The product of the union between the daughter of a Median king and Cambyses I, a Persian ruler of Anshan, Cyrus became king of Media and Persia after 543 BC. Babylonia, weakening under the rule of Nabonidus, became ripe for conquest. Yet Cyrus chose not to attack the Babylonian periphery first, but directly at Babylon itself, diverting the Euphrates River in order to breach the defenses. He triumphantly entered the city as a peaceful liberator and as the restorer of religious freedom (Tadmor 2011). During the first regnal year of his rule as the king of Imperial Persia (ca. 538 BC), Cyrus II (the Great) wrote down an edict relayed to him by the god Marduk. The command declared that all other gods should return to their own sacred cities and their cultic dwellings fortified and repaired. Accordingly, Cyrus enabled Jewish exiles from Jerusalem and Judah to return to their holy city and rebuild the Temple (Betlyon 2005: 5). Thus, the popular terms for this period, such as “Post exilic,” “Restoration,” and “Return to Zion” all stem from this one historic declaration. The Decree of Cyrus introduced a new, more enlightened policy and a departure from the often-brutal imperial subjugation that characterized the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Persian rule exemplified a period of peace, enhanced connectivity, and limited self-rule for its subjects (Yamauchi 1990: 87-92; Betlyon 2005; Briant 2016: 401).
Relevance to the Biblical Account
The Cyrus Cylinder is arguably the most biblically relevant and expressive artifact from ancient Persia and directly corresponds to passages in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1-6; Isaiah 44-46; Daniel 1:21, 6:28, 10:1; and alluded to in Nehemiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah actually depicts Cyrus as a messianic figure that God uses to deliver His people from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem. Before its discovery in 1879, critical scholars questioned the veracity of the Decree of Cyrus as it appears in Ezra 1:1-4. However, the cylinder and corresponding Persian texts subsequently fully vindicated the biblical accounts documenting Imperial Persian assistance to their foreign subjects as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah (Yamauchi 1990: 89-92)
This barrel shaped, clay cylinder, measures about 9” x 4” and beautifully impressed cuneiform script carefully placed in 45 straight lines fully covers the cylinder. Most of the text consists of an extended and self-serving explanation regarding the rise of Cyrus, a ruler chosen by Marduk. Jubilation and rejoicing from all of his subjects greeted Cyrus as he assumed power, with many bringing tribute and kissing his feet (Tadmor 2011: 849-59). Damaged during antiquity, the cylinder is incomplete and missing some of the text, despite an additional fragment added long after the original discovery. The Horn Museum owns two replicas of the Cyrus Cylinder; the first is an exact replica of the original, now in the British Museum, while the second is a less detailed reproduction useful for teaching illustrations.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities11.1-18) wrote that, inspired by Isaiah’s references to himself over a century and a half earlier, Cyrus allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. Whether or not Josephus is a reliable account, later Jewish rabbinical scholars had difficulty over Isaiah honoring Cyrus and the LORD using this pagan king as His instrument for such an important task (Yamauchi 1990: 73-74). The benevolence Cyrus demonstrated to his Jewish subjects was not unique. Most of the cylinder concerns his generosity towards Babylon and the surrounding settlements and clearly illustrates the propagandist purposes associated with the decree. Cyrus even mentions inscriptions on public works projects from the time of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
The Cyrus Cylinder exhibits clear similarities and a strong continuity with earlier Mesopotamian royal inscriptions dating back as early as the third millennium BC, when kings began their reigns with reforms, including the annals of Assyrian king Sargon II and those of Babylonian rulers Marduk-apla-iddina II and Nabonidus. The Cyrus Cylinder and similar texts probably served as foundation deposits for important buildings in Babylon. While describing the Cyrus Cylinder as the first charter of human rights remains disputed, this decree allowed the Jews to return to their sacred land, rebuild their Temple, the city of Jerusalem and their homes in anticipation of their Messiah.
Betlyon, J. W.
2005 A People Transformed: Palestine in the Persian Period. Near Eastern Archaeology68: 4-58.
2016 Persia and the Persians. Pp. 379-415 in The World around the Old Testament: The People and Places of the Ancient Near East,eds. B. T. Arnold and B. A. Strawn. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
1982 Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. Warminster: Aris & Phillips and Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
2001 Archaeology of the Land of the Bible Volume II: The Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Periods 732-332 BCE. New York: Doubleday.
2011 The Rise of Cyrus and the Historical Background of His Declaration. Pp. 835-59 in “With my many Chariots I have gone up the Heights of Mountains.” Historical and Literary Studies on Ancient Mesopotamia and Israel,ed. M. Cogan. Trans. P. Fishman from Hebrew. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Yamauchi, E. M.
1990 Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.