According to the biblical record, the most dramatic and long-lasting cultural and political changes in the post-Exilic Jewish state occurred during the tenure of Ezra and Nehemiah. From the biblical perspective, Ezra’s accomplishments were primarily in the religious sphere, although these should be understood within the larger context of the Persian policy of fostering local religio-legal traditions for the purpose of social stability within the provinces. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem not as a governor but as a “scribe skilled in the law of Moses,” with a copy of the law (Ezra 7:6, 10) and with a commission from Artaxerxes to establish magistrates and judges in order to enact and teach that law (Ezra 7:11–14, 25–26). Ezra was also given funds and precious goods to revitalize religious rites in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:15–20, 8:21–34). This may have required some rebuilding. According to Ezra 6:14, the rebuilding of the Temple was accomplished by the royal decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, so Ezra may well have participated in it. Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3) may also be understood in the larger context of Persian imperial aims to control their Levantine holdings more tightly. Eventually, under Ezra’s leadership, and after Nehemiah’s arrival (Nehemiah 8:9, 10:1), the law was accepted as the constitutional basis of Jewish life. This was done in a formal public ceremony and by contractual agreement (Ezra 9:1–10; Nehemiah 8:1–10:39). The prohibition of intermarriage with non-Jews was an especially important dimension of the acceptance of Jewish law. The missions of Ezra and Nehemiah do not demonstrate that the local community was being rewarded for its loyalty; rather, their missions represented the efforts of the empire to develop economic and social relationships that would tie the fortunes of Yehud to the future of the imperial system.
It has been widely assumed that the “law of Moses” that Ezra brought to Jerusalem was the Torah / Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) or, if not the Pentateuch in its entirety, then one of the law codes incorporated in the Pentateuch. One suggestion is that he brought the so-called Priestly source (P) of the Pentateuch (P is one of the sources of the Pentateuch according to the documentary hypothesis, which divides the Pentateuch into four different narrative strands). Ezra has thus been credited with a major role in the development of the canon of Jewish Scripture and/or in the editorial process that produced the Pentateuch in the form in which it is now known. As noted, however, the process of editing the major portions of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch and Former Prophets, had probably begun a full century earlier. It is quite possible that by the end of the fifth century the Prophets, both major and minor, were organized and promulgated, as were the Chronicler’s history (1 and 2 Chronicles) and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
What is curious about the assumption that Ezra played such a major role in organizing scripture, however, is that not one of the quotations from Ezra’s law code in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah agrees with any specific passage of the Pentateuch (see, for example, Ezra 9:10–12; Nehemiah 8:14–15). Instead, Ezra’s reform measures agree in general with dicta contained in various parts of the Pentateuch (although Ezra’s prohibition against intermarriage is far more specific than any command in the Pentateuch). Ezra’s law code may have been simply a précis or compendium of Jewish law in a form suitable for deposit in the Persian court archives. In sum, we know that Ezra came as a scribe of the law of Moses commissioned by Artaxerxes to be the promulgator and enforcer of that law. We do not know the particular form of that law, however, or how that law relates to the Pentateuch as it has come down to us in its canonical form.
Ezra is frequently referred to as “the father of Judaism,” that is, the father of Judaism as a religious system based upon Torah, or law. He was certainly an important person in the history of Judaism and played a significant role in the revitalization of Jewish life based upon Torah. Without diminishing Ezra’s importance, however, we must remember that he was not the originator of Judaism as a legal system. This legal system can be traced to the religious reforms of King Josiah in 622 BCE (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chronicles 34–35). It was Josiah who promulgated a code of law, most likely an edition of Deuteronomy. Ultimately, however, Judaism as a religion of Torah may be traced to the example of Moses and to the role of the Levitical priests in the teaching of Torah in early Israelite culture. It is no wonder that Ezra is depicted as a kind of second Moses, emulating the experience of former times through his actions and words.
Against exaggerated claims for Ezra, we may note that when the Jewish sage Ben Sira extolled the great heroes of Judaism from Enoch to Simon the Just in his eulogy “Let us now praise famous men” (Sirach 44–50), he did not even mention Ezra. For Ben Sira, the heroes of the Persian period were Zerubbabel, Joshua and Nehemiah. According to Ben Sira, it was Nehemiah who “raised for us the walls that had fallen, and set up the gates and bars and rebuilt our ruined houses” (Sirach 49:13).
Nehemiah’s principal accomplishments are described in the Book of Nehemiah. He rebuilt the gates and walls of Jerusalem, despite the concerted resistance of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, Tobiah, governor of Ammon, and Geshem, the leader of the Arab Kedarite confederacy (Nehemiah 1–4, 6, 12:27–43). Nehemiah also enforced legislation on mortgages, loans and interest for the betterment of the economic life of the Judahite citizens (Nehemiah 5). He repopulated Jerusalem by means of a public lottery in which one-tenth of the Jewish population was moved into the city (Nehemiah 11). He established Jewish control over the cultural and economic life of the city (Nehemiah 13:15–22). He established cultic reforms to ensure that the Levites and Temple singers would not disperse to the countryside (Nehemiah 13:10–14). Finally, he enforced Ezra’s legislation concerning intermarriage, especially as it affected the priestly orders (Nehemiah 13:1–9, 23–29). Of Nehemiah’s varied accomplishments, the greatest attention is given to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and for good reason: This was a major move in the implementation of Persian imperial policy that demonstrated Yehud’s continuing cooperation with the powers that be. There is no doubt that Nehemiah’s adversaries understood the full import of those actions.
These reforms indicate that during Nehemiah’s administrations as governor, he exercised far more control over local affairs than did his predecessors, although he exercised authority within the larger framework of Persian concerns for tighter regulation of local affairs. This is consistent with what we now know about administrative changes allowing more autonomy in the western Persian provinces in the late fifth century BCE The hostility of Nehemiah’s neighboring governors also reflects this situation. Each maneuvered for greater control over his own area and entered into alliances (in this case against Judah) aimed at establishing his own hegemony. The positioning of the Samaritan governor Sanballat as leader of the conspiracy against Nehemiah reflects the history of Samaritan desire for hegemony over Judah after its collapse in 586 BCE and the assassination of the puppet governor Gedaliah.