Reading the Book of Nehemiah in Light of Persian Imperial Propaganda

November 10, 2016 | Lucas Schulte
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According to the Hebrew Bible, Nehemiah—a Jew serving in the Persian court—was made governor of Judea at the behest of the emperor Artaxerxes in the 5th century BCE. In this role he restored Jerusalem’s walls and revived adherence to the Torah. Lucas Schulte compares depictions of the Persian regime in the book of Nehemiah with those in contemporary Babylonian and Egyptian texts, and notes some common threads of the empire’s public-relations strategy. (Free registration required.)

The Cyrus Cylinder [discovered in Mesopotamia] describes a Babylonian god, Marduk, choosing [the Persian emperor] Cyrus to rule kindly over the Babylonians as “king of Babylon.” This inscription demonstrates an important Persian propaganda innovation: using the language (in this case, Babylonian cuneiform), inscription style (cylinders deposited in the foundations of buildings), local gods (Marduk and Nabu), and the local royal title (“king of Babylon”) of subject peoples. No previous kings in the ancient Near East had used this combination of methods. . . .

This pattern continues with Cyrus’s successors. The Nabonidus Chronicles indicate that Cyrus’ son and heir, Cambyses, participated in the Babylonian Akitu festival in the traditional role of the king of Babylon. When Cambyses brought Egypt under Persian control, the Egyptian statue of Udjahorresnet indicates that this Persian policy spread to Egypt. The inscription [on the statue] depicts both Cambyses and his successor Darius as taking the traditional titles, roles, and throne names of Egyptian pharaohs.. . .

A comparison of Persian royal propaganda as found in Babylonian and Egyptian sources with depictions of Artaxerxes in the book of Nehemiah reveals fascinating correspondences. Both Nehemiah 2 and 13:4-14 closely resemble [these texts]. . . . Since the prayer and request for remembrance in Nehemiah 1:5-11 bears some resemblance to Persian period sources, Nehemiah may have reworked an existing prayer for his own purposes. Some of Nehemiah’s self-depictions in Nehemiah 5:14 resemble similar self-depictions of the Udjahorresnet statue inscription.

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