Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Persianized Liturgy of Nehemiah 8:1-8 *

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Persianized Liturgy of Nehemiah 8:1-8 *

Article excerpt

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The Roman Empire and its subsidiary clients and partners often serve as the textbook case for illustrating the sociological principles of the diffusion of power and acculturation in the premodern era before the dawn of European colonization.1 Through the dominance of the Caesars, Rome became the center of influence, and its imperial subjects all over the Mediterranean world Romanized themselves in public art and ceremonies. There are, however, many other historical cases that teach similar lessons about how dominant civilizations propagated their prestige over subordinate cultures.2

One less-investigated case involves the return of the Judeans to their homeland in the fifth century BCE. The returnees found in Cyrus II a new kind of patron, who sent back their compatriots to their homeland and to their religious way of life.3 For these liberated exiles, the influential cultural roads led to Persepolis instead of to Rome. The biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle this rebirth of the nation, and one passage in particular, Neh 8:1-8, describes a public service that enshrined the spirit of their mission.4 In this article, I compare the performative actions surrounding this service with what the art and inscriptions of fifthcentury Persepolis portray as performative expressions of the Achaemenid Empire. The resemblance between these two sources points to some kind of dependence either in actual contact or in cultural milieu. I will suggest in conclusion that this relationship between the two performances leads to new understandings about the Second Temple enterprise as told by Ezra-Nehemiah. There are two presuppositions here on which the value of the comparison depends: first, that a performance is being described in both cases; and, second, that the biblical text and the Persian art and inscriptions reflect a contemporary and congruent world.

Both sources are important in their own right. Scholars of Second Temple Judaism understand Neh 8:1-8 as foundational for the restoration of Israel as a nation after the Babylonian captivity. Iranologists, on the other hand, look to Persepolis as the equivalent of Athens for Greek civilization or Rome for the Roman Empire. Both images, therefore, serve to communicate on the level of real-world authorities and events, while simultaneously conveying a timeless aura of reverence and institution.

This comparison will depend on a repertoire of rituals or ceremonies that later Hellenistic literature would call liturgies.5 There are two dimensions of liturgy: first, "performative rubrics" employing publicly recognizable gestures or rehearsed activities that comprise the mechanics of social communication;6 and, second, the message of social cohesion that the participants experience.7 In the case of the returning Jews, we might call this "theology" or religious ideals, but it is not far removed from what historians of the Achaemenids might term "ideology." The discussion below will focus, first, on performative rubrics, and, second, on interpretations of the liturgies as depicted in the Jewish Scriptures and at Persepolis. Finally, it will be argued that these parallels point to significant Persianizing in society and government among returning Jews as they organize and establish institutions in the early Second Temple period.

I.The Rubrics of Nehemiah 8:1-8

The story behind Neh 8:1-8 is culled from both the book of Ezra and the book of Nehemiah, though scholars disagree about how to untangle its definite outline and sequence of events, since the books have a complicated and confusing interdependence.8 I will limit my remarks to the bare bones of the context for Ezra's public service in order to focus on how pervasive the Persian influences were, without trying to sort out the text's literary history.9 For present purposes, I will accept the text's authorial claim to represent what happened.10

The simple antecedent event that led up to the service probably goes back to Ezra 7:10-26. …

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