Dating Advice for Kings

21 05 2008

The book of Nehemiah opens, famously and enigmatically, with the words:

דברי נחמיה בן חכליה ויהי בחדש כסליו שנת עשרים ואני הייתי בשושן הבירה

The narrative of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev of the twentieth year, when I was in the fortress of Shushan, …
(trans. JPS)

This is all very nice, so far as superscriptions go, but in the twentieth year of what? Most scholars have looked back at Ezra 7 or forward to Nehemiah 2 and said, as JPS also notes within a footnote, “of King Artaxerxes”. This is a problem, for the superscription introduces a scene in which Nehemiah is informed of the destruction of Jerusalem, while the second chapter relates Nehemiah’s request to the king that he visit the city and repair the damage “in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes” (JPS). As Kislev is the ninth month of the Babylonian calendar and Nisan is the first, this would place Nehemiah’s petition to the king some eight months before he was given any reason to do so. How can this be resolved?

Scholars have proposed a variety of solutions, none of which appears entirely satisfactory. The simplest solution is always to posit a corrupted text. This can be done in different ways. The most elegant of these ways is to suggest that the corruption is in chapter 2. The verse reads:

ויהי בחדש ניסן שנת עשרים לארתחשסתא המלך

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes
(JPS)

and needs only to be changed to

ויהי בחדש ניסן שנת אחת עשרים לארתחשסתא המלך

In the month of Nisan, in the twenty-first year of King Artaxerxes

This is easily done, if we assume that a later editor failed to notice the word, but is unsatisfactory on two counts. Firstly, there are no textual witnesses that describe the year as having been the twenty-first year of the King’s reign. The LXX (II Esdras 12:1) refers to it as “μηνι Νισαν ε͗τους ει͗κοστου Αρθασασθα βασιλει”, the Vulgate (II Esdrae 2:1) refers to it as “mense nisan anno uicesimo Artarxersis regis”, and the Peshitta (which I reproduce here with Aramaic letters) refers to it as “בירח ניסן בשנת עשרין לארטחששת מלכא”. Secondly, and most damning of all, Nehemiah 5:14 states that the King had made Nehemiah a governor in Judah in the twentieth year of his reign. Unless we posit that the same mistake had been made twice in two separate chapters, this attempt at a resolution will have to remain elegant but untenable.

Another solution, and one even more difficult than the first, is to posit the error as having existed in the first verse. According to proponents of this theory, the original text read “שנת תשע עשרי” (“the nineteenth year”). This wording was lost and a later editor, somewhat mechanically, filled in the gap with the year from chapter 2. I am not a fan of this sort of reconstruction as it tends to presume that scholars in the past were not as astute as scholars today, and that the glaring contradictions that plague our readings of the text were simply unnoticed by the experts of yesteryear. It seems much more likely that the text, in both places, has always featured the number twenty, and that a different remedy needs to be sought.

Another solution that is worth mentioning, if only because of its cleverness, is the suggestion that Artaxerxes (regarding the commencement of whose reign there is no extra-biblical documentation) started ruling after Nisan, but before Kislev of the same year. This would mean that the years of his reign featured Kislev before Nisan, and that the events in chapter 2 are dated after the events in chapter 1. This is very clever, and there are several scholars who have adopted this line of thinking – notably Bickermann, who posited the month of Ab on the Babylonian calendar as the commencement of Artaxerxes’ reign (1).

There is at least one problem with this suggestion, as Wright notes (2). According to all extant documentation, kings who assumed the throne before the end of the year had their initial months ascribed to their predecessor. Artaxerxes’ twentieth year, irrespective of when he actually began to lead, would had to have been dated from Nisan to Nisan, and the suggestion that it really began in Ab does not hold water.

Wright offers another two rebuttals of this thesis, although it should be noted that neither of them is particularly strong. The first problem that he notes is the fact that Nehemiah would have to have been writing for an audience familiar with the king’s reign. Some scholars have defended this idea, suggesting that Nehemiah’s original work was directed to the king himself, or to the king’s representative in Judah, but Wright suggests two correlative problems, each of which require explanation of its own. If the text were written for the king or his representative, it surely would have been composed in Aramaic; if so, why was it then translated into Hebrew? Furthermore, if this were the case, then all of the numerous sections that would only have made sense to a Jewish reader must have been editorial expansions.

Wright seems to have forgotten that, according to his analysis of the text (3), most of those sections are editorial expansions. As for those elements that may be limited to individual lexemes, one must allow for their alteration in the course of being translated from Aramaic to Hebrew – a translation that surely would have held the theological concerns of its audience in mind. As to why the text was translated in Hebrew: this is clearly a specious question. The overall text (that is, the finished product of the text as represented by the MT) aims to describe the period of the Restoration, and place an emphasis upon the value of Torah and the commandments; this is a tendenz that Wright also acknowledges and no further justification for the text’s (possible) translation and inclusion in the canon is necessary.

Wright’s third critique of this theory (4) is directed specifically against Bickermann’s proposal of the month of Ab (the fifth month in the Babylonian calendar). Were this the case, Nehemiah 6:15, which reports that the wall was completed on the 25th of Elul (the sixth month), must have been speaking of the twenty-first year. As the text does not mention the year, Wright argues that it must be a reference to the twentieth, given that the twentieth year was the last year to have been mentioned.

Japhet, who does not respond to Wright directly, also views everything from Neh 1 to Neh 12 as “the events of a single year” (5). This is not necessarily the case. While “the twentieth year” is the only year to be mentioned explicitly, the section that comprises Neh 5:14-19 speaks of a total of 12 years that Nehemiah served as governor of Judah. The section is undoubtedly interpolated into the text, but this interpolation indicates an editorial awareness of time that spans more than one year. Given that the finished product, as we possess it today, is effectively the work of the final editor, one must be careful when suggesting which sections were written prior to that date (6). Wright’s third critique, that the month of Ab predates the completion of Jerusalem’s walls, is not so solid.

Nonetheless, one only requires one solid objection to a thesis in order to dispute it, and Wright’s observation regarding the reigns of Persian kings is sufficient to indicate that the opinions of those who suggested that Artaxerxes came to power between Nisan and Kislev are unnecessary in the resolution of this particular problem. Another resolution, and the final one worth mentioning, is that of the scholars who suggest that the twentieth year, as mentioned in the first verse, is not the twentieth year of the King’s reign. This is a bold statement, given that its correlation to the year in Neh 2:1 would be somewhat coincidental, but it is an interesting assertion nonetheless. Gunneweg (7) suggests that it may be a reference to either Nehemiah’s age, or to how long he had served as a royal cupbearer. This last suggestion is only made weak on the basis of two points: no other Biblical superscription includes numerical information in relation to a person’s employment, and we are not told of the nature of Nehemiah’s employment until the end of the first chapter.

The clue as to the resolution of this problem may rest within this second critique of Gunneweg’s thesis. The length of time that it takes the author to inform us that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king is surprisingly long. We are told in the first verse that Nehemiah was in Shushan, but we are not informed until 1:11 as to why that is the case. Given the importance of this information, the lengthy prayer in 1:5-11a is made all the lengthier.

A large section of Wright’s book (8) is devoted to this issue. He discusses the manner in which prayers often indicate additions to the text (9), the usage of particular Deuteronomistic motifs that are out of alignment with the rest of Nehemiah (10), the awkward nature of the syntactic construction that introduces the prayer (11), and the internal contradictions raised by some of its wording (12). This last point is especially interesting: as soon as Nehemiah hears the news, he declares that he then fasted and prayed for several days (Neh 1:4), petitioning God “day and night” (Neh 1:6) and that he requires success “today” (Neh 1:11) before the king. It is only then that we are told that he is the king’s cupbearer and that we read of his interaction with the king who, despite Nehemiah’s prayers to the contrary, inspires fear in Nehemiah by noticing his sadness.

There are many parallels that can be drawn between this prayer and other additional prayers in other texts, but the most pertinent comparison is with the prayer in the Greek additions to Esther (13). In that instance it is Mordekhai who requests Esther’s intercession with the king, and the two of them who pray for their success: not just for the safety of their people (which is the root of their concerns throughout the rest of the text) but also as a result of their piety, their faithfulness to the commandments, and God’s redeeming nature. In Nehemiah it is Nehemiah’s countrymen who effectively solicit Nehemiah’s intercession with the king, and the prayer that Nehemiah offers (involving the same Deuteronomistic motifs as are found in the Greek addition to Esther) is out of harmony with the rest of his book. When one excludes those sections of Nehemiah that feature this language (not to mention other disjunctive elements that likewise make them stand out as editorial), one is left with a remarkably prosaic account of Jerusalem’s renewal.

According to Wright, whose overall thesis is that this prosaic account formed the core of the text, the original additions to Nehemiah began with Neh 1:1a and then continued directly on to Neh 1:11b, and 2:1ff. That is, the book commenced with:

דברי נחמיה בן חכליה… אני הייתי משקה למלך. ויהי בחדש ניסן שנת עשרים לארתחשסתא המלך

The narrative of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah… I was the king’s cupbearer… In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes…

This makes a great deal of sense and flows as smoothly as one could hope. The addition of the prayer, and the inclusion of Nehemiah’s motives, therefore constituted a secondary level of interpolation, albeit one that served a specific theological purpose. That purpose was not only manifested in relation to Nehemiah’s piety, but also from a calendrical perspective.

The commencement of the year with Nisan was not of universal acceptance. Several scholars have suggested that the author was writing with a Seleucid calendar that, like the calendar employed by the Maccabees, commenced with autumn. Wright notes that Tishrei (the seventh month) features strongly within both Ezra and Nehemiah, and suggests that the focus given to Nisan in the second chapter was “corrected” by a later editor who sought to reemphasise the later months. This is a clever solution, and probably the best of all those offered so far, but it is still imperfect.

Wright fails to follow his own advice and seems to think that the contradiction, while obvious to a modern reader, was not noticed by those in antiquity. If an editor was capable of adding a verse to ‘counteract’ another verse, are they not able to also change the offending verse and remove all discrepancy? Why could they not merely change the second verse and do away with requiring the first one altogether? Or perhaps, given the importance of a superscription, alter the second verse and move it back to the head of the first chapter? These questions are not answered in Wright’s book and one presumes that they are either unimportant to him or that he has been incapable of resolving them.

The mystery therefore remains a mystery. If it was an error, we must question the nature of the error and the inability of editors to correct it; if it is not an error then it is up to scholars and exegetes to harmonise the available material, should they assume that such harmonisation is appropriate. While scholars slice the text up and reduce its original author and chief protagonist to a “grin-like insubstantiality” (14), I am reminded of the words of Mark Shea, who wrote a startlingly clever indictment of source criticism in the form of a mock analysis of The Lord of the Rings. Dividing the text into the Red Book of Westmarch (W), Elvish Chronicles (E), Gondorian records (G) and orally transmitted tales of the Rohirrim (R), Mark suggests that the overall narrative was brought together by two redactors: the Tolkein redactor (T) and the Peter Jackson redactor (PJ). While I am one to subscribe to the tenets of source-criticism, the point that Mark makes is a good one. In his own words,

Because The Lord of the Rings is a composite of sources, we may be quite certain that “Tolkien” (if he ever existed) did not “write” this work in the conventional sense, but that it was assembled over a long period of time by someone else of the same name. We know this because a work of the range, depth, and detail of The Lord of the Rings is far beyond the capacity of any modern expert in source-criticism to ever imagine creating themselves.

___

(1) E.J. Bickermann, “En marge de l’Ecriture. I. – Le comput des années de règne des Achéménides (Néh., i, 2; ii, 1 et Thuc., viii, 58”. Pages 19-23 of RB 88 (1981). As cited in J.L. Wright, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 49 n24.
(2) op.cit., 50-51.
(3) Best represented in his final conclusion, op.cit., 330-339.
(4) Presented as his second critique, in situ.
(5) S. Japhet, “Composition and Chronology in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah”. Pages 245-267 of From the Rivers of Babylon to the Highlands of Judah: Collected Studies on the Restoration Period (ed. S. Japhet; Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 263.
(6) Compare Shield’s statements regarding the epilogist of Ecclesiastes: M.A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 48.
(7) A.H.J. Gunneweg, Nehemia (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1987). As cited in Wright, op.cit., 51 n36.
(8) op. cit., 7-66.
(9) op.cit., 12-14
(10) op.cit., 9-12, 14-21.
(11) op.cit., 9-12, 22.
(12) op.cit., 22.
(13) op.cit., 13-14.
(14) J.B. Kofoed, Text & History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 2 (in quoting Robert Gordon).

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One response

21 05 2008
Mike

My dating advice for kings would be that they should only date one gal at a time.

(sorry, I couldn’t help it)

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