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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Chronology and Sources

The two centuries of the Persian period (the early Second Temple period) in Syria-Palestine are framed by two dates. Achaemenid Persian control began in 539 with the conquest of Babylon by the army of King Cyrus II (“the Great,” 559–530). It ended in 332, when Alexander the Great (336–323), having defeated the Persian king Darius III Codomanus (336–330) in the battle of Issus (in Cilicia near the Syrian border), marched into and took possession of the Levant. In 539 Cyrus's capture of Babylon meant that the territories of the Babylonian empire, including Syria-Palestine, now belonged to the Persian empire. Two centuries later, by his victory at Issus, Alexander annexed the western Persian empire including Syria-Palestine, formerly the fifth Persian satrapy of Abar Nahara (“Across the [Euphrates] River”). Archaeologists divide the era into two phases, Persian I (539/8-ca. 450) and Persian II (ca. 450–332). These chronological anchors, however, belie the often frustrated attempts by modern historians to make sense of the erratic textual and archaeological evidence, not only for chronology but even more crucially for Jewish religious and social history in the shadowy intervening years.

The starting point for our discussion of the Persian period as it relates to biblical history is actually 586 BCE, when the Babylonians looted and destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, razed much of the city along with its walls, and exiled an indeterminate number of Judah's ruling elite to Babylonia (2 Kings 25.8–21 ). The exiles of 586 joined other Judahites, among them King Jehoiachin and the priest-prophet Ezekiel, who had previously surrendered to Nebuchadrezzar II in 597 (2 Kings 24.12–17; Jer. 52.28–30 ). A second significant group of Jews were exiles by choice in Egypt, where they had dragged the reluctant prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 43 ). Their fate is unclear, but the exilic revision of the Deuteronomic History could have occurred in this community, out of which grew the large Jewish population of Hellenistic Egypt.

Clearly, intense theological ferment brewed among the exiles in Babylon, seeking as they did to find meaning in the inexplicable series of tragedies they had suffered and at the same time trying to address the future of their relationship with Yahweh. How were they to “sing the LORD's song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137.4 ), and what place should their ruined city and Temple have outside the confines of their tenacious memories? Genesis 1–2.4 , which envisions the entire created universe as God's sanctuary, where worship occurs in sacred time (the Sabbath) rather than space, can be read as one exilic response. An important element of the exiles’ theology, however, also involved hope for a return to Judah and Jerusalem and for restoration of the Temple (programmatically outlined in Ezek. 40–48 )—not unexpectedly so in view of the close link before the exile between the upper class of Judah and the Temple establishment. The theme of a restored people, city, and active Temple is central to the narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah, the biblical text that provides the most extensive treatment of the Judean restoration in the Persian period. These books are supplemented by parallel material in the prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah, the apocryphal book 1 Esdras, some data in Chronicles, and Book 11 of Josephus's Antiquities.

Scholars dispute the history of composition of the three important historical books—Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah—for this period, although a cautious consensus exists around a date in the fourth century BCE for each. A final editor—perhaps the author or final editor of Chronicles—may have shaped the received texts of Ezra and Nehemiah, although originally each book probably was an independent composition. Ezra and Nehemiah include older, reworked material, such as official Persian imperial documents (originally in Aramaic), a Nehemiah memoir, perhaps an Ezra memoir, and miscellaneous archival lists. But these texts that describe the early Second Temple period are not (and were not written to be) straightforward reports of historical events. They idealize heroes, foreshorten historical events, make use of typology and recurring narrative patterns, and contain inner contradictions because the “facts” are less important as empirical data than as subtle symbolic literary elements in the service of ideology.

Nor does the Bible treat the first half of the Persian period systematically. It ignores the half century between the completion of the Temple around 515 BCE and the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. A still vexing question is the biblical ordering of the missions of Ezra and Nehemiah. The Bible places Ezra first, then Nehemiah. Nehemiah's arrival in Jerusalem in 445 BCE is likely. Ezra is the problem. The two leaders seem to have no knowledge of each other; their missions do not overlap (Neh. 8 is transposed for rhetorical reasons; Neh. 8.9 is almost unanimously considered to be a scribal harmonization); and no reflection of Ezra's activity appears in the Jerusalem of Nehemiah. These facts have prompted the influential theory that Nehemiah preceded rather than followed Ezra, whose dates then become 428 or 398, rather than 458 as implied by the Bible. Today authoritative scholars line up on both sides of the issue, with the biblical order (putting Ezra first, in 458) enjoying a small edge; a few minimalists even doubt Ezra's existence. This chapter diffidently retains the priority of Ezra.

After Nehemiah's second term as governor of Yehud (Judah) (ca. 430), the Bible is silent about events through the fourth century down to 332. Except for allusive references in Daniel and the books of the Maccabees, the Bible never mentions Alexander the Great's usurpation of the Persian satrapy of Abar Nahara. Nor does the archaeological evidence from Judah and Samaria indicate notable changes in settlement patterns or material culture immediately after 332.

Some nonbiblical texts supplement the biblical picture of Jewish history in the Persian period, although they are not without their own difficulties; most concern Jewish communities outside the territory of the Persian province of Yehud. Three groups of documents are of particular importance. First are the Elephantine papyri, written in Aramaic, which come from a Jewish military colony in Elephantine (on the Nile opposite Aswan) and cover the period from the beginning to the end of the fifth century; they include letters, lists, legal contracts, and literary-historical texts, and tell of a Yahweh temple in Egypt whose functionaries were in contact with both Yehud and Samaria. Second, from Nippur in Mesopotamia come over 650 cuneiform tablets belonging to the archives of the Murashu trading house, written between 455 and 403 BCE. Approximately 8 percent of the names mentioned are Jewish, and the fortunes of these Diaspora Jews can be traced for several generations. Third, the foremost documentary source for fourth-century Palestine is the Samaria papyri, a group of fragmentary Aramaic legal documents from upper-class circles in Samaria, dating between 375 and approximately 335 BCE. Their importance lies in the historical data gleaned from them and the names they contain. Most of the theophoric names are Yahwistic, indicating continued devotion to Yahweh and hence the persistence of Judaism in the territory of the former northern kingdom.

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