Before East Goes West: The Intersections of Monotheism in the 5th and 6th Centuries Before Christ


Connections that are left unwritten by Tom Holland in his book, Dominion, that go back to his starting point


The graves of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes near Persepolis, Iran

I am finding a wealth of subject matter in Tom Holland’s history of western civilization, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Of particular interest is the place where he starts his history of the west – with Darius, the great Persian conqueror of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in the east.

It seems that Holland’s candid explorations of history have fascinated him as much in tracing the threads of his childhood fantasies about ancient history as in busting the myths that arose as part of those childhood fantasies. Below he describes the busting of one of those myths – that the Greeks fought off the evil Persians from the east to save the west:

In Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, which focuses on the Persian incursion into Greek territory, Holland realized that the Spartans were no champions for freedom, and the Persians were no moral monsters comparatively. In fact, the Persians were the ones motivated by what they believed were moral callings – something that would have been a completely foreign concept to the Greeks.

Darius and the Persians during his reign believed in Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian supreme, creator God. When I was in college, I learned in my World Religion class that Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion. I had my doubts then about that statement, as I do now (see The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East), but the fact is that monotheism developed in the ancient Near East. Not in the west.

The first reference to Ahura Mazda appears in the Behistun Inscription by Darius. Darius reigned from 522 BCE until his death in 486 BCE. While Holland uses more “traditional” historical sources for Dominion, Hebrew Scripture intersects with Persian history in this time period.

Before Darius, the nation of Judah was exiled to Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Prophet, Jeremiah, describes the siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 39:1-10 & 52:1-30), and Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned throughout the first four books of Daniel, who was one of the exiles from Jerusalem in Babylon.

Though Nabonides succeeded to the throne after Nebuchadnezzar, his son, Balshazzar, was left in charge in Babylon for ten years while Nabonides was away on an archaeological expedition. Balshazzar is mentioned in Daniel, chapters 5, 7 and 8. Daniel mentions his death, which occurred after Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) conquered Babylon (539 BC). Nabonides was also killed on his return to Babylon that same year.

Cyrus conquered Babylon while the Hebrews were exiled there, and the Hebrews were still exiled in Babylon when Darius 1 (Darius the Great) took over as the king in 522 AD. Again, the biblical reports intersect with the more “traditional” archaeological and historical sources.

Ezra writes that Cyrus (“the king of Persia”) issued a decree during his reign to allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and provided them assistance in the planning and resources. (Ezra 1:1-11; 3:7, 4:3). From Ezra, we don’t get a good sense of the time it took them to make their plans, gather the resources and travel back to Jerusalem with about 56,000 strong, which is described in Ezra 2. It seems to follow quickly after the Cyrus decree.

In Ezra 4, however, we find that the plans were carried out “during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia”. (Ezra 4:5) If this Darius was Darius I, it would have been a time period of about 17 years, because Darius took over in 522.

(The Prophet, Haggai, speaks of urging his fellow Hebrews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem “in the second year of King Darius”. (Haggai 1:1 and 2:1). The prophet Zechariah also wrote in the second year of Darius. (Zech 1:1))

But there is reason to believe it was longer than that. Ezra notes opposition to the people of Jerusalem during the reign of Xerxes (Ezra 4:6) and Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:7). Xerxes succeeded to the throne of Darius I in 486 BC, and Artaxerxes took over the throne of Xerxes in 465 BC.

They apparently had left Babylon and were back in Jerusalem, but their progress was slow. In Ezra 7, we read that a contingent went up to Babylon to meet with Artaxerxes in his seventh year as king. That would have been about 458, long after Darius I died, but Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah allude to the second year of the reign Darius, who died before Xerxes and Artaxerxes!

After, Artaxerxes was murdered, Sogdianus (who murdered him) and two sons of Artaxerxes (Xerxes II and Ochus) all claimed the throne. Xerxes II was killed after just 45 days, and Sogdianus lasted about six months and 1 days before he was captured and put to death by Ochus.

Ochus took over the throne in 423 BC as Darius II and ruled until about 404 BC. Was it Ochus (Darius II) who Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah referenced in his second year as king? That would have been about 422 BC. No wonder that Ezra had to petition Darius to search the records for the decree of Cyrus! (Ezra 5 and Ezra 6) This would have been at least 100 years since Cyrus died (522).

While modern scholars don’t give the Bible much historical credit, the accepted sources can be lined up with Scripture here. But, that isn’t really what draws my attention to these things.

The Persians were conquerors, seeking to extend their kingdom into the land of Greeks (as noted by Tom Holland), but the Hebrews enjoyed favorable relations with the Persians from 539 BC (the conquest of Babylon) at least through the reign of Darius II (404 BC). From Cyrus down through Darius II, the Persians not only allowed the Hebrews to go back to Jerusalem; they let them take their sacred treasures with them, gave them resources and defended their right to rebuild the Temple

I go back to Holland’s observation that the Persians were the first people in western history (intersected by the east) who demonstrated a motivation to conquer, not by imperial imperative, but by divine/moral imperative. The Persians sought to extend the territory under the influence of Ahura Mazda, the one creator God of Zoroastrianism.

Consider, though, the favorable treatment of the Hebrews in contrast – a people who also served one creator God, Yahweh. I go back to my professor’s statement in college that Judaism grew out of Mesopotamian religion, including Zoroastrianism and its influence on the monotheistic notions of the Hebrews…. Or what is the other way around?

Recall that the first reference to Ahura Mazda appears in historical record is the Behistun Inscription by Darius who reigned from 522 BC until his death in 486 BC. The Hebrew people had been exiled to Babylon in 587, some 67 years before Darius took the throne. The records of the Hebrew devotion to Yahweh go back almost a millennia before that to Moses.

Scholars disagree on when Moses lived or whether he was anything other than a fictional character. The dates put forward for his life are either the 16th Century BCE or the 14th Century BCE.

If you read just the Wikipedia links for the Persian kings, you will find little reference to the Biblical mentions of those kings and almost no attempt to make much sense out of them. I have harmonized the Bible with the Wikipedia sources in this article. You won’t find Tom Holland’s commentary on the Persian motivations to honor the one God who created the world.

If you read only the Wikipedia page for Zoroastrianism, you will find affirmation of the first time the religion appears in history (5th century BC), but added is an unsubstantiated claim that it dates back to the early 2nd millennium BC. Even so Moses dates back to the mid-2nd millennium BC, and Abraham existed before Moses.

It’s nothing new that modern scholars discount the Bible to the point of refusing to recognize (by more than a passing glance) even the cross references to people, places and events with other historical sources.

I see some intriguing connections here that Tom Holland briefly uncovers. The Persian motivation to bring the known world under the authority of a single, creator God intersects during a brief span of maybe 150 years when the Hebrews become their captors from the Babylonians who exiled them and quickly attained a favored status.

Holland doesn’t really draw the connections between the Persians, the Hebrews and the Greco-Roman world out of which Jesus Christ and his followers emerged, but he suggests a connection (I think rightfully) by starting with Darius the Great. Holland picks up on the theme of the Persian divine/moral motivation, but he doesn’t even mention the same divine/moral motivation for the Hebrews that predates that Persian influence, but intersects with it in the very time period that Holland begins with.

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