Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The post-exilic chronology. Part 2: A revised timeline

In part 1 of this series I gave a brief outline of the common reconstruction of the post exilic period. Others have suggested an alternative, essentially chronological reconstruction (which I will call the sequential reconstruction). Taking Ezra as it is presented, the narrative reads as if the reigns of the kings are per the order they are given. We have a simple order in Ezra-Nehemiah: Cyrus, Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes, Darius, then Artaxerxes. The list is not necessarily exhaustive.

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 outline of the sequential reconstruction is as follows. Note the distinction between the temple and the city.

Cyrus gives permission to return to Jerusalem and build the temple.
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1)
Some exiled Jews return. The altar is built in the seventh month and sacrifices are offered,
But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. (Ezra 3)
So they pay builders and buy wood. Then they start building in the 2nd month of the 2nd year. There was a large celebration when the foundation was finished.
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. (Ezra 3)
Foreign adversaries ask to help build the temple, but are refused. Then they (or others) opposed their building of the temple and frustrated their plans.
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. (Ezra 4)
Here we have a summary statement. The opposition started during the time of Cyrus and continued until the time of Darius. Then we have a description of a significant way in which the Jews were opposed. Such was the level of opposition they were completely prevented from building. We hear of a letter to Ahasuerus (Ezra 4:6), then we are shown a copy of what is written to Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:9–16). The brevity of the comment about Ahasuerus raises the possibility that Ahasuerus is (this) Artaxerxes, though such an identification is not necessary for the sequential reconstruction. In the letter to Artaxerxes, Rehum complains that,
[The Jews] are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. (Ezra 4)
King Artaxerxes replies,
Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. (Ezra 4)
So the Jews stop building the city at this time. Work also stops on the temple.
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)
The comment about the work stopping until the 2nd year of Darius is a lead in to the narrative of how the work on the temple restarted at this time (the 2nd year). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah tell the Jews to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:1). Haggai rebukes them for building their own luxurious houses when the temple is not yet complete
In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: "Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD." Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes." Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD." (Haggai 1)
So Jews start work on the temple again. This may not strictly defy the earlier decree from Artaxerxes. Even though the city is not to be rebuilt the question remains what can be done. We learn from Haggai that the people were building panelled, that is luxurious, houses. It is possible that the decree of Artaxerxes preventing the building of the city was allowed by God in order to focus the Jews on the proper task which was to build the temple as per Cyrus' decree. But after the decree of Artaxerxes they stopped work on the temple as well as the city. However they built themselves nice houses. So God chastises them by frustrating their agricultural labour. It may have been reasonable for the Jewish men to build basic shelters initially, but more extensive renovations should have been delayed until after the temple was completed. This interpretation makes sense of what we learn from the books of Ezra and Haggai.

So the Jews return to working on the temple after the encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah. This time a letter is sent from Governor Tattenai to Darius about the work on the temple, not the work on the city. Though the accusation from Tattenai to the Jews is phrased negatively,
Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?
They also asked them this: “What are the names of the men who are building this building?
God did not let Tattenai prevent the Jews from building until Darius sent orders. It is interesting to see that the phrasing of the letter was more in line with seeking to confirm the Jewish response to Tattenai and it does not appear as strong an appeal for the Jews to stop compared with the opposition during the earlier time of Artaxerxes. Tattenai begins his letter,
Be it known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built with huge stones, and timber is laid in the walls. This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. (Ezra 5)
Tattenai then tells Darius what the Jews have said to him, then he ends his letter thus,
Therefore, if it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter. (Ezra 5)
Darius confirms the decree originally from Cyrus, warns Tattenai not to interfere, provides resources for the building, and requests the Jews pray to God for the royal family. Thus the temple is completed during Darius' 6th year.
Then, according to the word sent by Darius the king, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what Darius the king had ordered. And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. (Ezra 6)
What is intriguing in this passage is that the completion is ascribed to God first; and also to the kings: Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes. But the decree from Artaxerxes in Ezra 4 is not to build, but to stop building; and this decree referred to the city. Martin Anstey suggests that verse 14 should be translated,
They builded and finished it according to the commandment of Cyrus and Darius (even Artaxerxes), King of Persia.
I would phrase it,
They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel; and by decree of Cyrus and Darius, that is Artaxerxes, king of Persia.
This translation implies that the completion was due to the decrees of only 2 kings, Cyrus and Darius; and those decrees essentially a single decree reiterated. I will return to a defence of this translation in a later post.

The temple is completed in Darius' 6th year. The book of Ezra continues,
Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra... went up from Babylonia. And there went up also to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants. And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. (Ezra 7)
If we are correct about Artaxerxes being Darius then the time between chapters 6 and 7 is a few months, not the half century proposed by the common reconstruction.

Ezra leaves Babylon in the 1st month of Darius' 7th year and arrives in Jerusalem in the 5th month. The rest of the book discusses issues that Ezra deals with on his return to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah hears about the broken walls of the city in Artaxerxes' 20th year and returns that same year, some 13 years after Ezra returned. Nehemiah completes the repair of the wall (Nehemiah 6) then hangs the gates. There was further opposition to the Jews rebuilding over this period, on this occasion the opposition was to the walls being repaired. The opposition was led by Tobiah.

Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem 12 years as governor until the 32nd year of Artaxerxes then returned from Jerusalem to Babylon (Nehemiah 5).

Note that Ezra taught the Jews during the time Nehemiah was governor of Jerusalem.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people,... (Nehemiah 8)

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.


  1. Hey, this is interesting stuff.

    I don't know if I'm just a real slowpoke for not picking up on this sooner, but I noticed that Cyrus is referred to by name in Isaiah (44:28 and 45:1). Since Isaiah died during Hezekiah's reign, I was curious whether this was the Cyrus you're talking about.

    ...I'm blurry on timelines, as you can see.

  2. Hi Mrs Pilgrim

    Yes. There is a prophecy about Cyrus in Isaiah that antedates Cyrus by more than 100 years. Thus the attempt by anti-supernaturalists to date the book of Isaiah late.

    I found the traditianal ideas about Ezra-Nehemiah chronology difficult to follow. I am not convinced of it now and prefer the sequential reconstruction. Every time I read Ezra it makes more sense.

    I think that chronology gives us significant insights into understanding Scripture. Start with a general overview of the Bible then focus down.

    My understanding has improved as I have read more and rejected traditional Biblical interpretations of chronology. Too much is borrowed from elsewhere— especially the chronological soup that is Egypt—in traditional reconstructions. Secular discordance with Scripture no longer particularly perturbs me. Often the secular records are there, just ascribed to the wrong era.



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