings, would the common reconstruction come out of the book of Ezra?

In part 2 I will discuss a revision of this scheme.

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