The Hebrew Bible and the Persian Period

Until recent decades, postexilic biblical texts and the Persian period generally were undervalued in biblical studies. With the advent of new textual and material evidence, as well as new methodologies and interpretive paradigms,[1] the Persian period is now viewed as central to the development of Jewish religion and the formation of the Hebrew Bible.[2] Persian studies now dominate the various domains of Hebrew Bible scholarship.[3]

The period of Persian rule in the Levant extends from Cyrus’s defeat of the city of Babylon (539 BCE) to Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire (333-331 BCE).[4] The Persian territory at its zenith extended from Iran through Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine to Egypt, westward to Asia Minor, and eastward to the Indus River.

Wiesehöfer notes that the material and textual witness to the Persian empire suffers from a variety of weaknesses. First, written sources concerning Persia include hostile Greek sources, and royal inscriptions dominated by royal ideology. Second, since Iranian historical tradition is predominantly oral, it is difficult to discern its Achaemenid traits. Finally, “quantifiable material is rare”; the cuneiform tablets, inscriptions and papyri are limited and chronologically imbalanced. “It is therefore difficult to write a history of events from a Persian perspective or to measure the economic performance of the Achaemenid Empire in any meaningful way and to base demographic, social, and economic statements on statistically sound material.”[5]

Western perception of the Persian empire has historically been influenced by Greek sources, and by the presentation of Persia in the Hebrew Bible. Deutero-Isaiah and Ezra-Nehemiah, for example, portray Cyrus very positively as YHWH’s instrument to defeat Babylon and return the Judahites to their homeland (Isa 44:28-45:5; Ezr 1:1-11). Xenophon and Herodotus likewise present Cyrus as “good, wise and tolerant.”[6] The discovery of the “Cyrus Cylinder,” in which Cyrus supports the Marduk cult in Babylon after his conquest, has been interpreted as further evidence of a “liberal” policy of religious freedom in conquered lands.[7]

Contemporary scholarship has become more skeptical about such perceptions of the Babylonian and Persian empires and their rulers. For example, Wiesehöfer argues that Cyrus and Xerxes—his foil in the Greek imagination—may not have governed so differently after all.[8] Grabbe’s assessment of the two empires’ attitudes toward local cults is somewhat more moderate than the theological presentation of the Hebrew Bible: “The religious policy of the Persians was not that different from the basic practice of the Assyrians and Babylonians before them.”[9]


[1] Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia From 550 BC to 650 AD (trans. Azizeh Azodi; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001 [1996]); Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (trans. Peter T. Daniels; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002); Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (London: Routledge, 2010 [2007]); Josef Wiesehöfer, “The Achaemenid Empire,” in The Dynamics of Ancient Empires (ed. Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 66-98.

[2] Armin Siedlecki, “‘Persian Period Studies Have Come of Age,’” in Historiography and Identity (Re)formulation in Second Temple Historiographical Literature (ed. Louis C. Jonker; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 123-124.

[3] Examples include: Philip R. Davies, ed., Second Temple Studies: 1. Persian Period (JSOTSup 177; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Lester L. Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, Volume 1: Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah (London: T&T Clark, 2004); Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming, eds., Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006); Melody D. Knowles, Centrality Practiced: Jerusalem in the Religious Practice of Yehud & the Diaspora in the Persian Period (Atlanta: SBL, 2006). Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard Levinson, eds., The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007); Oded Lipschits, Gary N. Knoppers and Rainer Albertz, eds., Judah and the Judeans in the Fourth Century B.C.E. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007); Louis C. Jonker, ed., Historiography and Identity (Re)formulation in Second Temple Historiographical Literature (New York: T&T Clark, 2010); Louis C. Jonker, ed., Texts, Contexts and Readings in Postexilic Literature (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2011); Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Israel in the Persian Period: The Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. (trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann; Atlanta: SBL, 2011 [2005]).

[4] Lindsay Allen, The Persian Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 26, 135-144.

[5] Wiesehöfer, “The Achaemenid Empire,” 66-67.

[6] Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, 43.

[7] Grabbe, History of the Jews and Judaism Vol. 1, 111.

[8] Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, 42-55.

[9] Grabbe, History of the Jews and Judaism Vol. 1, 273; cf. 215-216.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to The Hebrew Bible and the Persian Period

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