Fixing the History Books

Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz's Revision of Persian History

By Brad Aaronson

Many people have heard or read that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. This date is mentioned in most books of Jewish history and is even cited at times by Orthodox rabbis.[1] What is not often realized is that this date contradicts the picture of history brought down by Chazal in the Talmud and in Tannaitic works such as Rabbi Yose ben Halafta's Seder Olam Rabba. According to Chazal, the First Temple was destroyed 70 years before the Second Temple was built, and the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE, stood for 420 years. This means that the First Temple was destroyed in 421 BCE (not 420 -- there is no year zero between 1 BCE and 1 CE), a difference of 166 years.

The crux of the problem is in the Persian period. The Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jewish people, were themselves conquered by the Medes and the Persians around fifty years later. But from this point, conventional history diverges widely from Jewish tradition. Although conventional historians speak of ten Persian kings who ruled for 208 years, Chazal know of four Persian/Median kings who ruled for a total of fifty-two years (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Conventional Chronology

Neo-Babylonian Empire Years (BCE) Persian Empire Years (BCE) Greek Empire Years (BCE)
Nabopolassar 626-605 Cyrus 560-530 Alexander 336-323
Nabopolassar (from the fall of Assyria) 609-605 Cyrus (from the fall of Babylon) 539-529 Alexander (from the fall of Persia) 331-323
Nebuchadnezzar 605-562 Cambyses 530-522 Start of Seleucid (Greek) Era Autumn 311
Evil Merodach 562-560 Guamata the Magian 522
Nergal Sharezzar 560-556 Darius I 522-486
Labash-Merodach 556 Xerxes I 486-465
Nabonidus 556-539 Artaxerxes I 465-424
Belshazzar (coregent) 552-539 Darius II 424-405
Artaxerxes II 405-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Arses 338-336
Darius III 336-331

Jewish Chronology

Babylonian Empire Years (AM) Years (BCE) Persian/Median Empire Years (AM) Years (BCE) Greek Empire Years (AM) Years (BCE)
Nebuchadnezzar 3320-3365 439-394 Darius the Mede 3390 369 Alexander 3442-3448 317-311
Evil-Merodach 3365-3388 394-371 Cyrus 3390-3393 369-366 Start of Minyan Shtarot Tishrei 3448 311
Belshazzar 3388-3390 371-369 Ahasuerus 3393-3407 366-352
Darius the Perian 3407-3442 352-317
Note: The AM (from Creation) dates above are according to the usage in Seder Olam, which are two years lower than the dates we use today.[2]
The Bible ends within the Persian period, so the length of this period cannot be derived from the Bible. Still, the conventional chronology of this period is no less incompatible with the biblical text. The Babylonian period presents no major problems. But the first king we find after the fall of Babylon is Darius the Mede,[3] and though the names of many Median kings have come down to us, Darius is not one of them. History has no shortage of kings named Darius, but all of them are Persians, rather than Medes. Secular and non-Jewish scholars seeking to unravel this conflict have tried to come up with reasons why Daniel might have called a Persian king a Mede, but none seem very satisfactory.

We fare little better with Ahasuerus. The name itself presents little difficulty, as the existence of a Persian king named Khshayarsha is not disputed, nor that his name was transliterated by the Greeks as Xerxes and by the Bible as Ahasuerus.[4] But this king did not start reigning until some thirty years after the Second Temple was dedicated. And unlike the biblical Ahasuerus, who laid tribute on the Greek isles (Esther 10:1), Xerxes is perhaps best known for having lost Persia's possessions in Greece and much of Asia Minor (Turkey).

There is a school of thought which holds that it is best in such circumstances to simply ignore the findings of scholars and historians. After all, we know that Chazal are right; why bother with the errors of non- Jews and their Jewish imitators? Others have tried to reconcile the two views of history by explaining how Chazal could have gotten confused or how they might have deliberately obscured this period of history for reasons we can only guess at.[5] Until recently, no one has made a systematic attempt to see if the historical evidence might fit the traditional Jewish chronology as well as or better than the conventional framework.

In 1952, the late Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky published Ages in Chaos, a radical revision of Egyptian history which conforms to biblical history much better than the generally accepted chronology, but shortens Egyptian history by almost six centuries.[6] Work continues to this day on an overall revision of ancient history, starting where Dr. Velikovsky left off. It was Velikovsky's work which inspired Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz to attempt the same for Persian history. His results not only make better sense of the Greek stories which are the basis of the conventional chronology, but add tremendously to our depth of understanding of the events of that time.

The accepted Persian chronology is based almost entirely upon the works of Greek historians who lived between nineteen and twenty-three centuries ago. One of the main sources is the "father of history," Herodotus. Historians in those days got their facts primarily by visiting the lands about which they were writing and recording the folk traditions of the inhabitants. This method may have been the only one available at the time, but it hardly guarantees accuracy. Herodotus admits to having heard four different stories about Cyrus the Great-his upbringing and rise to power -- choosing to record only the one which seemed to him the most likely. Other Greek historians, such as Ctesias and Xenophon, often disagreed with Herodotus's choice of story. The Greek historians in general were considered highly unreliable by their Roman colleagues. They even condemned one another as liars and frauds.

Modern scholars reject Greek accounts of Mesopotamian history prior to the fall of Babylon almost in their entirety. The large number of Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions make it clear that the Greeks had no grasp of the actual history of this region. But due to the fact that Alexander the Great destroyed the bulk of Persian records when he conquered Persia, the only records of the Persian period are the Greek stories and Jewish tradition. Even if historians were willing to give Jewish tradition an unbiased examination, the Greek stories provide a wealth of detail about Persian society and are frankly much more dramatic, making the choice inevitable.

Rather than dismiss the Greek tales altogether, Dr. Heifetz has recognized that folklore often contains much truth, even if it cannot always be taken at face value. Just as the Greek stories about Assyria an extra Darius and Cyrus. Had and Babylonian are interpreted by modem scholars in the light of inscriptions, Heifetz takes the traditional view of this period as given in Seder Olam as his framework, and reexamines the Greek tales within this framework. In doing so, not only do many of the Greek stories make better sense, but an entirely new dimension is added to the Jewish picture of history.

Some examples:

  1. The Greeks relate that after the death of Darius II, his sons Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes II fought for the throne. After three years, Cyrus was killed, and Artaxerxes reigned uncontested. Chazal tell us that after the death of Darius the Mede, who conquered Babylon with his nephew and son-in-law Cyrus the Great, Cyrus became king. After a reign of three years, Darius's son Ahasuerus, who was also called Artaxerxes, killed his brother-in-law Cyrus and reigned in his stead.

    Heifetz demonstrates that because the Greeks did not realize that Artaxerxes was a title used by all kings of Persia and Media (Arta-Khshatra = "Fit for the Kingdom"), they labeled Ahasuerus-Artaxerxes as "Artaxerxes II" and placed him more than a century after his real time. In doing so, they also created them, they are forced to suppose they understood, as did Chazal (Rosh Hashanah 3b, Seder Olam Rabbah 30), that Artaxerxes was merely a royal title, they might have realized that his father Darius was Darius the Mede, and that his "brother" Cyrus was his brother-in-law Cyrus the Great.

    By restoring Ahasuerus to his true time, Heifetz solves a problem of archaeologists who are often uncertain whether inscriptions written by a Cyrus belong to Cyrus the Great or to Cyrus the Younger. At the same time, he sheds light on the accession of Ahasuerus and may provide an additional reason for the great celebration of Ahasuerus's third year (Esther 1:3).

  2. The Greek historians describe Darius son of Hystaspes, whom scholars call Darius "I", as at war with King Alexander of Macedonia. Because the Greeks, in their confusion, believed there to have been several Persian kings who reigned after Darius the Persian, they were forced to invent yet another Darius at the end of their list, it being well known to them that the Persian King conquered by Alexander the Great of Macedonia was named Darius.

    Since scholars have accepted the existence of two Kings Darius with almost two hundred years between the existence of an earlier Alexander of Macedonia as well, of whom no trace remains in any history, turning Alexander the Great into Alexander "II".

    By demonstrating that Darius son of Hystaspes was the last king of Persia (known to Chazal as Darius the Persian), and that the kings who supposedly reigned after him were no more than alternate names for the kings of Persia and Media up until his time, Heifetz also does away with the need for a second Alexander.

Heifetz's revision has implications for the understanding of our own history as well. What we know of this period is very sketchy. We know very little about the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael other than what is contained in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Who was the governor of Judea before Nehemiah was appointed in the 20th year of Darius the Persian? Who were the leaders of the community besides Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubabel and the Kohanim Gedolim?

A large cache of papyri written in Aramaic almost indistinguishable from that in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were found at Yev (Elephantine) in Egypt, the site of a Jewish military colony. Among the papyri are letters to and from the Persian provinces of Judea and Samaria. Although scholars have dated most of these letters to the reign of Darius "II", Heifetz has shown that the Darius during whose reign these letters were written was Darius the Persian, the Artaxerxes of Ezra and Nehemiah. A letter dated to the 5th year of Darius (two years before Ezra came to Jerusalem) was sent from Hanani in Judea, who can only be the brother of Nehemiah mentioned in Nehemiah 1:2, to the Jewish community in Elephantine. The letter informs the community leaders that the Persian governor of Egypt, Arsham, has been ordered by Darius him self to allow the Jews to observe Pesach unmolested:

"To my brother Yedaniah and his neighbors the Jewish force, your brother Hanani. Shalom my brothers; God ask after you at all times. Now in the 5th year of king Darius, [an order] has been sent from the king to Arsham the governor, saying: Distance yourselves from the Jewish force. At this time you here have counted 14 days from the first day to the month of Nisan and you shall make the Pesach. And from the 15th to the 21st day of Nisan, you shall make the Festival of Matzot. Now you shall purify yourselves and be careful not to do any manner of work on the 15th day and on the 21st day. Also beer you shall not drink, and anything which contains hametz you shall not eat. You shall eat matzot from the 15th day of Nisan at dusk until the 21st of Nisan at sunset. And all hametz which you have you shall bring into your rooms and seal or close them between these days. By order of the God of Heaven and by order of King Darius.

To my brother Yedaniah and his friends the Jewish force -- your brother, Hanani."[7]

This papyrus is not a carefully copied scroll like the books of Tanach. It is the actual piece of reed paper written upon by Hanani, a year before the Second Temple was dedicated. Heifetz's key to reconciling the Jewish historical traditions and the Persian and Babylonian records is to differentiate between the "King of Kings," or Emperor, and individual subject kings. Figure 2 shows the relationship between the Persian and Median royal houses, as deduced by Heifetz from the combination of Jewish and Greek accounts. Ahasuerus I and Cambyses I were vassal/allies of Nebuchadnezzar, who was at that time King of Kings. Historians profess to know nothing of a conquest of Egypt under Nebuchadnezzar as described in Ezekiel 29-32. But the Greek descriptions of the conquest of Egypt by the Persian King Cambyses match the biblical descriptions of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest almost perfectly. Heifetz attributes the actual conquest to Cambyses I, rather than his grandson, and concludes that he was acting in the service of his overlord, Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, many of the Persian/Greek wars which the Greeks date to the reign of Xerxes, including the burning of Athens and the Persian defeat at Salamis, are dated by Heifetz to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and his vassal Ahasuerus I.

Figure 2

Heifetz shows that the marriages between the Persian and Median royalty were one facet of an agreement of confederation between the two nations, which also included a kind of "rotation agreement," so that although Cyrus II was a subject of Darius I when they conquered Babylon, he became his successor as High King when Darius died. In his first years, Cyrus permitted the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael, but two years later, he was killed by his brother-in-law Ahasuerus II, who doubtless felt that the rotation agreement had outlived its usefulness once his father Darius became King of Kings. The permission granted by Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash was canceled by Ahasuerus and the events related in the book of Esther occurred. The resurgence of Persian power attributed by the Greek Historians to Artaxerxes II is referred to in ,the last chapter of Esther. During the reign of Ahasuerus, Cambyses II was little more than a vassal king, and when Egypt rebelled, Ahasuerus sent him to put down the rebellion.

Ahasuerus was killed by one of his ministers, by the name of Artabanus or Intaphernes, who reigned in his place for a matter of months. Shortly afterwards, Cambyses died in Egypt, possibly by suicide, and the Persian throne was seized by a Persian priest, whose name is identical with that of the father of Haman, though whether the two are to be identified is an open question. This priest, or Magian, claimed to be the brother of Cambyses, Bardiya, who had actually been killed by Cambyses before he left for Egypt. With the aid of six powerful aristocrats, among them the new king of Media, Cambyses's armor bearer and third cousin Darius II killed the Magian and took the Persian throne. Not long after, he killed Ahasuerus's murderer and became the sole king of Persia and Media.

Darius son of Hystaspes, or Darius the Persian as he is known in Jewish tradition, was a committed adherent of Zoroastrianism. As is well known, this religion later degenerated into a form of dualism, with a god of good and a god of evil. But originally, it was a pure monotheism, and may even have been an offshoot of Judaism, as Christianity was later. Heifetz demonstrates that the conflict between this religion and the original idolatry of the Persians and the Medes was one of the main causes of the events of Purim.

The ancient religion of the Persians and the Medes was the same kind of idolatry found the world over. They worshipped Mithra and Anahita (the equivalents of Baal and Ashtoret) in l ewd and barbaric rituals. About the time that waves of exiled Jews were reaching Assyria and Babylonia and the surrounding areas, a new religion took hold among some Persians and Medes. The founder of this monotheistic religion, Zoroaster, was himself an exile from a far country, although it is more like likely that he was influenced by Jews than that he was a Jew himself. Zoroaster taught that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. The attribute of this deity responsible for evil in the world was called Ahriman, but it was not until later times that Ahriman became a separate deity.

Some of the Magian priests embraced Zoroaster's religion, as did certain Persian and Median kings, but others clung to the pleasures of Mithraism. As Heifetz shows, Haman the son of Hamedatha was a Magian, and a devout Mithraist. After the deaths of Darius the Mede and Cyrus, who had become highly sympathetic to Zoroastrianism, if not outright converts, Haman found himself in a position to persuade Ahasuerus to abolish all monotheistic worship in the Empire. The Greeks describe how Artaxerxes II tried to reinstate Mithraism as the sole religion of Persia and Media.

Many Jews of that time argued that Ahasuerus's decree ordering the people to bow down to Haman should be obeyed, as it was only a matter of showing respect to a high official of the kingdom. But Mordechai realized that since Haman was the foremost proponent of Mithraism in the empire, bowing down to him would be no different than bowing down to Mithra.[8] When Haman saw that Mordechai refused to bow, he understood why, and realizing that the Jews were the major obstacle to his plans, he began to plot their destruction.

The death of Haman was not the end of the attempts to ban monotheism. The Magian who usurped the Persian throne after the deaths of Ahasuerus and Cambyses was named Gaumata, a name which is also rendered as Hamedatha. It is uncertain whether he was the father of Haman, but the fact that Haman is called "son of Hamedatha" five times in the Megillah suggests that his father too was a well known personage. When this Magian seized the throne (an autobiographical inscription of Darius son of Hystaspes relates that this rebellion began on the 14th of Adar), he immediately forbade the practice of Zoroastrianism. After Darius killed him and took the throne for himself, he made Zoroastrianism the official religion of Persia and Media. And so it remained, through the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, until Persia was conquered by the Arabs. Mithraism continued to exist here and there in the ancient world, with Mithra and Anahita joined by two new deities: Omanos and Anadatos (Haman and Hamedatha), the two martyrs of Mithraism.

The favor shown to the Jews by Darius the Mede, Cyrus and Darius the Persian is easier to understand when we realize that these kings probably saw very little difference between Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Even the name -- the God of Heaven -- which is found in the decrees of Cyrus and Darius (Ezra 1:2, 6:9-10, 7:12) is a common term for Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism.

The reign of Darius the Persian was a time of great progress for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. In his second year, he permitted the building of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, which had been halted by Ahasuerus, to begin again. In his sixth year, the Second Temple was dedicated, and the following year, Ezra led the second great wave of return, with royal permission to enforce Torah laws. And in his twentieth year, Darius appointed Nehemiah as governor of Judah, a position which he kept for at least twelve years.

When Persia fell to Alexander the Great, it had been the Persian Empire, rather than the Persian/Median Empire, for almost forty years. It is no wonder that the Greeks were confused by the stories they heard about the great Median kings Darius and Xerxes (Ahasuerus). Thus began a garbling of history which has continued to this day.

What chance does Heifetz's revision have of being accepted by mainstream scholarship? It depends. As Heifetz himself is the first to admit, his is a work in progress. More work needs to be done before a detailed, year-by-year picture of this period can be presented to the scholarly community at large, with attention given to every scrap of archaeological and historical evidence. As little as that is relative to other periods in history, it is still a considerable undertaking. It is certainly not a one-man project.

Strictly on its merits, Heifetz's revision should be given at least as much credence as the Greek chronology. For Torah Jews, who possess emunat chachamim, there is no question that Chazal are more trustworthy than Herodotus and company. But even on a more empirical level, there is much reason to see Jewish historical traditions as more reliable than the Greek histories. The Greek historians picked their stories up as they passed through the lands of Persia, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. Sometimes they heard the stories at home in Greece from Persian immigrants. It would be no wonder if they got their facts confused. But the Jewish traditions regarding this period originated in the Babylonian and Persian communities and were passed down directly until they found their way into the Babylonian Talmud. Local history is much less likely to be misunderstood than stories, often taken out of context, about somebody else's history.

The greatest immediate value of Heifetz's work, however, is to demonstrate to Jews who are troubled by the conflict between the history books and Chazal that the conventional chronology of the Persian period is none too well grounded; that the evidence of archaeology and even that of the. Greek historians, when analyzed correctly, supports 421 BCE as well if not better than 587 BCE as the date of the destruction of the First Temple. Heifetz's work brings home sharply the lesson that even when the consensus of historical scholarship says that the tradition of Chazal, or the Bible itself, is non-historical, this is only a matter of interpretation. Time after time, the tradition of Israel has been borne out by the inspired work of scholars such as Dr. Heifetz.

Dr. Chaim Shlomo Heifetz received smicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York and his Doctorate in Jurisprudence from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His ongoing work on the chronology of the Persian period is the result of more than thirteen years of intensive study of the sources. An overall treatment of the revision by Dr. Heifetz (in Hebrew) will be appearing in Volume 14 of the Israeli journal of biblical studies, Megadim, in Spring 1991.

Brad Aaronson lives with his wife in Jerusalem. While he works as a bookkeeper, he spends much of his free time researching ancient history. He is the author of The Jerusalem Chronology of the Israelite Monarchies, and is currently translating Dr. Heifetz's work from Hebrew into English.

Letters in response to this article, and replies by the author, can be seen here.

FOOTNOTES

  1. See, for example, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J.H. Hertz.

  2. As Edgar Frank has ably demonstrated in his Talmudic and Rabbinic Chronology (Feldheim 1956), Seder Olam calls the year of Adam's creation "Year Zero," while the system we use today calls the year in which the world was created "Year One," and the year beginning with Adam's creation "Year Two." The only difference is in the label we give to the years: not when things actually happened. Although Seder Olam says that the Second Temple was destroyed in the Year 3828, this is what we would call today, 3830, or 70 CE.

  3. Daniel 5:30 reads, "That night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king was slain." The next verse, Daniel 6:1, continues, "And Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of sixty-two years." The fact that there is a chapter break between these two verses has been seen by some as a justification for identifying Darius the Mede as one of the later Persian Dariuses, but it should be kept in mind that the same Sages who faithfully transmitted the text of Daniel with a chapter break here also preserved the fact that Darius the Mede immediately followed Belshazzar the Chaldean.

  4. For a detailed explanation of how the Persian Khshayarsha was turned into the Hebrew Ahasuerus and the Greek Xerxes, see Rabbi Shelomoh Eliezer Danziger's excellent article, "Who Was the Real Akhashverosh?", in the February 1973 issue of The Jewish Observer, pp. 12-15.

  5. This last position was proposed by Rabbi Shimon Schwab in "Comparative Jewish Chronology," in the Ateret Tzvi Jubilee Volume in honor of Rabbi Joseph Breuer (Feldheim 1962). It must be admitted that if the conventional Persian chronology was based upon solid evidence, something like Rabbi Schwab's theory might be a kind of fallback position. But the fundamental weakness of the Greek based chronology hardly warrants this.

    The Daat Mikra commentary on the Tanach being being published by the Mossad HaRav Kook publishing house in Jerusalem has taken the conventional chronology as indisputable, with hardly a nod to the Jewish historical traditions for this period. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the only book of Nach that remains to be put out is that of Daniel, which can hardly be explained within the accepted Persian history. The last book of Nach to be published in this series was released almost two years ago. Certainly the publishers do not intend to undermine emunat chachamim, but it is hard to see how this can be avoided.

  6. At least one major baal teshuva yeshiva in Jerusalem is known to use Velikovsky's work for kiruv purposes. The damage done when young students are told that Tanach is historically inaccurate cannot be underestimated. The Persian period is somewhat less problematic, since most people are more familiar with the Exodus than with the Second Temple period, but as the previous note shows, it needs to be dealt with just the same.

  7. Bezalel Porten, Yehudim MiYev VeAramim MiSvein (Jews from Elephantine and Arameans from Syene) Jerusalem 5736), pp. 78-79, This papyrus is known as "Cowley 21" and is part of the collection at the Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, in what was until recently East Berlin, The English translation given in this article is mine.

  8. The Midrash Esther Rabbah (2:5) explains that Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman because Haman had engraved an idol on his heart. This leaves open the question: Why then did the other Jews bow down to Haman? The answer is that the idol engraved on Haman's heart was his fanatical devotion to Mithraism. Only Mordechai recognized this fanaticism and its significance. The rest of the Jews saw only a high public official and paid him the respect due his office.