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The Edict of Cyrus is part of the biblical narrative about the return from Babylonian captivity. The edict is thrice mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, each time with minor textual variations and additions. It is presented as authorizing and encouraging the Jews exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to relocate to the Land of Israel and actively engage in rebuilding the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The historical background of the narrative is confirmed by archaeology, but the edict as such is not corroborated by any finds; its existence as one single legal act, rather than a general policy of repatriation, is contested.
The Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient clay cylinder inscribed with a declaration in the name of Cyrus referring to restoration of temples and repatriation of exiled peoples, has been taken by many scholars as corroboration of the authenticity of the biblical decrees attributed to Cyrus, but other scholars point out that the cylinder's text is specific to Babylon and Mesopotamia and makes no mention of Judah or Jerusalem. Professor Lester L. Grabbe asserted that the "alleged decree of Cyrus" regarding Judah "cannot be considered authentic", but that there was a "general policy of allowing deportees to return and to re-establish cult sites". He also stated that archaeology suggests that the return was a "trickle" taking place over decades, rather than a single event.
And in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, at the completion of the word of the Lord in the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the spirit of Cyrus the king of Persia, and he issued a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying: So said Cyrus the king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of the heavens delivered to me, and He commanded me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judea. Who among you is of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him, and he may ascend.
The second mentioning as found in the book of Ezra chapter 1:
And in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, at the completion of the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the Spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, and he spread a proclamation (lit. voice) throughout his kingdom, and also in writing, saying: "So said Cyrus, the king of Persia; All the kingdoms of the earth gave to me, the Lord, God of heaven, and He commanded me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judea. Whomever is amongst you of all His people, (may his) God be with him, and he should ascend to Jerusalem, which is in Judea. And he should build the House of the Lord, God of Israel -He is the God Who is in Jerusalem.. And whoever remains from all the places where he resides, they should promote him -the people of his residence- with silver and with gold and with possessions and with cattle, with the donation to the House of God, which is in Jerusalem.
Challenged by Cuthim
The book of Ezra relays how the people of Cutha, known in Hebrew as "Cuthim" and quoted as the "adversaries" of the returning exiles, initiated a request to join in the Second Temple construction, and when rebuffed by Zerubbabel and his companions, they spitefully composed a letter of complaint to Artaxerxes of Persia:
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the dwellers of Judea and Jerusalem. Then Rehum the secretary and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their companies, the Dinites, the Apharesattechites, the Tarpelites, the Apharesites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Shushanchites, the Dehites, the Elamites. And the rest of the nations whom the great and honored Asenappar exiled and settled in the cities of Samaria and the rest of the other side of the river and Ke'eneth. This is the meaning of the letter that they sent to him, to Artaxerxes the king: "Your servants are the people of the other side of the river and Ke'eneth. Let it be known to the king that the Jews who ascended from you upon us have come to Jerusalem, the rebellious and sinful city they are building, and the walls they have completed, and the walls they have joined. Now let it be known to the king that if this city is built and the walls are founded, they will not give the king's due, the head tax, or the meal tax they will not give, and the tax of the kings will suffer. Now, in view of this, that we wish to destroy the Temple, and it is improper for us to witness the king's disgrace, we have therefore sent and notified the king. That one should search in the annals of your fathers, and you will find in the annals, and you will know that this city is a rebellious city, and it injures kings and countries, and they have made rebellion in its midst since days of yore; because of this, this city was destroyed. We make known to the king that if this city is built, and its walls founded, because of this, you will have no part in the other side of the river.— Book of Ezra 4:6-16
The commentary work of Rabbi Meïr Weiser (b. March 7, 1809; d. Kiev September 18, 1879) advances the notion that the party of Mithredath Tabeel took advantage of the translation protocol contained in the document issued by Cyrus the Great's government. Essentially the protocol stated that each country in his kingdom was entitled to speak their unique language and pen texts to the king in their native tongue and have the presiding local officers of Artaxerxes of Persia translate the document.
Rabbi Weiser continues that Mithredath Tabeel presented a substantial bribe to Rehum the secretary and Shimshai the scribe to have them compose a letter containing an ambiguity that could be interpreted as saying that the post-exile temple builders have varied the kings edict by actively engaging in the construction and fortification of the walls of Jerusalem in an attempt to rebel against the foreign king's rule.
The ploy of Mithredath Tabeel and company was successful in leading to a 14-year cessation of all temple building activity in Jerusalem.
Darius reconfirms edict
Following a second letter sent by the Persian governor asking the king for a decision, the Edict is found in the archives and the king gives his orders accordingly.
Then King Darius gave an order, and they searched in the library in which the archives were stored in Babylon. And there was found in a pouch in the citadel of the province of Media one scroll, and so was written therein a memorandum:
In the first year of King Cyrus, King Cyrus gave an order regarding the House of God in Jerusalem, that the House should be built, a place where they offer up sacrifices, and its walls should be founded, its height sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits. Three rows of marble and a row of new wood, and the expenditures shall be given from the royal house. 5. And also the vessels of the House of God, of gold and silver, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the Temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, let them be given over and brought to the Temple that is in Jerusalem to its place, and they shall be deposited in the House of God.
"Now Tattenai, the governor of the other side of the river, Shethar-Bozenai, and their companies, the Apharsechites, who are on the other side of the river, distance yourselves from there. Leave the work of this House of God; [to] the governors of the Jews, and [to] the elders of the Jews, [I command] this House of God they shall build in its place. And from me shall be issued an order regarding what you shall do with these elders of the Jews to build this House of God, and from the king's property from the taxes of the other side of the river [it shall] quickly [be built.] The expenses shall be given to these men so that they should not be disrupted. And what they require, and young bulls, and rams, and lambs for burnt offerings to the God of the heavens, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the statement of the priests who are in Jerusalem, let it be given to them daily without delay. That they should offer up pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the lives of the king and his children.
And an order is issued by me that whatever person disobeys this order, a beam shall be torn from his house, and a gallows [shall be made], upon which to place him, and his house shall be made a dung heap because of this. And God, Who caused His name to rest there, will cast down any king or people that lays a hand to alter and destroy this House of God, which is in Jerusalem; I, Darius, have issued an edict; it shall be swiftly executed."
- Becking, Bob (2006). ""We All Returned as One!": Critical Notes on the Myth of the Mass Return". In Lipschitz, Oded; Oeming, Manfred (eds.). Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-57506-104-7.
- Grabbe, Lester L. (2004). Yehud - A History of the Persian Province of Judah. A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period. The Library of Second Temple Studies. 1. T & T Clark. p. 355. ISBN 9780567089984.