Redating the Building of the 'Second' Temple

It is hard to see what benefit would have accrued from rebuilding the temple under either Cyrus or Darius while Jerusalem remained unoccupied and in ruins. How would either king have benefited from a pilgrimage site in a destroyed city in an underdeveloped, distant province?

A summary of the main arguments made in D. Edelman, The Origins of the 'Second' Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Yehud (London: Equinox, 2005).

By Diana Edelman
University of Sheffield
November 2005

The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Neo-Babylonians, who made Judah into the province of Yehud, and it was not rebuilt until sometime after the Persians conquered the Babylonians and became the new masters of the ancient Levant (538-333 BCE). The books of Haggai and Zechariah place the rebuilding process in the reign of King Darius (Darius I 522-486 BCE; Darius II 424-405 BE; Darius III 337-330 BCE), while Ezra 1-6 begin it in the reign of King Cyrus (Cyrus I 559-530 BCE; Cyrus II 404-401 BCE) but claim that the process was interrupted and only finished in the reign of Darius. According to the book of Haggai, divine jealousy motivated God to inspire the people to rebuild the temple; according to the book of Ezra, God simply commissioned Cyrus to rebuild the temple; no underlying motivation is given. What is odd in both cases is that the temple would have been rebuilt in an otherwise ruined city, which, according to the book of Nehemiah, was not rebuilt or repopulated until some 70-160 years later in years 20-21 of King Artaxerxes. Three kings bore this name (Artaxerxes I 465-425 BCE; Artaxerxes II 405/404-359/358 BCE; Artaxerxes III 359/358-338 BCE) but only the first two reigned at least 21 years (introduction).

Contemporary history-writing grounds its interpretation of events in chains of logical cause and effect that do not include God as an active agent or motivation. In order to understand when and why the temple was rebuilt, we need to ask what a Persian king would have stood to gain from endorsing such an action. From this perspective, it is hard see what benefit would have accrued from rebuilding the temple under either Cyrus or Darius while Jerusalem remained unoccupied and in ruins. How would either king have benefited from a pilgrimage site in a destroyed city in an underdeveloped, distant province? On the other hand, it would have made more sense for the Artaxerxes who rebuilt Jerusalem to have endorsed such a project to provide a place of worship for the native deity of the land and collection point for taxes within the new provincial seat as well as a site that could serve as a regional royal treasury. But if the latter is patently more plausible and sensible, why do the biblical texts separate the temple's rebuilding from the rebuilding of Jerusalem? Or, at least, why do the authors or editors of Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah separate the two by at least 70 years, while the author of 2 Macc 1:18-2:15 credits Nehemiah with the rebuilding of the temple and altar, a view that Josephus repeats (Ant. XI,165) (introduction)?

In order to resolve the conflicting biblical accounts and deduce when and why the temple in Jerusalem would have been rebuilt, I began with the genealogical information in the book of Nehemiah. The book establishes a relative chronological framework by referring to selected events and people during the high priesthoods of the seven individuals who held that position from the time of the rebuilding of the temple to the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander in 333 BCE. I wanted to see in particular where Nehemiah fell within these generations in comparison to Zerubbabel, who is said to have led a group of settlers to Yehud in the reign of Darius and to have overseen the rebuilding of the temple. He represents generation 2 and was active during the high priesthood of Yeshua, a member of generation 1. When various persons named in the book are related to the high priestly generations and then we step back and see with whom Nehemiah is said to have interacted while active in office, he seems to be logically associated with generation 3, or possibly, generation 2. If we assume that there are about 25-30 years between generations, taking the average age of a male at the time he married and produced his first child, then this investigation yields the rather surprising result that Zerubbabel and Nehemiah were not some 70 years apart as the current biblical dating scheme suggests. Instead, they belonged to the same generation or were one generation apart. We either can presume that the author of Nehemiah has used early sources naming individuals that he has inadvertently moved later in time and wrongly associated with Nehemiah, or we can accept the results to signal that the dates for the rebuilding of the temple or for the rebuilding of Jerusalem are incorrect (chapter 1).

The one firm anchor outside the Bible that allows us to decide which event in the latter option should be moved is a draft of a letter found in Egypt at the Jewish military colony at Elephantine that is dated to 408 BCE. It mentions that the sons of Sinuballit/Sanballat, governor of Samerina, have been asked to be patrons and help secure permission for the Jewish temple to be rebuilt at the garrison. The letter suggests that Sinuballit is probably dead himself but that his grown sons still carry much clout because of their father's former status. This situation would be consistent with the claim in the book of Nehemiah that Sanballat/Sinuballit was active during Nehemiah's assignment to Jerusalem, where the latter oversaw the rebuilding of the city walls and the repopulation of the city between years 20 and 21 of a King Artaxerxes. Since Artaxerxes II did not begin his reign until 405/404 BCE, Artaxerxes I must be the king in question. Thus, it seems that the rebuilding of the temple needs to be shifted later, since the rebuilding of the city walls seems to be correctly located under Artaxerxes, assuming that the reported conflicts between Sanballat and Nehemiah are grounded on knowledge that these two men were in office contemporaneously (chapter 1).

How, then, would the dates which set the temple rebuilding process in years 2 and 4 of Darius (Hag 1:1, 15; 2:1, 10, 20; Zech 1:1, 7; 7:11) in the books of Haggai and Zechariah have originated,? The first point to note here is that the dates in other prophetic books are recognized to be secondary additions; it seems logical to apply this same assumption to these two prophetic books as part of the same process. So how would a later editor have arrived at his dates? Logically, he would have used internal context clues from the writings themselves. Two references occur in Zech 1.12 and 7.1 to Jer 25:11-12 and Jer 29:10, and they predict that the land of Judah will lay desolate for 70 years. Both provide rationales for why it is time to rebuild the temple. While modern scholars are aware that the prediction originally would have been made in 605 BCE on the eve of the Battle of Carchemish, the editor who added the dates to these books appears to have construed the predictions to refer instead to the length of time the land would lay desolate after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE. Working with this 70-year figure, he was led to place the rebuilding of the temple during the reign of Darius, who was in power 70 years later (chapter 2).

I think he chose years 2 and 4 of this king's reign because he also had as a source Darius' explanation of how he became king, which had been translated into many languages and widely disseminated around the Persian Empire. A copy was found at Elephantine, for example, in Aramaic. According to local Judahite temple-building tradition, the land must be at rest for a temple to be rebuilt (I Kgs 4:24-35; 5:3-5). Darius' inscription indicates that the king was engaged in war in years 1 and 3 of his reign. A careful examination of the context implied by Zech 7:1, which the editor assigned to year 4 of Darius' reign, indicates that the temple was on the eve of being completed or had recently been completed. The editor seems to have taken these implications seriously and have assigned a date in year 4 accordingly, after the unrest associated with the struggle for the throne had been completely resolved (chapter 2).

The two references in Zechariah to 70-year-destruction period would seem to have generated a date under Darius for the rebuilding of the temple. Two underlying explanations for this circumstance come to mind, though more are no doubt possible: 1) the date of the rebuilding was not known at the time the editor wrote and so had to be deduced from internal textual clues; or 2) the date was known but the editor was particularly interested to have the temple rebuilding be seen to be a fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy to uphold the reliability of God in carrying through on his revealed word. In this case, the references to 70 years may also be secondary in the text (chapter 2).

What, then, of the account of the temple's rebuilding in Ezra 1-6, which begins the process under Cyrus and has it completed under Darius, exactly 71 years after the destruction of Jerusalem? Does it contain any source material outside of the biblical text that might indicate that the dates within the story are historically reliable? The same principle of seeing prophetic fulfillment in historical reality is evident in this account (chapter 3).

The commencement of the process under Cyrus and the report that the temple vessels were returned at that time is grounded in the prediction of both events in 2 Isaiah (44:28 and 52:11). The completion of the process in the 71st year after the destruction of the monarchic-era temple rests upon a literal reading of Jer 25:11-12 and 29:10, reinforced by the dates already introduced into Haggai and Zechariah, which already had been based on a looser application of the 70-year figure. The use of the title nasi' to describe Sheshbazzar is taken from the multiple predictions in Ezekiel 40-48 that the local ruler would bear this title when the temple was rebuilt. The dimensions given for the rebuilt temple are probably derived from the predicted dimension of its outer wall in Ezekiel 40. Dependence on the account of the temple-building in 1 Chronicles 22 through 2 Chronicles 7 as opposed to the one in 1 Kings 3-9 is evident, particularly in three details: the report that Cyrus returned the temple vessels, that he designated the use of private as well as public funds to pay for the project, and that David established the Levites in their temple service. A careful review of each of the letters allegedly cited from official correspondence reveals a strong Jewish bias in each instance and cultural anomalies that do not favor their genuineness. In addition, it is not immediately apparent how the author would have gained access to copies of this official correspondence (chapter 3).

I have concluded that the account of the temple-building in Ezra 1-6 is based solely on biblical texts. The only detail in it that is not found elsewhere in the Bible is the name of Sheshbazzar, the nasi', who allegedly led a group back to Yehud during the reign of Cyrus. Since it is unlikely that there was a return at that time, it appears that the author chose a Babylonian name for his character in order to give his story local coloring. The author used existing biblical texts that predicted or recounted something of the rebuilding process, as well as existing accounts concerning the building of the first temple, to compose it. He worked on the principle that the temple was rebuilt in a way that corresponded to all of God's prophetically mediated promises about when and what would transpire (chapter 3) and used the standard template for temple-building to frame his account, as did the arrangers of Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 (chapter 3).

When we turn to the letter to Aristobulus found in 2 Macc 1:10-2:18, which attributes the temple-building to Nehemiah rather than Zerubbabel, we encounter problems as well. The author may not have based this claim on source material documenting Nehemiah as the temple-rebuilder. His comments reveal that he was a strong supporter of the Hasmonean kings, who were not Davidic in ancestry. Thus, in order to silence critics of the Hasmoneans in his own time, he might have wanted to remove credit for the rebuilding of the temple from Zerubbabel, a Davidic heir, to downplay the importance of this royal legacy after the demise of the kingdom of Judah and in his own time. With such a motivation, it would have been logical for him to attribute the temple's rebuilding to Nehemiah, the person credited with rebuilding Jerusalem at large (chapter 6).

In writing history, sources have to be evaluated and not taken at face value. My evaluation of the books of Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, and Ezra 1-6 has led me to conclude that their setting of the rebuilding of the Persian-era temple under Cyrus and/or Darius is not historically accurate. While the setting under Artaxerxes in 2 Macc 1:18-2:15 is, the author of that tradition did not necessarily know what he was saying was correct.

A review of the likely extent of the province of Yehud under Artaxerxes I (chapter 4) and then of the settlement patterns within its boundaries in the Persian period at large (chapter 5) shows that a series of administrative sites, possibly fire relay stations, were established on S-N and W-E lines leading from the coastal plain and Beersheba Valley to Jerusalem, the new provincial seat. Farmsteads tend to cluster in the vicinity of these sites, especially those that were newly established in the Persian period. Taking into consideration that Artaxerxes I inherited a rebellious Egyptian province, I propose that he decided to redevelop Yehud in order to incorporate it more fully into the imperial road, postal, military, and economic systems, with an eye toward being better organized in the territory adjoining Egypt. To this end, he moved the capital from Mizpah back to Jerusalem, which was more strategically located at a crossroads with an on-site water source, and boosted the population in a forced immigration. The newly arrived population served two purposes: 1) the males could be called up to serve as soldiers if necessary and be mobilized and moved into Egypt as an advance guard in the event of another revolt; and 2) they could increase agricultural yields and help build food supplies for overland military forces en route to Egypt in the case of future need. There was no slow trickle of Jews returning under each Persian king to the homeland; there was a single, concerted movement of settlers into Yehud as part of a larger master plan involving the redevelopment of this backwater province situated on the edge of Egypt. The rebuilding of Jerusalem as the provincial seat included the rebuilding of the temple so that the local population could honor their native deity and pay their taxes in annual festivals at the site. The site could serve as the provincial stronghold and also yield income to Persian coffers in the form of taxes imposed on sacrifices (chapter 6).

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