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Life under Empire

Persian guards depicted on glazed brick friezes from the palace of Darius the Great at Susa (in present-day Iran). Louvre Museum
Persian guards

The Jewish people have spent most of their history under one empire or another. Only for a short time under the Judahite monarchy and for less than a century under the Hasmoneans was Judah a genuinely independent state. The biblical text is generally positive toward Persian rule, but this is probably the result of a strategy to elicit Persian goodwill toward the Jews (there is little in the historical sources to suggest that the Persian Empire was less oppressive than the Assyrians and Babylonians before them).

The book of Esther gives a mixed view of Jewish life under the Persians. Both Mordechai and his niece Esther are able to prosper in the Persian administration, yet they both become closely involved in an imperial attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Granted, the cause of the threat is not the Persian king but the Amalekite Haman; however, the ethnic origin of Persian officials seems to have been irrelevant in most cases, and Haman was in any case high up in the Persian administration and was in direct service to the king. The Ezra and Nehemiah traditions also show Jews who were given significant posts by Persian rulers. Yet Ezra states that the Jews of the province of Yehud are “slaves” in the Persian Empire (Ezra 9:7-9). Some of the hardships suffered by the people are outlined in Neh 5, though whether their lot was different then than it was in other periods is an open question (since crop failure, borrowing, and losing loan collateral were problems experienced throughout history).

These are stories whose historicity is far from straightforward, but they illustrate the views that Jews had of their past, and elements of history and society can be gleaned from them. Although most empires expressed the ideal of protecting their citizens (compare the introduction to the Code of Hammurabi), the oft-oppressive measures in all empires should not be overlooked. If the empire chose to attack or persecute a minority group or community (as happened to the Jews in the second century B.C.E. under Antiochus IV), there was little the victim could do about it. So, according to the book of Esther, all Jews within the empire were condemned to death, initially without any sort of remedy. Only later, after the death of Haman, were the Jews allowed to defend themselves. Similarly, Jews took on the task of defending themselves against the Seleucid Empire when Antiochus IV attempted to outlaw the practice of Judaism.

Yet Jews, like most other ethnic groups, usually thrived under imperial rule, whether in Judah itself or in the Diaspora. Mesopotamian documents that extend from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar to the latter part of the Persian period refer to Jews living in Babylonia, including a “City of Judah” and a “City of the Jews.” Some Jews seem to have engaged in agriculture. In other texts, individuals with Yahwistic names were small holders or lower-rank officials. We also have an archive of texts relating to the house of Murashu, a business and financial establishment of the Persian period that employed Jews as servants or agents. The Jews seem to have been well integrated into society. Apart from Antiochus IV, persecutions of Jewish communities seem to have been local rather than imperial actions, until the Roman Empire became Christianized.

  • Lester L. Grabbe

    Lester L. Grabbe is professor emeritus in the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of Hull (England).  Recent publications include Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Volume 1 Persian Period; Volume 2 Early Greek Period (volumes 3 and 4 in preparation).