Discuss the biblical portrayal of the Achaemenid Persians. Is there consistency here, and how does this portrayal fit into the biblical traditions about Judahite history and religion? What is the relationship between this biblical portrayal and what we otherwise know about Achaemenid Persian history?
The main biblical texts that mention the Achaemenid Persians are 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Second Isaiah.
These works all portray the Achaemenids as sympathetic to the cause of the Judeans and the legitimate rulers of Judah.
According to 2 Chr 36:22-23, Yahweh charged Cyrus with rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.
According to Ezra, Cyrus returned the temple vessels that Nebuchadrezzar took to Babylon (1:7). He also provided money for the temple (6:3) and provisions for sacrifice (6:5).
In Ezra 7:12-26, which takes the form of a royal letter, Artaxerxes sends Ezra to teach the law, appoint magistrates, and execute judgment. He also makes donations to and offers provisions for the temple.
Darius and Artaxerxes support the Judeans in reconstruction of the temple against other ethnic groups (Ezra 6:6, 12).
In Neh 1:1-2:8, Artaxerxes grants Nehemiah’s request to rebuild the fortifications of Jerusalem.
In Esther, the Persian king Ahauserus (Xerxes?) marries a Judean and protects the exiles from the machinations of Haman.
Second Isaiah depicts Cyrus as the instrument of Yahweh’s will (Isa 44:28) who acts for the sake of Israel (Isa 45:4).
But scholars need to deal seriously with the possibility that many of the references to the Achaemenid Empire in the Hebrew Bible were produced by Persian collaborators and reflect Persian ideological concerns.
The Achaemenid administration employed ‘cultural experts’ in conquered provinces in order to win the support of the local population. With the help of these experts, the Persian kings presented themselves as the legitimate successors of native rulers.
After conquering Egypt, for example, Cambyses assumed the role of pharaoh in accordance with Egyptian tradition.
In 524 BCE, he celebrated the interment of the Apis bull as was befitting of the pharaoh:
[Cambyses], king of Upper and Lower Egypt… made as a monument to his father Apis-Osiris a large sarcophagus of granite, dedicated by the king […], endowed with all life, with all perpetuity and prosperity (?), with all health, with all joy, appearing eternally as king of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The Egyptian official Udjahorresnet helped Cambyses in this endeavor. In his funerary inscription, he portrays Cambyses as a beneficent pharaoh who acted “as any king would do.”
Likewise, Cyrus employed cultural experts in Babylon. According to the Cyrus Cylinder, Marduk chose Cyrus to liberate Babylon from the wicked and impious Nabonidus. Cyrus supposedly did so without waging war (the cylinder conveniently omits the battle of Opis) and afterward rebuilt numerous temples in Assyria and southwestern Iran and repatriated exiled populations in the region. He also returned cult statues to their respective temples.
Priests of Marduk who were familiar with Mesopotamian religious and political traditions probably produced the Cyrus cylinder. They drew on existing tropes to portray Cyrus as a beneficent king. It is unclear, however, whether Cyrus actually did any of the things he claims.
Additional copies of the inscription have been found on tablets in the British Museum suggesting that the proclamation was widely distributed in the Persian Empire.
The Achaemenids made similar claims in inscriptions from the Persian heartland. In the Behistun inscription, Darius claims to have rebuilt temples destroyed by the rebel Gaumata: “As before, so I made the sanctuaries which Gaumata the Magian destroyed” (DB 1.62-64). But, as Pierre Briant has shown, the Behistun inscription presents a highly tendentious account of Darius’ rise to power and therefore we should be wary of taking Darius’ claims at face value.
In light of this, it is necessary to reevaluate the biblical evidence.
The Cyrus oracle in second Isaiah employs many of the same tropes as the Cyrus Cylinder in order legitimize Persian rule. Yahweh, like Marduk, took Cyrus by the hand and called his name. He also marches before Cyrus into battle and clears obstacles for him. Compare:
Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus who right hand I took to subdue nations before him and uncover the loins of kings, to open doors before him and leave gates unlocked, “I will go before you and I will level mountainous places. Doors of bronze I will shatter and bars of iron I will hew. I will give to you treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places in order that you may know that I, Yahweh the god of Israel, am the one who called you by your name.” (Isa 45:1-3)
11-12 He [Marduk] searched through all the countries, examined (them), he sought a just ruler to suit his heart, he took him by the hand: Cyrus, king of Anshan, he called, for dominion over the totality he named his name.
15 Like a friend and companion he went by his side.
17 Without battle and fighting he let him enter his city Babylon.
Second Isaiah portrays Cyrus as the legitimate successor of the Davidic dynasty just like Uadjhorresnet’s funerary stele depicts Cambyses as the legitimate successor of the Saite pharaohs. Yahweh calls Cyrus his anointed (mĕšîḥô), a title usually reserved for the Davidic kings.
Persian interest in and support of Yehud during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah may have served a strategic purpose. Following the Egyptian revolt in 464-54 BCE, the Achaemenids need to shore up their Western border and prevent further revolts.
Most likely, Ezra and Nehemiah were cultural experts like Uadjhorresnet and the priests of Marduk.
Like Artaxerxes, Darius supported the codification of native legal traditions. According to the Demotic Chronicle, Darius sent a satrap to compile a list of Egyptian laws in 518 BCE.
Scholars have taken the Cyrus cylinder as supporting evidence for the claims in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4 that Cyrus repatriated the exiles and ordered the reconstruction of the temple. But the Cyrus cylinder is part of the Mesopotamian propaganda tradition and employs the rhetoric of conquerors.
The return of the temple vessels parallels the return of cult statues mentioned in the Cyrus Cylinder.
Esther is a work of court fiction. Like Tobit, Judith, and Genesis 39-50, it relates the successes of an Israelite in a foreign court.
Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of Persian Empire. Trans. Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002.
Kent, Roland. Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. 2nd ed. American Oriental Series 33. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1953.
Kuhrt, Amélie. The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period. London: Routledge, 2007