The Bible in the British Museum
I’ve left this series for some time, but since this item is on tour in the United States, and some of my U.S. readers may have an opportunity to see it, I thought I’d give it some attention.
This clay cylinder is one of the most famous items in the British Museum, and has a very interesting story to tell as we look at Biblical history. It gives important historical background to several Biblical passages, including those that describe the fall of Babylon to the Medes and the Persians, and the return of the Jews from captivity by the permission of Cyrus, the Persian emperor.
Just a Clay Cylinder….
Normally in Room 52 (and to which it will return when its U.S. tour ends) in the British Museum, this 9-inch clay cylinder records a proclamation by the Persian Emperor Cyrus in which he talks about returning different gods to their original temples.
The British Museum gives this item a lot of attention on its website. They have a general information page for it, several translations of its text, and if you feel like trying out your skills in reading Babylonian cuneiform, you can zoom in for a closeup. There’s a long press release about the U.S. tour which contains more information, and Reuters covered the U.S. tour here.
The Cyrus Prophecy
27 That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers:
28 That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.
45:1 Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;
Approximately 150 years before Cyrus came to power, his name appeared in the prophecy of Isaiah. At the time Isaiah was written, Jerusalem and the temple were intact, but God gave a written prophecy that someone named Cyrus would be a conqueror of nations, and would order the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The Seventy Years Prophecy
11 And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
12 And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the LORD, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations.
For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.
God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that the Jews would go into captivity as punishment for their idolatry. After seventy years, the Babylonians would be defeated in battle, and the Lord would cause the Jews to return to the land God had promised to them and their forefathers.
The first invasion by the Babylonians, in which Daniel was taken into captivity, took place in 605 B.C., after the battle of Carchemish in which Babylon defeated the Egyptian and Assyrian forces and became the dominant force in the known world.
The Prophecies Come Together
II Chronicles 36:20-23
20 And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia:
21 To fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years.
22 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
23 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.
So it happened, that 150 years after Isaiah’s prophecy, a man named Cyrus conquered many nations. He defeated the Babylonians 70 years after their conquest of Assyria, and in the first year of his reign, he issued a decree that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Not long after, the first group of Jews returned to build the temple, 70 years after the first captives were carried to Babylon.
Why the Cylinder Matters
The Bible told the story of this fulfillment of prophecy long before the Cyrus cylinder was found. The cylinder doesn’t tell us about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem — we have to rely on the Biblical record for that. What it does tell us is that the decree to send the Jews back to Jerusalem was consistent with a general policy.
Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king (co-regent with his son Belshazzar, see A Clay Cylinder — and Daniel’s History), apparently had taken the gods of the surrounding areas and carried them off to Babylon. (I say apparently, for the winners usually write the history, and this was an accusation that Cyrus made against Nabonidus.) This fits with what happened in the destruction of Jerusalem, where the things which had been consecrated for the temple were taken to Babylon.
Cyrus sent all the gods back to their place of origin, and presumably ordered the repair and/or rebuilding of the temples. Of course, the one true God couldn’t be “sent back” — but His temple could be rebuilt. Cyrus made sure everyone knew what he was doing, presumably because it was good propaganda. “Unlike that wicked Nabonidus, the good king Cyrus respects the gods.”
Why Did Cyrus Do It?
This is an interesting question, and one we probably can’t really answer. We know Daniel was in a position of authority even after the fall of Babylon (Daniel 6, 9, and 10) and almost certainly would have had opportunities to speak to Cyrus. We know Daniel was aware of Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy (Daniel 9), and would certainly have known of Isaiah’s naming of Cyrus in prophecy.
Did Daniel tell Cyrus about these prophecies? Take a moment to put yourself in Cyrus’ shoes. He’s just conquered Babylon, but really only because the Babylonians crumbled due to poor leadership. He is a Persian, but the Medes hold significant power in his domain. He may not have felt all that secure in his early days as emperor. The best thing in the world for a new emperor, especially if his throne seems at all shaky, is the endorsement of a god! “And what a god, this is the Lord God of Heaven! He’s the One that Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in that decree he sent out to all his empire (Daniel 4)! And He named ME one hundred and fifty years ago!”
If you read the translation of the Cyrus Cylinder (link above), you can see that his wording about the gods is very general, but the wording of his decree given in II Chronicles (and in Ezra 1) is very specific. In that decree, he states that the God of Heaven has given him the empire. Cyrus clearly had some specific information about this God — and his decree to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem was also a claim to divine authority for his own reign, entirely in keeping with the words of Isaiah.
Cyrus probably also knew of Belshazzar’s last night, and the hand writing on the wall (Daniel 5). When we read Ezra and Nehemiah, the Persian emperors seem to have had a great measure of respect for the God of the Jews, the God of Heaven. Perhaps they learned that respect from the decree of Nebuchadnezzar, the fall of Belshazzar — and the fulfilled prophecies about a conqueror named Cyrus and a 70 year exile.
Just a Government Policy?
The Cyrus Cylinder tells of a government policy of religious toleration. Some hold up Cyrus as a model of restraint and one who believed in religious freedom. Others see the policy as a cynical political move. Most historians view his decree to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem as an example of this policy.
The Biblical record gives a few hints that Jerusalem may have been a special case for Cyrus. Unlike the Cylinder, which credits Marduk for his victory, his Jerusalem decree gives specific acknowledgment to the God of Heaven. There is no evidence that Cyrus ever became a follower of the God of Heaven, but he certainly honoured that God.
What we can say, without any doubt, is that God chose Cyrus, long before he was born, to accomplish this task. II Chronicles tells us that the Lord “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to issue this decree. Did God use Daniel or someone else, telling Cyrus of those prophecies, to “stir up” Cyrus? There’s no way we can ever know. But we know that God’s work was accomplished, just as He said it would be. After seventy years of exile, God’s people returned.
Sources for this series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum