Historicity of the Bible, Part 1

Some of the most significant and compelling arguments supporting the position that the TaNaKh is a fiction composed of multiple legends and tall tales are that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah do not agree with each other on when they occurred and the book of Esther doesn’t appear to agree with any part of ancient Persian history. Some go so far as to argue that the entirety of the TaNaKh was composed from whole cloth during the Persian period. This theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, because the TaNaKh (Torah especially) contains numerous references to Hittite law and culture, ancient “Proto-Semitic” beliefs, Sumerian culture, and ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices–none of which a group of people living in the Persian Empire would have had any reason to know.

I propose that Haggai, Zecchariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all describe the same period in Persian history and, moreover, all except Esther describe some of the same events, with Esther describing events leading up to the others.  I contend that all those books describe events occurring between 527 and 507 BCE, with most events occurring between 522 and 515.  The apparent discrepancies in dating have to do, not with actual disagreement or errors among the various authors, but the concurrent use of multiple year counting systems. Further, I contend that the events described in those five books actually agree with other historical sources, including both Persian records and Herodotus, albeit somewhat obfuscated for the sake of a good story and to avoid stepping on powerful toes.

Traditional analysis of the book of Esther places that narrative somewhere between 483 and 474, during the reign of Xerxes I.  Since no other document attests to similar events during Xerxes reign, the story of Esther is generally presumed to be fictional. 

Nehemiah is traditionally dated to 445-426, during the reign of Artaxerxes I. This dating is complicated, however, because Nehemiah appears to claim that Yeshua and Zerubavel, who both left Babylon during the reign of Cyrus the Great (539) are present for the events he describes.  He also describes Ezra leaving Babylon and reading the Torah to the people in 458.  Ezra, on the other hand, describes events occurring between 538 and 522, says that the rebuilding of the Temple was approved during the reign of Darius in ca. 520, and relates his reading the Torah to the people to that event. If we assume that Ezra and Nehemiah are both correct using these dates, then Ezra was present and active at events that were a full lifetime apart. 

The names Ezra uses to refer to Persian emperors do not agree with the known order of kings in that period of ancient Persian history.  However, it is generally agreed that this discrepancy is due to Ezra using regnal titles instead of names and not actual errors on his part. The events described in Haggai took place in 520, and depending on one’s viewpoint, the prophecies of Zechariah either date to 520-518 or are still outstanding.

The basis for this implausible timeline is the frequent use of dating events “in the ___ year of Artaxerxes.” It is generally presumed that this counting refers to regnal years of a specific emperor. Throughout the TaNaKh, years are counted multiple ways.  Sometimes, writers did indeed refer to the regnal years of specific people. At other times, years were counted from major events, such as from the Exodus or from the Fall of Jerusalem. Jews in the Roman period also counted years from major events, such as from the destruction of the Second Temple or from the Bar Kochba Revolt. Indeed, the year counting presently in use among Rabbinical Jews was a later innovation intended to ease communication difficulties among various Jewish communities that previously all used separate year counting systems.

What if “the ___ year of Artaxerxes” doesn’t refer to regnal years? What if this use of the name Artaxerxes is as a title, and not the name of a specific emperor? Artaxerxes essentially means “Great Conqueror,” and it is likely that many Persian emperors used it as part of their official title. For Jews of the time, the important date prior to the dedication of the Second Temple was the Return. What we now refer to as the Return, the end of the Babylonian Exile, was, in larger historical terms, the conquest of Babylon by Persia. And for the Jews of the time, the Persian conquest of Babylon was the defining and most important act of Cyrus the Great. Aligning the years of Artaxerxes in the Biblical narrative with the regnal years of Cyrus does not work. However, those listed years do line up with the year Cyrus incorporated the Jews into his Empire–the year he conquered Babylon. In that sense, the years of Artaxerxes could be read as Cyrus’ regnal years over the Jewish people.

In the ancient world, names were somewhat fluid, and they were often interchangeable with titles.  This is especially true of biblical names, as I’ve discussed in my various articles about the Prophets.  I assert that Artaxerxes is always used as a regnal title in the TaNaKh and never to refer to the emperor known to history as Artaxerxes I. Instead, the title refers to multiple emperors when it is used as a name. More importantly, though, it does not always refer to an emperor contemporary with the author being read. Instead, I believe that the phrase “in the ___ year of Artaxerxes” counts the years after Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539, thus ending the Babylonian Exile. The use of the title “Artaxerxes” emphasizes Cyrus’s most important role from a Jewish perspective: that of a great conqueror.

I further believe that the use of the name Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) in the book of Esther is also intended as a regnal title, not a name. It also obscures the historical context of the story, which I believe covers multiple emperors’ reigns. Achashverosh is a Hebrew approximation of the name Xerxes.  Instead of referring to the reign of Xerxes I, I believe the use of that title is a reference to its meaning: King of Heroes or King of All Men, which are apt titles both for the emperors of Persia in general, who fancied themselves as kings of the world, and for Darius the Great specifically, who became king through his cooperation with six other men (heroes). When read this way, all the dates in these books line up nicely, both with each other and with other historical sources.

I’ll go into the specifics of my argument for each of these books in turn. For now, however, I’ll leave you with a comparison of the generally accepted timeline, listing both biblical events and events from Persian history, and the alternate timeline I propose. Both cover events from 559 to 424 BCE.

Customary Timeline

  • 559 Cyrus becomes Persian emperor
  • 539 Cyrus conquers Babylon
  • 539-538ish Yeshua the High Priest and Zerubavel are among those leading the people who leave Babylon in the Return
  • 538 Proclamation of Cyrus concerning the Jews (Ezra 1)
  • 538-522ish accusations against the Jews, from the reign of Cyrus to the reign of Darius, including the reigns of “Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes”, stopping the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 4–historians generally agree that Ezra’s mention of Ahasuerus is a reference to Cambyses II)
  • 530 Cyrus dies, Cambyses II becomes Persian emperor
  • Ca 526 Cambyses kills his wife, possibly after she criticized him (Herodotus, book 3, para 32)
  • 525 Cambyses conquers Eqypt
  • 522 Cambyses dies, Bardiya becomes Persian Emperor
  • 522 Darius becomes Persian Emperor
  • 522 Babylonian Revolt
  • Ca 520 Darius approves rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 4)
  • 520 Prophecies of Haggai
  • 520-518 Prophecies of Zechariah
  • 516 Dedication of 2nd Temple
  • 486 Darius dies, Xerxes I becomes Persian Emperor 
  • 483-474 Book of Esther
  • 465 Xerxes dies, Artaxerxes I (called Artacyrus by Herodotus) becomes Persian Emperor
  • 458 Ezra leaves Babylon, goes to Jerusalem, and reads Torah to the people
  • 445 Beginning of Nehemiah 
  • 445 the same Jeshua and Zerubavel as left Babylon are still alive
  • 445-426 Nehemiah refuses his governor’s rations while Jerusalem is rebuilt
  • 424 Artaxerxes dies

Proposed Timeline

  • 559 Cyrus becomes Persian emperor
  • 539 Cyrus conquers Babylon
  • 538 Proclamation of Cyrus concerning the Jews (Ezra 1)
  • 538ish Mordecai mentioned among the leaders of  those who left the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7)
  • 538-522ish accusations against the Jews, from the reign of Cyrus to the reign of Darius, including the reigns of “Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes”, stopping the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 4)
  • 530 Cyrus dies, Cambyses II becomes Persian emperor
  • Ca 527 Beginning of the story of Esther, if Ahasuerus is Cambyses/Bardiya/Darius
  • Ca 526 Cambyses kills one of his wives, possibly after she criticized him (Herodotus, book 3, para 32)
  • 525 Cambyses conquers Eqypt
  • 522 Cambyses dies, Bardiya becomes Persian Emperor
  • 522 Darius becomes Persian Emperor. It’s known that he took at least one of Cambyses’ wives (Cyrus’ daughter) as his own. Herodotus suggests that the harem was inherited. End of Esther
  • 522 Babylonian Revolt
  • Ca 520 Darius approves rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 4)
  • 520 Prophecies of Haggai
  • 520-518 Prophecies of Zechariah
  • 519-507 Nehemiah does not use governor’s rations (20th-32nd years of Artaxerxes)
  • 516 Dedication of 2nd Temple (Ezra 6)
  • 515 Ezra travels to Babylon and back to Jerusalem to study Torah (Ezra 7)
  • 515 Ezra reads Torah to congregation
  • 486 Darius dies, Xerxes I becomes Persian Emperor
  • 465 Xerxes dies, Artaxerxes I becomes Persian Emperor
  • 424 Artaxerxes dies

Please note: all images sourced from Wikipedia.


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