The Command to Build
Scholars who stress that Cyrus was the one responsible for the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile refer to the prophecies of Isaiah 44 and 45. In Isaiah 44:28 it is stated that the Lord prophesied of Cyrus, “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasures, even saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’” In Isaiah 45:13 the Lord prophesied about Cyrus, “‘I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; He shall build My city and let My exiles go free, not for price nor reward,’ say the Lord of hosts.”
These commentators argue that this Bible prophecy refers to Cyrus as the one who was to build Jerusalem and the one who would restore the exiles to their homeland. Both elements of building and restoring were referred to in the decree of Daniel 9:25 and Cyrus fulfilled them.
There is a general agreement that Cyrus’ decree involved the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. This is clearly stated in Cyrus’ proclamation in Ezra 1:2-4. In this passage Cyrus acknowledged that “the God of heaven . . . . has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem.” As a result Cyrus commanded that the exiles “go up to Jerusalem . . . and build the house of the Lord God of Israel . . . which is in Jerusalem.”
What is the evidence for Isaiah’s prophecy that Cyrus issued a decree to build Jerusalem, thus leading the returning Jewish exiles to begin the rebuilding of the city itself? Many interpreters assume that the rebuilding of Jerusalem was postponed till the time of Ezra or Nehemiah under Artaxerxes I, nearly a century later. We have to ask ourselves, “Do these scholars correctly interpret the biblical narrative in Ezra? Is there no biblical evidence for a rebuilding of Jerusalem prior to Ezra? What is the testimony of extra-biblical sources?”
The earliest extra-biblical Jewish sources recounting the Jewish experience during Persian times do not support the view that the building of the city had to wait till Ezra’s return to Judah. These documents start the beginning of Jerusalem’s rebuilding at a much earlier date. In a carefully worded account of Cyrus’ actions in behalf of the Jewish nation, the Jewish historian Josephus reported that after Cyrus read Isaiah’s prophecies “an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant.” Furthermore, Cyrus “would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and, besides that, beasts for their sacrifices” (Antiquities, XI, I, 2).
Ellen G. White, in her book Prophets and Kings (pp. 557-558), likewise speaks of how Cyrus was moved by Isaiah’s prophecy to issue the predicted decree for the repatriation of the Jews and the rebuilding of their city and temple.
Josephus quoted Cyrus’ letter that was addressed as follows: “King Cyrus to Sisinnes and Sathrabuzanes, sendeth greeting” It continued, ‘I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem, on the same place where it was before. I have also my treasurer, Mithradates, and Zerubbabel, the governor of the Jews, that they may lay the foundation of the temple . . . .’” (Antiquities, XI, I, 3)
The letter included a detailed account of the dimensions and composition of the temple, all being paid out of the king’s revenues. In return, Cyrus expected the Jews to “pray to God for the preservation of the king and of his family that the kingdom of Persia may continue” (Ibid.). Cyrus concluded his letter stating that those who disobey this policy were to be crucified and their possessions be confiscated, becoming part of the king’s treasury (Ibid.).
In spite of Cyrus’ good intentions, the efforts to implement his plans for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple did not work out as he expected. In Ezra 4:1-5 we find the story of the opposition of the people of the land to the rebuilding efforts of the Jews: “The people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
Josephus explained how these opponents, who lived especially in the region of Samaria, influenced the governors to interrupt “the Jews both in the rebuilding of their city, and in the building of their temple” (Antiquities, XI, II, 1). Through bribes they succeeded in slowing down the rebuilding efforts during the rest of Cyrus’ reign. Cyrus was preoccupied with the affairs of his kingdom and was unaware of the schemes of the Samaritans (Ibid.).
Josephus mentioned that this opposition continued after the death of Cyrus. As soon as Cambyses succeeded Cyrus, the opposition wrote a letter complaining that the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem were “building that rebellious and wicked city, and its market places, and setting up its walls, and raising up the temple” (Ibid.). They warned Cambyses that when the Jews would have finished the rebuilding they would not be willing to pay tribute to the king because “the Jews have been rebels, and enemies to kings” (Ibid.).
In response to this letter Cambyses wrote: “I give order that the Jews shall not be permitted to build that city, lest such mischief as they used to bring upon kings be greatly augmented” (Antiquities, XI, II, 2). As a result the regional authorities quickly went to Jerusalem “and forbade the Jews to build the city and the temple” (Ibid.). Thus the rebuilding, according to Josephus, was interrupted till the second year of Darius.
From Josephus’ account of the opposition we observe that he interpreted Ezra 4 in a continual chronological sequence, as was done by most of the classical commentators until the 19th century. These commentators interpreted Ezra 4:6-23 as a record of the opposition against the Jews between the reigns of Cyrus and Darius I. They, therefore, identified the name Ahasuerus of Ezra 4:6 and the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7 with the Persian kings Cambyses and the false Smerdis, so named by the Greek historians.
Resolving Apparent Conflict
When we compare Josephus’ account with that of Ezra’s, we notice that Josephus’ record of the exchange of letters between the Samaritans and Cambyses is similar to Ezra’s account of the correspondence between the Samaritans and Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:8-23). How can we reconcile these conflicting accounts?
One way is by simply adjusting Josephus’ account by substituting the name Artaxerxes for that of Cambyses. This assumes that Josephus incorrectly assumed that the interruption of the rebuilding of the city and temple took place under Cambyses. Instead, he should have assigned these events to the next king, Artaxerxes (otherwise identified as the false Smerdis). The building interruption mentioned in Josephus’ letter would then be the same as that of Ezra 4:17-23. This interruption of building activities would have lasted until the second year of Darius I (Ezra 4:24).
The apocryphal book of 1 Esdras also contains the correspondence between the Jewish opponents and King Artaxerxes, requesting the stoppage of the rebuilding activities. This letter is similar to the one in Ezra that led to the interruption of the rebuilding efforts before the reign of King Darius I Hystaspes (Ezra 4:8-23). There is, however, one difference. The account in I Esdras mentioned the rebuilding of the city as well as the temple, stating that the Jews were “building that rebellious and wicked city, repairing its market places and walls and laying the foundations for a temple” (1 Esdras 2:18). At the very time of writing to Artaxerxes the Jewish adversaries reported “the building of the temple is now going on” (1 Esdras 2:20). In response, Artaxerxes issued orders to stop the rebuilding of the city. The result was that “the building of the temple in Jerusalem ceased until the second year of reign of Darius king of the Persians” (1 Esdras 2:30).
The content of this letter clearly shows that the Artaxerxes of this letter is not Artaxerxes I, because under Artaxerxes I the foundations of the temple had been laid many years prior to his reign. Again we notice that the history in 1 Esdras is written in a continual chronological sequence, as was the case with Josephus.
In summary, if Ezra 4:6-23 depicts the events between Cyrus and Darius I, then there is biblical evidence for the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the Jews during that time. This narrative reveals that the Jews who had returned “are building the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing its walls and repairing the foundations” (Ezra 4:12). If this is correct, the chronological narrative in Ezra would then be in full harmony with the histories of 1 Esdras and Josephus’ Antiquities.
If, however, one follows a thematic interpretation of Ezra 4, assigning the events in Ezra 4:6-23 to King Xerxes and Artaxerxes I, then there are major problems for finding evidence of building the city from the time of Cyrus onward. It is no wonder that scholars supporting the thematic interpretation of Ezra 4 have little appreciation for the Persian history in 1 Esdras and Josephus. They see these sources as being totally confused about the Jewish experience under the Persians.
Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt is a retired professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.