The Decree of Cyrus – Part 1


According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus passed a decree in the first year of his reign which authorised the Jews throughout his kingdom to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild God’s temple there. Two versions of the decree are given. The first, Ezra 1. 2-4 (cf. 2 Chron. 36. 22-23), takes the form of a public proclamation inviting God’s people to return and rebuild. It is addressed to the Jews, is in the Hebrew language. The second version, 6. 3-5, appears to be some kind of official memorandum from Cyrus to those administrators charged with implementing his decisions and is concerned exclusively with details of the construction and financing of the temple and with the return of the sacred vessels. This memorandum was filed in the Persian archives and is in Aramaic, the current official language of the day.

Critics of the last century frequently attempted to discredit these narratives. They argued that there was no other evidence that Cyrus had passed any such decree and that it was inconceivable that the Persian court would ever have extended favours to the Jews of the kind alleged. Even the conservative scholar E. B. Pusey felt bound to concede that “there was no motive of human policy why he (Cyrus) should restore them”. Pusey attributed the existence of the decree to Daniel’s probable influence over Cyrus. We will consider this in the second article.

Archaeological discoveries over the last 100 years or so, however, have vindicated the authenticity of the official documents recorded in Ezra in a remarkable manner. This is particularly true of the “Cyrus Cylinder”, a clay barrel inscription found by Hormuzd Rassam during his excavations at Babylon between 1879 and 1882. The Cylinder sets out Cyrus’ account of his conquests, and outlines his policies and attitudes towards subject nations. It is the latter feature which chiefly concerns us. The following is an extract from the Cylinder:

“As to the region … as far as … I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris (the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time) the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus has brought into Babylon, to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places which make them happy. May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me …”

It is clear that, as well as being a mighty conqueror, Cyrus was a shrewd statesman. In contrast to all previous world rulers he showed himself to be a humane and tolerant monarch, as witness also his considerate treatment of the vanquished Medes. Cyrus was ready to exploit every opportunity for the enhancement of his kingdom. His conquest of Babylon had been greatly assisted by the revolt of part of the Babylonian population. This experience had taught him that it was both foolish and dangerous to occasion any unnecessary discontentment on the part of his subjects.

Both the Assyrians and the Babylonians had followed the policy of deporting all conquered races, and of destroying or “capturing” their gods. They boasted in the subjugation of the gods of the nations they had defeated, e.g. 2 Kings 18. 33-35; 19. 12, 18. Cyrus perceived that he could win the gratitude and support of the exiles within his empire by permitting them to return to their native lands and by restoring the status and the sanctuaries of their own gods. This is made clear by the Cylinder (see the double references to “returned” and “resettled”), and has been confirmed by other archaeological finds. Excavations at Uruk have yielded bricks bearing the stamp, “Cyrus, king of the lands, who loves the Esagila and the Ezida”. The Esagila was the temple of Bel-Marduk at Babylon, and the Ezida was the temple of Nebo at Barsippa. The Babylonian kings had been unsparing in their devotion to these sanctuaries, and clearly Cyrus endeavoured to secure the loyalty of his Babylonian subjects by honouring such shrines and enhancing their glories. We know that Cyrus similarly carried out extensive restoration work to the sanctuaries of Nannar-Sin (the moon god) at Ur. A cylinder found near the great ziggurat there also proclaims, “I returned the gods to their sanctuaries”.

There were no possible grounds why the Jews should have been excluded from the benefits of Cyrus’ tolerant policies. Indeed, if anything, there was every reason for them to have received special consideration. Although it was not achieved until after his death, it had been Cyrus’ ambition from the outset to annexe Egypt to his kingdom. In the event of a campaign against Egypt, his troops would have had to pass through Palestine, and it was to Cyrus’ great advantage therefore to obtain the goodwill of the local population. There would have been no better way of ensuring this than by means of the decree which is reported in Ezra 1 and 6.

In the light of the evidence, we can safely assert that the biblical account of the restoration of the Jews to their homeland was consistent with Cyrus’ known general policy. The same is true also of the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem. The main distinguishing feature of the decree made for the Jews was that, as they had no god-images to be returned, it was the sacred vessels which were restored to the temple, Ezra 1. 7-11; 6. 5.

Our faith in the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bible is not dependent of course upon the findings of archaeologists. Nevertheless, the evidence provided by the Cyrus Cylinder supports the assessment of W. F. Albright, the distinguished archaeologist, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament tradition”; “Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details.”

In the following articles we will consider other, and more important, influences which determined the contents of Cyrus’ decree, and also comment on the details given concerning its timing, location and contents.

To be continued