A Persian edict and the return of the Judean exiles
The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the best-known surviving texts from the Achaemenid Persian Empire (c. 550–332 BCE), due almost entirely to its proposed connection to the return of the Judean exiles and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple as recorded in the Book of Ezra. However, beyond its biblical connection, the Cyrus Cylinder is a rather standard inscription, closely resembling many that came before it. So, what is the Cyrus Cylinder and how does it relate to the history and world of the Bible?
This is the second part of an exclusive Bible History Daily series on historical texts that are important for understanding the history and world of the Bible.
The Cyrus Cylinder is a small barrel-shaped artifact of baked clay. It is inscribed with a text that records the acts of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 BCE), who conquered the Babylonian Empire and–according to the Hebrew Bible–was directly responsible for the return of the Judean exiles from Babylonia. Across multiple centuries and cultures, Cyrus was remembered in a remarkably favorable light compared to other powerful conquerors. The later Greek historians Herodotus (The Histories) and Xenophon (The Education of Cyrus) present him as an ideal ruler and paragon of moral virtue. The Book of Isaiah (45:1) even refers to Cyrus as the Lord’s anointed one, making him the only figure in the Hebrew Bible who is declared “YHWH’s messiah” without being an anointed king of Judah.
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Uncovered during excavations in Babylon in 1879, the incompletely preserved cylinder contains 45 lines of cuneiform text written in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. The cylinder was presumably commissioned by Cyrus at the time of his rebuilding of Babylon, following his conquest of the region. It begins with a historical prologue, telling about the evils of the previous Babylonian king, Nabonidus (r. 556–539 BCE). According to the text, in response to the impious actions of Nabonidus, the Babylonian god Marduk summoned Cyrus to overthrow Nabonidus and return order to Babylon by rebuilding temples and returning cultic images and exiles to their homes.
From the very beginning, this text has remarkable similarities to the biblical account found in Ezra (1:1-4), where it is the Hebrew god YHWH, not Marduk, who stirs up the heart of Cyrus to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and return the exiles to Judah. However, the connection between the Cyrus Cylinder and biblical history is not nearly as straightforward and certain as first glance suggests. Numerous scholars have argued against any direct connection between the cylinder and the biblical narrative.
While the cylinder does indeed discuss the rebuilding of cultic centers and the return of exiles, it never speaks of Jerusalem and the Judeans. Instead, the Cyrus Cylinder focuses specifically on Babylonia. It is the Babylonian cult centers and Babylonian deports that are reported being restored. Thus, while this inscription closely reflects the story of Ezra, it does not report the same events.1 Yet even if the Cyrus Cylinder and Ezra are not referring to the same event, is it possible that they reflect a larger Persian policy, one that led to both events? Could the Cyrus Cylinder simply be the Babylonian version of the edict of the king?
There are two main difficulties with seeing the Cyrus Cylinder as part of a larger Persian policy, and thereby connecting it to the narrative in Ezra. First, while the inscription is a beautiful object, it was never intended for reading. Instead, the cylinder is a foundation inscription—a text buried during the construction or remodeling of a building. As such, it was meant to be read by the gods alone. This was a common practice in the ancient Near East and it brings up the second difficulty. The contents of the Cyrus Cylinder are not remarkably different from similar foundation inscriptions written by earlier Babylonian and Assyrian kings. Instead, Cyrus merely appears to be continuing a tradition of overly grandiose claims that may or may not have ever come to pass.1 Esarhaddon famously had similar inscriptions written regarding his reconstruction of Babylon a century earlier but died before ever carrying out what he had asserted. Because of these difficulties, several scholars have argued that the cylinder bears little, if any, relevance on a broader Persian policy. However, recent discoveries may suggest otherwise.
Until recently, it was believed that the Cyrus Cylinder was a one-off inscription, with no duplicates ever discovered. However, in 2009 and 2010, two small fragments of text were identified in the British Museum that duplicate the cylinder. These fragments did not come from a cylinder but from a large cuneiform tablet, which must have carried the same text as the Cyrus Cylinder.
According to Irving Finkel, famed Assyriologist and curator at the British Museum, the recently identified tablet likely originated from an official scribal office where many copies were made and sent throughout the various regions of the empire. “Even a cursory glance at the text of the Cylinder shows that the inscription falls into discrete sections, and it is not hard to imagine that there might have been a core account of the conquest of Babylon and the takeover of power which could have extra passages added or adapted to local interest in the creation of other such accounts,” wrote Finkel in his book on the cylinder.2 It is then certainly possible that the Cyrus Cylinder and the narrative in Ezra both reflect official state proclamations from the Persian administration soon after its conquest of a region.
Moreover, it would not be surprising if the Persian Empire had followed a policy, shared by other ancient empires, of giving privileged positions to cities in strategically important locations or exempting them from certain taxes, to ensure that these cities remained loyal to the empire.1 Judah in this period was likely in just such a situation, given its closeness to the Egyptian state as well as the troublesome Arabian tribes, both of which posed a threat to Persian control in the region. A possible reference to this policy can be found in Ezra (4:13), where it mentions that once the walls were completed, Jerusalem would no longer need to pay taxes.
Although the Cyrus Cylinder cannot be directly connected to the biblical narrative, it is certainly possible–if not probable–that it does reflect the same situation as the Bible does: a consistent and pointed propagandistic attempt by the Persian Empire to establish themselves as a conquering savior, operating under the command and anointing of the local pantheon.
1: Amélie Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983), pp. 83–97.
2: Irving Finkel, The Cyrus Cylinder: the Great Persian Edict from Babylon (London: Tauris, 2012).
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