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Research: The Seventh Year of Artaxerxes I

Siegfried H. Horn

 

Seventh-Day Adventist ministers have no need of being reminded that the exact dating of Artaxerxes' 7th year is of great importance. On the correctness of this date depends a sound interpretation of the' 2300-year period, which, according to our teaching, ended in the fall of 1844 when Christ began His mediatorial work in the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary.

In the Millerite movement the basic date 457 B.C. was given as the starting point of this period, reckoned from the time when the decree of Artaxerxes I (Ezra 7) was put into effect by Ezra. This date was taken over by Seventh-day Adventists from the Millerites without modification, and has been presented down to the present day, as the date when the greatest prophetic period of the Bible began.

Earlier Explanations

The early computations of Artaxerxes' regnal years were based on Ptolemy's canon, a list of kings from the eighth century B.C. to the second century of the Christian Era. Until comparatively recent times this king list, compiled in Egypt by the Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, was the only sure means of dating ancient events going back to the eighth century B.C. His list, wherever it can be checked, has proved to be correct, since Ptolemy has also given many astronomical data that can be verified and no errors in his list have ever been found.

Earlier chronologists derived certain conclusions (now partly obsolete) from a study of Ptolemy's list: (1) that he expressed the regnal years of each king in full calendar years; (2) that he seemed to reckon the reign of each king in the list as beginning with Thoth I (the Egyptian New Year's Day) before his accession, and therefore included all months of a king's last calendar year in the first year of his successor. That Ptolemy followed this second method, at least with regard to Greek and Roman rulers in his list, could be shown by the examples of Alexander the Great, Philip Aridaeus, and the Roman emperor Caligula, whose exact accession dates were known from other sources. (See Source Book for Bible Students [revised ed., 1940], pp. 434, 435.)

These facts led to the deduction that Ptolemy followed the same principle with regard to the Persian kings. Hence his first year of Artaxerxes, beginning in December, 465, and ending in December, 464 B.C., was taken as the year in which Artaxerxes had come to the throne. Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1 show that the month of Kislev preceded Nisan (approximately December and April) in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, and Ezra 7:7-9 shows that Nisan preceded Ab (approximately August) in the seventh year, so that the turning point from one regnal year of Artaxerxes to the other could have occurred only between Ab and Kislev. These texts might allow two possible conclusions, either (1) that Artaxerxes had come to the throne between Ab and Kislev and that his years were counted by the anniversaries of his accession, or (2) that Ezra and Nehemiah, with all the Jews in general during that time, were reckoning the years of Artaxerxes according to the years of their own calendar, which began between Ab and Kislev (August-December).

Earlier expositors who dated Ezra 7 in 457 B.C. followed Isaac Newton in basing their reasoning on the first conclusion. This has been proved obsolete by later discoveries, and should not be used any more. In more recent times the second conclusion has been employed as the basis for arriving at the same date which has finally proved to be correct.

It was natural to believe in a fall-to-fall calendar, since the Jews have had such a calendar for a long time, and still follow it. The accompanying Figure 1 shows how, according to this reasoning, the Jewish first year of Artaxerxes began thus much later than the first year of Artaxerxes according to Ptolemy's list, although this list was taken as the basis for arriving at this conclusion.

According to Ptolemy's canon the first year of Artaxerxes I began in December, 465 B.C., and ended in December, 464. This was accepted as indicating (according to Ptolemy's known method of reckoning the Greek and Roman rulers) that Artaxerxes had come to the throne during that interval without determining in which part of that year his actual accession fell. The Jews, however, seemed to have begun his first regnal year in the fall of Ptolemy's first year of that king's reign. Consequently, according to this interpretation, the first year of Artaxerxes I according to Jewish reckoning lasted from the fall of 464 B.C. to the fall of 463, and the seventh year of Artaxerxes was the year beginning in the fall of 458 B.C. and ending in the fall of 457.

Doubts Raised

As long as Ptolemy's canon was the only reliable source material for dating the reign of the Persian kings, no doubts were raised with regard to this interpretation. Then came the time when numerous documents were uncovered, dated in the reigns of these Persian kings. These documents, astronomical texts, economical and judicial records, showed clearly that the regnal years of the Persian kings were reckoned from the spring to the spring. Furthermore, it was found that the first year of Artaxerxes I was reckoned according to the Babylonian calendar, which the Persians had adopted, from the spring of 464 B.C. to the spring of 463, and the seventh year from the spring of 458 B.C. to the spring of 457.

This knowledge was gained at the time when higher Bible critics enjoyed their greatest triumphs. They claimed that during the Exile the Jews had taken over, along with the Babylonian month names, the Babylonian calendar also, part and parcel, and that they had reckoned the years of Persian kings according to a spring-to-spring calendar. The statements made in Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1 were naturally declared by critical scholars to be erroneous, since Kislev could not have preceded Nisan in the same regnal year, but would have followed it. For this reason many books that deal with Ezra 7 have dated the events described in that chapter in 458 B.C. instead of 457. We Adventists, with very few exceptions, were the only ones to keep to the 457 B.C. date.

Two Key Problems

The establishment of the correct date hinges on two key problems. The first-one was to prove that the Jews of Nehemiah's time reckoned the years of the Persian kings according to their own civil calendar, and that Nehemiah's use of a fall-to-fall civil calendar was not an error.

The second problem was to find the exact time of Artaxerxes' accession. Until very recently no dated documents were known from the year in which Xerxes died and his son Artaxerxes came to the throne, with the exception of one papyrus from Egypt which showed that Artaxerxes' accession had taken place before January 2, 464 B.C. The exact time of his accession was of the greatest importance, even if a fall-to-fall calendar among the Jews could be demonstrated, for the following reasons. If it would be proved that Artaxerxes came to the throne before the Jewish New Year's Day of 465 B.C., his first year would have begun in the fall of 465 and ended in the fall of 464. On the other hand, if Artaxerxes' accession took place after the Jewish New Year's Day of 465 B.C., all the months from his accession to the next Jewish New Year's Day, in the fall of 464 B.C., would be labeled his "accession year," because the Jews called the interval between a king's accession to the throne and the next New Year's Day "accession year." The king's "first year," which meant his first full calendar year, would thus have started according to Jewish reckoning in the fall of 464 B.C.

Recent Discoveries

A recently discovered Aramaic papyrus from Elephantine, in Upper Egypt, provides important evidence for the solution of the first problem. It was written by the Jews in the fifth century B.C., the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and contains a double date. The document gives the day of the Egyptian month (Pharmuthi 8) as well as the Jewish one (Tammuz 8), but only one year number, the third year of Darius II. The Egyptian date, based on a solar calendar, can easily be converted into its B.C. equivalent in the Julian calendar. However, the Jewish date, based on a lunar calendar month in which the months vary from year to year according to the movements of the moon, coincided with a given Egyptian day only once in several years. Harmony in the two dates of this document can be achieved only if the third year of Darius II was reckoned according to a calendar year that began in the fall.

It proves thus the existence of a fall-to-fall calendar among the Jews in Egypt during the fifth century B.C. Since this was in complete agreement with the practice of Nehemiah in Palestine, it is only reasonable to conclude that Ezra, Nehemiah's contemporary and colaborer, counted the years of the Persian king according to a fall-to-fall calendar.

The solution for the second problem is given by a tablet from Ur, the first one that has ever been found giving us a date in the death year of Xerxes. This document reveals that in Ur on December 17, 465 B.C., Xerxes was still believed to be alive. However, two weeks later the news of his son's accession had already reached Egypt as we know from the above-mentioned Aramaic papyrus. These two documents allow us there fore to date the accession of Artaxerxes very accurately in December, 465.

The Jews, using the accession-year method, therefore dated all documents from December, 465 B.C., to the next fall in 464 B.C. in Artaxerxes' accession year, and began to reckon his first year from the fall of 464. Figure 2 shows the relation ship between the three calendar years, and how the accession of Artaxerxes I in December, 465, determined the be ginning of his first regnal year in the Persian and Jewish calendar years.

These two discoveries the papyrus from Darius II's third year and the Ur Tablet show us thus that the date reached by the early computations was correct, and that the Jews reckoned the seventh year of Artaxerxes I from the fall of 458 B.C. to the fall of 457. The four month journey of Ezra took place therefore from the spring to the early summer in 457 B.C., and the king's decree went into effect after ward.

Detailed Study to Appear

A full report of the problems connected with the correct dating of the events described in Ezra 7 has been prepared for the Advent Re search Committee of the General Conference. It will contain a basic and documented explanation of these ancient calendar principles which must be understood in order to arrive at a correct dating of Biblical dates.

The first chapter will be devoted to a description of the different methods used in ancient times for counting years. The second chapter deals with the two main calendars employed in antiquity: the solar calendar in Egypt from which was derived the Julian calendar, still in use with slight modifications under the name of Gregorian calendar; and the luni-solar one employed by other nations like the Babylonians and Persians.

The pre-exilic Hebrew calendar is studied in the third chapter, which shows that from the time of Moses to the exile two systems existed side by side, one beginning in the spring for ecclesiastical purposes, and a civil one beginning in the fall. The fourth chapter is devoted to a discussion of the Jewish calendar after the Babylonian exile. It is shown there that the pre-exilic civil fall-to-fall calendar came again into use, although our evidence is not too clear in regard to the nature of the calendar employed during the Exile and the first few years following it. This fourth chapter also contains extra- Biblical material by which the use of a fall-to-fall calendar among the Jews in Egypt can be demonstrated.

The fifth chapter, dealing with the specific chronology of Ezra 7, shows that Artaxerxes I came to the throne in December, 465, and ex plains how his years were reckoned by various nations: the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Jews. This study leads to the conclusion that the seventh year of Artaxerxes according to Jewish reckoning can definitely be dated from the fall of 458 B.C. to the fall of 457.

An appendix presents all dated material of the fifth century known so far that is of use in determining exact calendar dates. It is presented for those who want to have access to all the facts that have a bearing on the problem discussed in this report.

A bibliography and an index of names and subjects will be included for the benefit of those readers who wish to make a more detailed study of this subject.

 

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