In the last post, we ended with a conundrum after correcting a problem in the ESV Study Bible. There is a very clear solution to the chronology of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The solution is that Ezra and Nehemiah had interactions with King Xerxes (485 B.C. – 465 B.C.), and Esther had interactions with King Artaxerxes (464 B.C. – 424 B.C.).
However, to accept that explanation seems to prove that our Bibles get something wrong, the reason it seems wrong is that the book of Nehemiah says the following thing about when he was governor of Judea:
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. (Nehemiah 2:1)
Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. (Nehemiah 5:14)
The problem is that Nehemiah is interacting with a king called לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁ֥סְתְּא or “Artaxerxes,” and it is impossible for this single person named לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁ֥סְתְּא to be “Xerxes” because Xerxes did not have a 32nd year of his reign.
Therefore, Nehemiah MUST have been in the reign of Artaxerxes. BUT THAT MESSES UP THE CHRONOLOGY!!!
Therefore, to stay true to the Bible’s accuracy, we have to accept that Nehemiah did NOT serve Xerxes, even though Josephus and the way our history is written seems to suggest that is the case. To accept what Josephus and our histories say is to contradict the accuracy of the Bible, right?
Wrong. And this post is going to prove it.
What’s in a Name?
I’m going to illustrate the solution to this problem with an example. Do you know who “Genghis Khan” is?
What if I made a bold theological and historical claim and said that Jesus Christ is Ghenghis Khan. That’s obviously, wrong, right? That would contradict the Bible, right? That would be a little blasphemous, right?
Not so fast!
You see, this guy’s name isn’t “Genghis Khan.” His name (as best as we understand) was Temüjin, and that’s using western characters, so he didn’t even spell it that way. What we do know is that “Genghis Khan” is just a Mongolian title that means “Great King.” There had been lots of “khans” over the Mongols, but Temüjin gathered all the clans and became the GREAT Khan, or the Great King, or the “Genghis Khan.”
But in English, we think that “Genghis Khan” is a proper name for a particular person. Are we correct? Of course not. That’s just our perspective.
In light of that information, think about that “incorrect” and “blasphemous” statement that “Jesus Christ is Genghis Khan.” We are correct to say that the actual person we are thinking of when we say Genghis Khan IS NOT Jesus Christ. But understanding what the phrase “Genghis Khan” actually means, is the statement so blasphemous anymore?
Nope. Not at all.
That’s the difficulty of translations. “Genghis Khan is Jesus Christ” is only wrong to modern English-speaking Christians. But if I was a Mongolian living in the 1300s who said that, the statement “Gengis Khan is Jesus Christ” is a bold and true evangelical message.
We would be wrong to condemn a Mongolian evangelist in the 1300s for saying that Genghis Khan is Jesus Christ. It would be our cultural and linguistic illiteracy of Temüjin the Genghis Khan that would cause this mistake.
My argument is that the same principle is at work with the names “Xerxes” and “Artaxerxes” and “Ahasuerus.” So let me put it this way:
DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT THE NAMES OF THESE KINGS ARE “XERXES” AND “ARTAXERXES” AND “AHASUERUS”?
I know that everyone in the western world who gets their historical information from the heritage of the Greeks and Romans thinks that is the name of these kings. But what about the people who did not get their information from the heritage of the Greeks?
You know…. ….like the Jews who lived in Babylon and Susa and the Persian Empire.
Are you getting it?
Why You Should Always Trust The Scriptures, But Not Necessarily Your Study Bible
In the last post, I gave a general rule that evangelical Christians follow regarding the inerrancy of scripture. When the Bible says one thing and the entire world goes a different direction, evangelical Christians stick with their Bibles.
Good for them!
That’s because it is a good rule to follow. You see, in this case of confusing names of Persian Kings, the Bible is not wrong. Instead, the entire WESTERN WORD is confused and thinks that the names that we have for the Persian Kings are THE NAMES of the kings. But that’s not true.
And the clue for this understanding came from a source I’ve quoted already. Look at what Josephus says about the king “named” Artaxerxes:
After the death of Xerxes, the kingdom came to be transferred to his son Cyrus, whom the Greeks called Artaxerxes. (Josephus, Antiquities, 11.6.1)
Did you catch that, guys? “whom the Greeks called Artaxerxes.” Let me make it clear:
THE PERSIAN KINGS CALLED THEMSELVES NAMES THAT WERE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT THE GREEKS CALLED THEM.
And this means something else:
THE PERSIAN KINGS CALLED THEMSELVES NAMES THAT ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT WE CALL THEM.
We can say this because we get names like “Xerxes” from the works of the Greek Herodotus. Herodotus, writing in 435 B.C. gives their spellings in Greek (which uses a different alphabet than the Persians) as Δαρεῖος (Darius) and Ξέρξης (Xerxes) and Ἀρτοξέρξης (Artoxerxes). But guess what else?
HERODOTUS NEVER PRETENDS THAT THESE ARE THEIR ACTUAL NAMES.
Instead, he describes particular meanings that attach to these names:
Now as touching the names of those three kings, Darius signifies the Doer, Xerxes the Warrior, Artoxerxes the Great Warrior; and such the Greeks would rightly call them in their language. (Herodotus, Histories, Book 6, Chapter 98)
This should also be clear from the Bible, when we see that someone who is put in charge of Babylon is “Darius the Mede” (Daniel 5:31). This is NOT the Darius that we were talking about in the previous history. That’s because “Darius” is one of those official titles that attaches to royal people. Darius the Mede was put in place by Cyrus. He is not the “Darius” who ruled between 522 B.C. and 486 B.C. Instead, he was sixty-five in “the first year of Cyrus,” which was in 539 B.C. That’s because “Darius” is a title as much as it is a name.
Not only that, but there is a great deal of doubt about whether Herodotus even got those connections right. The thing that is important is that our names for the Persian Kings come to us through the Greek literature that is passed down to us. Regardless, here’s what we know from the Greek literature:
DARIUS, XERXES, AND ARTAXERXES ARE NOT NAMES.
So, while it’s not exactly true that “the entire world is wrong and the scriptures are correct,” it is pretty-darn close.
As it stands now, the entire WESTERN world is wrong when they believe that “Xerxes” or “Artaxerxes” or “Darius” or “Genghis Khan” are names. They are not. Instead, Persian kings had names and identifiers that we do not have.
The Source of Names in History and the Bible
As such, the confusion over the chronology of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther results from a confusion of incorrect names.
Even the name “Cyrus” isn’t the “real name” of Cyrus the Great. It all depends on what you mean by “real name.” Cyrus was raised by a different name, because he was originally marked to be murdered by his father due to a prophesy of him overcoming his father’s throne. (See Herodotus, Histories, Book I, Chapter 108-118) He got his “royal” Median name of “Cyrus” when he was already grown up.
So we should clearly understand that “Xerxes” and “Artaxerxes” are the Greek versions of a Persian Name. We treat these as the “real” names, because the Western World gets its history from the Greeks. But the Bible does not get its history from the Greeks. It gets its history from the Jews who were living in Babylon and Susa.
In Hebrew, we have Nehemiah being sent out to build the wall by לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁ֥סְתְּא in Nehemiah 2:1 (which is translated as “Artaxerxes,” even though this is a TITLE and not a name). Then, Nehemiah is the governor of Judea between the 20th and 32nd year of לְאַרְתַּחְשַׁ֣סְתְּא in Nehemiah 5:14, which by the same Hebrew word. We think that “the same Hebrew word” means “the same person” because we are assuming that the title is the name. BUT IT IS NOT.
The confusion comes from the two places that we get these names from:
- When you read Greek History: You are reading Persian names and titles TRANSLATED into Greek, and then TRANSLATED into English.
- When you read your Bible: You are reading Persian names and titles TRANSLATED into Hebrew, and then TRANSLATED into English.
Therefore, we need to get something clear. When you read history, the point is not the word that is used to single out a person in history. The point is that these people EXISTED IN REALITY, and we can identify them by what they actually did. Therefore, we have a rule:
YOU CANNOT TRUST THE “NAMES” IN THE BIBLE TO CORRESPOND TO THE “NAMES” THAT WE HAVE GOTTEN FROM HISTORY. THAT IS BECAUSE THE “NAMES” FROM HISTORY ARE NOT THE REAL NAMES.
In other words, it’s not the “name” that is important. What is important is REALITY. The reality is that one king rules after another king for a certain amount of time. By making a clear chronology of REALITY, we can reconstruct what happens while ignoring the “names” that are translated in our Bibles.
So let’s jump to the actual chronology.
The Chronology of the Book of Ezra
Ezra begins by covering what happens after the first exiles return. It is broad and surface-level. Then we get a story about the work on the Temple. After mentioning the broad and surface-level history above, ending in Ezra 4:6, it rewinds a bit and gives us a very specific incident, starting in Ezra 4:7:
In the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and the rest of their associates wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia. The letter was written in Aramaic and translated. (Ezra 4:7)
This then uses the word אַרְתַּחְשַׁ֖שְׂתְּ (“Artaxerxes”), but remember, this is a TITLE, not a name. I am of the belief that this is Cambyses, who reigned from 530 B.C. to 522 B.C., immediately after King Cyrus of Persian (539 – 530 B.C.). It gives completeness to the whole narrative. Therefore, the chronology continues.
[Because of the popularity of this post and the fact that I have discovered that NOBODY has noticed this stuff, I have decided to remove the detail of these lists and sell a digital download that explains the method and more precisely documents the chronology of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. If you would like to purchase this resource, please click here to purchase the PDF download with this information. This document can be cited in sermons and other similar media.]
So that is the history of the building of the Temple as described in Ezra. Next comes the man himself, who is sent from Babylon. However, this is where the chronology of Ezra starts to overlap with the chronology of Nehemiah.
The Chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah
There is a small gap between Ezra 6:19 and Ezra 7:1, being about 40 years. King Darius reigned for 36 years, and not much happened during this time after the completion of the temple in the sixth year of his reign.
Next comes the overlap in time between Nehemiah and Ezra. We know that they are contemporaries, because Nehemiah explicitly mentions Ezra in his book:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. (Nehemiah 8:1-2)
But those details are for later. Let’s start with the next chronological marker.
- The next time-indication we get in the Bible is that Nehemiah is serving as the cup-bearer to the guy we would call King Xerxes in the 20th year of the king. (Nehemiah 1:1)
- This would be 466 B.C.
- We know this based on Josephus, Antiquities, 11.5.6
- We get the mention of TWO MONTHS in this passage. The first is the month of Chislev and the second is the Month of Nisan.
- Chislev is in November/December.
- Nisan is March/April.
- This also contradicts the narrative in Josephus, which seems to show that hearing the news from Jerusalem and going to the kings was a rapid succession of events.
- It is also important to note that when Nehemiah 2:1 says that it is the Month of Nisan, that would mean it was a NEW YEAR in the reign of the king.
- This should switch the year from the 20th to the 21st year, but it is not reflected in the text.
- Why not?
So let’s stop. We now need to explain what is going on in Nehemiah. The English text we read is this:
Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. (Nehemiah 1:1-2)
That makes it sound like Hanani ARRIVED in Susa in the month of Chislev. However, the Hebrew verb is וַיָּבֹ֨א (way·yā·ḇō), and it is in the IMPERFECT TENSE. The imperfect tense signifies that there is ongoing action in the past with no definite end. This means that Nehemiah 1:1 does not show that Hanani ARRIVED in Susa in the month of Chislev. Instead, it says that while Nehemiah was in Susa, Hanani LEFT Jerusalem on his journey.
The conversation, just as Josephus explains (Josephus, Antiquities, 11.5.6) is happening in Nisan, when they arrived. This is about a 1,000 mile journey, and that’s describing the four months (Kislev, Tevet, Shvat, and Adar) that it would have taken the Jews to travel on foot from Jerusalem to Susa, averaging about 8-9 miles a day over 120 days. This is a rather confusing way to speak about the years of the king and the journey, even though it makes perfect sense. Apparently the Jews didn’t describe time like we do.
Now back to the story.
Now, the wall being completed is THE END of the time-line in Nehemiah for the first part. Then things change. We have a big jump. Nehemiah was appointed governor of Judea, and this is NOT at the same time he built the wall. But to prove this, we’re going to have to do some argument.
The Proof of the Break in the Book of Nehemiah
The thing we need to notice in the book of Nehemiah is that he never gets appointed governor during this time. Instead, during this time, we see that Nehemiah meets with the governors of the province beyond the river (meaning, east of the Euphrates).
Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel. (Nehemiah 2:9-10)
Notice that Nehemiah is not in this group. Never does Nehemiah get appointed as the governor during the wall-building phase. Instead, he’s more like a special envoy from the king himself. We also know that the king who makes Nehemiah governor is not King Xerxes. Nehemiah describes his governorship in the following way:
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.” (Nehemiah 5:14)
Xerxes did not have thirty-two years in his reign. Instead, this has to be the next king, Artaxerxes. Therefore, rather than Nehemiah 5:14 being a chronological verse, this section can be understood to be a FORWARD-LOOKING side-note about what Nehemiah did AFTER the wall was already built, regarding the justice he had for the distribution of wealth and taxes in his governance. We can also see that Nehemiah appoints his brother to a position:
Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” (Nehemiah 7:1-3)
All of these jobs before had been fulfilled by Nehemiah himself in the narrative. So now, Nehemiah is leaving these jobs to other people, because he is GOING BACK to Susa.
We see in history a reason that Nehemiah might want to do this. That’s because Xerxes, the man who was Nehemiah’s patron in Susa, was soon DEAD by assassination. Being the king’s cupbearer, Nehemiah would be an important person in fixing that mess.
Therefore, it is quite clear that Nehemiah was appointed the governor under the NEXT KING, who we call Artaxerxes. This is where Esther and Nehemiah overlap.
The Chronology of Esther
The next events span Nehemiah and Esther, and then eventually, the return and incorporate some stuff that is also in the book of Ezra. The story continues:
- King ARTAXERXES has his banquet in the third year of his reign, in which he does away with Queen Vashti (Esther 1:1-22), which equates to 462 B.C.
Interestingly, we see that Mordecai tells Esther NOT to inform those around her of her people and heritage:
Now when the virgins were gathered together the second time, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. Esther had not made known her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had commanded her, for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. (Esther 2:19-20)
Now, the REASON for this matches what we read in Ezra, that there had been an accusation against the Jews that was written to the king at the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus, who we call Artaxerxes:
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 4:6)
That’s a funny little detail that only makes sense in the context of all that is going on. But now back to the chronological story:
. . .
- And then the fest of Purim is instituted on the 14th and 15th day of Adar, which occurred in the 13th year of King Artaxerxes, which corresponds to February/March of 451 B.C.
Return to the Chronology of Nehemiah
After the time of Esther, we see that Mordecai became the most powerful official in the Persian Empire under King Artaxerxes. And as we said before, Nehemiah was appointed as the governor from the 20th year to the 32nd year of King Artaxerxes the king.
Hm…. I wonder who helped him get that position?
- Coming back to the book of Nehemiah, we see that Nehemiah gives a list of the genealogies of those who returned to Jerusalem.
- But we see something strange: One of the people who is part of the group that sends exiles is named MORDECAI.
- Is this the same Mordecai that is in the book of Esther?
- I would say yes.
- There is no other “Mordecai” in the Bible, and every other leader in that list of people who brought back exiles (Zerubbabel the son of Shetiel of royal blood, Jeshua the high priest, Nehemiah the cup-bearer to the king of Persia, Seraiah the son of a former high priest Hilkiah, etc.) is a big deal.
- Therefore, the things that happens next in Nehemiah happens AFTER the book of Esther, when Nehemiah “is the governor” (Nehemiah 8:9). He was probably made the governor by Mordecai.
- But we see something strange: One of the people who is part of the group that sends exiles is named MORDECAI.
Nehemiah and Ezra in the same Chronology
As we said before, Ezra came to Judea in the seventh year of King Xerxes. This was in 479 B.C. We are now talking about the 20th year of king Artaxerxes. This is 445 B.C. That means that if Ezra came to Jerusalem when he was 30 years old, he would be 64. Likewise, if Nehemiah came to build the wall when he was 25, he is now 59. I don’t know their ages. I’m just saying that it’s doable.
This is when we have the big gathering due to the failure to follow the law of Moses. This event is described in BOTH Nehemiah and Ezra:
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.” (Nehemiah 8:1-2)
This happens during “the first day of the seventh month.” This would be Rosh-Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets (See Leviticus 23:23-25). Ezra is there, and he reads the law, now that Nehemiah is the governor in 445 B.C.
But then strangely, we see a different convocation being listed in the book of Ezra:
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. (Ezra 9:1-3)
Notice that “the officials” would have included Nehemiah, the governor of Judea. Nehemiah notices that the people of Israel did not separate themselves from the Ammonites and Moabites. (See Nehemiah 13:1-3) This happens after the feast of booths is celebrated, and then we get the second convocation in the ninth month in Ezra:
Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. (Ezra 10:9)
This second convocation that happens in the ninth month on the twentieth day of the month. That would be Kislev, in November/December, of what I assume is the same year, so November/December of 445 B.C. Therefore, it seems that the two gatherings in Ezra and Nehemiah are NOT the same event (even though they involve the same characters). Instead, they are two different gatherings which correspond to THE SAME SET OF FACTS.
Think of it this way. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites are given THE LAW, and they are told the EXACT meaning of the Law. But then, the leaders — both the governor Nehemiah and the high priest Ezra — discover that EVERYBODY IS BREAKING THE LAW, including the leaders. So now you have literal CRIMES that your people — almost all of your people — are committing. What do you do? Well, you bring them to trial. That’s what you do. This explains why everyone “sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.” This is more like what someone who is convicted of a crime in a trial would endure. You have to stay there whether you like it or not. That’s how we have these two gatherings. That’s how I see it happening.
The final events in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther occur in Nehemiah 13. Nehemiah returns to Israel after going back to Susa after the 32nd year of Artaxerxes. So this would correspond to sometime around 430 B.C.
And that’s the end of the Old Testament.
How This Matches With Josephus’s Description of the Writing of the Old Testament.
At the beginning of the last post, I quoted the ESV Study Bible which claimed that Esther was the “last book” of the Bible that was written. That may very well be true, even though the last things recorded in Nehemiah are the last things to occur. But that’s neither here nor there. The point that we want to revisit is the description of the writing of the Old Testament, which is this:
For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from, and contradicting one another: [as the Greeks have:] but only twenty two books: which contain the records of all the past times: which are justly believed to be divine. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.9)
Before we go on to the meat of it, I’m going to address something confusing, because there are 39 books in your Old Testament Bible. The reason he says there are only 22 books, while our modern Bibles have 39 books in the Old Testament, is that the old scrolls did not divide 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations, or any of the minor prophets (Amos through Malachi) into separate books. This means the books that Josephus is talking about are the following:
- Song of Songs
- The Minor Prophets
He then goes on to explain the division and categories of the books:
And of them five belong to Moses: which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind, till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years. But as to the time from the death of Moses, till the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the Prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times, in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God; and precepts for the conduct of human life. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.9)
Then he goes on to explan the CHRONOLOGY of when these were written:
’Tis true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly; but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers; because there hath not been an exact succession of Prophets since that time. And how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation, is evident by what we do. For during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold, as either to add any thing to them; to take any thing from them; or to make any change in them. But it is become natural to all Jews, immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain divine doctrines; and to persist in them: and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1.9)
The extra books he is talking about are what we would call the “apocrypha.” These include the books of Enoch, Maccabees, Tobit, and lots of others. However, the last “succession of Prophets since that time” ends in the reign of Artaxerxes, who is Malachi.
And so THAT is the chronology of the last parts of the Old Testament.
And that’s the way it is.
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