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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.

Cyrus and the Restoration

In the joyous anticipatory oracles (Isa. 44.24–45.13 ) of Second Isaiah (Isa. 40–55 ), Cyrus erupts onto the biblical stage even before his victory procession into Babylon on 29 October 539 BCE. The anonymous prophet, perhaps an exile in Babylon, astoundingly refers to Cyrus the Persian as “messiah” (Isa. 45.1 ), the only instance in the Bible where a non-Jew bears this resonant title of the preexilic Davidic kings. As the instrument of Yahweh “the Redeemer” (Isa. 44.24 ), Cyrus will repatriate the exiles ( 45.13 ), who are called collectively Yahweh's “servant” ( 44.21 ), and sanction the restoration of Jerusalem and worship in the Temple ( 44.28 ). Second Isaiah's oracles, like the oracles of the preexilic prophets, are rooted in the historical circumstances of the prophet's audience. In this case we see exiled Jews in mid-sixth-century Babylonia witnessing with satisfaction the death throes of the Babylonian empire.

For the rise of Cyrus and the Persian empire (the historians' usual adjective is “meteoric”) and the fall of Babylon there are several important nonbiblical sources. In addition to the Histories of Herodotus, three contemporary documents from Babylonia are particularly valuable. The Nabonidus Chronicle describes in a relatively objective manner the deeds of Nabonidus (556–539), the last king of Babylon. The “Verse Account of Nabonidus” is a fascinating piece of pro-Cyrus propaganda composed soon after the arrival of Cyrus by elements among the Babylonian priesthood hostile to their former king. The famous “Cyrus Cylinder” is a Babylonian foundation document of Cyrus himself describing his restoration of Mesopotamian temples supposedly neglected by Nabonidus.

The Persians were an Indo-European people who by the sixth century BCE had settled in Parsa (Greek Persis [modern Fars]), the mountainous land east of the Persian Gulf's northern coastline. Practically undocumented in the historical record before the advent of Cyrus, by the sixth century the Persians were vassals of the Medes, another Indo-European group who occupied the Iranian plateau north of the Zagros Mountains and established their capital at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). The Medes are comparatively better known to history, appearing in Assyrian texts as early as the ninth century. By 600 the Medes had captured the former Assyrian capital, Nineveh. There, watched uneasily by Babylon, they controlled an empire that extended from eastern Anatolia and Armenia in the west to Turkestan in the east and Parsa in the south.

Cyrus's career began in 560/559 when, as the heir to the ruling Persian Achaemenid dynasty, he inherited the kingship of the Persians. In 550 Cyrus rebelled against his overlord, the aging Median warrior-king Astyages. His successful uprising won for Cyrus the territories of the Medes and provided him with a substantial pool of army recruits. Cyrus's next target was the Lydian kingdom of Croesus, an ally of Babylonia. Herodotus recounts a famous story of Croesus's visit to Delphi, where he was delighted to hear from the Delphic Oracle that if he attacked the Persians as planned, he would “destroy a great empire.” But in 546 Cyrus effectively destroyed Lydian sovereignty by a surprise winter assault on Sardis, Croesus's supposedly impregnable capital. By a combination of hard combat, self-interested leniency, and propaganda, Cyrus brought the Greek cities on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor into his realm. Cyrus briefly turned his attention to his eastern front, but soon aimed his military might at the principal unconquered power in his path, Babylonia and its king Nabonidus.

As neighbors of the Medes and formal allies of Croesus, the Babylonians (and their Jewish populations) could hardly be unaware of Cyrus's relentless accumulation of territory. While the Persian conquest of Babylonia in 539 was not the quick and easy victory suggested by some of the sources, the capital Babylon fell without any casualties. Cyrus's success is credited to military acumen, to judicious bribery, and to an energetic publicity campaign waged throughout Babylonia, which portrayed him as a lenient and religiously tolerant overlord. Second Isaiah's prophecies fit perfectly into this context and suggest that the author absorbed the essence of Cyrus's carefully crafted image.

By 539 the Neo-Babylonian empire was experiencing severe inflation exacerbated by plague and famine. But the Cyrus Cylinder and the Verse Account of Nabonidus—both generated by the Persian propaganda machine—blamed the impious religious innovations of Babylon's unpopular king Nabonidus for reducing the people to “corpses” until Cyrus, Marduk's “friend and companion,” arrived to return the gods to their proper places and to restore the land. According to Cyrus's publicists, Nabonidus had blatantly disregarded the duty of the Babylonian kings of old to honor Marduk and the other gods of Babylon, callously concentrating his religious energies on the worship of Sin, the moon-god of Haran (on the upper Euphrates), where his formidable mother, Adad-guppi, was a priestess. And rather than foster Babylonian business and political interests—so the Persians claimed—Nabonidus chose to exile himself to faraway Tema in northwestern Arabia. There for ten years he frittered away his time and forced a cessation of the Babylonian New Year festival (Akitu). Babylon was left in the care of Nabonidus's son, Belshazzar. Even the neutral Nabonidus Chronicle confirms that the “king did not come to Babylon in the month of Nisan.…The Akitu festival did not take place.” Nabonidus did finally celebrate the Akitu festival in 539; but by then, it would seem, Marduk had given up on him. The Cyrus Cylinder claims that Cyrus prevented his army from terrorizing the populace; his “numerous troops walked around in peace”; happy Babylonians “kissed his feet, jubilant…with shining faces.”

It is important to assess these narratives judiciously. Our sources for Nabonidus's impious religious innovations and disregard for his empire are pro-Persian, perhaps generated by the influential priests of Marduk, with whom Cyrus consciously ingratiated himself. An equally strong claim could have been made by elements of the Babylonian populace living outside the capital for Nabonidus as a penitent, reverent ruler with respect for the past. His sojourn in Tema has been interpreted not as an unconsidered whim but as an attempt to create for Babylon a commercial empire founded on the fabulously lucrative spice trade of Arabia. Still, Nabonidus was a Babylon outsider who suffered the consequences of flouting the social and religious expectations of the empire's capital.

No independent evidence confirms the report in Ezra 1.1–11 that in 538 BCE the first of several waves of Judean exiles returned home. According to Ezra 1.2–4 (Hebrew; see 2 Chron. 36.23 ; and Aramaic, Ezra 6.2–5 ), Cyrus decreed that “the LORD, the God of heaven,” who had given him “all the kingdoms of the earth,” had charged him to build a temple in Jerusalem and to that end all of God's people could return to Jerusalem. In its present wording this decree of Cyrus does not correspond to known official Persian documents or inscriptions; it has been called a free composition, possibly written to evoke the Cyrus oracles of the exilic Isaiah. Furthermore, the Aramaic reference to the decree in Ezra 6.1–5 does not mention any return from Babylon.

Still, the contents of the Cyrus Cylinder correspond closely to the spirit of the putative decree, especially in its Hebrew version (Ezra 1.2–4 ), which concentrates on the divinely chosen status of Cyrus. According to the cylinder, Cyrus entered Babylon at Marduk's command, protected its temples, and allowed the (statues of the) gods, whose dwelling places had been abandoned, to return to their native centers in the company of their human associates, their priests. In both texts Cyrus credits the god of the intended audience for his success, and both texts sanction the return of displaced people to their home and native sanctuaries.

The claims of restoration of worship, piety, and religious tolerance that Cyrus makes for himself in the cylinder (seconded by the compiler of Ezra-Nehemiah, working in the shadow of the Persian authorities) must be viewed in the context both of Persian imperial policy and of Mesopotamian royal traditions. The cylinder belongs to a specific Mesopotamian literary genre, the royal building inscription; no such genre is known in Old Persian literature. By publishing such a document, Cyrus cannily manipulates local traditions to legitimate his claim to Babylon; he is doing what a good and pious Babylonian ruler (in contrast to bad Nabonidus the blasphemer) was expected to do. Concerned with Marduk and the return of Babylon and cities in Mesopotamia to normal, the cylinder never calls for a general release of deportees or a universal restoration of centers of worship that had suffered at Babylonian hands. Furthermore, the term restore is ambiguous; we do not know how much religious innovating Nabonidus actually did that needed undoing, and there is no evidence for any rebuilding or repair of Mesopotamian temples during the reign of Cyrus. Life in Babylonia proceeded much as before.

The Cyrus Cylinder was meant for Babylonian consumption, to enhance Cyrus's popularity in Babylonia. It cannot confirm the authenticity of Cyrus's decree in Ezra. It is possible that Cyrus issued such a decree, however. The evidence of the cylinder suggests that in “restoring” the Jerusalem Temple, as in “restoring” Babylon, Cyrus was following the lead of earlier Mesopotamian rulers by strategically granting privileged status to some cities, often in sensitive areas, whose support and cooperation could benefit the empire. Cyrus might wish to cultivate loyalty in a territory close to Egypt, which he firmly intended to conquer.

Only recently have the implications of the pro-Persian bias of many Persian period sources been addressed. The near-unanimous, even automatic, characterization by historians (which goes as far back as Herodotus) of the Achaemenid Persians as enlightened and tolerant rulers should have aroused suspicion. Revisionist assessments acknowledge the pro-Persian bias of the key sources and also of the Western scholarly tradition, which can fall prey to biblio- or Eurocentrism. Have Western scholars been more willing to believe the best of Indo-European Persians and the worst of Semitic Assyrians and Babylonians? The historical record indicates that the “civilized” Persians were as capable as their supposedly barbarian predecessors of destroying sanctuaries and deporting peoples. The most judicious approach acknowledges both the tyrannical and the tolerant policies. Texts dating to the reigns of later Persian kings do confirm a pattern of Persian religious tolerance and noninterference in the cultural traditions of subject peoples. But in return—and this is essentially a Persian innovation—the temples were obliged to pay taxes to the Persians in kind. Food, livestock, wool, and laborers were regularly requisitioned by the Persians from their subordinate temple communities, which were expected to support local officials of the empire with food rations. It was not high-minded respect for individual peoples, ethnic groups, and foreign religions that motivated Persian policy. Rather, Persian policy was driven by enlightened self-interest. By reconciling the central power with local subjects, the Persians strengthened their empire.

Another way of assessing the decree of Cyrus is to look at the visual arts. Cyrus's appeals to Marduk in the cylinder and to Yahweh in the biblical decree demonstrate the Persian tendency to co-opt local religious and political traditions in the interest of imperial control. The artistic record corroborates this. Margaret C. Root has outlined the Persians' carefully calculated imperial program, designed to convey a vision of hierarchical order and imperial harmony over which presided the benevolent but omnipotent great king. To communicate this ideology the Persians brilliantly synthesized history and art according to the traditions of their subject peoples.

One outstanding example of this is the over-life-size granite statue of Darius I discovered in 1972 by French excavators at Susa in the Persian heartland. Made in and intended for Egypt, the statue remarkably mixes linguistic and artistic vocabularies. Darius stands in a conventional Egyptian pose but wears a Persian robe; the cuneiform text inscribed on the robe glorifies Darius as a conqueror. By contrast, the accompanying hieroglyphic inscription on the base tactfully dispenses with the conqueror references, proclaiming Darius as pharaoh, “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” with additional titulary. Tellingly, beneath Darius's feet appear not the traditional bound enemies of Egypt but personifications of Darius's subject peoples raising their hands in an Egyptian gesture of reverential support previously reserved for divine beings. Just as Cyrus speaks only of Marduk to the Babylonians and of Yahweh to the Judeans, for the Egyptians Darius becomes the pharaoh. Darius is also, however, a Persian pharaoh, less intent on calling attention to his dominating power over Egypt than in publishing the idea that all his various peoples are engaged in the harmonious support of his sovereignty.

The decree, or something like it, might have existed, along with the copy later found by King Darius's archivists in the Persian summer capital Ecbatana (Ezra 6.1–5 [Aramaic]). At some point, whether 538 (the date could be symbolic) or somewhat later, an indeterminate number of exiles returned to Jerusalem. Their leader was the Persian province of Yehud's first governor and a “prince of Judah,” Sheshbazzar (a Babylonian name), who had been entrusted with the financial contributions raised by the Babylonian Jews and with the 5,400 gold and silver Temple vessels returned by Cyrus (Ezra 1.6–11 ). The first group of returnees is said to have laid the foundations of the new Temple (Ezra 5.14–17 ), although Ezra 4.5 reports that attempts to build the Temple were frustrated until the second year of Darius (520) and the governorship of Zerubbabel. Likewise, the second quotation of Cyrus's decree (Ezra 6 ) is silent on the subject of any exilic return to Judah in Sheshbazzar's time, prompting the suggestion that no notable return of any sort occurred before 520, when Zerubbabel and Joshua began their building program. Josephus reports that Jews in Babylon were “unwilling to leave their possessions” (Antiquities 11.1.3). Any returnees accompanying Sheshbazzar constituted only a portion of the Babylonian Jewish community, whose religious practices and beliefs were possibly heterogeneous.

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