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Palestine Under the Persians (539-332 BCE)


By: Dr David F. Graf

University of Miami



After the exile of the Judeans, Palestine fell into obscurity until the return of the exiles under Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. For the more than a thousand years that followed, the area was administered by imperial powers: the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Egyptian and Seleucid Syrian dynasts of Macedonia who succeeded Alexander of Macedon, the Roman Empire from Pompey (63 BCE) and the Sasanian Persian Empire until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century CE.


Until recently, archaeological knowledge of the Persian and Hellenistic periods was veiled in darkness, but exciting discoveries of papyri, coins, seals, and a few inscriptions have begun to provide new insights into the period, which is still basically known best from literary and documentary sources. The century of Jewish independence under the Hasmonean monarchs (167-63 BCE) has also yielded little information from archaeological exploration. In contrast, the archaeological sources for the Roman era are quite substantial and more than amply add to the extensive written sources for the period.


Persian period (539-332 BCE).

After the catastrophic conquests by the Mesopotamian empires, Palestine went through a revival under Persian rule. With Cyrus the Great’ conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, the adjacent territories were seized and the Judean exiles permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. After the uprisings and rebellion in the aftermath of the Cambyses (525 BCE) death, the rise of Darius the Great to the throne may have instilled hopes in some segments of the population of a Davidic monarch governing the returning exiles in Judah.


Under the "governor" Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, the rebuilding of the temple was completed, (516-515 BCE). The next seventy-five years represent somewhat of a literary gap in the Hebrew Bible, casting darkness over the subsequent developments in the region, although the later biblical prophets do offer some vital details. The death of Darius the Great in 486 BCE prompted revolts in Babylon and Egypt satrapies, and Judah may not have been unaffected by those events.


A second wave of Judean exiles in the mid-fifth century BCE, under Ezra and Nehemiah, provide the next documented period, and the changes are notable. The previous messianic hopes were gone and the Judeans apparently were settled into life under Persian rule with native hierocratic viceroys supervising their activities. The earlier governors, between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, remain a matter of speculation (cf. Neh. 5:15), as do most of those who subsequently served in this capacity. The recent recovery of a hoard of bullae from Jerusalem makes a partial reconstruction of the governing gap possible today, however (Avigad, 1976; Meyers, 1985).


Because Xerxes' campaign against Greece in 480/79 BCE ended in disaster, it is sometimes assumed that it initiated a period of decline in Persia. However, Persian sources for the period are dismal, forcing the historian to turn to Greek writers for any detailed information about the realm. Nonetheless, little credibility should be ascribed to the picture of a weak and tottering Persian Empire contained in Xenophon and the Greek orators. Historical reason, not Greek rhetoric, should be the guide for the events of the fourth century. In spite of periodic revolts, Persian rule was maintained throughout most areas of its extensive domain, including Palestine, for another 150 years, until the Macedonian ruler Alexander II conquest in 330 BCE. For Palestine, the Hebrew Bible provides a more positive perspective of Persia and the events of the period. These include the Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and the more problematic Book of Esther.


It appears that the Persians basically maintained the imperialistic administrative divisions of Palestine inherited from Neo-Assyrian administration, even if subsequent events forced changes in the organization of the region. Palestine originally comprised only one part of the substantial territory of the "fifth satrapy," administered by the satrap, or governor (phh), of the province better known as "Babylon and Beyond the [Euphrates] River" (Babili a Ebir Nari). This title is last attested in 486 BCE, sometime after which the territory was divided into two provinces, Babylon and Beyond the River. The latter contained Palestine and the regions of Syria, Phoenicia, and Transjordan. Within Palestine itself, a number of sub-districts existed: Megiddo (or Galilee), Dor (the Carmel coast), and Samaria in the north and Judah, Ashdod (Philistia), and Idumea (Negev) in the south. Only Judah and Samaria are explicitly attested; the other divisions are presumed on the basis of the Neo-Assyrian organization of the region or later evidence. Each of these subdivisions of the satrapy was designated a province (Heb., medinah) under the rule of an official called a governor (phh). If Judah is typical, there were also internal districts (Heb., pelek) within each of the provinces. Some remains of the administrative centers are known, such as a Persian throne from Samaria and the possible palace of the capital at Beth-Zur.


Other regions may have been organized differently. Some scholars assume that the coast was comprised of a network of autonomous cities under the political jurisdiction of the Phoenician rulers of Tyre and Sidon (excluding Akko and Gaza), but they initially may only have exercised certain economic rights and tax concessions in the area, without any political authority. By the fourth century BCE, however, there appear to be some changes in the system. The Shamun'azar sarcophagus from Sidon indicates that the Phoenician ruler received Dor and Jaffa from the Persian king. According to Pseudo-Scylax, Ashkelon the former capital of Ashdod, became a Tyrian colony with a royal palace. It is also difficult to ascertain how Samaria was internally organized. Between the time of Nehemiah and Alexander of Macedon, it was governed by the local native dynasty of Sanballat, but it is not clear how it was administered earlier. The population was of varied ethnic backgrounds as a result of an influx of Babylonians, Iranians, Elamites, and Arabs who settled in the region earlier. All are represented in the region's onomasticon. Recent excavations on M. Gerazim also reveal that the material culture was influenced by both Persia and Phoenicia, in spite of a strong local component. These early migrants appear to have extensively developed the countryside and established many new sites, including fortified towns, villages, and farms. In addition, the more sparely populated Negev of Palestine and southern Transjordan was under the control of the Qedarite Arab tribal confederation in the fifth century BCE, subsidized by Persia to maintain order in the region. Although centered in northern Arabia at Jauf, these Aramaic-speaking Arabs seem to have permitted by Persians to control the vast territory from Tell el-Maskhuta in the eastern Delta of Egypt across the Negev of Palestine to Transjordan, including the vital trade route between Gaza and 'Aqaba on the Red Sea. By the fourth century BCE, the situation had changed, with the Qedarite Arabs replaced by the Nabateans and a new province named Idumea attested for the Negev (Diodorus Siculus 19.94.7). In sum, Judah was surrounded by different ethnic groups: Samaritans of Iranian stock to the north, Ammonites to the east, Arabs to the south, and Sidonian and Tyrian merchants to the northwest.


Such ethnic and cultural diversity may help to explain the conservative reforms and transformation of the Jewish community under Ezra and Nehemiah. The latter's struggles with Geshem the Arab, Sanballat of Samaria, and Tyrian merchants resident in the city (Neh. 2:19, 6:1-6, 13:16) attest the internal divisions and ethnic tensions within Palestine. Some scholars even assume that Nehemiah freed Judah from prior dependency on Samaria, transforming it into a separate province. Emphasis on purity of language (Neh. 13:24), prohibitions against mixed marriages (Ez. 10; Neh. 10:31, 13:23-28), and the development of strict religious and cultural traditions may have been stimulated by this xenophobia. This ethnic diversity within Palestine is supported by the epigraphic finds in the region.


Aramaic, the administrative language of the Persian realm, was dominant throughout Palestine. It is represented by scattered finds of ostraca at Akko, Yoqne'am in the Galilee, Samaria, throughout Judah, and in the Negev. Phoenician inscriptions appear mainly along the coast, with only random finds inland. From Dor, pottery incised with Greek and Phoenician was recently discovered. Finds of Edomite texts also continue to accumulate in the eastern Negev. In contrast, epigraphic texts in Hebrew are rare for the period.


Judah, however, is rich in other kinds of documentation. Coins of the Philisto-Arabian Attic type and standard were minted in Palestine during the Persian era, but Gaza no longer appears to be the center for the issues. The discovery, since the 1960s, of hundreds of new coins from Judea and Samaria have substantially expanded the existing numismatic corpus of the Persian period. One coin even mentions Yehezqiyah, a governor (phh) of Judea and a Yohanan the priest (hkwhn) of Judah. The legends are mainly in Paleo-Hebrew script and mention the name yhd or, less frequently, yhwd. Unfortunately, the bulk of the coins lack a precise provenance and none are from a clear, unstratified context. Nevertheless, the reports assign almost all of them to the confines of Judah (Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel, Beth-Zur, Jericho, and Bethlehem-with a few stray finds outside Judah at Tell Jemmeh near Gaza and also near Jericho). Finds of stamped seal impressions within Judah are even more confined; finds are limited to the 25-40 km (16-25 mi.) around Jerusalem, extending from Bethel/Ai in the north to Hebron and Lachish in the south. They bear the imprint of the governor of Judah (phwh yhd) and leave the impression that the territory of Judah is far more restricted and compact than what may be assumed from the list of the villages of Judah in the Hebrew Bible (Neh. 3:1-32). Stylistic changes in the seals and the possible existence of other governors of Judah have yet to be molded into any chronological scheme.


These finds are rivaled by the discoveries from a cave in Wadi ed-Daliyeh near Jericho that make it clear that the Sanballat rulers continued to govern over Samaria until Alexander's conquest. Coins of the Philisto-Arabian type from the cave were issued by the Samaritan state, matching those known from Judah and Gaza. They date from 375 to 335 BCE. One contains the name of the Samaritan capital (šmryn, "Shomron") and another the name of what was probably one of its governors (yrb'm, "Jeroboam"). According to Josephus (Antiq. 11.301-309), the last Persian Emperor, Darius III, granted permission for the construction of a temple on Mt. Gerazim, similar to the one in Jerusalem. It was even staffed by some priests from Jerusalem, who were given land and subsidized by Sanballat. The events apparently took place shortly before the conquest of the region by Alexander of Macedon.


No such contemporary non-biblical documents survive from Judah, leaving many matters of its history subject to speculation. It is evident that the returning exiles in the 460s stimulated a slow revival in the region for the remainder of the fifth century BCE that reached its zenith in the fourth. There are, however, indications that the native population was restless and that there were periodic revolts. According to Ephraim Stern (1990) some cities in Samaria and Benjamin in the center of Palestine suffered destruction in the 480s, and those of the Shephelah and, Negev in the 380s. Revolts in Babylon and Egypt for independence, between 404 and 343 BCE, may account for the latter, producing invasions and counterattacks by Persia that affected southern Palestine. A prior revolt by Egypt in the 450s may have resulted in a chain of fortresses being constructed in Judea, either delineating and protecting its borders or controlling the region's vital roads and trade routes. The second wave of exiles under Ezra and Nehemiah may have served to create a buffer zone against Egypt in Iranian interests. A network of forts and royal granaries was constructed along the entire Palestinian coast to control the Mediterranean ports and the rest of the region. Akko was an especially important military base for the campaigns against Egypt in 374/73 CE (Diodorus 16.41.3; cf. Strabo 16.2.25 [758]).


A network of roads was also organized by the Empire as a communication system for the various garrisons of Persian troops or mercenaries in the region. Some of these must have been located at the provincial centers (Samaria, Jerusalem, Dor, Ashkelon, Lachish). Tombs at Gezer and Shechem have been identified with Persian garrisons residing in the area. Another string of garrisons appeared in the Negev between Gaza and the Dead Sea. Hebrew ostraca from Arad, Beersheba, Tel `Ira, Yatta, and Tell Jemmeh and Tell el- Far'ah (south) near Gaza perhaps emanate from these military posts. The texts from Arad and Beersheba are the most numerous and are basically concerned with the delivery of cereal to various men and animals. There are references to the province (mdynh), military units (degel), a "treasurer" (gnzbr), and perhaps "tax bearers" ([bnb]ry'), but it is not clear if these are rations for local garrisons of soldiers, horsemen, and donkey drivers or tax receipts from the local population or both. There are no architectural remains of a garrison; only store pits from the Persian period attest to an occupation at the sites. Persian dominance of the Negev, farther south, was even more limited; it is represented by only a few ostraca at Horvat Ritma, Qadesh-Barnea, and Tell el-Kheleifeh, near 'Aqaba.


The material culture of the Persian period has been summarized by Stern (1982). Palestine appears to have been culturally divided into two distinct regions. The culture of Judah and Samaria was still influenced by the traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In contrast, the culture of the coastland and Galilee was heavily influenced by foreigners. The finds may mainly be a product of Phoenician and Greek mercenaries employed by Persians and traders active in the area, but ceramic imitations of other eastern prototypes are also common. Persian influence itself was reflected only in scattered finds of Iranian-type weapons, riding accessories, bronze and silver Persian-type bowls, and Achaemenid-type jewelry.







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Groh, Dennis E. "The Stratigraphic Chronology of the Galilean Synagogue from the Early Roman Period through the Early Byzantine Period, ca. 420 CE." In Ancient Synagogues: Historical and Archaeological Study, Vol. 1, edited by Dan Urman and Paul V. M. Flesher, pp. 51-69. Studia Post-Biblica, Vol. 47.1. Leiden, 1995.

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Ovadiah, Asher. Corpus of the Byzantine Churches in the Holy Land. Theophaneia, 22. Bonn, 1970. Updated in Levant 13 (2981): 200261 and 16 0984): 229-165.

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Russell, Kenneth. "The Earthquake of May 19, A.D. 363." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 238 (1980): 47-64. Argues for the extensive damage done by this earthquake and, therefore, its importance in archaeological dating.

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Wilken, Robert L. The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought. New Haven, 1992.







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