wisdom traditionEzra, a priest-scribe with a pedigree in the line of Aaron, was a prominent Jewish religious figure in Babylon, but he also functioned as a shuttle diplomat for king Artaxerxes of Persia. Previously, we discussed the ongoing religious and political crisis in Jerusalem that arose over the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. This necessitated many and varied diplomatic missions and letters between Jerusalem and the Persian capital.

We are introduced to Ezra the shuttle diplomat in chapter seven of the book of Ezra, in which a detailed letter that Ezra has carried from the Persian capital to Jerusalem explains his royal commission. The letter is from king Artexerses himself. And, apparently, this was one of the last, if not the last, of the diplomatic missions necessary for resolving the crisis surrounding the temple’s reconstruction.

Just as a U.S. president will appoint special envoys to foreign nations to try to resolve troubled situations, this seems to have been the case with Artexerses’s appointment of Ezra. Ezra appears to have been serving in Artaxerxes’s Persian government (in conquered Babylonia). It is not clear what his duties were, but he seems to have held a distinguished position under the rather cumbersome title: “scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:12, 21; King James translation). Ezra may have received his title from Artaxerxes himself.

In his diplomatic role, Ezra may have been something like Artaxerxes’s “Secretary of State for Jewish affairs,” given his religious pedigree, scholarship, and distinguished reputation. This would have been a crucial and sensitive political post at the time, for Artaxerxes and his cabinet (the seven counselors of the realm in 7:14-15) had inherited an imperial Persia that, having conquered and ruled many lands over many generations, was now experiencing political and social destabilization in various parts of the realm, including in Jerusalem. So it seems likely that Ezra had high-level connections with the cabinet, who looked upon him favorably and trusted him.

By the time of Artaxerxes’s reign, the temple had finally been reconstructed and Ezra, commissioned by the king, is dispatched from the Persian capital to Jerusalem with extensive political powers and a royal decree explaining his commission and detailing further Persian policy concerning the returned Jewish exiles. Although the text states that it was “the Lord God” who put it into the mind of the king to do this, we may assume that it was also a good foreign policy decision by Artexerses that would help strengthen Persian national interests in the region.

ancient JerusalemFor instance, Ezra’s commission as a diplomat to that highly religious city was aptly suited to his role as a distinguished Jewish priest-scribe, and the Jewish population in Jerusalem would have been glad to have been sent such a figure. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with economic aid (a shipment of silver and gold) from the king in support of further work to be done, which would have further strengthened those international ties. Ezra also had been given carte blanche by the king to raise whatever further funds he needed and to solicit whatever help he needed to fulfill his commission.

It was also a fact-finding mission. Ezra is to make a detailed inquiry into life of the Jews in and around Jerusalem, including their religious health, and to take whatever steps he deems necessary to ensure the peaceableness of that community under Persian rule. Having concluded that inquiry, he is to “appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates” (Ezra 7:25). And the policy is backed by force. Those who fight against it can be legally prosecuted within the bounds of various penalties.

Much remains unknown about this tumultuous, decades’-long crisis in Jerusalem. Ezra’s diplomatic history is but a thin slice of imperial Persia’s complicated international politics. There may have been long periods when this diplomatic channel was not a priority or went silent.

My focus on Ezra the shuttle diplomat is meant to suggest that Artaxerxes could have imposed a military solution in Jerusalem. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his Persian predecessors, beginning with Cyrus, and relied on diplomacy. Through diplomatic initiatives, the Jews in Palestine reestablished their religious identity and thereby regained a sense of cohesion as a people in Jerusalem, even though they remained under Persia’s rule.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


  1. So Charles, I’m wondering if the Persian king’s predisposition to diplomacy with the Jews was a general pattern, characteristically Persian? A fascinating essay.


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