Sunday, August 7, 2011

Archaeology and the List of Returnees in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

Israel Finkelstein

The list of returnees (Ezra 2, 1-67; Nehemiah 7, 6-68) forms one of the cornerstones for the study of the province of Yehud in the Persian period. Because of the lack of ancient Near Eastern sources on Yehud, discussion has focused primarily on the biblical texts and has thus, in certain cases, become trapped in circular reasonin. The only source of information that can break this deadlock is archaeology. The finds at the places mentioned in the list of returnees seems to show that it does not represent Persian-period realities. Important Persian-period places not mentioned in the list support this notion. The archaeology of the list seems to indicate that it was compiled in the late Hellenistic (Hasmonaean) period and represents the reality of that time.

In a recent article (Finkelstein, in press) I questioned Nehemiah 3's description of the construction of the Jerusalem wall in the light of the archaeology of Jerusalem in the Persian period. The finds indicate that the settlement was small and poor. It covered an area of c. 2-2.5 hectares and was inhabited by 400-500 people. The archaeology of Jerusalem shows no evidence for construction of a wall in the Persian period, or renovation of the ruined Iron II city-wall. I concluded with three alternatives for understanding the discrepancy between the biblical text and the archaeological finds: 1) that the description in Nehemiah 3 is utopian; 2) that it preserves a memory of an Iron Age construction or renovation of the city-wall; 3) that the description is influenced by the construction of the First Wall in the Hasmonaean period. All three options pose significant difficulties, but the third one seems to me the least problematic. In any event, I argued, the archaeology of Jerusalem in the Persian period must be the starting point for any future discussion of this issue. Accordingly, I believe it is now time to deal with the other lists in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the light of modern archaeological research — first and foremost with the list of the returnees to Zion (Ezra 2.1—67; Nehemiah 7.6—68).