The Persianized liturgy of Nehemiah 8:1-8
History and Philosophy
Journal of Biblical Literature
The historicity of the ceremony recounted in Neh 8:1-8 is fiercely debated, but it is clear that the narrative presents Ezra and his Torah as clothed with the highest authority. While there is scant literary evidence for an "imperial authorization" of a Jewish commonwealth by Xerxes or Artaxerxes, I argue that Neh 8:1-8 represents various genuine correspondences with the Achaemenid Empire as it is known from Persian sources. In particular, there are some striking and heretofore unnoticed parallels between the performative actions described in the biblical text and the performative actions illustrated at Persepolis. Thus, while the depiction of Ezra may involve editorial flourish and calculated projection, there is no doubting the narrative's Persian context. The textual picture of the liturgy over which Ezra presides is dependent on cultural expressions such as those depicted in images at Persepolis. The biblical text is important as a political statement of the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. It also serves as a religious justification for such things as rabbinic authority, the synagogue service, the canonization of the Scriptures, and even a communal festal calendar. The passage claims to represent the milieu of the Achaemenid Empire, and correspondence between the images of Persepolis and the ceremony of Neh 8:1-8 appears to validate the claim. Contextualizing Neh 8:1-8 as a Persianized liturgy leads to many new insights about the restorationist agenda of Ezra and the Jews who returned from Babylon.
Link to Published Version
Whitters, M. (2017). The Persianized liturgy of Nehemiah 8:1–8. Journal of Biblical Literature, 136(1), 63. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1361.2017.156788