The following is from the letter column in the Summer 1991 issue of Jewish Action. There are two letters in response to "Fixing the History Books", which appeared in the Spring 1991 issue. Each letter was followed directly by a response from the author.


To The Editor:

I read with great interest your article by Brad Aaronson in your Summer 1991 issue, describing Dr. Claim Heifetz's attempt to resolve the pronounced discrepancy between the conventional chronology of the Persian period and the chronology of the Persian period described in Seder Olam (SO). While his goal of resolving this discrepancy is a meritorious one, the particular method which Dr. Heifetz suggests is very problematic. Dr. Heifetz postulates that the conventional chronology of the Persian period must be drastically revised and is willing to make such a drastic revision because the conventional chronology is based on the works of Greek historians whose reliability has always been open to question. If it were true that the sole basis for the conventional chronology were these Greek sources, there would be merit to Dr. Heifetz's approach. However, the chronology of the Persian period derived from the Greek historians is corroborated by both ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions and by our own books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

In the 19th century, the ancient inscriptions of the Persian kings which had survived for centuries in the ruins of the Persian palaces were finally deciphered. The order of the Persian kings presented in these inscriptions corresponds exactly with the order of the Persian kings that had previously been constructed from the narrative Greek sources. One example of such an inscription is the following inscription of Artaxerxes III, written in Persian cuneiform and translated as follows: "I am the son of Artaxerxes the king, of Artaxerxes who was the son of Darius the king, of Darius who was the son of Artaxerxes the king, of Artaxerxes who was the son of Xerxes the king, of Xerxes who was the son of Darius the king..." This inscription alone confirms the identity and order of the Persian kings all the way from Darius I to Artaxerxes Ill. (For a collection of these inscriptions, see Roland Kent's Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon.)

The book of Ezra, for the limited part of the Persian period that it describes, also confirms the order of the Persian kings that was de- scribed in the Greek sources. See, for example, Ezra 4:5-7 where it records the four Persian kings that it mentions here in exactly the same order as they were described by the Greek sources: First listed is Coresh (=Cyrus), next is Daryavesh (=Darius), next is Ahashverosh (=Xerxes) (see Rabbi S. Danziger's article in the February 1973 issue of the Jewish Observer for more on this identification), and last is Artahshasta (=Artaxerxes). (The book of Ezra does not mention Cambyses, who reigned between Cyrus and Darius, but nothing in the book of Ezra precludes there having been such a king who reigned at that time.)

It is also evident from the listing of six successive generations of high priests of the Persian period at Nehemiah 12:10-11 that the Persian period must have spanned a much longer period than the period allowed for it in SO. Yeshua, the first one listed, served as the high priest as late as the second year of Daryavesh (Haggai 1:1). It is difficult to postulate a reasonable scenario in which five additional successive generations of high priests could have been born and served from the time of Daryavesh and thereafter, throughout the balance of the Persian period, if the length of time from the second year of Daryavesh until the end of the Persian period was only 34 years, as it is stated to be in SO.

There is one verse in the Bible (Daniel 11:2) which tends to support SO's view that the Persian period was a short one, But it is wiser, in attempting to reconstruct the chronology of the ancient period from the Biblical books, to rely on statements found in books which are of a historical character, such as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and not on statements found in the last chapters (7-12) of the book of Daniel, which chapters are composed of visions and are known for their mystical character.

Rather than drastically revising the well-founded conventional chronology, there is another avenue available to help resolve the pronounced discrepancy between the SO and conventional chronologies regarding the length of the Persian period. We may postulate that our Sages were not necessarily interested in making objectively accurate historical statements when they made their "historical" statements. They often made them with other purposes in mind.

In this particular instance, they may have had some specific reason to purposely shorten the Persian period. Perhaps for the reason suggested by Rabbi Shimon Schwab (see his article "Comparative Jewish Chronology," republished this year by CIS Publishers in a volume of Rabbi Schwab's works entitled Selected Speeches), or perhaps, as Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport suggested long ago (Erech Millin, p. 74), so as to purposely create a chronology in which Minyan Shtarot began exactly 1000 years after the Exodus. Or perhaps they were trying to create a chronology which had a 490 year period as one of its elements (i.e., 70 years between the Temples and 420 years for the Second Temple) so as to fulfill the book of Daniel's reference (at 9:24) to a 490 year period.

We have one clue that the historical statements made in SO with regard to the Persian period may not have been intended as objectively accurate historical statements. SO, as part of its historical scheme, equates two Persian kings, Daryavesh and Artahshasta, who, by any reasonable reading of the verses in the book of Ezra, particularly verse 6:14, are seen to be two separate Persian kings. (Indeed, numerous of our Rishonim disagree with SO and view them as two separate kings.) Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes has written that our Sages made this equation, and many other such equations of biblical characters, with full awareness that they were not objectively accurate historical statements. Other factors motivated them to make such statements. (See his Student's Guide Through The Talmud, p. 172, English edition.) It is not a great leap to claim that the same may be true with regard to the entire Persian period chronology presented in SO. Indeed, it is in part the equation of Daryavesh with Artahshasta that allowed the author of SO to assign to the Persian period as short a length as he did.

We may never know precisely what factors influenced the author of SO to make the statements he did re- garding the short length of the Persian period. But it is a mistake to automatically assume, just because the statements were made, that the author believed them to be historical truth. Given the overwhelming evidence in favor of the conventional chronology one is compelled to take this direction towards re- solving the pronounced discrepancy between the chronologies, and not the approach suggested by Dr. Heifetz.

Mitchell First
Teaneck, NJ

The author is an attorney who is completing his own study of Seder Olam and its chronology of the Persian period for his Master's Degree at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University.

*****

Mr. Aaronson Replies:

Mr. First makes three points in his letter: 1. he claims that the conventional Greek-based chronology of Persia is supported by inscriptional evidence which is independent of the Greek historians; 2. he maintains that the information in Tanach supports the Greek-based chronology and is even problematic for the chronology given by Chazal; and 3. he suggests that it is possible, and even preferable, rather than revising widely accepted dogmas of history, to presume that "our Sages were not necessarily interested in making objectively accurate historical statements when they made their 'historical' statements." I will deal with each of these separately. Incidentally, I have discussed Mr. First's letter with Dr. Heifetz, and the following reply is based upon this discussion.

1. Mr. First quotes an inscription which he notes conforms entirely to the Greek-based view of history. In the first place, one thing which stands out very clearly in the book by Kent in which Mr. First found this quote is that other than the inscriptions of Darius "I" and some of those of Xerxes, not a single inscription found at Persepolis had any content to speak of -- only royal titles. In the second place, this inscription, and others like it, are notable for "barbarisms, both of grammar and orthography" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. X, p. 340), which are totally lacking in the inscriptions of Darius.

That casual forgeries were committed in ancient times is not a new idea. Two of the inscriptions of Arsames and Ariaramnes, the grandfather and great-grandfather of Darius "I", were later determined to have been forgeries, perpetrated in the Persian period (see Kent's article in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1936, vol. 56, p. 215ff.). Like the inscription Mr. First brings, these consisted of royal titles with virtually no content. To use such flimsy evidence as "proof' that Chazal were wrong about Jewish history is unwise.

2. As Mr. First admits, Daniel 11:2 presents quite a problem for the conventional chronology, stating, as it does, that the third Persian King after Darius the Mede is one who would be conquered by Greece. But this is far from the only passage which contradicts the Greek-based history.

As I noted in my review of Dr. Heifetz's work, the very existence of Darius the Mede, mentioned in Daniel 6:1 (Daniel 6 not falling into that section of Daniel which Mr. First finds non-authoritative, historically speaking), is in direct conflict with a history which contains no such character.

The mention of four Persian kings in Ezra 4:5-7 is also no proof, The clear meaning of these verses is that: 1) the Samaritans hired advisers to help disrupt the building of Jerusalem and the Temple from the days of Cyrus until the days of Darius the Persian; 2) they wrote libelous charges against the Jews at the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus; and 3) they wrote yet another in the days of Artachshast, which is quoted in full. That this was not a single passage listing four kings in order of succession is clear from the fact that the Masorah begins a new parsha between verses 6 and 7, as well as the fact that these different activities are being referred to.

But what is most curious is Mr. First's reference of the genealogy of the high priest given in Nehemiah 12:10-11. Not only does this list not cause any problems for the chronology of Chazal, but it is a grave problem for the Greek-based version of events. According to many sources (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:4: various Rishonim on Haggai 1:1) Jehozadak, the son of Seriah and father of Jeshua (and brother of Ezra according to Ezra 7:1), was a Kohen Gadol during the First Temple period. This means that he was, at the very least, thirty years old at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. If he was still alive in the second year of Darius the Persian (seventy years later), he would have been at least one hundred years old. It is unlikely that Jeshua, presumably his first born, would have been any younger than eighty at this time, and possibly he was older. Using a wholly reasonable figure of eighteen years for the average age at which each Kohen Gadol became a father for the first time, would then put the birth of Jeshua's great-great-great-grandson Jaddua in the tenth year of Darius the Persian. (Incidentally, Dr. Heifetz has presented strong evidence which suggests that Jaddua was Shimon HaTzaddik, who greeted Alexander at the gates of Jerusalem.)

On the other hand, Nehemiah 13:4-6 tells us that Jeshua's grandson Eliashib was high priest in the thirty-second year of Artachshast. According to the Greek-based conventional chronology, the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes I (433 B.C.E.) was eighty-seven years after the second year of Darius I (520 B.C.E.). Even if we assume that Eliashib was seventy years old at this time, there is still a good hundred years between him and his grandfather Jeshua. If he was younger, this difference would be greater. Is this what Mr. First would call "a reasonable scenario"? Similarly, Ezra 10:6 shows that Eliashib's son Johanan/Jonathan was already born as early as the seventh year of Artachshast. In Greek-based terms, this would be 456 B.C.E., more than one hundred and twenty years before Alexander was greeted by Johanan's son Jaddua (as described by Josephus and, if Dr, Heifetz is right about the identity of Jaddua and Shimon HaTzaddik, by Chazal).

The fact is, the genealogy of the high priests, like the rest of the biblical information for this period, is in harmony with the chronology of Chazal, and quite an embarrassment for the Greek-based chronology.

3. Here it is difficult to know where to start. I can only assume that Mr. First has not completely thought through the implications of what he is suggesting, Because current historical theory, widely accepted as it may be, conflicts with Jewish sources, Mr. First feels it is preferable to question the Jewish sources, rather than rock the boat by trying to revise the current theory. So, if the picture of ancient history derived from the current theoretical picture in archeology says, as it does, that there was no Israelite invasion of Canaan; that the remains of Israelite culture show Israel to have been a poor carbon copy of a literate and ethical Canaanite society, why not dismiss the book of Joshua as non-historical? Perhaps this book was also intended merely to teach ideas, rather than facts.

Mr. First may draw a line between questioning statements of Chazal and doing the same to Tanach, but it is a purely subjective line. There is no source for such a distinction, and the entire body of Torah literature denies such an idea.

When it comes right down to it, if we cannot believe Chazal on matters of historical fact, how can we believe them about anything? More importantly, how can we believe that there exists an unbroken chain of tradition from the time of Moses until the present, when Mr. First tells us we must accept a picture of history which snaps that chain between Baruch ben Neriah (the disciple of Jeremiah) and Ezra?

Since I wrote my review of Dr. Heifetz's work, it has been published in issue 14 of Megadim, an Israeli journal of biblical studies. Since Dr. Heifetz deals with the question of ancient forgeries and the adaptiveness of the Greeks, I presume that Mr. First has not had the opportunity to read Dr. Heifetz's work in the original, a work which covers more material than I was able to include in my review. In addition, Dr. Heifetz's work is preceded by an article by Rabbi Yaakov Medan, which deals with the various sources who have addressed this problem in the past. I urge anyone interested in this subject to get a copy of this magazine.

All of the late Jewish sources which Mr. First can cite to back up the idea of questioning the history of Chazal are attempts to salvage whatever possible from the damage done to Jewish history by the Greek description of the Persian Period. I do not believe that the authors of any of these theories would ever have claimed them to be preferable to making the conventional chronology conform to the Jewish version, if they had realized this was possible. What Dr. Heifetz has done is show us that, indeed, it is possible.

Brad Aaronson
Jerusalem, Israel

*****

To the Editor:

I am neither an historian nor the son of an historian, but Brad Aaronson's learned article, on Revision of Persian History, contains a statement that requires comment. In footnote no. 5, the reader is informed that the Daat Mikra commentary of Mossad haRav Kook follows a "conventional chronology" rather than that of the Jewish Sages, and it is suggested by the author that this is an apparent breach of emunat chachamim.

There is a long and hallowed tradition among Rishonim that maintains that non-legal narratives of the Talmud, aggadot, do not have to be taken literally. Maimonides, his son, Rabbi Avraham, and Nachmanides all agree with this tradition. Without impugning those authors who disagree with this view, one can hardly challenge these gedolim as being without emnunat chachamim!

Was it not Tosafot who argues that we no longer apply Talmudic medicine, for "nature has changed"? This statement is designed to show that while Torah does not change, the application of timeless Torah principles may assume different shapes. Are we to contend that Tosafot did not have emunat chachamim, heaven forfend, because he, in his wisdom, was unwilling to apply Talmudic remedies in his day?

In point of fact, the Daat Mikra series offers Bible scholarship in a Torah setting, for modem information is mustered to understand the Tradition which is always taken as a theological given.

The doctrine of emunat chachamim does not appear in the Talmud, but it is implied in every issue of Torah sheb'al peh. I understand it to mean that the Sages of Israel, like Netsach Yisrael, tell the truth. But we must be sure we understand what the Sages say, how they say it, and what they mean by the words they say. If metaphors are taken literally, they mislead. When Sages like Maimonides (Introduction to Sanhedrin, Heleg) and Ramban (Debate with Pablo Christiani) tell us that aggadot are esoteric and will be misunderstood if taken at face value, the doctrine of emunat chachamim requires that I believe them. The establishment of chronologies is both factual and theological. For instance, R. David Gans, in Tsemach David, is telling what happened to the Jews as well as showing that Hashem's providential "hand" (metaphor intended) is working in history.

If we find a chronology in the writings of the Sages which is difficult to understand, we must wait impatiently for Eliyahu ha-Navi to resolve the difficulty, without impugning the writings, inventions, or probity of recognized talmidei chachamim who are recognized to have emnunat chachamim themselves.

Rabbi Alan Yuter
Springfield, NJ

*****

Mr. Aaronson Responds:

I am not in a position of authority which would allow me to state outright that the position taken by the editors of the Daat Mikra series is completely unacceptable for a publication which is supposed to be coming from a Torah perspective. I did state that it is hard to see how such a position can help but undermine emunat chachamim, and I not only stand by this statement, but would add that subsequent volumes of the Daat Mikra series show that the editors are aware of this fact and have taken steps not to repeat it. The First Temple period is also a source of conflict between Chazal and the history books, Chazal claiming that the First Temple stood 410 years and historians preferring a span of closer to 375 years. In the appendices at the end of their edition of Melachim (pp. 91-93), they presented the two positions briefly and left it at that. I find this somewhat problematic as well, but it is something completely different than presenting that view which contradicts Chazal without even mentioning that there is a view of Chazal which is being contradicted, the procedure they followed for the Second Temple period. I do not question their intentions or probity, only their judgment in this matter.

That this was the view of Chazal, and not simply a matter of aggadah, is evidenced by the fact that, with the sole exception of Azariah de Rossi, whose claims in this matter were ruled out vehemently and absolutely by all the gedolim of his generation, as well as those of sub- sequent generations, there is no source to support placing the chronology of Chazal in the category of aggadah. In the third paragraph of Rabbi Yuter's letter, he mentions "the non-legal narratives of the Talmud" as what seems to be a synonym for aggadah. This is probably the basis of the misunderstanding: not everything in the Talmud is either halacha or aggadah.. There are also raw statements of fact, such as "The Roman legions destroyed the Second Temple," "Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was a disciple of Hillel Hazaken," and yes, "The Second Temple stood 420 years."

Rabbi Yuter suggests that we should wait for Eliyahyu HaNavi to come and explain the "difficult to understand" chronology of Chazal. This appears to be a reference to a bit of aggadah which has attached itself to the Talmudic term teiku, meaning "let it stand." In general, the idea of a teiku applies to a dispute between two Torah based views on a point of Halachah which we cannot resolve. But the dispute in question is not on a point of Halachah; nor is it between two Torah based views. And when it comes down to it, neither is it at all "difficult to understand." After all, the scholarly consensus among historians also rejects the historicity of a large percentage of Tanach. Does this make Tanach "difficult to understand"?

The information given in Tanach and by Chazal regarding the Persian period is made up of several dozen statements, all of which testify to a single coherent picture of history. It is not simply a matter of the Second Temple standing for only 420 years, or Alexander conquering Persia thirty-four years after the building of the Second Temple, or Ezra being an uncle of Jeshua the high priest and a disciple of Baruch ben Neriah, or Ahasuerus reigning before the Second Temple was built. All of these points and more describe the identical situation, one which is in conflict with the tales of the Greeks. But so what? Why assume that the rest of the world is right and that we need to adapt our traditions to the theories currently in fashion? Why not instead do as our father Abraham did and take a stand for what we know to be the truth? Emunat chachamim demands that we give Chazal this benefit of the doubt.