“The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace . . .”
In 520 BC, nearly sixteen years after permission to build the temple had been given, the house of YHWH still lay in the initial stages of construction, with only some of the foundation stones to show for over a decade of effort. Seeing this neglect, YHWH stirred up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to tell the people to return and build the temple. Four years later the temple in Jerusalem was completed, but very little progress had been made in building the walls of the ancient citadel. The remnant of people who dwelt there were still being harassed by their enemies.
Years later, back in Shushan, the winter palace of the Persian kings, our hero Nehemiah is the cupbearer to King “Artaxerxes.” Nehemiah hears of the plight of his brethren in Jerusalem and sets out to do something about it. After pouring his heart out to YHWH in prayer, Nehemiah petitions Artaxerxes to allow him to go up and repair the walls of Jerusalem. Artaxerxes grants his request, and we learn later that Nehemiah also becomes governor (Tirshatha) of Jerusalem for twelve years (Nehemiah 5:14).
As we saw in the previous chapter, many scholars today identify the Persian Artaxerxes in both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as Artaxerxes Longimanus. But if you’ve taken a serious look at the information I’ve provided in the previous chapters on Ezra’s place in the Second Temple era, you have a better perspective on why I say such a conclusion is based upon virtually no biblical evidence. But what about the book of Nehemiah? Where does it stand in terms of the chronological evidence related to Ezra and Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era? I think the answer will surprise you.
Governor of Jerusalem for Twelve Years
In Nehemiah 5:14, we read that Nehemiah was appointed governor from the twentieth to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes. As we learned in chapter 5, this information is really helpful in our search for the Persian Artaxerxes of Nehemiah, because few Persian kings ruled for thirty-two years or longer. In fact, this chronological gem allows us to limit our search for Nehemiah’s Artaxerxes to just three Persian kings. Those kings are Darius ‘the Great’, Longimanus, and Memnon (see chart below).
Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. (Nehemiah 5:14)
So which of the above Persian kings could reasonably be seen as the Artaxerxes of Nehemiah? Again, most Bible scholars for centuries have placed these key stories in the reign of Longimanus, in 464–424 BC. But there are several additional pieces of evidence in the book of Nehemiah that build a totally different picture of Ezra and Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era than what is commonly supposed. Let’s take a look at this evidence.
Shushan, the Palace of the Kings of Persia
To set the stage in Nehemiah 1:1, we find Nehemiah in Shushan, the winter palace of Persia. For those familiar with the book of Esther, you know that Shushan was the palace of Esther’s King Ahasuerus. Keep this pertinent fact in mind, because it is very relevant to understanding the dynamics of why a Jewish man held the very important position of cupbearer to the king of Persia. In the next chapter, we will look at how an often overlooked piece of biblical evidence in the book of Nehemiah will alter our view of the Second Temple era and explain in part why the Jewish people had such a powerful presence in the affairs of Persia.
The Porter of the Gates
Our first substantial piece of chronological evidence related to Nehemiah comes from Nehemiah 12:25–26. This passage tells us that five porters of the gates of Jerusalem were contemporaries with Joiakim (the son of Joshua the high priest), Ezra, and Nehemiah.
Mattaniah, and Bakbukiah, Obadiah, Meshullam, Talmon, Akkub, were porters keeping the ward at the thresholds of the gates. These were in the days of Joiakim the son of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and in the days of Nehemiah the governor, and of Ezra the priest, the scribe. (Nehemiah 12:25–26)
This reference provides several helpful chronological synchronisms. First, it tells us plainly that Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries. The text goes even further by linking Ezra and Nehemiah with Joiakim the son of Joshua, the high priest, and five named porters. In 1 Chronicles 9:7 we find that two of these porters were among the repatriated Babylonian captives who returned to the land of Israel by the decree of Cyrus in 536 BC:
So all Israel were reckoned by genealogies; and, behold, they were written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah, who were carried away to Babylon for their transgression. Now the first inhabitants that dwelt in their possessions in their cities were, the Israelites, the priests, Levites, and the Nethinims . . . And the porters were, Shallum, and Akkub, and Talmon, and Ahiman, and their brethren: Shallum was the chief. (1 Chronicles 9:1–2, 17)
And the rulers of the people dwelt at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities . . . Now these are the chief of the province that dwelt in Jerusalem: . . . Moreover the porters, Akkub, Talmon, and their brethren that kept the gates, were an hundred seventy and two. (Nehemiah 11:1–3, 19)
Notice that in 1 Chronicles above, we are told that Shallum was the chief porter. In Ezra 10 we learn that Shallum the porter was one of the men of Jerusalem who had taken a non-Hebrew wife from among the inhabitants of the land. Shallum, along with the rest of the inhabitants of the land, agreed to put away their strange wives at the prompting of Ezra. According to the text, this all took place in the seventh and eighth years of Artaxerxes.
And Ezra the priest, with certain chief of the fathers, after the house of their fathers, and all of them by their names, were separated, and sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. And they made an end with all the men that had taken strange wives by the first day of the first month. (Ezra 10:16–17)
What this means chronologically is that the same Shallum the chief porter, Akkub, and Talmon who came up to Jerusalem in 536 BC were still alive in the seventh year of a Persian Artaxerxes. Subsequently, Shallum is missing from the lists by the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. It is reasonable to assume that he had either died because of his obvious old age or was demoted because he had taken a wife of non-Hebrew origin. In any case, the above verses show that Shallum, Akkub, and Talmon most reasonably fit in the chronological context of the Second Temple as contemporaries of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes. By no reasonable biblical criteria could they have been alive by the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus, or for that matter, nearly fourteen years later in the twenty-first year of Artaxerxes at the dedication of the wall.
Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, the Governors of Jerusalem
Next, let’s look at Nehemiah 12:47. This passage links the governorships of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah and the ministrations to the singers and porters.
And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel, and in the days of Nehemiah, gave the portions of the singers and the porters, every day his portion: and they sanctified holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron. (Nehemiah 12:47)
Nehemiah 12 begins by listing the priests and Levites who came up out of captivity with Joshua and Zerubbabel in the first year of Cyrus. Then, in Nehemiah 12:27, it recounts the dedication of the finished wall of Jerusalem. Finally the chapter closes with the above verses, which clearly imply continuity in the temple service under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah. This passage makes much more sense if we see Zerubbabel and Nehemiah as consecutive governors of Jerusalem from the days of Cyrus through to the days of Darius ‘the Great’, rather than inserting a gap of sixty-plus years between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah to account for the reign of Longimanus.
The First Sukkoth
Nehemiah 8 makes a fascinating statement regarding Israel’s observance of the biblical holy day of Sukkoth as it relates to the repatriated captives:
And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. (Nehemiah 8:17)
Notice that it describes these people as “them that were come again [returned/shuwb] out of the captivity.” The most reasonable reading implies these people were the same generation as those who came up with Joshua and Zerubbabel in 536 BC. This places them as contemporaries of Darius ‘the Great’, also known as Artaxerxes. Indeed, this confirms the other chronological evidence we have found concerning Nehemiah and Ezra: namely, that they were first-generation contemporaries of those Jewish captives who returned to Jerusalem at the end of the 70 years of Babylonian captivity. Any other reading of the text strains the credibility of sound biblical interpretation.
The Lists of Nehemiah 10 and 12
Our final piece of evidence—and the one that really ties up the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah—is the lists of Nehemiah 10 and 12. Nehemiah 12 lists the priests and Levites, “chiefs of their fathers” (“ancient men” in Ezra 3:12), who came up out of the captivity with Joshua and Zerubbabel by the decree of Cyrus in 536 BC. In Nehemiah 10, at the dedication of the wall in Jerusalem in the twenty-first year of our mystery king Artaxerxes, we find many of these same priests and Levites alive and active. Take a look at a side-by-side comparison of Nehemiah 10 and 12 in the charts below. The names and their order are reproduced as given in the Scripture.
Which is the more reasonable explanation? These “chief men” were most reasonably sixty-five to seventy-five years old during the reign of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes or these men would have been at their youngest 122–132 years old during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus. Pretty compelling, isn’t it?
Please see the chart below for a relative perspective on the age of the priests and Levites in comparison to the secular chronology of Babylon and Persia. As you peruse the chart, keep Ezra 3:12 in mind. Some of these “chief men” were already “ancient” by the first year of Cyrus when the temple foundation was laid by Joshua and Zerubbabel.
But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy. (Ezra 3:12)
In summary, the most reasonable explanation of the evidence given in this chapter shows that Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries of Darius ‘the Great’, also known as Artaxerxes. Any other rendering of the chronology requires one to ignore the most reasonable and natural reading of the books of Nehemiah, Ezra, and Chronicles.
Testing the Fourth Decree
How does this commandment or decree given by Artaxerxes to Nehemiah stand in light of our four questions?
- Could this decree be considered a dabar or word to return and build Jerusalem?
- Did this decree cause the Jewish people to shuwb (return or turn back) and build Jerusalem?
- Was this building event of enough contextual relevance to constitute building Jerusalem?
- Can the date of this decree be firmly established in the Biblical and secular record?
- In a general sense, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem could be considered “building Jerusalem.”
- Nehemiah 2:18 does mention dabar in the context of Artaxerxes’s “words” to Nehemiah.
- Nehemiah, based upon the all available biblical evidence, was not a contemporary of Artaxerxes Longimanus. The Bible places him as a contemporary of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes. The date of this decree can be roughly placed in biblical chronology, but it leaves us short of Yeshua’s birth in a way we should consider troubling if this is indeed our starting point.
- Nehemiah was given permission to repair the walls and gates of Jerusalem, but Daniel 9:25 indicates that rebuilding the plaza and walls was to take place during the sixty-two weeks as part of the ongoing construction efforts, not as the initiating event.
- This decree by Artaxerxes in its most literal sense was not a word (dabar) for the Jewish people to return (shuwb) or turn back to the building efforts. This decree was given specifically to Nehemiah to build the walls of Jerusalem.
- There is some reasonable uncertainty about the exact date of this decree given by Artaxerxes.
The Bible’s internal chronological evidence does not provide a reasonable basis upon which to claim Nehemiah was a contemporary of Artaxerxes Longimanus. Instead, it makes a compelling case that Nehemiah was in fact a contemporary of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes of Persia. Thus any interpretation of Daniel 9 which uses as its starting point a decree in the reign of the Longimanus can no longer claim its fulfillment in Yeshua. Further, because many today see Daniel 9 and the 70 weeks prophecy as part of a future eschatological framework, this erroneous Artaxerxes assumption has troubling implications for much of today’s popular eschatological thought.
By this time, our study may have radically challenged your understanding of this whole era. But what if I told you we were still missing a pivotal piece of evidence related to the Second Temple era and Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? Indeed, this is the case. In the next chapter we will learn how a young Jewish maiden’s courage changed the history of the Jewish people and influenced the very events we have been discussing in the past several chapters.
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