“Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire”


Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Edited by Diana Edelman, Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, and Philippe Guillaume. Tubingen, Germany: 2016, Mohr Siebeck, pp. 390. 

Following in the footsteps of the volume entitled Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History, and Culture (click here for my review), Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire seeks to explore more broadly the question of toleration and cultural exchange. In particular, the various articles demonstrates how the popular tendency of Persian tolerance is better understood a political strategy.

The book is divided into two parts, “Trends in Emerging Judaism” and “Other Religious Trends in the Persian Empire.” Both titles are self-explanatory as to their respective content. As will become apparent throughout reviews of each contribution, the volume offers a wealth of approaches. These various approaches are important to ongoing scholarship, as they offer alternative approaches, new data, and new conclusions to old problems. In an academic atmosphere where interdisciplinary work is becoming more important, this volume is refreshing.  

James Anderson begins by positing two types of dialectics in order to account for competing perspectives of monotheism (“Yahweh alone”) and polytheism (“Yahweh… alongside other gods). These dialectical tensions are paradoxical and directional. The aforementioned were applied as rhetorical strategies by priestly-scribes in Yehud during the Persian Period, Anderson suggests. While his idea that priestly-scribes created dialectical tensions as a rhetorical strategy, his argument lacks well-developed textual analysis. Absence of this is problematic because even he carefully notes the limited evidence. When the argument is more developed, it may be more convincing.

Philip Davies applies the theory of “translatability” to monarchy. For “any presentation of a state’s patron deity as king… is a claim about the state itself and its ruler” (27). Notably, Davies is careful to recognizes the intercultural currents between regions and regional autonomy of thought. As an approach to the influence of Persian religion and empire upon Yehud, he offers an intriguing approach; however, it may be fruitful as well to consider “translatability” outside the period of Persian Yehud. Even so, Davies’ contribution is an important development and consideration in the impact of Persia upon religion in Yehud.

Russel Hobson argues “the cultural memory of the Yehudite Yahwists from the Persian period reflects a renewed interest in the ethnic divisions of the Transjordanian region” (52). Hobson approaches the issue by tracing both developments in text and archaeological evidence for regional population. Being geographically grounded, Hobson’s argument is important because it connects archaeological evidence, cultural memory, and textual evidence into a coherent theory of Yehud culture and ideas of ethnic divisions during the Persian period.

Philippe Guillaume considers the Zoroastrian calendar in order to shed light on emerging Judaisms during the Persian period. He notes, first, the relationship between the Zoroastrian calendar, which attributes the calendar and time itself to Ahura Mazda. Likewise, Genesis roots the calendar in creation and makes Yahweh the “origin of time.” Second, he argues that Mesopotamian elements in the Avestan calendar are due, in part to the the overthrowing of Nabonidus. Following Cyrus’ victory over Nabonidus, the Avestan calendar with its Mesopotamian elements reached Palestine sometime between the reign of Cambyses and Xerxes. Based on this, Guillaume asserts that the Biblical week, the “Semitic week,” is the legacy of Zoroastrianism and derived from it. One of the major issues with Guillaume’s contribution, interesting as it is, is the lack of any framework. He fails to offer any sort of clear framework for his argument in order to convey its significance. Additionally, he seems to imply that he is the first to consider that “Genesis 1 has more to do with the creation of a new calendar than with the creation of the universe” (61). He is not. Although I am unable to access them at the moment, I have read several articles and commentaries which draw out the fact that Genesis one is establishing a new calendar. In short, Guillaume’s contribution may have valuable information for understanding how the Avestan calendar influenced the Judean calendar; unfortunately, the article lacks a structure that actually helps the reader to understand what he is arguing for.

Lowell K. Handy argues that Josiah is not necessarily understood as a role model for leadership in the Persian period; rather, he is understood as “peg” where good Judean religious leaders could hang their beliefs. Overall, the argument is unclear. Additionally, the significance of the argument is unclear.

Christian Frevel and Katharina Psychny evaluate E. Stern’s argument concerning the origins and functions of cuboid incense burners. Specifically, they focus on their association with foreign cults. By examining the distribution of cuboid incense burners and iconography, Frevel and Pyschny push against the claim that cuboid incense burners are of Pheonician origin (Stern’s claim) is deficient, even though the cuboid incense burners do bear a distinctive style. They suggest, then, that the absence of incense burners from Yehud may have more to do with the economic situation than religious distinctiveness. I am particularly fond of this contribution because it moves beyond the issues of religious differences; however, their conclusion should include more serious consideration of the religious distinctiveness. Even if the “depressed regional economic situation in Yehud” in archaeology yields no incense burners, the depressed situation may also explain why Yehud religion developed how it did. Thus, religious distinctiveness should be considered when comparing Yehud with coastal areas or trade routes. This minor critique, though, does not take away the value of this contribution. Without a doubt, this is one of the best contributions, and most valuable, to the volume.

Following the focus on Yehud, Part II moves onto non-Judean religious trends in the Persian Empire.

Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley argues that Persians were not more “benevolent” than Assyrians. Like the Assyrians, their “benevolence” was political. Working through a wealth of data, Fitzpatrick presents a convincing and important argument that each empire, the Persians and Assyrians, “responded to the conditions they encountered and both could be wielders of terror and destruction as well as the sophisticated creators of diplomatic relations” (164). Overall, this article is extremely valuable and pushes against stereotypical representations of Persian benevolence as a religious practice. My only criticism with her work is that the boundary between political and religious is far too clear. Perhaps future work will consider the nuances of her conclusion when a more descriptive understanding of Persian/Assyrian politics/religion is considered as part of the conclusion.

Jason Silverman offers what he called “the bare outlines of what could be called an Achaemenid theology of kingship” (188). He approaches it through three major points: the figure of Yima, the topic of Achaemenid paradise, and Achaemenid rhetoric of peace through the concept of shiyati. For the figure of Yima, Silverman draws out his association with kingship. Following, he explores how the Persian concept of paradise was a micro-empire making a statement about the king himself. Additionally, he briefly considers how royal ideology used shiyati in order to connote their roles as “bringing in the perfection of the world through their efforts” (187). In short, Silverman argues that his outline of ‘royal theology’ offers a structure for analyzing the influence of Persia on elite circles. Overall, Silverman’s contribution is fantastic. His outlined royal theology enables future scholars to do further work on the interrelations between Persia and other nations during the Persian period. Although I’d like to see a more developed and firm structure, this is a wonderful starting point.

Yannick Muller considers how textual evidence of mutilation in linked to how Achaemenid Persia thought about the body and religion. First, he links the beheading of Leonidas and Cyrus the Younger to Sassanian Persia through the cult of Anahita. After examining practices in the Northern Pontic region and Scythian practices, Muller makes a strong claim about beheading: the cult of deities comparable to Anahita and the practice of beheading are rooted in Iranian culture. Having established a geographical and historical relationship between Iranian mutilation practices and Western Europe, he probes a similar issues relating the right hand and face mutilation. For each example of mutilation, Muller presents convincing textual evidence for the religious significance of mutilation in Achaemenid Persia. Without a doubt, this is one of the better contributions to the volume. It presents a new way of thinking about mutilation in history. More importantly, Muller successfully draws out world-understanding of ancient peoples. I am particularly interested in how Muller’s analysis may unlock a more thorough understanding of Judean-Persian relations. That is, Judean-Persian relations as it regards mutilation practices.

Diana Edelman analyzes iconography of the Sidonian double shekel. She first  reviews imagery in four groups of Sidonian coinage and contextualizes the motifs of all Sidonian coins. She concludes that the figure riding the chariot on the double shekel is meant to be the Great King of Persia. Needless to say, the erudite analysis of Edelman is strong and quite convincing. While the article is not well-structured and clear, the data and conclusions speak volumes. Most significantly, Edelman’s conclusions heralds a more nuanced understanding of how people groups in the Levant related to the Achaemenid Persian empire.

Mark Christian attempts to demonstrate how Phoenician religious contribution to the Persian fleet is minimized. Yet, it is still unclear exactly what Christian is arguing for. Even when he does put forth his conclusion it is problematic: “My inability to demonstrate a connection between Persian naval personnel, their gods, and their experiences at sea has proved disappointing. It also struck me as odd that so many details are missing. In spite of the danger of arguing from silence, I propose that Persian commanders and crew integrated their religious knowledge relative to weather and river gods” (312). This statement strikes me as odd, for it destabilizes any potential of his arguments. There is, though, nothing to destabilize. Most of the data from which he draws seems more than an amalgamation of incoherent data lacking cogency.

Damien Agut-Labordere briefly examines extant evidence for changes introduced by Achaemenid Persia to Egypt. Persian involvement in Egyptian temples during the reigns of Cambyses, Darius I, and Darius II, progressively increased. Cambyses abolished the donation network of Egyptian temples, only tempering it by exempting the temples from taxes to Persia. Darius I increased control over Egyptian finances through Persian administration. Darius II acted in a way which (1) confirmed Persian power and (2) maintained good political relations with the Memphite elite. His argument successfully pushes against Egyptological tendencies to understand Achaemenid religious tolerance as inadequate. Likewise, he offers strong evidence for a politically motivated “religious tolerance” within a small locale. Although it is the shortest contribution, it is one of the best written, most convincing, and most important contributions within the volume.

In a similar vein of Egyptology, Jared Krebsbach argues that Achaemenid patronage of Egyptian religious institutions (1) followed a non-interference rule and (2) allowed Persia to fulfill the proper pharaonic role as defenders of world order. Krebsbach considers hieroglyphic sources from the 27th dynasty in order to demonstrate this point. He provides additional evidence for politically driven patronage of particular Egyptian cults. His argument is important as it further the political intentions of Achaemenid Persian “religious toleration.” Like Agut-Labordere, Krebsbach provides a more localized example of Persian policies. Consequently, he offers a thoughtful argument against religious toleration and for political motivation of Persian policies.

Deniz Kaptan considers religious traditions in Achaemenid Anatolia through bullae with seal impressions and stelai fragments from Daskyleion. Daskyleion is important because it was the satrapal center of Achaemenid Anatolia. Though analysis of these artifact, Kaptan illustrates a mixture of new Anatolian cults during the period as well as active, older cults. Thus, Anatolian religious traditions during Persian rule is shown to have maintained great diversity. As with the majority of contributions to the volume, Kaptan constructs archaeological and textual data coherently in order to draw out a more localized example of how Achaemenid Persian religion impacted its various satrapies. This contribution in particular is interesting because it offers (potentially) a starting point for study of the relationship between the Levant and the Aegean region.

In conclusion, this volume, Religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is a mixed bag. Some contributions contribute substantially to our understanding of the impact of Persian policies regarding religion; yet, some contributions fail to offer a coherent argument. The bad apples aside, the volume is wonderful. It offers a variety of approaches, new and renewed, to the study of the Achaemenid Persian empire and how it impacted various regions. More broadly, it is refreshing as it ushers in a renewed understanding of Achaemenid Persian empire ideology as it relates to religion. I highly recommend this work for studies on (1) emerging Judaism, (2) Achaemenid Persian studies broadly, and (3) the movement and exchange of ideas during Achaemenid Persian rule.


*I’d like to express my gratitude to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


“Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History and Culture” edited by Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley

FitzpatrickAnne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (ed.). Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History, and Culture. Classica et Orientalia 10. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015, pp. 216, $59.99 (paperback).

Traditionally, Classicists and Biblical Scholars have been disparate, unaware of each other’s methodologies and scholarship. This volume attempts to demonstrate the interrelationship and necessary discussion between Achaemenid historians and Biblical Scholars. Eight contributions to this volume explore different aspects of the Persian period, articles pertaining to biblical scholarship, classicist scholarship, or both. The following provides a summary of the articles with criticism.

“Herodotus on the Character of Persian Imperialism (7.5-11)” by Thomas Harrison

Thomas Harrison (University of Liverpool) argues that “Herodotus’ Histories reveal a closer engagement with Persian royal ideology (as reflected in the royal inscriptions) than has been recognized” (10). By focusing on the ‘Council Scene’ at the beginning of Book 7, in which the Persian court debates war against Greece, Harrison draws out the motives ascribed to Persians, reflective of Persian imperial ideology. His nuanced reading of Histories carefully demonstrates the value of Herodotus’ history for reconstructing the ideology of Persian imperialism. With regard to Classics, Harrison’s article is valuable as it provides a more refined understanding of Persian imperialism, taking more seriously the value of Herodotus’ Histories. Likewise, this article is extremely valuable for understanding the atmosphere of the period in which the Hebrew Bible was being compiled. Perhaps the elements of Persian imperialism may be incorporated into biblical studies to establish a firmer understanding of the Hebrew Bible’s composition.

“The Use and Abuse of Herodotus by Biblical Scholars” by Lester L. Grabbe

Lester L. Grabbe (University of Hull; also a biblical scholar) raises the issue with biblical scholar tendencies to approach Herodotus uncritically, providing a primer to how one may read the valuable history critically. After providing a few examples of uncritical approaches to Herodotus, Grabbe provides a short of list of his principles of historical method, discusses his sources, and provides four principles for the use of Herodotus by biblical scholars and others.[1] Grabbe’s argument for more critical readings of Herodotus should be taken into account. With such an elusive period as the Persian period, it is important that scholars avoid the pitfalls that early New Testament studies had with Josephus – namely, uncritical approach to the text. Considering how valuable Herodotus can be for biblical studies, students and scholars alike would do well to embrace his approach to Herodotus in order to strengthen the state of biblical scholarship.

“The Justice of Darius: Reflections on the Achaemenid Empire as a rule-bound environment” by Christopher Tuplin

Christopher Tuplin (Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool) investigates purported (confirm this definition) special connections between Persian kings and environments to concepts of law. He works his way through thoughtful discussion of dāta in Persian and non-Persian texts. He notes that its uses are “non-systematic supplements to the existing set of laws applicable in a particular jurisdiction” (88). Following, he contextualizes the Persian dāta within its ancient Near Eastern background, examining Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Elam and demonstrating uniqueness of data within Persian ideology. Analysis of primarily Greek sources further illustrates the uniqueness of dāta, as Greek sources focus on a unique assumption of justice and law in Persian environments. For the Classics and Biblical Studies, Tuplin’s article is important because it establishes a framework by which to consider Persian dāta, more commonly understood as ‘law’. Consequently, his work may provide clarity on what law constitutes within the stratified layers of the Hebrew Bible, especially in Esther, Daniel, and Ezra. Additionally, just as Grabbe encourages more critical eye with regard to Herodotus, Tuplin’s investigation allows scholars to reconstruct the Achaemenid Period, along with concurrent events, more closely to the historical reality.

“Indigenous Elites in Yehud: the inscriptional evidence from Xanthus, Tayma and Dedan and the Nehemiah Memoir” by Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley

Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College, Dublin) determines if there is reasonable evidence of indigenous elites operating as a local network of political interrelationships that support a historical reality of the Nehemiah Memoir. After discussing Lycia, Tayma, Dedan, and Yehud and Samaria, she is careful to note their vast differences. Yet, even in light of these differences, epigraphs evidence competing indigenous elites in the Levant with Samaria as the dominant center, indicative of the historical reality of the Nehemiah Memoir. Although she draws no strong conclusions, her essay provides excellent preliminary groundwork for future studies pertaining to Nehemiah and Achaemenid history. More specifically, it may provide better information regarding the origins of the Samarian schism.

“What is ‘Persian’ about the Book of Genesis” by Diani Edelman

Diana Edelman (Independent Scholar) examines evidence for the Persian period as a date of origin for Genesis, especially pointing towards Genesis literature which simultaneously centered on the eretz and tolerated Diasporic conditions. These loci, argue Edelman, serve to educate Judean roles in spreading blessing and educate. Unfortunately, her evidence and explanations lack in quality. Her arguments are conjectural and not on steady ground. While initially noting how she will “ask what textual details, rhetorical strategies and ideologies found in the text point to a date of creation in the Persian period” (152), specific textual details with thorough explanation, rhetorical strategies directly connected to the Persian period, and weak connections between Genesis and Persian ideology pervade the chapter. For example, she references building of altars for ‘calling on the name of YHWH’; dismisses Wenham, who presumes “the offering of accompanying sacrifices were part of a worship/sacrificial ritual” (167), as not persuasive; and suggests that it “implies the existence of a centralized single sanctuary for sacrifice at the time of composition but allows for personal prayer and communing with God anywhere” (167). She fails, though, to address the issue of the Akedah, in which Abraham builds an altar and eventually sacrifices a ram. For Edelman’s argument of Genesis sacrifices as evidence, the Akedah significantly opposes her argument, yet she doesn’t address it. Second, while there may be some relationship between the Genesis and Persian ideologies of land Edelman fails to provide each with autonomy, especially with regard to ‘eres ideology. According to Edelman, “Persians likely adopted and adapted this view [and ideology ‘eres and ruling all land] and applied it to all productive members of the empire” (164). Consequently, Judeans inherited the ideology. While Persians very well may have inherited certain aspects of ideology, it is essential that it be recognized as a unique ideology from Neo-Assyrians and Judeans.[2] I am reminded of Debra Ballentine’s recent work which argues that different groups utilized the conflict myth topos for their social and political purposes. Perhaps a similar approach by Diana would have been more convincing: the author of Genesis used a common theme within the region and re-appropriated it for its own social and political intentions, just as Persia and Neo-Assyria did. As a result, the same conclusion may be made, namely that Genesis legitimizes Diasporic Judeans and those living in the land; however, it allows the Genesis tradition to maintain autonomous standing as a unique tradition. Finally, I am concerned that the term ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ is used in reference to Judeans (p. 171). Overall, there was nothing particularly valuable in this article, though anyone interested in the biblical composition during the Persian period may find it intriguing.

“Admiring Others: Xenophon and Persians” by Lynette Mitchell

Lynette Mitchell (University of Exeter) traces Xenophon’s representation of Persian and Greek choices in order to demonstrate his complex view, namely Xenophon’s panhellenic discourse that portrays Persians, the Other, as noble when they chose a Greek lifestyle. So rather than representing one culture as superior to the Other, civilized versus barbaric, he emphasizes Xenophon’s tendency to illustrate difference not on the basis of ethnicity but choice to adhere to Hellenistic standards. When ethnicity is generally portrayed fairly rigidly, this is an important contribution for Classicists and Biblical Scholars because it illustrates the breadth of what ethnicity could constitute in the ancient world.. Xenophon thinking with such terms suggests that similar ethnic boundaries may be discovered throughout the ancient world. As Mitchell writes, Xenophon’s representation is “radical and subversive in that it breaks boundaries not just between the classes, but also Greeks and the Other, and… questions what the terms of those boundaries might be” (189).

“From Fact to Fiction: Persian History and the book of Esther” by Maria Brosius

Maria Brosius (Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto) provides additional facets of discussion arguing the Book of Esther is drawn from Greek literary texts. She draws on historical possibilities in Esther and historical impossibilities. Discussion of Greek references to historical possibility for a queen’s banquet and communications within the Achaemenid organization demonstrate that the author of Esther presents within a historical framework in order for it to have its own historicity. She also notes the possible linguistic relationship between Mordechai as ‘the second after the king’ and Masistes as ‘the Greatest after the King’, suggesting it “is compelling evidence for identifying Herodotus as the main source for the author of the Book of Esther” (201). While her argument is not entirely convincing, that is no surprise, as her article is merely intended to provide additional facets to previously made arguments. Without a doubt, her discussion of the Persian context of Esther is important, as she distinguishes between historical and narrative elements in which Esther is framed. While her linguistic connection between Mordechai and Masistes is compelling, the linguistic relationship should have been further explored.

“Judahite Prophecy and the Achaemenids” by Philip R. Davies

Philip R. Davies (Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield) illuminates the nature of religion in Yehud during the Achaemenid period through how prophetic scrolls were produced. After establishing the importance for an ideology of a universal religious center within a Persian context, he presents these dynamics as illustrated through 5th century BCE political relationship between Judeans and Samarians, both of whom worshiped Yahweh. Following, he discusses prophetic literature, its production and redaction, to illustrate how Jerusalem as a religious center of unified Israel, an idea first developed in the Neo-Babylonian period, first emerges within the Persian period, at the earliest. Most valuable in Davies contribution is the focus on the Persian period as a new society through the lens of prophetic literature. While many have sought to understand the new society in Yehud through Ezra-Nehemiah, Davies’ focus on prophetic literature offers an interesting and important avenue for biblical scholars.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. Because of the distance between Classicists and Biblical Scholars, I appreciate Fitzpatrick’s volume. Each article, for the most part, addresses issues that are relevant to both scholars. Consequently, this volume encourages discussion between the two approaches. Discussion may potentially vastly improve scholarship on both sides of the fence. Perhaps the fence may even be torn down for fuller and more comprehensive understandings of history through classicism and biblical scholarship.

[1] Succinctly, her principles for utilizing Herodotus as a source are as follows: (1) cease ‘prooftexting’ and cite Herodotus based on knowledge and analysis, (2) recognize Herodotus is a secondary source, (3) consider his implied sources within statements, (4) consider how Herodotus’ methods affect ones reading. Regarding point four, (she/he) lays out 7 points on his method on pp. 62-63.

[2] COS 2.4A exemplifies an appropriation of the land topos from Sethos I in the 13th century BCE: “The Good god, Sun of Egypt, Moon of all lands, Montu in the foreign lands, who is not repulsed, Bold-hearted like Baal, there is none who can retreat from him, on the day of marshaling for the battle. He has extended the boundaries of Egypt to the limits of heaven on every side” (italics added for emphasis). In this passage, land is appropriated uniquely, just as it is in Yehud and Persia.