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Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty—If You Read the Bible Without History

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Zev Farber

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Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty—If You Read the Bible Without History

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Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty—If You Read the Bible Without History

Ezra-Nehemiah mentions only four of the twelve kings who ruled the Persian empire: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes. The book of Daniel also speaks of four Persian kings, and adds a fictional Darius the Mede as their precursor. Historically, the Achaemenid period lasted 220 years, but using only the kings mentioned in the Bible, rabbinic texts reconstruct a 52-year Persian period.

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Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty—If You Read the Bible Without History

The central wall of the northern stairs of Apadana palace, which shows Xerxes enthroned, with crown prince Darius behind the ruler. Wikimedia.

The 220-year Achaemenid Persian Empire began when Cyrus the Great conquered Media from his grandfather Astyages in 549 B.C.E. and ended twelve kings later, when Alexander the Great executed Artaxerxes V in 329 B.C.E.[1] Modern reconstructions of the Persian period work with many historical sources, including and especially contemporary Greek historians, and work with the following list of kings:

  1. Cyrus the Great (r. 550–530 B.C.E.)
  2. Cambyses II (r. 530–522 B.C.E.)
  3. Bardiya/Smerdis [or Guamata] (r. 522 B.C.E.)
  4. Darius I the Great (r. 522–486 B.C.E.)
  5. Xerxes I (r. 485–465 B.C.E.)
  6. Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424 B.C.E.)
  7. Darius II (r. 424–404 B.C.E.)
  8. Artaxerxes II (r. 404–358 B.C.E.)
  9. Artaxerxes III (r. 358–338 B.C.E.)
  10. Artaxerxes IV (338–336 B.C.E.)
  11. Darius III (r. 336–330 B.C.E.)
  12. Artaxerxes V Bessus (r. 330–329 B.C.E.)

The Bible also refers to events that transpired under the Persian Empire, focusing specifically on the experiences of Judeans. It mentions only some of the early kings, and offers some schematic statements. Using only the Bible as a historical source for this period leads to a very different reconstruction of this era.

The Book of Ezra

The book of Ezra describes events that take place during the reign of four Persian kings: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes (=Ahasuerus),[2] and Artaxerxes.

Cyrus

The opening verse of Ezra describes how Cyrus permits the Judean ex-pats to return to Judea (Ezra 1:1–4).

עזרא א:א וּבִשְׁנַת אַחַת לְכוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס לִכְלוֹת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה מִפִּי יִרְמְיָה הֵעִיר יְ־הוָה אֶת רוּחַ כֹּרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס וַיַּעֲבֶר קוֹל בְּכָל מַלְכוּתוֹ וְגַם בְּמִכְתָּב לֵאמֹר. א:ב כֹּה אָמַר כֹּרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס כֹּל מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם וְהוּא פָקַד עָלַי לִבְנוֹת לוֹ בַיִת בִּירוּשָׁלַ͏ִם אֲשֶׁר בִּיהוּדָה.
Ezra 1:1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of YHWH spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, YHWH roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing as follows: 1:2 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.”

According to Ezra (3:1–7), that year, in the seventh month, the Judeans rebuild the altar on the Temple Mount and celebrate Sukkot with sacrifices. The next year (Cyrus’ year 2), they begin to lay out the foundations of the future Temple and celebrate the accomplishment (Ezra 3:8–13). Thus far we know Cyrus reigned for at least two years.

From Cyrus to Darius

At this point, the adversaries (צָרֵי) of Judah and Benjamin—a polemical term for Samaritans and others not part of the returnee community—offer to participate in the building but are rebuffed (Ezra 4:1–3). Offended, these locals turn to political sabotage, which succeeds in forcing the Judeans to halt the rebuilding of the Temple:

עזרא ד:ד וַיְהִי עַם הָאָרֶץ מְרַפִּים יְדֵי עַם יְהוּדָה (ומבלהים) [וּמְבַהֲלִים] אוֹתָם לִבְנוֹת. ד:ה וְסֹכְרִים עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹעֲצִים לְהָפֵר עֲצָתָם כָּל יְמֵי כּוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס וְעַד מַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס.
Ezra 4:4 Thereupon the people of the land undermined the resolve of the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build. 4:5 They bribed ministers in order to thwart their plans all the years of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.

Without knowing Persian history, this might sound as if Darius ruled immediately after Cyrus. Moreover, as Cyrus is not mentioned again, a minimalist reading would suggest that Cyrus died in his third year after which Darius took the throne. This would mean that the building of the Temple was frozen for only one year.[3]

Ahasuerus/Xerxes

The next Persian king mentioned in Ezra is Xerxes:

עזרא ד:ו וּבְמַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּת מַלְכוּתוֹ כָּתְבוּ שִׂטְנָה עַל יֹשְׁבֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם.
Ezra 4:6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus (=Xerxes), at the start of his reign, they drew up an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

The text tells us nothing about the nature of this accusation, but traditional readers connect this with Haman’s decree in the book of Esther:

אסתר ג:ז בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן הוּא חֹדֶשׁ נִיסָן בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לִפְנֵי הָמָן מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר.
Esth 3:7 In the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, until it fell on the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar.[4]

As Abraham ibn Ezra notes (on Ezra 6:4), connecting these texts is problematic: Ezra speaks of an event at the beginning of Xerxes’ reign while Esther is speaking of one in year 12 of his reign.

Artaxerxes Stops the City from Being Built

The next verse moves to a different letter, written by two officials in Samaria (Rehum the commissioner and Shimshai the scribe,) during the reign of Artaxerxes, warning him that the Jews are rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and its walls (Ezra 4:7–16). Artaxerxes responds that they should stop the Jews from rebuilding Jerusalem (Ezra 4:17–23).

Thus far, reading without the benefit of outside historical knowledge, we might reconstruct the Persian Period as follows:

  1. Cyrus—During the time of Cyrus, Jews return to Judea and start building the Temple.
  2. Darius—After being coaxed by the native inhabitants, Cyrus freezes the rebuilding of the Temple, which recommences only upon the accession of his successor Darius.
  3. Xerxes—During his reign, an accusation is penned against the Judeans, which may or may not connect to Purim.
  4. Artaxerxes—the Jews try to rebuild the city walls and are stopped.[5]

Back to Darius?

The next passage in Ezra, however, complicates matters:

עזרא ד:כד בֵּאדַיִן בְּטֵלַת עֲבִידַת בֵּית אֱלָהָא דִּי בִּירוּשְׁלֶם וַהֲוָת בָּטְלָא עַד שְׁנַת תַּרְתֵּין לְמַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס.[6]
Ezra 4:24 At that time, work on the House of God in Jerusalem stopped and remained in abeyance until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.

This makes little sense. Darius was mentioned as having ruled before Artaxerxes and having allowed the Temple to be rebuilt. If so, how can it be that Artaxerxes stopped the rebuilding? Wasn’t it already completed during Darius’ rule?

Given that we know the historical order of these kings—Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes—it is likely that this verse is loosely a resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme) to the verse quoted above that the Temple was rebuilt only once Darius acceded to the throne, picking up the story of the Temple’s rebuilding where it left off. As Lisbeth Fried writes in her introduction to this section:

This section (=about Ahasuerus) and the following, which includes the correspondence between Artaxerxes and satrapal officials, is an intrusion. It has nothing to do with the temple but has only to do with building Jerusalem’s city wall in the time of Nehemiah![7]

In other words, a later editor added the verse about the accusation in the time Ahasuerus/Xerxes and the letters in the time of Artaxerxes about the rebuilding of the wall—the main theme of the book of Nehemiah—and then returned to the building of the Temple during the reign of Darius, which occupies the bulk of the next two chapters.[8] In an older version of this text, the only theme discussed here was the building of the Temple in the time of Darius.

Traditional readers, however, took the opposite approach. For instance, R. Moses ibn Gikatilla (11th cent.), the Spanish grammarian and exegete, suggests that Darius must have ruled after Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and that the text explaining what happened in the time of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes describes what occurred before the reign of Darius. The statement that Cyrus stopped the Temple from being rebuilt until the accession of Darius (Ezra 4:5) does not mean to say Darius succeeds Cyrus, but that from when complaints began in the time of Cyrus, Temple construction froze until it was completed in the time of Darius.[9] The rest of the chapter then steps back in time, telling us what had happened during the period between Cyrus and Darius, namely, the accusation during the time of Xerxes and the harsh stance of Artaxerxes.

In ibn Gikatilla’s reconstruction, Persia had four kings: Cyrus, Xerxes/Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes, Darius.[10]

Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), who made extensive use of ibn Gikatilla, revises this approach, arguing that Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus/Xerxes refer to the same king:[11] The former name is Chaldean and the latter is Persian. This follows the statement by the 3rd century Palestinian Amora, R. Levi, who says (Midrash Esther Rabbah, 1:3) אחשורוש הוא ארתחששתא, “Xerxes/Ahasuerus is Artaxerxes.”

In his reading, the accusation that occurs at the beginning of Ahasuerus’ reign is shorthand for the letter of complaint Artaxerxes receives from those opposed to the rebuilding of the city walls in the next verse. (In ibn Ezra’s reconstruction, Persia′s four kings are: Cyrus, Ahasuerus/Xerxes [=Artaxerxes], Darius the Persian [=Artaxerxes], Artaxerxes of Ezra-Nehemiah [=yet another Darius].)

But Artaxerxes Comes After Darius:Ezra 6!

The next chapters in Ezra continue with Darius. He issues an edict for the Temple to be rebuilt, after which the Judeans and local governors complete the project. Once again, we see an editor adding Artaxerxes artificially into the passage,[12] thereby creating a nonsensical timeline (note the bolded words):

עזרא ו:יג אֱדַיִן תַּתְּנַי פַּחַת עֲבַר נַהֲרָה שְׁתַר בּוֹזְנַי וּכְנָוָתְהוֹן לָקֳבֵל דִּי שְׁלַח דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מַלְכָּא כְּנֵמָא אָסְפַּרְנָא עֲבַדוּ. ו:יד וְשָׂבֵי יְהוּדָיֵא בָּנַיִן וּמַצְלְחִין בִּנְבוּאַת חַגַּי נביאה [נְבִיָּא] וּזְכַרְיָה בַּר עִדּוֹא וּבְנוֹ וְשַׁכְלִלוּ מִן טַעַם אֱלָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִטְּעֵם כּוֹרֶשׁ וְדָרְיָוֶשׁ וְאַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתְּא מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס. ו:טו וְשֵׁיצִיא בַּיְתָה דְנָה עַד יוֹם תְּלָתָה לִירַח אֲדָר דִּי הִיא שְׁנַת שֵׁת לְמַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מַלְכָּא.
Ezra 6:13 Then Tattenai, governor of the province of Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their colleagues carried out with dispatch what King Darius had written. 6:14 So the elders of the Jews progressed in the building, urged on by the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah son of Iddo, and they brought the building to completion under the aegis of the God of Israel and by the order of Cyrus and Darius and King Artaxerxes of Persia. 6:15 The house was finished on the third of the month of Adar in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.

To make sense of this timeline, Seder Olam Rabbah (§30),[13] a second/third century text the offers the history of Israel from Adam until Mishnaic times, claims that Artaxerxes was not a personal name at all, but simply a Persian royal epithet, akin to “Pharaoh” in Egyptian: וכל המלכות כולה ניקראת ארתחשסתא, “the kingdom as a whole was called Artaxerxes.”[14]

In Seder Olam’s reconstruction, Persia had three kings: Cyrus, Ahasuerus/Xerxes (=Artaxerxes), and Darius (=Artaxerxes).

Using wordplay, the Babylonian Talmud takes this further, arguing that even Cyrus and Darius were the same king (b. Rosh Hashanah 3b):

תנא: הוא כורש, הוא דריוש, הוא ארתחשסתא. כורש—שמלך כשר היה. ארתחשסתא—על שם מלכותו. ומה שמו? דריוש שמו.
It was taught: Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes. He was called Cyrus (Koresh) because he was a fitting (kasher) king. He was called Artaxerxes, because that is the kingdom’s name. What was his actual name? Darius was his name.[15]

In the Talmud’s reconstruction, Persia only had two kings: Ahasuerus/Xerxes (=Artaxerxes) and Darius/Cyrus (=Artaxerxes).[16]

The Long Reign of King Artaxerxes in Ezra and Nehemiah

We first meet Ezra the scribe (ch. 7) leaving Persia with an entourage of Judeans, heading for Judea in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes:

עזרא ז:א וְאַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּמַלְכוּת אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס עֶזְרָא... ז:ו ...עָלָה מִבָּבֶל... וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ כְּיַד יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהָיו עָלָיו כֹּל בַּקָּשָׁתוֹ. ז:ז וַיַּעֲלוּ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם וְהַמְשֹׁרְרִים וְהַשֹּׁעֲרִים וְהַנְּתִינִים אֶל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם בִּשְׁנַת שֶׁבַע לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ.
Ezra 7:1 After these events, during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra… 7:6 … came up from Babylon… whose request the king had granted in its entirety, thanks to the benevolence of YHWH toward him. 7:7 Some of the Israelites, the priests and Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants set out for Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.

Historically, this section of Ezra discusses events during the reign of Artaxerxes I, who succeeded his father Xerxes/Ahasuerus, around 60 years after the reconstruction of the Temple. If we follow the rabbinic understanding, however, that Artaxerxes and Darius are the same person, then Ezra heads to Judea in the 7th year of Darius, only one year after the completion of the Second Temple (Ezra 6:15).

In the 20th year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah requests permission to go to Judea as governor and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls:

נחמיה ב:א וַיְהִי בְּחֹדֶשׁ נִיסָן שְׁנַת עֶשְׂרִים לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ יַיִן לְפָנָיו וָאֶשָּׂא אֶת הַיַּיִן וָאֶתְּנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ... ב:ה וָאֹמַר לַמֶּלֶךְ אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב וְאִם יִיטַב עַבְדְּךָ לְפָנֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁלָחֵנִי אֶל יְהוּדָה אֶל עִיר קִבְרוֹת אֲבֹתַי וְאֶבְנֶנָּה.
Neh 2:1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, wine was set before him; I took the wine and gave it to the king… 2:5 I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, to rebuild it.”

Later Nehemiah describes that this process lasted 12 years:

נחמיה ה:יד גַּם מִיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתִי לִהְיוֹת פֶּחָם בְּאֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה מִשְּׁנַת עֶשְׂרִים וְעַד שְׁנַת שְׁלֹשִׁים וּשְׁתַּיִם לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא הַמֶּלֶךְ שָׁנִים שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה אֲנִי וְאַחַי לֶחֶם הַפֶּחָה לֹא אָכַלְתִּי.
Neh 5:14 Furthermore, from the day I was commissioned to be governor in the land of Judah—from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes until his thirty-second year, twelve years in all—neither I nor my brothers ever ate of the governor's food allowance.

In year 32—the latest regnal year the Bible mentions for Artaxerxes[17]—Nehemiah returns to Persia for a time, and then afterwards, asks to return to Judea.[18]

A Jew-Friendly (Jewish!) King

Turning Darius and Artaxerxes into one king makes him a very positive force in Jewish history: He allows the rebuilding of the Temple under Zerubbabel, he supports Ezra bringing the Torah to Israel and establishing its laws, and he allow Nehemiah to become the region’s governor and rebuild the city walls.

By making Darius/Artaxerxes the son of Ahasuerus and Esther, the rabbis are able to explain why this king is so exceedingly positive. He was a Jew himself!

אסתר רבה ח:ג א"ר יודן ברבי סימון דריוש האחרון בנה של אסתר היה טהור מאמו וטמא מאביו.
Esth Rab 8:3 Rabbi Yudin son of Rabbi Simon said: “The last Darius was the son of Esther; he was pure (=Jewish) from his mother’s side but impure from his (non-Jewish) father’s side.”

As Artaxerxes is the last Persian king mentioned in the Bible, the rabbis assume he was the last of Persia’s kings, and it was he that Alexander the Great conquered.

The Three Kings of Persia/Media and Babylonia

Genesis Rabbah (3rd/4th cent. C.E.), in a midrashic reading of Abraham’s covenant between the parts, offers a parallel between the Babylonian Empire and the Persian Empire, since each had only three kings:

בראשית רבה מד קחה לי עגלה משולשת—זו בבל שמעמדת שלשה: נבוכדנצר, ואויל מרודך, ובלשצר.
Gen. Rab. §44 “Bring me a three-year old heifer”—this is Babylon, which put forward three [kings]: Nebuchadnezzar, Amel-Marduk, and Belshazzar.[19]
ועז משולשת—זו מדי, שמעמדת שלשה: כורש, ודריוש, ואחשוירוש...
“And a three-year old goat”—this is Media (=Persia),[20] which put forward three [kings]: Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes/Ahasuerus.[21]

Despite this neat parallel, the book of Daniel includes a fourth king, Darius the Mede.

Darius the Mede Conquers Babylon: The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel tells the story of a young Jewish man who becomes an important advisor in the Babylonian, then Median, then Persian governments. Chapters 1–4 are set in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who destroyed Jerusalem and brought the Judeans into exile. Chapter 5 details the final night of King Belshazzar—ostensibly the next Babylonian king—with the famous story of the writing on the wall, which ends with:

דניאל ה:ל בֵּהּ בְּלֵילְיָא קְטִיל בֵּלְאשַׁצַּר מַלְכָּא (כשדיא) [כַשְׂדָּאָה]. ו:א וְדָרְיָוֶשׁ (מדיא) [מָדָאָה] קַבֵּל מַלְכוּתָא כְּבַר שְׁנִין שִׁתִּין וְתַרְתֵּין.
Dan 5:30 That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, 6:1 and Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.[22]

This verse begins the story of Daniel in the Lion’s den, which ends with:

דניאל ו:כט וְדָנִיֵּאל דְּנָה הַצְלַח בְּמַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ וּבְמַלְכוּת כּוֹרֶשׁ פרסיא [פָּרְסָאָה].
Dan 6:29 Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

Stepping back in time, chapters 7 and 8 recount dreams that Daniel had during years 1 and 3 of Belshazzar’s rule, and chapter 9 tells of vision Daniel has during the first year of Darius the Mede:

דניאל ט:א בִּשְׁנַת אַחַת לְדָרְיָוֶשׁ בֶּן אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ מִזֶּרַע מָדָי אֲשֶׁר הָמְלַךְ עַל מַלְכוּת כַּשְׂדִּים.
Dan 9:1 In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus,[23] of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans.

Moving to the next king, chapter 10 tells of a dream during the 3rd year of Cyrus of Persia—the latest regnal year for this king in the Bible (as mentioned earlier, Ezra only goes up to year 2):

דניאל י:א בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלוֹשׁ לְכוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס דָּבָר נִגְלָה לְדָנִיֵּאל...
Dan 10:1 In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia, an oracle was revealed to Daniel…

Moving back in time again, chapters 11–12 supply another vision from the first year of Darius the Mede, which describes how three Persian kings will rule after him, followed by a fourth:

דניאל יא:א וַאֲנִי בִּשְׁנַת אַחַת לְדָרְיָוֶשׁ הַמָּדִי עָמְדִי לְמַחֲזִיק וּלְמָעוֹז לוֹ. יא:ב וְעַתָּה אֱמֶת אַגִּיד לָךְ הִנֵּה עוֹד שְׁלֹשָׁה מְלָכִים עֹמְדִים לְפָרַס וְהָרְבִיעִי יַעֲשִׁיר עֹשֶׁר גָּדוֹל מִכֹּל וּכְחֶזְקָתוֹ בְעָשְׁרוֹ יָעִיר הַכֹּל אֵת מַלְכוּת יָוָן.
Dan 11:1 In the first year of Darius the Mede, I took my stand to strengthen and fortify him. 11:2 And now I will tell you the truth: Persia will have three more kings, and the fourth will be wealthier than them all; by the power he obtains through his wealth, he will stir everyone up against the kingdom of Greece.

As the book of Daniel mentions no Persian kings by name after Cyrus, we do not know to whom he refers. Perhaps the author considered Artaxerxes to be his own historical person (which would be accurate), or perhaps the numbers don’t refer to any king in particular, and are just invented. However we understand it, the book of Daniel adds Darius the Mede, a king that doesn’t appear in Ezra-Nehemiah.

Darius the Mede Is a Fictional King

The description of Darius the Mede conquering Babylonia from Belshazzar has no basis in history and is contradicted by several facts:

  1. The final Babylonian king was Nabonidus; Belshazzar was his son, and the crown prince.[24]
  2. Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, who had already conquered Media in 549 B.C.E., ten years before he conquered the Babylonian Empire (539 B.C.E.).
  3. The final king of Media was Astyages, the son of the previous king Cyaxares, and the maternal grandfather of Cyrus.

Where the book of Daniel got the idea for a Median king of this name as the final ruler of Babylonia is unclear, but he is a strong presence there. Thus, the rabbis not only include him in their historical reconstructions but develop a narrative in which he and Cyrus cooperate in the putsch against Belshazzar (Song of Songs Rabbah 3:4; see appendix). But as he appears in the Bible, he becomes part of how the rabbis reconstruct the period.

Summing Up: The 50 Year Persian Period

Seder Olam Rabbah summarizes the Persian period thus:

סדר עולם ל ואי אתה מוצא מלכים לפרס אלא שלשה ולמדי אחד. ומלכות מדי ופרס חמשים ושתים שנה.
Seder Olam §30 You will only find among the kings of Persia three and of Media one. The kingdom of Media and Persia lasted fifty-two years.[25]

The specific calculation of the empire’s total length of rule comes from counting the regnal years of each king as recorded by the Bible, and making these work with other biblical texts:

  1. Darius the Mede—1 year (Dan 9:1, 11:1)
  2. Cyrus—3 years (Dan 10:1)
  3. Darius the Persian—6 years (Ezra 6:15)
  4. Xerxes/Ahasuerus—12 years (Esth 3:7)
  5. Artaxerxes—32 years (Neh 13:6)

Even if we treat these as five separate kings, at most we get a total of 54 years. If we assume, as most rabbinic interpreters do, that Darius and Artaxerxes are the same person, we need to subtract Darius’ six years as part of Artaxerxes’ 32, and we get 48 years. Various traditional commentators add a few years either to Xerxes/Ahasuerus or Artaxerxes. Here is how they do it:

Xerxes/Ahasuerus—In year 12, Haman cast lots in Nissan (Esth 3:7), and Purim occurred at the end of this year. Year 13, the people celebrate only on the 14th of Adar (Esth 9:19), prompting Mordechai to write a letter to ask them to celebrate on the 15th as well. Year 14 (Esth 9:27), the Jews celebrate both days, after which the Megillah is written.[26] This adds two years, bringing total up to fifty.

Darius-Artaxerxes—In one of his visions, Daniel is told:

דניאל ט:כד שָׁבֻעִים שִׁבְעִים נֶחְתַּךְ עַל עַמְּךָ וְעַל עִיר קָדְשֶׁךָ
Dan 9:24 Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city

Seder Olam (and other texts) understands seventy weeks of years to mean 70x7, i.e., that between the destruction of the First and the Second Temple will be 490 years. 70 years the First Temple was destroyed, so the Second Temple stood for 420 years. In the rabbinic calculation, the Temple stood for 386 years after the Persian period,[27] leaving 34 years of the Temple standing in the Persian period. Since construction of the Temple began in the second year of Darius/Artaxerxes, he must have ruled another 34 years.[28] This adds two years, bringing the total up to 52.

A Biblical but not Historical Reconstruction

As ancient history became better known, rabbis and traditional scholars have tried to reconcile the rabbinic conception of Persian history with ancient history as it is understood by historians and taught in universities. Indeed, entire books have been written trying to defend rabbinic historiography,[29] since the differences do not affect only the Persian king list or the distant politics of the empire, but also the veracity of rabbinic tradition.

The rabbinic depiction of the Persian period is incorrect: It is based on the very incomplete biblical record, and many problematic assumptions as to the meaning of the word Artaxerxes, the relationship between the early kings (making Xerxes the father of Darius as opposed to the opposite), and that the only Persian kings to have existed are the ones mentioned in the Bible. No history can be learned from it.[30] The rabbinic Persian Period of 4 kings over 52 years and the historical Persian Period of 12 kings over 220 years are two entirely different matters, and, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.”[31]

Appendix

Darius the Mede and Cyrus Both Conquer Babylonia

The rabbis were aware that Cyrus conquered Babylon, but at the same time, the book of Daniel attributes this role to Darius the Mede. Song of Songs Rabbah (ca. 8th cent. C.E.) offers a midrashic solution to the problem by having both men serve as conquerors:

שיר השירים רבה ג:ד "קומו השרים" (ישעיה כא:ה)—זה כורש ודריוש, "משחו מגן"—קבלו מלכותא,
Song Rab. 3:4 “Up, officers!” (Isa 21:5)—this is Cyrus and Darius; “Grease the shields!”—take the kingdom.

The midrash continues by spelling out what happened:

הוה אמר [דריוש לכורש][32] מלוך את קדמיי, אמר [כורש לדריוש] לא כן פירש דניאל פרס פריסת מלכותך ויהיבת למדי ופרס, למדי תחילה ואח"כ לפרס, הוי את תמליך קדמוי,
Darius said to Cyrus: “You should rule first.” Cyrus said to Darius: “But didn’t Daniel explain (5:28), ‘your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians’? First to the Medians then to the Persians, so you should rule before me.”

The midrash continues by connecting the downfall of Belshazzar with Psalm 75,

כיון ששמע אותו רשע שלח ואמר לחיילותיו כל אומה ומלכות שמרדה בי נבוא עליהם, אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא רשע אצל הכל שלחת או שמא אצלי שלחת, חייך לית פורענות דההוא גברא מן אתר אחרן אלא מגבי, הה"ד (תהלים ע"ה) כי לא ממוצא וממערב [ולא ממדבר הרים] כי אלהים שופט זה ישפיל וזה ירים, ישפיל לבלשאצר וירים לכורש ודריוש,
When that wicked person (Belshazzar) heard (Daniel’s interpretation of the writing on the wall), he sent for his soldiers and said to them: “Any nation or kingdom who rebels against me, we will come against them.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Wicked man! Are you sending [your army] against all of them, or perhaps are you sending it against me?! By your life, the troubles of that man (=you, Belshazzar) will not come from some other source but from me.” This is what the verse says (Psalm 75:7–8): “For what lifts a man comes not from the east or west [or the wilderness], for God it is who gives judgment; He brings down one man, He lifts up another”—He brings down Belshazzar and lifts up Cyrus and Darius.

The midrash then continues with a description of what happened on that fateful night:

כורש ודריוש שוערין של בלשאצר היו, וכיון ששמע הכתובים הללו אמר לון כל מאן דמתחמי הכא ליליא הדין אפי' דהוא אמר לכון דאנא הוא מלכא ארימון ליה ראשיה,
Cyrus and Darius were gatekeepers for Belshazzar. When [Belshazzar] heard these writings (=Daniel’s interpretation of the writing on the wall), he said to them: “Anyone who appears here tonight, even if he says to you, ‘I am the king,’ remove his head.”
ואין דרכן של מלכים להיות מניחים בית הרעי שלהם לפנים מטרקליניהון אלא חוץ לטרקליניהון, נתותרו מעיו כל אותו הלילה ונפק מנפק ולא ארגשון ביה, מכי עייל ארגשון ביה, א"ל מאן את אמר לון אנא הוא מלכא, אמרין ליה ולאו כן פקיד מלכא דכל מאן דמתחמן הכא ליליא דין אפי' אמר לכון דאנא הוא מלכא ארימון רישיה, מה עשו נטלו פרחה של מנורה ופצעו את מוחו, הה"ד (דניאל ה') בה בליליא קטיל בלשאצר מלכא כשדאי,
Now, it isn’t the way of kings to have their privies inside their reception room, but outside the reception room. He was struck with diarrhea the whole night, and stepped out [to use the privy] and nobody noticed. When he turned to go back in, they noticed him. They said to him: “Who are you?” He said to them: “I am the king.” They said to him: “But didn’t you tell us that anyone we see here tonight, even if he says, ‘I am the king,’ we should remove his head?” What did they do? They picked up a calyx from the lampstand and cracked his skull. This is what the verse means (Dan 5:30): “That night Belshazzar king of the Babylonians was killed.”

This fanciful account highlights the difficulty the rabbis had with squaring Daniel’s account of Darius the Mede with that implied in Ezra (1:1) and Chronicles (2 Chron 36:22), that the king who took the throne upon the demise of the Babylonian Empire was Cyrus, so they decide to make them partners.

Published

March 22, 2024

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Last Updated

April 11, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).