Judaean Elite Encounters with the Fledgling Persian Empire: The Evidence of Second Isaiah and First Zechariah

Local elites had the option to choose how to respond to changing social and political circumstances. Such choices can include resistance, but they are not limited to it. Various forms of cooperation and negotiation are also on the table. Moreover, I think that it is unhelpful to think of “resistance” as a heroic category unto itself; people resist something in particular. It is much more likely for ancient elites to resist a particular claimant for the throne than it is for them to resist kingship or empire per se—and I find it helpful to keep these types of constructs separate. Therefore, in an attempt to explore how some Judaeans reacted to the early Persian Empire, I wish to consider how the elite could have pursued cultural production in a way that was acceptable to both parties—the local traditions and the new imperial system.

See Also:  Persian Royal—Judaean Elite Engagements in the Early Teispid and Achaemenid Empire: The King’s Acolytes (LHBOTS 690: London: T&T Clark, 2019).

By Jason M. Silverman
Docent in Old Testament Studies
University of Helsinki
October 2019


       Local responses to empire have been very much in the fore in scholarship of the past several decades. This interest has been, in some ways, a reaction to earlier scholarship that gleefully took a top-down perspective and, in others, an outgrowth of critical reflections on western colonialism and orientalism. Such focus has heightened awareness of the lopsided, interested, and repressive realities that imperial structures form in their wake. Ethical considerations behoove scholars to remember the marginal and the oppressed, the mechanisms that make them so, as well as the apparatuses by which they resist.
       In this context, Biblical scholars have increasingly taken the mantle of the liberatrix and used an anti-imperial lens to read texts now in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. One of the most popular buzzwords for this effort has been “hidden transcripts,” taken from James C. Scott (1985).[1] As part of his anthropological work on peasants, Scott argued that dominated classes should be understood as “working the system…to their minimum disadvantage” (1985: xv) and that this involved a two-layer discursive strategy. The first is the “power-laden” public version and a “backstage” version, the “hidden transcript” (1985: xvii, 317; more often, he calls it the “full,” “backstage,” or “unedited transcript”). This concept has been applied to various different texts in the Hebrew Bible to argue for their being scribes’ attempts at writing such a “hidden transcript” in their resistance to empire.
       This simple and attractive interpretative scheme has some flaws. In my book, I cite four. First, considering ancient Near Eastern scribes to have been peasants rather than aligned with more elite classes is problematic. Scott explicitly excluded “politics” in the sense of elite-on-elite competition from his remit (1985: xv). While the definition of “elite” in the ancient Near East is itself an open question, scribes cannot easily be equated with the agricultural peasants of Scott’s study. Second, this view adopts a modern view of imperialism as nefarious, without considering whether such a view was a dominant or likely view among ancient Near Eastern elites themselves. Third, it tends to underplay shades of ambiguity and ambivalence between two radical poles of collaboration or resistance.[2] Fourth, I suspect it is another example of trying to find a new way to recast the biblical authors as modern ethical heroes, as if turning the authors of Ezekiel or Revelation into proto-Marxes or Gandhis. An additional issue to consider is that Scott’s study explicitly dealt with agricultural mechanization, something anachronistic for the Persian Empire. For these reasons, the exploration of local elite reactions to empire needs a different approach less based on ideological presuppositions and more sensitive to emic perceptions of empire.
       Rather than starting from a model of what ancient elites must have thought about an empire (i.e., the Persian) or empires in general, I wish to start with an assumption of elite agency: that is, local elites had the option to choose how to respond to changing social and political circumstances. Such choices can include resistance, but they are not limited to it. Various forms of cooperation and negotiation are also on the table. Moreover, I think that it is unhelpful to think of “resistance” as a heroic category unto itself; people resist something in particular. It is much more likely for ancient elites to resist a particular claimant for the throne than it is for them to resist kingship or empire per se—and I find it helpful to keep these types of constructs separate. Therefore, in an attempt to explore how some Judaeans reacted to the early Persian Empire, I wish to consider how the elite could have pursued cultural production in a way that was acceptable to both parties—the local traditions and the new imperial system.
       My case studies for exploring local elite engagements with the Persian Empire are Second Isaiah (40–55) and First Zechariah (1–8). I chose these two texts because they are both widely considered to derive from the early Persian Empire and both deal with key issues of kingship and cult. The questions I ask of each text are how Cyrus, Cambyses, (Bardiya), and Darius I portrayed their rule to local elites, and how local elites reshaped this ideology for their own use. Answering these two interlocking questions requires several stages for each text: a literary analysis, an analysis of elite Judean culture based on the literature in a socio-historical context, and an analysis of the results in conversation within the greater Persian context. This, then, can lead to a more nuanced understanding of some of the relations between local elites and the Persian Empire. Space does not allow for a full summary of relevant analysis here; rather, I will focus on some conclusions of interest to biblical studies.

Second Isaiah as an Oral Dictated Lyric Poem from Urban Babylon

       Genre is a key variable in communication, pregnant with historical and sociological particulars that may be illuminating in the right frame. I argue that Second Isaiah is best understood as a lyric poem (Heffelfinger 2011) that was originally part of an oral poetic tradition and was transcribed in a textual version (Lord 2000). This most likely took place among the Judaeans living in the city of Babylon, where familiarity with now-defunct Davidic traditions and with practices within the city could be expected. The poem in all probability derives from c. 539–484 BCE. Key for understanding this social setting is the recognition of the effects of migration and minority status. Communities are forced to develop new social structures when they move; new leaders, new sub-groups, and new conceptions of the “homeland” emerge (cf. Smith[-Christopher] 1989). This applies to exiled monarchs and their courts-in-exile as well; their major task is to maintain their royal status as well as the necessary, corollary perception that they ought to be returned to the throne (Mansell and Riotte 2011). One well-attested medium for such cultural negotiations on both common and royal levels is oral poetry (e.g., Siddiq 1995; Olszewska 2007).
       In this social context, several aspects of Second Isaiah are noteworthy. First is the usage of creation theology. Many scholars have noted how the depiction of Yhwh as creator contrasts with the contemporary myth of Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. This makes sense within the city of Babylon, where the myth of Marduk’s creation was both a key element in the city’s ideology as well as annually displayed in a major public festival. However, Isaiah also closely parallels the Persian kings’ own use of creation in their royal inscriptions. The poem uses creation to posit Yhwh’s power and worthiness as a deity. More significantly, creation also serves to depict Yhwh as benevolent and to justify Yhwh’s servant, two functions it shares with the Old Persian royal discourse. Therefore, it is best to see Second Isaiah’s creation theology as both negatively influenced by Marduk theology but positively influenced by Ahura Mazda theology (cf. already Silverman 2017).
       Second, Isaiah’s servant theology is significant in the new Persian context. Rather than focus on a king as the most important agent of divinity on Earth, the poet paints a complex picture of variety in divine service. This is a useful perspective to have in a cosmopolitan setting, such as Babylon itself, or indeed, the entire empire. It also echoes Zoroastrian emphases of variety in divine service.[3] Within this theology, the depiction of Cyrus must be highlighted. As many commentators have noted, Cyrus received all the pre-exilic markers of legitimate royal status that had been used by the Davidic monarchy—servant, anointed, chosen, and holding a treaty with Yhwh. This happens in a social context where there was most likely still a Davidic court-in-exile attempting to retain its legitimacy. The fact that the poet entirely ignores this court in favor of Cyrus makes the poem’s support of Cyrus even more forceful than one might think at first sight.
       Lastly, the poet uses Yhwh as a significant social marker for the audience; this functions as the trope of “home” does in migrant discourse. The audience is exhorted to attach themselves to Yhwh, and a rebuilt temple is posited as the reward for attachment. The audience is encouraged to praise, worship, remember, and tell of Yhwh, but not to return to Yehud, which is expectable within a “diaspora” discourse. Further, the way the poet emphasizes knowledge and teaching over cult is convenient for a group that may have been aspiring to positions in imperial administration; it allows them to remain attached to their deity even without local access to cult.

First Zechariah as a Gubernatorial Vision Report on Temple Re-foundation from Ramat Raḥel

       In my view, First Zechariah is the local version of an official report on temple re-foundation. This is supported by a close look at the phenomenology of visions and at the Persian interaction with Near Eastern temples. This makes it analogous to the Greek and Lycian versions of the Xanthos Trilingual stele. In this case, divine approval was ascertained through visions, and the context most likely the gubernatorial administration of the province at Ramat Raḥel, just outside Jerusalem (Mitchell 2016). With the given dates for the vision cycle (second and fourth years of Darius), the visions and the resulting report belong in the period of elite renegotiations with Darius’ consolidation of power after the revolts (522–20 BCE). In this context, the task of the text is to justify the rebuilding of the temple, the necessary imperial involvement for this to happen, and the provincial elites’ envelopment in the process. An additional political factor was Darius’ expected campaign to conquer Egypt (c. 518), which would have caused the Persian king and his army to pass through Palestine twice (cf. Berquist 1995: 70).
       When read in this context, the first and last visions in the cycle strongly support Darius’ victories in Mesopotamia over the rival kings. Rather than a “nationalistic” or “messianic” perspective, this is pro-imperial. In fact, the cycle as a whole justifies the current Persian context. Three new interpretations facilitated by this perspective can be highlighted here. First, the two much-debated “sons of oil” in chapter four can be read as heavenly versions of two Achaemenid officials sent to ensure the new temple fulfilled imperial ends. Just as the king and his satraps often appointed redundant officials to ensure compliance with the royal will, so Yhwh’s empire did the same.
       Second, a striking feature of Zechariah is an expectation of international pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Since it is thrice explicitly stated to be for the nations and not just Judaeans (2:15; 8:20, 23), something more than “ethnic” considerations must be in play. Since pilgrimage can be lucrative, one might consider this as one element in elite hopes for improving their status; a temple with an additional source of income might be worth imperial support. This might, therefore, have been an elite strategy to make Jerusalem worthy of either imperial authorization, concessions in labor usage, and/or patronage.
       Third, scholars have long debated whether the figure called “growth” (Zech 3:8, 6:12) was either Zerubbabel or a future “messiah” (e.g., Kashow 2016). The term clearly refers to a figure expected to bring prosperity and to build the temple. Both of these are stereotypical kingly roles in the ancient Near East. Since the figure is someone who enables Zerubbabel and Joshua to play their respective roles, this must be a third figure. The only person who fits this description (a king expected to come to the Levant, bringing prosperity and building a temple) is Darius I. Preparations for royal campaigns involved extensive local preparations, so we should not be surprised that administrative circles would have expected royal arrival. Therefore, rather than a competition between supporters of the Davidic dynasty or the priesthood, Zechariah evinces elite expectations of royal support for a rebuilt temple. This would have justified the governor Zerubbabel’s involvement in the rebuilding since temples had to be built by a king to be legitimate.

Early Persian Royal Engagements with Local Elites

       A careful analysis of other evidence from the early Persian Empire reveals not only that Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius attempted to portray themselves in terms acceptable to Babylonia and Egypt, but well-educated local elites also facilitated this effort. The Cyrus Cylinder, the Nabonidus Chronicle, the Verse Account of Nabonidus, and the statue of Udjahorresnet, among other considerations, show that some scribes well educated in native traditions used their knowledge to support the Persian claim to rule. A few scattered pieces of evidence such as the verso to the Demotic Chronicle, a tablet from Uruk, and the antiquities found in Susa suggest that the Persian kings did their best to expedite this. In other words, they encouraged talented local elites to use their local knowledge to assist the empire. Some local elites, in turn, chose to do so. One could call this a Persian policy of “cultural patronage,” which would fit well into a pattern of local elite distinction (cf. Daloz 2010; 2013). The Achaemenid-style prestige items such as bowls and rhytons found throughout the empire belong in a context of elites competing for status within the empire (Allen 2005: 87–96). One can, therefore, argue that non-material cultural products, such as poetry, literature, and cults, also had a role to play in local elite attempts to increase their status.
       In light of these considerations, it is worth ruminating over whether a fixation on “resistance” is truly helpful for understanding how ancient elites engaged with empires. In the early Persian Empire, at least, it is plausible that two different groups of Judaean elites, in fact, chose to support the empire. They did this using their own skills (poetry, education, divination, and cult) in the hope of improving their own status and positions. By engaging the Persians this way, they were no different from other elite groups playing social and political games of prestige in other polities in history. That supporting the Persians was within the Judaean elites’ perceived self-interest no more detracts from their agency in so choosing than it would have had they, in fact, rebelled like Nebuchadnezzar IV.
       As a final observation, releasing analysis from enthrallment to “resistance” further frees one from the interpretative traditions that require texts in the Hebrew Bible to be read in terms of a Jerusalem temple priestly “orthodoxy” or their attitudes toward the Davidic dynasty. In my analyses here, neither Judaean text comes from Jerusalem nor priests nor is concerned with the Davidic dynasty. Judaean elites in the Persian Empire had a broader set of interests and concerns, and our historiography needs to be robust enough to take these into account.



Allen, Lindsay. 2005. The Persian Empire: A History. London: British Museum.

Berquist, Jon L. 1995. Judaism in Persia’s Shadow. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Carr, David M. 2011. “Reading into the Gap: Refractions of Trauma in Israelite Prophecy.” In Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, edited by Brad E. Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, and Jacob L. Wright, 295–308. Ancient Israel and Its Literature 10. Atlanta, GA: SBL.

Daloz, Jean-Pascal. 2010. The Sociology of Elite Distinction: From Theoretical to Comparative Perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Daloz, Jean-Pascal. 2013. Rethinking Social Distinction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Eidevall, Göran. 2014. “Propagandistic Constructions of Empires in the Book of Isaiah.” In Divination, Politics, and Ancient Near Eastern Empires, edited by Alan Lenzi and Jonathan Stökl, 109–128. Ancient Near East Monographs 7. Atlanta. GA: SBL.

Finn, Jennifer. 2017. Much Ado about Marduk: Questioning Discourses of Royalty in First Millennium Mesopotamian Literature. SANER 16. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Heffelfinger, Katie. 2011. I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes: Lyric Cohesion and Conflict in Second Isaiah. Edited by Manfred Oeming and K. F. Diethard Römheld. Biblical Interpretation 105. Leiden: Brill.

Hintze, Almut. 1995. “The Rise of the Saviour in the Avesta.” In Iran Und Turfan: Beiträge Berliner Wissenschaftler, Werner Sundermann Zum 60. Geburtstag Gewidmet, edited by Christiane Reck and Peter Zieme, 77–97. Iranica 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Kashow, Robert C. 2016. “Two Philological Notes on Zechariah 6, 12–13 Relevant for the Identification of Ṣemaḥ.” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 128: 472–7.

Lord, Albert B. 2000. The Singer of Tales. Second. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mansel, Peter, and Torsten Riotte, eds. 2011. Monarchs and Exile: The Politics of Legitimacy from Marie de Médicis to Wilhelm II. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

McKinlay, Judith E. 2013. “The Usefulness of a Daughter.” In Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire, edited by Andrew T. Abernathy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, and Tim Meadowcroft, 85–106. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Mein, Andrew. 2001. Ezekiel and the Ethics of Exile. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, Christine. 2016. “A Paradise at Ramat Rahel and the Setting of Zechariah.” Transeuphratène 48: 81–95.

Olszewska, Zuzanna. 2007. “‘A Desolate Voice’: Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran.” Iranian Studies 40 (2): 203–224.

Portier-Young, Anathea. 2011. Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Siddiq, Muhammad. 1995. “On Ropes of Memory: Narrating the Palestinian Refugees.” In Mistrusting Refugees, edited by E. Valentine Daniel and John Chr. Knudsen, 87–101. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Silverman, Jason M. 2017. “Achaemenid Creation and Second Isaiah.” Journal of Persianate Studies 10: 26–48.

Smith[-Christopher], Daniel L. 1989. The Religion of the Landless. Bloomington, IN: Meyer-Stone Books.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. 2002. A Biblical Theology of Exile. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.

Stökl, Jonathan. 2017. “Netting Marduk? The Concept of Hidden Transcripts and the Transfer of Cultural Knowledge from Mesopotamian to Judean Texts.” In Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World, edited by Mladen Popovic, Myles Schoonover, and Marijn Vandenberghe, 44–62. Leiden: Brill.




[1] I first noticed this as a trend in biblical studies when it was pointed out to me by Caroline Waerzeggers (pers. com.). For examples of recent studies appealing to this term: Mein 2001: 71; Smith-Christopher 2002: 24; 2011: 357; Carr 2011:304; Portier-Young 2011; McKinlay 2013: 89; Eidvall 2014: 110–11, 125; Finn 2017: 15–16; Stökl 2017.

[2] Not all treatments are quite so dialectic. For example, Portier-Young 2011 discusses “resistance” as including all responses not consisting of absolute conformity. Nonetheless, to my mind, this makes the category so capacious as to be analytically meaningless.

[3] Not elaborated in my book, but cf. Hintze 1995.

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