Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of YHWH by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, YHWH stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
“Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath YHWH, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ezra 1:1-2).
Ezra among the Biblical authors is noted for not only referring to official court documents but also providing relevant quotations from them. But are these actual court documents he quotes, or is he making them up as he went along? Consider Ezra 1:1-2: would Cyrus really have believed that YHWH was God of heaven and gave him power? Would he really have decreed for the Israelites to return and rebuild the Temple at his expense (Ezra 1:3, 6:1-5)? We have compelling extra-Biblical evidence for the plausibility of these claims thanks to the Cyrus Cylinder.
The Cyrus Cylinder is a relatively small clay cylinder (approximately 9 inches wide and 4 inches tall) discovered as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila temple in Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam in March 1849 as part of a dig commissioned by the British Museum. It is written in the Akkadian language in cuneiform script. The events it describes took place in 539 BCE; it is believed that the cylinder was made within a decade afterward. The Cyrus Cylinder is a master piece of propaganda, suggesting that the gods were displeased with his Babylonian successor Nabonidus’ rule, granting rule to Cyrus, and detailing many of Cyrus’ benevolent policies enacted for the benefit of Babylon and other ruled nations.
Translations of the text of the Cyrus Cylinder can be found here. The text is incomplete; what remains began by detailing how Nabonidus, king of Babylon, had neglected the proper service of the Babylonian gods, and how Cyrus was chosen by Marduk to conquer (ll. 1-19). Cyrus’ genealogy is given; the cylinder declares how he entered Babylon peaceably, providing relief for its residents, and restored the idols and proper service of the gods, not only of Babylon, but also of surrounding nations (ll. 20-34). A prayer for Cyrus is made, and the various improvements made to Babylon by Cyrus are listed, including the discovery of an inscription of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, in the process of repairing a wall (ll. 35-45).
The Cyrus Cylinder is consistent with other royal inscriptions which have been found. Its purpose is clearly propagandistic, attempting to explain recent events in theological terms and providing justification for Cyrus’ invasion and conquest of Babylon. We cannot know how much the Babylonian “man on the street” would have agreed with the assessment of the Cyrus Cylinder and appreciated the rule of a foreigner over that of a native-born king. While Cyrus did establish his rule over Babylon, his descendants would have to suppress Babylonian rebellions in 522-521 BCE.
The Cyrus Cylinder does not mention Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or YHWH; it is not a copy of the decree from which Ezra copied in Ezra 1:1-3 or 6:2-5. But the Cyrus Cylinder does provide evidence regarding how Cyrus attempted to justify his rule and placate the nations over which he now exercised dominion. In the Cylinder Cyrus justified his rule by pointing out the irreverence of the past rulers, not unlike the story told in Daniel 5:1-31. In the Cylinder Cyrus spoke of re-establishing all the idols and service of the gods which the Babylonians had interrupted and taken for themselves. In terms of ancient Near Eastern religion this makes sense: by taking away the idols of their gods, you would demonstrate your dominion over a vanquished people (cf. 2 Chronicles 25:14). Babylon would have done the same. Cyrus would easily curry favor with the various nations in his realm by returning their idols and the service of their gods. Cyrus was no doubt quite the ecumenical polytheist: he would not have doubted that YHWH was God of Israel, just he would have no doubt that Marduk was god of Babylon, etc. His main priority was securing his reign and the prosperity of his empire, and if all the people of the realm were praying to their various gods for his welfare, then all the better!
While the Cyrus Cylinder does not explicitly mention YHWH or Judah, it demonstrates the plausibility of Cyrus’ decrees as set forth in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-3, and Ezra 6:2-5. The Cyrus Cylinder provides evidence of Cyrus’ policies toward the nations in what was once the Neo-Babylonian Empire, currying favor by suggesting the impiety of Nabonidus and his own piety in restoring the idols and service of the gods of the nations. Those who believe in the God of Israel recognize that YHWH chose Cyrus for this purpose (Isaiah 44:28-45:7); Cyrus would not know YHWH or much about Judah, but the Judahites would benefit from his policies. Thanks to Cyrus’ policies many Israelites returned to their land and would eventually re-build the Temple, and the Cyrus Cylinder provides illumination regarding Cyrus’ purposes and motivations. May we trust in YHWH and find restoration in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry