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Archaeological evidence of Nehemiah and Ezra’s return to Jerusalem

The Persian seal (left) and Persian seal instrument (right) revealing the Persian presence in Jerusalem during the time of Nehemiah and Ezra. Credit: Shai Halevy, Israel-Antiquities Authority

After the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Jewish Temple and hauled off tens of thousands of Jews into captivity, the Jews were allowed to return to Judah after the Persians conquered Babylon.

The Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave Nehemiah permission to return and rebuild the city of Jerusalem that lay in ruins. It seems that Nehemiah was essentially building what would serve as an outpost and provincial administrative center for the Persian empire, which explains why the Persian King provided material assistance for the rebuilding (Nehemiah 2:1-20).

Over 42,000 Jews initially returned to Jerusalem for this rebuilding (Nehemiah 7:66).

However, if this was an administrative center for the Persian Empire, one thing that puzzled archaeologists was the lack of Persian artifacts in Jerusalem from this period.

But according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that all changed over the summer when archaeologists found evidence of two Persian royal seals from this period in a dig in Old Jerusalem.

Seals were used to authenticate documents and goods. It involved an instrument on which the seal was carved that would be used to push an impression into either clay or wax authenticating that the document or property had come from the Persian government.

Archaeologists discovered both a larger Persian sealing instrument that suggests it was used for items such as pots that may have been transporting goods or collecting taxes and a smaller clay seal impression.

According to the IAA, the sealing instrument depicted “the image of a person sitting in a large chair with one or to two columns in front of him… The character is probably a king.”

The smaller clay impression depicted images of two people along with Persian script.

Though these two seals provided evidence of Jerusalem’s role as a Persian administrative center, this is not the only archaeological evidence confirming the role Nehemiah and Ezra played in the rebuilding of the city.

In the late 1800s, Jewish papyri being sold in an antiquities market led to the discovery of a Jewish colony on the island of Elephantine on the Nile River in Egypt. In the book of Jeremiah, there is a reference to Jews fleeing to Egypt prior to the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem (Jeremiah 44:1). Some believe the Elephantine colony were surviving members of this group.

As archaeological work began on Elephantine, they discovered that they had actually built a Jewish Temple on the island, that was subsequently damaged when the Egyptians attacked the Jewish settlement and temple because they were sacrificing bulls, who the Egyptians considered to be gods. However, the Persians had also conquered Egypt, and they quickly came to the Jew’s aid quelling the attack.

This information was gathered from nearly 200 papyri found on Elephantine that included letters being sent to Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders on Elephantine had heard that Nehemiah and Ezra were rebuilding the city and temple, so they wrote asking for help rebuilding the temple on Elephantine.

The Elephantine letters mentioned several people found in both Nehemiah and Ezra.

This included letters to the Jewish High Priest Johanan in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:1; 12:10-12; 12:22; Ezra 10:6), but it appears he would have nothing to do with this upstart temple and didn’t even bother to reply.

They also wrote a letter to the sons of Sanballat. Their father, Sanballat, had been governor of the area before Nehemiah’s arrival. As a result, Sanballat was in a power struggle with Nehemiah for control and even tried to hinder the construction of Jerusalem’s walls (Nehemiah 2:10, Nehemiah 2:19).

The letter to the sons suggested that Sanballat was either dead or very old. Though Sanballat was gentile, the names of his two son in the letter were Jewish, suggesting Sanballat had married a Jewish woman.

In their letter to the sons of Sanballat, the Elephantines tried to show, like the group in Jerusalem, they also had Persian approval for what they were doing by explaining that the Persians never attacked their temple when dealing with the Egyptians on the island.

“Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the Kingdom of Egypt, and who Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They (the Persians) knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did damage to this temple.”

In their response, the sons of Sanballat suggested the Elephantines contact the local Persian Santrap for help, which they did. The Elephantine group received financial help and according to the papyri, the temple was still standing in 402 BC.

There is also a letter from Jerusalem mentioning Hananiah, the brother of Nehemiah, who was put in charge of the administrative affairs of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:2). The letter informed the Elephantine group on how to properly hold Passover.

The last dated papyri on Elephantine was from 399 BC. This was the year that the Egyptians overthrew the Persians meaning they could not longer protect the Jewish colony on Elephantine from attack by the Egyptians.

READ: Rare artifacts discovered from the Persian period: Support Bible’s Ezra and Nehemiah AND A seal and a seal impression discovered in the City of David bears witness to the restoration of the city in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah

Elephantine Sources: Archaeology and Bible History by Dr. Joseph Free (Scripture Press: Wheaton, ILL) AND A History of Israel by John Bright (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY)

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