Good Public Relations: What Ancient Persian Propaganda Tells Us about the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’

Behistun Inscription / Creative Commons

Inscriptions ranging from the first Persian king, Cyrus, through Artaxerxes reveal elements in common in both Babylonian and Egyptian texts.

By Dr. Lucas Schulte
Lecturer in Classics and Religious Studies
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Stretching from Egypt to the Indus River, the Persian Empire was the largest empire yet seen in the ancient Near East. Typically, the Hebrew Bible depicts ancient Near Eastern empires as divine instruments of punishment. But the Persian Empire is an exception: the Persians allowed Judean exiles to return home and rebuild the Jerusalem temple, so the Hebrew Bible uniquely depicts their empire as expressing YHWH’s benevolence. These positive depictions of Persian kings provide a better understanding both of the development of the book of Nehemiah and the Persian context behind it. Everyone needs good PR, even empires.

Behistun/Bisitun inscription. Figure © Jenny Rose.
Statue of Darius from Susa. Figure © Jenny Rose.

Three main issues have been debated about the book of Nehemiah: 1) which parts of the book originated in the Persian period section called the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’; 2) how can we classify the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ in the context of ancient Near Eastern texts; and, more recently, 3) whether the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ originally expressed any theological concerns. While most scholars agree that the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ resembles other ancient Near Eastern texts, those examples vary widely in time and location. Since Judah was the crossroads, we can narrow our focus to depictions of Persian kings in contemporary texts from Babylon and Egypt.

Apadana central panel with the Persian king. Figure © Jenny Rose.
Tripylon Gate from Persepolis. Figure © Jenny Rose.

Inscriptions ranging from the first Persian king, Cyrus, through Artaxerxes in the book of Nehemiah, reveal elements in common in both Babylonian and Egyptian texts. The Cyrus Cylinder describes a Babylonian god, Marduk, choosing Cyrus to rule kindly over the Babylonians as “King of Babylon.” This inscription demonstrates important Persian propaganda innovation: they used the language (in this case, Babylonian cuneiform), inscription style (foundational cylinders that had been used for centuries), local gods (Marduk and Nabu), and the local royal title (“King of Babylon”) of their subject peoples. No previous kings in the ancient Near East had used this combination of methods! Chapters 40-55 of the book of Isaiah depict a similar image of Cyrus in a Judean religious context: YHWH gives Cyrus authority over Judah and the nations, and Cyrus is even given the royal title of “messiah.”

Cyrus Cylinder
Nabonidus Chronicle

This pattern continues with Cyrus’s successors. The Nabonidus Chronicles indicates that Cyrus’s son and heir, Cambyses, participated in the Babylonian Akitu festival in the traditional role of the King of Babylon. When Cambyses brought Egypt under Persian control, the Egyptian statue of Udjaḥorresnet indicates this Persian policy spread to Egypt. This inscription depicts both Cambyses and Darius (his successor) as taking the traditional titles, roles, and throne names of Egyptian pharaohs. The text also describes Cambyses and Darius as providing for the temple of the goddess Neith, with Cambyses even visiting and worshipping there in the traditional manner of the pharaohs. A funerary inscription for an Apis bull that died during the reign of Cambyses also uses many of these same titles and even depicts Cambyses as a pharaoh kneeling before the divine animal.

Udjahorresnet statue
Apis Stele of Cambyses. Figure ©Bruce Benedict.

Egyptian gods support Darius’s reign as pharaoh not only in the statue of Udjaḥorresnet and the Apis bull inscription, but also on an inscription on an Egyptian statue of Darius, monumental inscriptions commemorating an early Suez canal, and several fragmentary Egyptian inscriptions. Babylonian sources continue to use the term “king of Babylon” for Darius. There are indications that Darius wintered in Babylon until around the time of the Akitu festival, possibly participating like Cambyses did.

Many scholars have assumed that Darius’s successor, Xerxes, broke with tradition by not using the term “King of Babylon.” However, over a dozen inscriptions continued to use the term “King of Babylon” not only throughout Xerxes’s reign, but also even into the twenty-fourth year of the reign of his son, Artaxerxes I. A surviving fragment from the Babylonian Chronicle Series indicates a festival to Marduk still took place during the time of one of Darius’s sons (Xerxes?). Egyptian stone inscriptions and vases continued to use traditional titles of pharaohs for both Xerxes and Artaxerxes I.

These common elements indicate a pattern that I call the Persian Royal Propaganda Model. This uses the languages, monument styles, and images of the subjects of the Persian Empire to depict the Persian kings as receiving authority from the local god or gods (whether Babylonian, Egyptian, or Judean) to rule as the local kings (a “King of Babylon,” a pharaoh, a messiah). The earliest Persian kings (Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius) used more explicit examples to establish this propaganda model, and the later reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes I emphasized continuity with what their predecessors had established.

A comparison of the Persian Royal Propaganda Model as found in Babylonian and Egyptian sources to depictions of Artaxerxes in the book of Nehemiah reveals fascinating correspondences. Both Nehemiah 2 and 13:4-14 closely resemble the Persian Royal Propaganda Model, fitting well within the context of the Persian period ‘Nehemiah Memoir.’ Since the prayer and request for remembrance in Nehemiah 1:5-11 bears some resemblance to Persian period sources, Nehemiah may have reworked an existing prayer for his own purposes. Some of Nehemiah’s self depictions in Nehemiah 5:14 resemble similar self depictions of the Udjaḥorresnet statue inscription, so part of chapter 5 may also be from the ‘Nehemiah Memoir.’

While not mentioning Nehemiah and therefore perhaps not originally part of the ‘Nehemiah Memoir,’ Nehemiah 11:22-24 may contain some elements of Persian period material. Nehemiah 6:6-7 is inconclusive since it includes only a brief mention of the king. However, Nehemiah chapter 9’s negative depiction of Persian rule very much contrasts with the Persian Royal Propaganda Model and therefore clearly belongs to a later period.

Setting the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ more firmly in a comparative and especially Persian context not only provides valuable data for better understanding the stages of writing in the book of Nehemiah, it also better illuminates the Persian society and politics which allowed Nehemiah to return and help rebuild Jerusalem. The benevolent depiction of Persian kings in this propaganda model may also express aspects of the Persian religion known today as Zoroastrianism, particularly the concept that humans manifest the goodness of the supreme creator god, Ahura Mazda, through their moral actions to help beautify the world (in fact, Darius’s inscription at Behistun explicitly portrays him as acting on behalf of Ahura Mazda).

Their Propaganda Model depicted Persian rule as good to their subjects, in line with local dynasties, and supporting local religions. This probably functioned to instill loyalty in their subjects. Such good rule also embodied the Zoroastrian practices of manifesting Ahura Mazda’s good work in creation by establishing peace, well-being, and political order.

But propaganda is aimed at the eye of the beholder. To the Babylonians, the Persian emperors were kings of Babylon demonstrating Marduk’s goodness. To the Egyptians, they were pharaohs embodying the goodness of several Egyptian gods. To the author of Isaiah 40-55, Cyrus’s reign expressed YHWH’s goodness. Decades later, Nehemiah portrayed his commission from King Artaxerxes as a religious role manifesting YHWH’s goodness, helping fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55. This religious milieu of Persian period writings challenges the scholarly trend arguing that the original ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ contained no theological elements. That theology, if nothing else, expressed gratitude towards Persia.

Originally published by The Ancient Near East Today IV:11 (November 2016), republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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