In This Article The “Persian” Period

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Aramaic Sources
  • Development of Post-Exilic Judaism
  • Zoroastrian and Jewish Interaction

Biblical Studies The “Persian” Period
by
Jenny Rose
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0194

Introduction

In the context of biblical studies, the term “Persian period” is usually taken to refer to the time when the Ancient Persians were in power throughout the Near East. These early Persians are also referred to as “Achaemenids,” after the eponymous ancestor first named in inscriptions by Darius I, and later mentioned by Herodotus. This first world empire began with Cyrus II’s conquest of his fellow Iranians, the Medes, in about 550 BCE, and came to an end in 330 BCE with the death of Darius III, following the incursion of Alexander of Macedon and his Greek forces. At its greatest extent the Persian Empire stretched from Libya and the River Danube in the west to the Indus River and Sogdiana in the east. Cyrus’s victory over Nabonidus of Babylon in 539 BCE and the resultant release of Hebrews from Babylonian exile gave him significant standing in several biblical books, which also refer to subsequent Persian kings and rule. These texts include Deutero-Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah (1–8), I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel. Several of the biblical books set in the Achaemenid period are thought by scholars to have been redacted during the earlier period of the second Iranian empire, that of the Parthians (c. 250 BCE–224 CE). Under Ancient Persian rule, many Jews returned from exile to the province that became known as “Yehud” (Judah), the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem, and new theological concepts began to appear in biblical texts. Outside Yehud, early Achaemenid-era Aramaic materials from the Jewish garrison at Elephantine (Aramaic, “Yeb”) in Egypt provide insights into the life of the Jewish community there. The timeframe from Cyrus’s entry to Babylon, through the reconstruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple, to the incursion of Alexander, is denoted by biblical scholars as the “post-exilic,” or “restoration” period. When considering the following texts, focus will be primarily on the historical (that is, ancient) Persian period, from c. 550–330 BCE.

Introductory Works

There are few general reference works that explore the impact of Ancient Persian rule on the Near East of biblical times and texts. The first volume of the Cambridge History of Judaism (Davies and Finkelstein 1984) contains a multichapter entry with topics that involve the political and social history of “Persian Palestine,” including its archaeology and religious life. Much of this material has been augmented by further research in the intervening years. Yamauchi 1990 provides a useful list of relevant academic works and scholarship regarding biblical and nonbiblical Jewish sources. Iranist contributions include Frye 1984, a narrative of Iranian history; Curtis 1997, which considers the connections between the Iranian heartland and Mesopotamia; Wiesehöfer 1996, a chronological and thematic overview of the political, social, and cultural aspects of the Achaemenid empire; and Briant 2002, a comprehensive work, now translated into English. Waters 2014 looks to Greek historiography, archaeology, and ancient Near East (ANE) texts, to provide a historical and political narrative of the Ancient Persians.

  • Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

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    Substantial sections of this text detail the sociopolitical interactions of the Persians and Jews, although there is little discussion of their respective theologies. Over a hundred references to biblical sources are included.

  • Curtis, John, ed. Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period: Conquest and Imperialism, 539–331 BC. London: British Museum Press, 1997.

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    A collection of five papers, by Walker, Haerinck, Stronach, Boucharlat and Mitchell, considering the interaction of the Persians with the political, economic, and material culture of Mesopotamia. Boucharlat focuses on Susa (biblical Shushan), and Mitchell on the Book of Daniel (See Daniel).

  • Davies, W. D., and Louis Finkelstein, eds. The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 1, Introduction: The Persian Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    Chapters, written by experts on Jewish, biblical, and Zoroastrian studies, cover a wide range of topics under the heading “The Persian Period.” Naveh and Greenfield consider the development of Hebrew and Aramaic, while Ackroyd explores the concept of “Jewish community” from exile to return. Boyce’s article, “Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age,” has been a key source for biblical scholars.

  • Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1984.

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    A focused presentation on aspects of the political and social history of Iran not covered in depth by previous scholars. Hence, there is only a cursory overview of the archaeology of Iran, and very little material relating to the Zoroastrian religion, but there is a concentration on the history of eastern Iran.

  • Waters, Matt. Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    A historical overview of epigraphic finds, classical texts, and archaeological sources that situates Ancient Persia within a broad cultural and political context. The author incorporates discussion of the interpretive problems inherent in any study of the Achaemenids, and considers the ramifications and reverberations of their rule in the subsequent history of the Middle East.

  • Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD. Translated by Azizeh Azodi. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996.

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    Part One, “Iran from Cyrus to Alexander the Great,” is a systematic study of the history and culture of the first Persian empire, prefaced with introductory surveys of contemporary testimonies, and highlighting the significance of passages from the Hebrew Bible in providing details about the Ancient Persians.

  • Yamauchi, Edwin M. Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990.

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    Presents a broad, generally clear survey of the history of the Medes and the ancient Persians, referring to biblical, Iranian, and Greek sources and relevant ANE documents. Concludes with chapters on Zoroastrianism, the Magi, and Mithraism. Rejects the possibility of Zoroastrian influence on Jewish thought in the Hebrew Bible, using the arguments of predecessors and, more recently, of Hanson 1979 (cited under Biblical Concepts: Cosmology and Eschatology) and Barr 1985 (cited under Zoroastrian and Jewish Interaction). Despite several dubious etymologies and misleading statements, particularly relating to the interpretation of some Iranian concepts and artifacts, the book’s comprehensive scope is useful to scholars in the field.

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