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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Nehemiah and the Persian Court.

Neh 1:1–2:8 , normally read as part of the ‘Memoirs’ of Nehemiah, is surely fanciful legend. Nehemiah's relationship with the emperor is another example of a standard element of Hebrew diaspora legend, so reminiscent of the tales of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther. Cook (1983: 132) reports that ‘The King lived largely in seclusion; he is said by Xenophon to have prided himself on being inaccessible’. Georges (1994: 49) discusses that fact that the Persian court fascinated the Greeks—mainly because of the mystery of court life—the Persians in general remained a ‘tabula rasa upon which the Greeks drew a portrait in their own idiom’. Persians kept aloof from their subjects ‘by the gorgeous and impermeable carapace of formal protocol’. When the few Greeks that did attend court were there, they were ‘buffered by courtiers and interpreters’ to maintain the remove of the emperor surrounded by the symbols of power and control over his slaves or bondsmen (as all subjects were considered: Cook 1983: 132, 249 n. 3). Indeed, Xenophon (Cyro. 8.2.7) admired such power, ‘Who else but the King has ever had the power to punish enemies at many months distance?’ Georges comments that even Ctesias, who supposedly had close connections to the emperor as a court physician, probably reads like so much harem gossip precisely because his contact with the court (even if authentic) was not so direct as we may imagine (Georges 51). Finally, Dandamaev (1989: 12) raises the prospect of court tales being concocted within the Persian court itself to discredit former royal lines or figures in order to justify changes in administration or policy. One is left with the impression of a Jewish lower official, whose actual relationship to the emperor (if any of the court tale is historical) has become at the very least highly exaggerated in ancient Hebrew imagination—and thus we are more alert to the more negative elements of this story, such as Nehemiah's fear before the emperor, and the reference to God's protection when he stood before ‘this man’.

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