The chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1)

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The chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is a complex issue, especially as the events of these books recount took place during a relatively obscure period of Biblical history. According to the Bible, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem during the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes I, in 458 B.C. (Ezra 7:8), and Nehemiah in the twentieth year of the same king, 445 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1). Two other passages suggest that the two leaders were present in the city at the same time (8:9, 12:36). This data suggests the priority of Ezra’s mission, while acknowledging the close relationship of the respective activities of the two leaders.

Modern research has raised a number of objections against the traditional sequence, however, ans some scholars suggest that Nehemiah’s mission occurred prior to Ezra’s. The most significant argument is based on the succession of high priests recorded in the Bible in comparison to the extra-biblical evidence. The book of Nehemiah records Eliashib as the high priest with whom Nehemiah dealt (3:1, 20, 13:28). Nehemiah 12:10-11 presents the succession of high priests as follows: “Jeshua was the father of Joiakim, Joiakim the father of Eliashib, Eliashib the father of Joiada, Joiada the father of Jonathan, and Jonathan the father of Jaddua.” Nehemiah 12:22 lists names from the same progression as “Eliashib, Joiada, Johanan (a variation of Jonathan) and Jaddua.” Furthermore, 12:23 refers to Johanan as the son (i.e. grandson) of Eliashib.

The difficulty arises in the comparison of this sequence with that found in Ezra. According to Ezra 10:6Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan (another variation of Jonathan) som of Eliashib.” This passage seems at first glance to suggest that Ezra dealt with the grandson of the man whom Nehemiah knew . necessitating the conclusion that Nehemiah’s ministry must have preceded Ezra’s. This deduction appears to receive confirmation from the Elephantine papyri (documents from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt), which clearly identify a Johanan as high priest around 410 B.C.

Scholars who espouse this theory accept the 445 B.C. date for Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem but place the ministry of Ezra as beginning in 398 B.C., the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (not Artaxerxes I). A minority opinion conjectures that Ezra 7:8 originally read as the thirty-seventh year of Artaxerxes I, or 428 B.C. However, no textual evidence suggests a scribal error in Ezra 7:8.

Further, at least three important points render this conclusion unnecessary:

  • The names of Eliashib and Jonathan were extremely common (there are three different men named Eliashib in Ezra 10 alone). Therefore, it is not at all certain that the Jonathan of Nehemiah 12 and of Ezra 10 were the same person.
  • Ezra 10:6 indicates that Ezra entered the chamber of Jehohanan (Jonathan) but does not identify Jehohanan as the reigning high priest. It is entirely possible to maintain the traditional sequence on the assumption that Jonathan was a young man from the high priestly family with access to the temple at the time of his meeting with Ezra.
  • There was indeed a high priest named Johanan at the beginning of the fourth century B.C., but the ancient Jewish historian Josephus described how this Johanan killed his own brother Jesus in the year 398 B.C. within the temple itself (Antiquities, 11.297-301). On the basis of this scandalous crime, the Persian governor Bagoas, a supporter of this Jesus, placed the Jews under a seven year period of punishment. It is most unlikely that Ezra could have received the judicial and financial support of the Persian crown for doing his work at this very time (Ezra 7:6, 11-28). The Biblical data, as well as historical information described by Josephus, suggests the priority of Ezra’s mission and so should be maintained.


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