Persian Period, 537-332 BCE


The exile in Babylonia ended even more swiftly than it began. In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia defeated the Babylonians. In an unusual example of wise and humane rule in the ancient world, Cyrus allowed exiled peoples to return home and rebuild their temples; in return they were expected to maintain order within lands and to be loyal to the Persian Empire, now the dominant power in the Near East. An inscribed clay cylinder, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, asserts that Cyrus was chosen by the God Marduk first to overthrow the ruler of Persia and then go on to defeat the Babylonians; it also records his policy of letting peoples return home to worship their own gods. The opening verses of the Book of Ezra also attest to that decree.

The return to Zion took place in stages. The first, soon after 539 B.C.E., occurred when Sheshbazzar, son of Jehoiachin, led a small group back to Jerusalem, taking with him the Temple vessels and then laying foundations for a rebuilt Temple. A much large group—numbering more than 42,000–left soon after Darius began his reign in 522 B.C.E.; they were led by Zerubbabel and a high priest named Joshua. The two leaders rebuilt the altar proceeded to rebuild the Temple itself.

The third stage involved Ezra, who came in about 458 B.C.E., and Nehemiah, who arrived in about 445 B.C.E. The chronology is uncertain, and until recently many scholars had believed that Nehemiah had preceded Ezra. In any case, Nehemiah twice served as governor of the province the Persians call Yehud. (Archaeologists have recovered numerous examples of jar handles and coins stamped with the name Yehud.) During his tenure as governor, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and city gates of Jerusalem; the city quadrupled in size and the population doubled to an estimated 17,000.

Ezra is primarily a religious figure. He is credited with bringing the “law of Moses” to Jerusalem; under his leadership, Jewish religious law became the foundation for civil society. Just what the “law of Moses” was is a mystery, though. Some scholars had thought it referred to the Five Books of Moses, while others believed it was one of the law codes embedded in those books. However, none of the laws found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah matches verses in the Five Books of Moses, so some scholars now suggest that his law code may have been a digest of Jewish law meant to be kept as part of the records of the Persian empire.

Excerpted from Biblical History: Jeremiah, Ezra and Esther, c. 586-330 BCE, Steven Feldman, COJS.



    1. Yahud Stamps, c. 539 BCE
    2. Cyrus Cylinder, c. 535 BCE
    3. Tomb of Cyrus, 530 BCE
    4. Cambyses Conquers Egypt, 525 BCE
    5. Ein Gedi Cave, 6th century BCE
    6. Behistun Inscription, 549-486 BCE
    7. Darius I Inscription, 522-486 BCE
    8. Usahor Inscription, 522-486 BCE
    9. Silver Foundation Plaque of Darius I, 522-486 BCE
    10. Tomb of Darius I, 486 BCE
    11. Gold Persian Darics, 500 BCE
    12. Cypro-Phoenician Coin, 500 BCE
    13. Achaemenian Coins, 500 BCE
    14. The Glory of Susa, c. 500 BCE
    15. Lid of the Sarcophagus of Ptahhotepthe, c. 500 BCE
    16. Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 500 BCE
    17. Elephantine Ostraca, early 5th century BCE
    18. Sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar, 5th century BCE
    19. Aramaic Stelae, 5th century BCE
    20. The Murashû Archive, late 5th century BCE
    21. Lobed Bowl, 5th century BCE
    22. Goddess Tinit Figurines, 5th century BCE
    23. Athenian Coin, 5th century BCE
    24. Tel el-Maskhuta Libation Bowl, late 5th century BCE
    25. Oxus Treasure, 5th-4th century BCE
    26. Maagan Michael Ship, 4th-5th century BCE
    27. The Battle of Marathon, 490 BCE
    28. The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BCE
    29. Sabbath Ostraca, c. 475 BCE
    30. Artaxerxes I, 465-424 BCE
    31. The Yehawmilk Stele, c. 450 BCE
    32. Darius II Nothus, 423-404 BCE
    33. Contract from Elephantine, 451 BCE
    34. The Passover Papyrus from Elephantine, 419 BCE
    35. The Elephantine Temple, 407 BCE
    36. Inscribed Silver Bowl, c. 415-410 BCE
    37. Bagohi Letter, c. 407 BCE
    38. Artaxerxes II Mnemon, 404-358 BCE
    39. Yehud Coin 1, 4th century BCE
    40. Yehud Coin 2, 4th century BCE
    41. Yehud Coin 3, 4th century BCE
    42. Ketef Jericho Scrolls, 4th century BCE
    43. Coin from Beth-zur, 4th century BCE
    44. Coin with Bearded Figure, 4th century BCE
    45. Male Athena Coin, 4th century BCE
    46. Owl Coin, 4th century BCE
    47. The Samaria Papyri, c. 375 BCE
    48. Coin of Philip of Macedon, 356 BCE
    49. Greek Helmet
    50. Fall of the Persian Empire, 332 BCE


  1. James D. Purvis, and Eric Meyers. “Exile and Return- From the Babylonian Destruction to the Reconstruction of the Jewish State.”
  2. James D. Purvis, and Eric Meyers. “Exile and Return- From the Babylonian Destruction to the Reconstruction of the Jewish State.” Part II
  3. James D. Purvis, and Eric Meyers. “Exile and Return- From the Babylonian Destruction to the Reconstruction of the Jewish State.” Part III
  4. Lisbeth S. Fried. “Cyrus the Messiah.” Bible Review 19, 5 (2003).
  5. Aaron Demsky. “Who Returned First—Ezra or Nehemiah?” Bible Review 12, 2 (1996).
  6. The First Restoration, Rina Abrams, COJS.
  7. Cuneiform Secrets Revealed, Ira Maurice Price, Monuments and the Old Testament, The Chrisitan Culture Press, Chicago 1899.
  8. Bedouin Find Papyri Three Centuries Older Than Dead Sea Scrolls, Paul W. Lapp, Biblical Archaeology Review (4:1), Mar 1978.
  9. Books in Brief: Treasures from Bible Times, Keith N. Schoville, Biblical Archaeology Review (11:3), May/Jun 1985.
  10. Sussita Awaits the Spade, Vassilios Tzaferis, Biblical Archaeology Review (16:5), Sep/Oct 1990.
  11. Books in Brief: Gezer III, Biblical Archaeology Review (17:2), Mar/Apr 1991.
  12. Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon? Lawrence E. Stager, Biblical Archaeology Review (17:3), May/Jun 1991.
  13. Excavating an Ancient Merchantman, Elisha Linder, Biblical Archaeology Review (18:6), Nov/Dec 1992.
  14. Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine? Bezalel Porten, Biblical Archaeology Review (21:3), May/Jun 1995.
  15. Queries and Comments: How Tolerant Was Ancient Persia? Biblical Archaeology Review (22:4), Jul/Aug 1996.
  16. Underground Metropolis: The Subterranean World of Maresha, Amos Kloner, Biblical Archaeology Review (23:2), Mar/Apr 1997.
  17. WorldWide: Oxus River Valley, Biblical Archaeology Review (24:2), Mar/Apr 1998.
  18. When Palestine Meant Israel, David Jacobson, Biblical Archaelogy Review (27:3), May/Jun 2001.
  19. Fruits of the Sea, Michael R. Shurkin, Biblical Archaeology Review (30:5), Sep/Oct 2004.
  20. Big City, Few People, David Ussishkin, Biblical Archaeology Review (31:4), Jul/Aug 2005.


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