“Ezra and Nehemiah represent new kinds of leaders in the history of Israel/Judah, with no real precedents.” Evaluate this assertion, and, in so doing, comment on the problems of retrieving the historicity of these men and the achievements attributed to them, and on the issues of situating them historically with respect to each other. Take into account the relevant extra-biblical sources.


As the question itself implies, the veracity of this statement depends on how one understands Ezra and Nehemiah, their roles and their chronological relationship to each other. The book of Ezra-Nehemiah is the source for which we are solely dependent on for information about them (besides 1 Esdras found in the Apocrypha which is itself a compilation of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). Ezra, a priest and a scribe of the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6, 12 [law of the God of heaven]) is said to go up from Babylon in the 7th year of Artaxerxes. There were four different Persians kings named Artaxerxes. Unfortunately three of them (not Artaxerxes IV) had reigns lasting more than 7 years, and scholarly proposals are divided between placing Ezra under Artaxerxes I and Artaxerxes II.

Nehemiah who is said to be active during the 20th-32nd year of Artaxerxes is also ambiguous, but extra biblical evidence has helped most scholars feel comfortable with Artaxerxes I, though there is still some debate since Artaxerxes II is still possible. Papyri from Elephantine which date to Darius II (424-405) mention Sanballat and his sons, Delaiah and Shelemiah, as well as the high priest Johanan. Sanballat was the governor in Samaria, the rival and contemporary of Nehemiah. Eliashib, the high priest during Nehemiah’s tenure (Neh 3:1;13:4,7), was the grandfather of Johanan (see Neh 12:22; cf. 23 where Johanan is “son” of Eliashib).

This triangulation has been accepted by most scholars, but there are still dissenting voices especially in light of further Aramaic documents. Documents found in Wadi-Daliyeh known as the Samaria Papyri lend more credence to previously overlooked data in Josephus. The Samaria Papyri are mostly slave sale documents, but one of the documents along with an inscribe bulla mention Sanballat (Sin-uballit) as the father of the governor of Samaria. These documents are mostly from the reign of Artaxerxes III (359-338), though documents from Artxaxerxes II and Darius III are attested. This makes a case for Artaxerxes II possible, since we may assume that this is a second Sanballat, showing that the ruling family from the 5th century continued on. Josephus also includes a story in which Johanan is said to kill his brother Jesus (Jeshua) in the temple who was a friend of Bagoas a Persian general. This name (Bagoas/Bagavahya) is also known from the Elephantine papyri as a late 5th century governor and contemporary of Johanan. Josephus also records the marriage of Johanan’s son, Manasseh (the brother of the Jaddua the next high priest) to Nicaso the daughter of a Samaritan governor, Sanballat, sent by Darius III (336-330), the last king of Persia. Josephus’s accounts has previously been regarded as a garbled memory of Bagoas (Bagavahya) who was governor of Judah and Neh 13:28 which tells of a marriage alliance between a son of Joiada, son of Eliashib to a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite. Cross proposed that Josephus’s Sanballat may represent Sanballat III in addition to the Sanballat II in the Samaria Papyri and Sanballat I of Nehemiah, drawing on the practice of papponymy (naming after a grandfather). Cross rightly notes the distinction between the Bagoas and well as reconciles the list of high priests found in Nehemiah and Elephantine with what is known in Josephus. His synchronism have produced a long list of repeated names, again assuming the practice papponymy. This has prompted some to argue for a 4th century dating to Nehemiah under the reign of Artaxerxes II. However, the synchronisms between Nehemiah and the letter from Elephantine have secured Nehemiah’s place in the 5th century under Artaxerxes I for most scholars.

The data discussed previously is also important for fixing Ezra’s place in history. Although C. C. Torrey early argued that Ezra was not a historical personage, most accept Ezra as basically historical but his position relative to Nehemiah has been called into question and there is disagreement on whether he preceded Nehemiah during Artaxerxes I, operated at the same time, or whether the HB has it backwards and he succeeded Nehemiah under Artaxerxes II. Proponents for reordering Ezra in relation to Nehemiah point to other chronological problems in Ezra-Nehemiah, especially where a letter from Artaxerxes I? (465-424) is inserted into a narrative during Darius I (522-486) and the Persian kings are variously called king of Babylon (Ezra 5:13; Neh 13:6) and king of Assyria (Ezra 6:22). As pointed out, the high priest during Nehemiah was Eliashib (Neh 3:1), whereas Ezra 10:6 mentions Johanan the son (grandson?) of Eliashib. If these are the same people and this Johanan is the same from the Elephantine papyri, then Ezra should be placed under Artaxerxes I. Ezra comes to a city that seems to presuppose Nehemiah’s reconstruction efforts. However, in order to do this scholars must disregard the passages where Ezra and Nehemiah are working in tandem (Neh 8:9; 12:6). Aaron Demsky has proposed a novel solution in pointing out that Ezra and Nehemiah may be relying on different dating systems. Ezra uses numbers months and uses the sabbatical cycle (hence the seventh year) and Nehemiah uses Babylonian month names and uses the reigns of the kings. So rather than Ezra arriving 13 years earlier than Nehemiah, Ezra arrived in time for the finishing of the wall during the sabbatical year.

Nehemiah is clearly called a governor (pĕḥā) and had colleagues in other governors like Tobiah and Sanballat (mentioned previously). Nehemiah as a governor was also heavily involved in the affairs of the temple and priesthood, something that appears to mirror his contemporaries (both Tobiah and Sanballat were connected to the temple or the priesthood). The Elephantine papyri also show that regional governors were important correspondents, along with the high priest, in authorization to build temples. Nehemiah certainly had Judean predecessors since both Zerubabbel and Sheshbazzar are called governors (Ezra 5:14; Ezra 6:3; Hag 1:1 cf. Ezra 1:8 “Sheshbazzar the prince (hannāśî(ʾ)). Certainly Nehemiah lacked the pedigree that Zerubabbel and Sheshbazzar inherited, but these men were governors appointed by Persian kings. Nehemiah refers to “former governors” (Neh 5:15) and a seal (with archaeological context) was found to Shelomith, servant of Elnathan the governor, which may imply that a previous governor had married Zerubabbel’s daughter in order to gain legitimacy. Previous scholarship assumed that Judah/Yehud was merely a province of Samariah before Nehemiah, but this is increasingly untenable.

If we view Ezra’s mission as contemporaneous with Nehemiah it is tempting to see Ezra and Nehemiah’s dual leadership as paralleled by Zerubabbel, the governor, and Jeshua, the high priest. Although Ezra was a priest, he was not the high priest, a role that was filled by Eliashib during that time. Ezra’s role is best paralleled by an Egyptian priest called Udjahorresne(t). Udjahorresne(t) is known from an autobiographical inscription on a statue that dates to the time of Darius I (ca. 518 BCE). Udjahorresne(t) is held many titles, including military commander, but also scribe, priest, and physician. After Cambyses invaded Egypt, Udjahorresne(t) apparently defected and was the kings chief physician. He used his influence to have the temple of Neith in Sais restored, foreigners expelled from it, and its offerings reinstated “as it had been before.” He returned to went to Susa and was there when Darius I came to power. Udjahorresne(t) was sent back to Egypt to restore the “House of Life” evidently a place where scribes (who were priests) functioned to preserve important medical, theological, and ritual knowledge; thus closely associated with the temple. This mission has been read in connection with the initiative of Darius I to codify Egyptian law that was operative before Cambyses entered Egypt, as shown in the Demotic Chronicle. Darius assembled a collection of soldiers, priests, and scribes to assemble both temple law and the law of Pharaoh. This of course finds easy parallel in Ezra’s mission who’s importance comes in the fact that the is a priest and scribe with a copy of the law of the God of heaven and has come to reform the temple establishment according to how it ought to run, under the aegis of imperial authority. Although the enforcement of “temple law” is mostly emphasized in Ezra, he is given far reaching powers in the enforcement of “the law of thy God and the law of the king” (Ezra 7:26).

In the end, Ezra himself may be a unique leader in the history of Israel/Judah since his unique position of the bearer of the “law of Moses/God of heaven” assembled under the authority of the Persian king sets him apart from both governors, like Nehemiah and Zerubabbel, but also the high priests as well. The fact that someone with imperial authority was involved in dictating worship in the Jerusalem sanctuary, however, is not unique to Ezra, since the governors of Judah and the surrounding regions were also interested in such meddling. Nehemiah’s role as governor has clear precedence in Zerubabbel and Sheshbazzar as well as in Samaria with Sanballat.


Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “The Mission of Udjahorresnet and Those of Ezra and Nehemiah.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (September 1, 1987): 409–421. doi:10.2307/3261065. Coogan, Michael David. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Demsky, Aaron. “Who Came First, Ezra or Nehemiah : The Synchronistic Approach.” Hebrew Union College Annual 65 (January 1, 1994): 1–19. Green, Alberto R. W. “The Date of Nehemiah: A Reexamination.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 28 (1990): 195–209. Hayes, John, and J. Maxwell Miller. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006. Klein, Ralph W. “Ezra and Nehemiah, Books of.” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon. Accessed November 26, 2013. ———. “Ezra-Nehemiah, Books of.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary II. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Yamauchi, E. M. “Ezra and Nehemiah, Books of.” Edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005.

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