Archaeological Evidence from the Persian Period
Until fairly recently, the Persian period was characterized as the dark age of Israelite history. This is no longer true, partly because of the availability of newer materials, but especially because of the work of Ephraim Stern of Hebrew University and other archaeologists in Israel whose surveys and discoveries have opened new vistas for study of this era of profound change and development.
Stern has made a number of pertinent observations: During the Persian period, the land of Israel was divided into two culturally distinct regions. The separation was as definite as that between two countries. One region consisted of the hill country of Judah and Transjordan (and to a lesser extent Samaria); the other included Galilee and the Mediterranean coastal plain. Judah’s local culture was a continuation of its earlier culture (as noted by William F. Albright, who called the Persian period Iron Age III), although its culture also reflected Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian influence. Galilee and the Mediterranean coast, on the other hand, were influenced by Greek and Phoenician cultures. Strangely, the material culture of the Persian period reflects almost no influence of the ruling Persians—the exceptions being a few pottery types and some Persian-style jewelry manufactured by Phoenicians. The major influence of the Persians on Israelite culture seems to relate to government, military organization, economic life and taxation. The reorganization of the empire by Darius I—who installed local leaders and requested that local laws be collated and religious laws implemented—no doubt greatly influenced the pace and level of literary activities in the conquered territories during his reign. The most direct influence can be seen in coins and seals. Changes in seals impressed on the handles of jars used in connection with the collection of taxes indicate administrative reforms—leading to increased local control—at the end of the fifth century. Imperial Achaemenid motifs in seals and seal impressions gradually are replaced by designs in local Aramaic script. A similar change is noted in coins, where we find the gradual appearance of the province name in Aramaic. Sometimes we even find coins with the governor’s name in Aramaic.
The Borders of Judah
The extent of Judahite hegemony in the time of Nehemiah—that is, the borders of the province of Yehud—is reflected in several toponymical references in Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in the distribution of Yehud seal impressions and coins found in the area. Ezra (2:21–35) and Nehemiah (7:25–38, 3:2–22, 12:28–29) list names of places in the territory of Benjamin, the Jordan Valley from Jericho to Ein Gedi, the Judahite hills from Jerusalem to Beth Zur, and the districts of Lod and Adulam in the Shephelah. These areas, as Stern has noted, correspond approximately to the region where Yehud seals, seal impressions and coins have been found—from Tel en-Nasbeh in the north to Beth Zur in the south and from Jericho and Ein Gedi in the east to Gezer in the west. Evidence of the borders also comes from archaeological surveys conducted by Moshe Kochavi, Israel Finkelstein and Avi Ofer; these archaeologists have discovered lines of forts erected by the Jews during the Persian period as defenses against the province of Ashdod in the west and Edomite territories in the south. The lines of demarcation of the province of Judah on the south established by these forts correspond to the borders indicated in the biblical lists cited above and to the distribution of Yehud seals and impressions.
A list in Nehemiah 11:23–35, however, gives much wider boundaries for Judah. This may not be a description of the actual borders of Judah, but rather a statement of the territory that Judah considered its own, an idealization based on older biblical boundaries. The actual borders probably were much smaller.
The size of the province of Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, were limited not simply by the amount of power Nehemiah and his successors could arrogate but also by the available Jewish population. Excavations in Judah and Jerusalem have shown that the city grew significantly in the Persian period, as did the province of Judah. The population nearly doubled to about 17,000 and Jerusalem’s size increased approximately fourfold. There is no doubt that the population of Judah decreased significantly in the Exilic period and that in the restoration period the population remained small. By the time of Nehemiah, however, there was significant and important growth and change in the demographics of Judah. The biblical tradition that the land was denuded of its people in the early sixth century BCE is not simply an overstatement by the editors of 2 Kings and Jeremiah or a fiction imposed by the Chronicler to promote the idea of sabbatical rest for the land. The rebuilding of the Jewish population took several hundred years; it was not until the second century BCE that there was a sizable Jewish population in Judah and Jerusalem.
Persian Period Sources
With the work of Nehemiah, biblical historiography ends. Our knowledge of Jewish life during the remainder of the Persian period (until the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE) is sketchy at best. From the Elephantine papyri we learn that the governor of Yehud in the year 408 BCE was Bagohi and that in the same year Samaria was governed by Delaiah and Shelemaiah, sons of Nehemiah’s adversary, Sanballat. The Jews of Yeb (Elephantine) wrote to these Samaritan and Judahite leaders seeking assistance in rebuilding their temple. Josephus records an incident from the time of Artaxerxes II (404–358 BCE) in which the Persians “defiled the sanctuary and imposed tribute on the Jews” (and also that “the people were made slaves”) for a period of seven years. This, he says, resulted from the interference of Artaxerxes’ general Bagoses who tried to appoint Jesus (that is, Joshua/Jeshua) son of Eliashib as high priest and became enraged when Jesus was murdered by his brother, the high priest Joannes (Johanan) Some scholars believe the Bagoses of this story is Bagohi, the governor of Judah known from the Elephantine papyri.
The last Persian period incident recorded by Josephus occurred on the eve of Alexander’s conquest of the area. According to Josephus, the Samaritans led by Sanballat built a temple on Mt. Gerizim. The reference is to Sanballat III, grandson of the earlier Sanballat who had opposed Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Judah. The building of a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim around 332 BCE is evident not only from Josephus and the sources he used, but also from the archaeological evidence. Foundations of a temple at Tel er-Ras, on Mt. Gerizim, have recently been excavated. Josephus claimed that this temple was built when expelled priests from the Jerusalem Temple and other malcontents from Jewish society took refuge with the Samaritans. This may or may not have been the case. It is more likely that this temple was an expression of the Samaritans’ own national identity as a Hebrew people who claimed descent from the old Joseph tribes of the north (Ephraim and Manasseh) and who desired to worship God at the ancient and (from their understanding) true sanctuary at Shechem.
Because Josephus’s account bears certain similarities to a brief note in Nehemiah 13:28 concerning Nehemiah’s expulsion of a son-in-law of Sanballat I from Jerusalem, some scholars have been inclined to date the building of the Samaritan sanctuary (and the alleged schism) to that earlier time (about 425 BCE). Others have dated the event to the time of Ezra (about 450 BCE), although the biblical traditions on Ezra make no reference at all to the Samaritans, even in cases of intermarriage. In fact, the biblical record does not mention a Samaritan schism during the time of Ezra or Nehemiah. The history of the Samaritans as an autonomous religious community residing at Shechem belongs to a later time, no earlier than 332 BCE.
In sum, the restoration of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel following Cyrus’s edict of return was accomplished through successive waves of immigration of both leaders and their followers from the Babylonian Exile. We are not told of any role played by those who had remained in the land or by returnees from the Diaspora in Egypt. Although the biblical record covers a period of about 115 years (from 538 to 423 BCE), or longer if Ezra was active during the reign of Artaxerxes II, the reporting of the period is episodic, focusing on the specific actions of five leaders: the return of the Temple vessels under Sheshbazzar; the rebuilding of the Temple under Zerubbabel and Joshua; the renewal of the cult and establishment of Mosaic law as the constitutional basis of society, with the prohibition of mixed marriages, by Ezra; and the rebuilding of the gates and walls of Jerusalem and the development of its economic and religious life by Nehemiah. Of these five leaders, Nehemiah is credited with the greatest specific political and social accomplishments. Resistance to the development of a Jewish state came primarily from Samaria because of cultural differences aggravated by political conditions. The biblical account may be understood against a dual background: the political history of the Persian Empire and the archaeology of the land to which they returned. From the latter, we gain a clearer picture of the political realignments and the development of Judah as a semi-autonomous province in the late sixth century BCE, under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua together with subsequent governors and high priests until the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah in the second half of the fifth century BCE Without these developments, it would be difficult to imagine the subsequent evolution of Judaism as a religion that would survive the loss of the Second Temple and have so great an influence on Western religions.