No Evidence Cyrus allowed the Jews to Return

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by Neil Godfrey

In my book collection I have a massive (both in size and weight) Reader’s Digest 1971 version of the King James 1611 translation of the Bible. On page 377, the second page into the Book of Ezra, is this image and caption:

Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those … whom Nebuchadnez’zar… had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city. Ezra 2:1

The page has other images and captions:

King Cyrus of Persia proved to be a benevolent conqueror after defeating the Babylonians in 538 B.C. He refrained from slaughtering or enslaving his foes, and issued a proclamation allowing the exiles from Judah and other countries to return to their homelands. A similar decree of Cyrus, shown at the top of this page, was found at Babylon. In it, Cyrus tells of rebuilding the temples of his vanquished enemies and restoring the people to their dwelling places. After Cyrus’ decree the exiled Jews organized their return to Judah. Those who chose to stay in Babylonia aided those who returned with “the freewill offering for the house of God” (Ezra 1:4), which must have included silver vessels much like the Persian bowl [left], excavated in Palestine. . . . .

I am sure I am not alone in having wished that the cited Cyrus Cylinder really did say what the Biblical verse placed adjacent to it said. There was always a slight discomfort over the fact that it was limited, exclusively, to a restoration in Babylon.

An ancient history textbook widely used right through to the mid 1960s introduced students to Cyrus thus:

[The author of the Psalm 137] greeted the sudden rise of Cyrus the Persian with joy. All kings, he taught, were but instruments in the hands of Yahveh, who through the Persians would overthrow the Chaldeans and return the Hebrews to their land. . . .

When the victorious Persian king Cyrus entered Babylon, the Hebrew exiles there greeted him as their deliverer. His triumph gave the Hebrews a Persian ruler. With great humanity the Persian kings allowed the exiles to return to their native land. Some had prospered in Babylonia and did not care to return, but at different times enough of them went back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city on a very modest scale and to restore the temple. (Breasted 233)

Undergraduates in the later 1960s who used the Scramuzza and MacKendrick text read the following:

Characteristically and sensationally, Cyrus liberated the men and gods who had been war prisoners. He sent most of them back home, including some of the Jews . . . . (110)

The myth has known no bounds….

Soudavar, Abolala. “Cyrus, Ben Gurion and Ben Zion.” https://www.academia.edu/34828896/Cyrus_Ben_Gurion_and_Ben_Zion.

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Was there a Mass Return of Judeans from Babylonian exile?

If the concept of a mass return from Exile were correct, then

(1) hints of it should be present in official Persian documents;

(2) traces of it should be observable in the archaeological record of Persian-Period Yehud; and

(3) a dramatic demographic decrease of Judeans in Mesopotamia should be traceable.

(Becking 7)

1 Persian Documents regarding a Return from Exile

If the mass return from Exile was a historical fact, then one might expect traces of it in official documents from Mesopotamia or Persia. The Cyrus cylinder has been interpreted as showing a liberal policy of respect toward other religions — as showing that Cyrus’s policy toward the descendants of the Judean exiles was not unique but fitted the pattern of his rule (e.g., Bickerman 1946; Ackroyd 1968: 140-41; Weinberg 1992: 40; Young 1992: 1231-32). Amelia Kuhrt, however, has made clear that the inscription is of a propagandistic and stereotypical nature (Kuhrt 1983).

You can read the linked references online but the Kuhrt article is not so easy to access so I quote here the relevant extracts: Continue reading “No Evidence Cyrus allowed the Jews to Return”


Were Jews in Babylonian Exile Pining for Home in “Israel-Judah” and a Reformed Religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.

Thus opens Psalm 137. Does it reflect a realistic situation of captives who had been deported from the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in the seventh century BCE?

The conventional narrative for the beginnings of modern Judaism is that the Babylonian captivity enabled deportees from Jerusalem and its surrounds to reflect at leisure upon their past sins and the warnings of the prophets and to resolve to “behave” in future, eliminating all pagan idolatry from their religious practices and be true to Yahweh as Moses had originally commanded them. The literate class among them decided to write about their past history of sin and waywardness and to inculcate the need to be genuine monotheists as per the Ten Commandments and other laws beginning with Abraham.

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But what do we know — for facts — about ancient deportations of populations in that part of the ancient world? Does what we know lend credence to the above narrative? Let’s begin with

  • Oded, Bustenay. Mass Deportations and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1979.

Oded’s book is a mass of quotations from ancient documents.

What was the purpose of mass population deportations?

The use of deportation as a punishment, either for breach of treaty or for some other misdeed, was not only an Assyrian practice, but one that was common to all the peoples of the ancient Near East. (p. 43)

The intent was “to weaken national and political centres” . . .

to weaken their national spirit and their link with their homeland. It also reduced the possibility of a national revival.

Oded refers readers to a 1970 article in the Harvard Theological Review by John Holladay citing the evidence that ancient Assyrian kings understood that the policies of kings were understood to be the result of pressure from their population: it was the people who were responsible for their king’s rebellion.

Oded continues:

The exchange of populations and the dispersal of ethnic and national groups in various places was a way of breaking up separate nationalistic entities. (p. 44)

Oded further points out that deportees from Syria and the wider Levant living in Mesopotamia were convenient hostages. Any persons left behind in the land conquered who had close ties with any of the deportees would have to be careful not to take any action that would endanger the lives of their associates now in captivity.

Deportees were the most loyal to their conquerors

Let’s come to the crux. Those who were deported were taken to live among strangers. Those “strangers” did not appreciate having to give up their own lands and living areas to foreigners, the deportees. The deportees who were resettled in their new lands were therefore depending upon their erstwhile enemy power to protect them — from the locals.

These minority groups inclined to be loyal to Assyria, since their right to settle in the country to which they had been deported derived from the king of Assyria, who had them brought there. The indigenous population naturally did not welcome the intrusion and settlement of foreign elements in their cities and villages, by order of the conquering king, particularly as their own fellow-citizens had, in many cases, been deported to make room for the newcomers. They looked upon these newcomers as usurpers, who had taken possession of their compatriots’ property, not by right, but by order of the conquering king. The fields and vineyards which Rabshakeh promised to give the people of Jerusalem in a country like their own land — to which he would deport them if they surrendered were presumably the property of other people who had themselves been deported. The hostility between the deportees and the local population increased, whenever the national sentiment of the local population, and their desire to east off the Assyrian yoke, grew. The deportees did not share the national aspirations of the local population. Liberation from Assyrian rule could only be detrimental to them, since they had been brought to the country and settled there by the king of Assyria. . . .

The Assyrian king then became the protector of these deportees from persecution by the local population . . . (p. 46)

The conquerors were especially protective of those they deported:

The deportees were chosen mainly from among the leaders of the community and from the artisans. . . And they were deported to countries which had been depleted by deportation, of their own elite, so that the new arrivals formed a separate national and professional stratum in the population, foreign to, yet living in the midst of the indigenous inhabitants. This not only had the effect of sharpening the difference between the deportees and the local population, but it also meant that, in all the Assyrian provinces, the part of the population best qualified to serve the imperial Assyrian administration was composed mainly of deportees. . . . This explains the favourable treatment the deportees generally enjoyed, and the great concern shown by the Assyrian rulers for their welfare. (p. 47)

The deportees thus depended for their safety on the king who had captured them, and in such a position, their conqueror king found them useful as a counterweight to his own native population who may not have been happy with him:

The intention behind this policy may have been, inter alia, to provide a counterweight to local urban elements hostile to the king. (p. 48)

The jobs of the deportees

They were conscripted into the army.

Many such conscripts were not assigned as fighters but as service personnel to support the needs of the camps and fortresses of the army.

They were used to settle older cities as well as new and rebuilt city areas.

They were used to populate deserted and barren regions that were strategically important.

They were settled in a way that would

provide and increase reliable sources of food, and to enrich the state treasuries. (p. 67)

They were deployed in building projects, in the royal court as scribes, as singers and musicians, as physicians and diviners, as smiths — ironsmiths, goldsmiths — leatherworkers, ivory workers, carpenters. Those who were literate were used in businesses relating to loans and purchases, and as merchants and traders who could contribute to the wealth of the state.

To sum up

To sum up we can conclude that the socio-economic and legal status of the deportees was not uniform and their conditions were not identical. There were masters and dependants, full freemen and chattel slaves, soldiers and civilians, labouring freemen and labouring dependent persons, townsmen and villagers, free peasants and dependent farmers, free land holders, tenants and glebae adscripti. The rights and duties of the individual deportee were determined by a wide range of circumstances. The position of any particular deportee also depended on his occupation, on the employer, on the function he was singled out to perform, on his personal ability, and on the specific conditions prevailing in the place where he lived. (p. 115)

Now have another look at Psalm 137 and see how naively romantic such a picture is compared with reality. In the light of the above, can we imagine deportees seeking to revive ideas that led to them being conquered in the first place and that would indicate to their captors that they were not fully loyal to them? Can we imagine the captors allowing those they deported to take with them their scrolls and tablets that were records of their cult and chronicles? If priests were to be useful they would serve the Babylonian cult as scribes and as temple and sacrifice support persons, or as literati in the court.


Daniel’s end time prophecies in context: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley in his 2007 publication, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea, alerts us to ancient Mesopotamian prophetic texts that have remarkable similarities to our well-known Book of Daniel. I find it most interesting to read these other texts in order to appreciate better the context and nature of our canonical book that has played a key role in New Testament literature and subsequent apocalyptic and millenarian beliefs.

Recall Daniel 11, that detailed prophecy of the king of the north moving against the king of the south and the king of the south rising up and the manipulation of powers by flatteries etc etc etc, all a detailed “prophecy” of the political struggles between the Seleucid (Syrian) and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) empires over the region of Judea. . . . Interestingly there is a remarkably similar (generically and stylistically) type of prophecy from Hellenistic Babylon, an Akkadian text known as the Dynastic Prophecy. It’s survives in a fragmented state, but we can see its striking similarity to the kind of text we read in Daniel 11:2-45 nonetheless. I have copied this from the text found on Scribd, apparently derived from publications by Grayson and Longman.

[…] me. […] me. […] left. […] great. […]

seed. […] he sees.

[…] a later day. […] will be overthrown. […]

will be annihilated. […] Assyria. […] silver (?) and […] will attack and […] Babylon, will attack and […] will be overthrown. […] will life up and […] will come/go […] will seize […] he will destroy […] will shroud […] he (=Nabonidus) will bring ex[tensive booty] into Babylon. […] he (= the Achaemenids/Elam) will decorate the Esagil and the Ezida . […] he will build the palace of Babylon. […] Nippur to Babylon. He will exercise kingship [for x year]s.

. . . .

Continue reading “Daniel’s end time prophecies in context: 1”


God’s Mass Deportation Policy

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by Neil Godfrey

“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Oil on board, 1563. The Tower of Babel symbolises the division of mankind by a multitude of tongues provided through heavenly intervention. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Thus saith the word of the Lord. Genesis 11:1-9.

And so here we are today, speaking our language in our bit of real estate. It all sounds sort of cute, but a book that’s been around for a little while now jolted me by bringing to my attention what quite likely inspired the imagination of the author of this tale. Continue reading “God’s Mass Deportation Policy”


Berlin – Babylon: Mythos und Wahrheit / Myth and Truth

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by Neil Godfrey

Have just visited some of the most spectacular museums and galleries, and one exhibit with the theme of the “myth and truths of Babylon” at the Pergamon Museum. Lower floor consists of displays of artefacts and reconstructions from ancient and medieval Mesopotamia – from Sumerian to Arabian arts and sciences (along with monuments from Pergamon); upper floor looks at the myth of Babylon through the ages up to modern times, and includes spectacular arts from medieval scripts right through to 20th century film. 

By the way I do love these late night Berlin (or rather Lichtenberg) internet cafes (where I am right now ) that are more like mini-bars — beer, smoke, music, warm conversation noise — than anything like the functional but sterile internet cafes I know in Australia. Wonder if this is a more general European (East European??) thing?

But was struck by the displays that related to two or three biblical areas –

Babylonian medicine is often seen as remarkably advanced (surgery, diagnoses and remedies etc.) — but we also saw the evidence here that that apparent “science” was in league with “faith” of sorts. All those healing “sciences” were really only a part of a more comprehensive religious practice. The real goal of healing physically was to assist restoring the body in the right relationship with the deity who had, presumably, been offended, and so effected the disease in the first place. It reminded me of the healings of Jesus. After all, what is “forgiveness of sin” if not a restoration of a “right relationship with the deity”? In the context of this Museum exhibit, the healings of Jesus in the Bible are nothing more than an extension of ancient Mid/Near East medicine. Or at least just as “magical”.

Another biblical theme paralled at this exhibit was the myth (though on the “fact” floor) of the king — chosen by the deity etc, but especially noted as “a shepherd” of his people.

Do those who love the biblical myths really want to restore ancient Babylonian concepts of governance and medicine?

There was another feature I was going to mention here but it is getting late (takes a long time to master the subtle intracies of a European keyboard!) and I have a day of workshops tomorrow so it will have to wait.