Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Lee, Kyong-Jin, The Authority and Authorization of Torah in the Persian Period (Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology, 64; Leuven, Peeters, 2011). Pp. x + 296. Paperback. €46.00. ISBN 978-90-429-2578-6.

This dissertation by Kyong-Jin Lee sets out to re-evaluate the arguments for and against the thesis of Persian authorization of the Torah. The question of whether and to what degree the Persian Empire played a role in authorizing Jewish Torah in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. has attracted much attention from biblical scholars over the last thirty years. Peter Frei stimulated this interest in 1984 by arguing that the Persians authorized local legislation in various parts of their empire to create a “federal” relationship between local authorities and the imperial center.[1] His theory was quickly adopted in biblical studies to explain the conditions that led to the formation of the Pentateuch in its present form. Presumably, Persian authorities would only authorize one document, so the theory held that Judean parties put forward a compromise document that included both Deuteronomistic and Priestly traditions.

At the end of the last century, more skeptical voices made themselves heard that challenged Frei's thesis, especially the extent to which Persians authorized local laws and the nature of that authorization. The panelists reviewing the issue at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2000 voiced widely diverging conclusions. The majority doubted the degree to which Frei's thesis applied to the Jewish situation and the Pentateuch.[2] Many others, including this reviewer, concluded that the Persians may have responded ad hoc to local requests to authorize temple laws, but took little interest in the contents of such legal documents so long as they were not subversive to imperial control.[3] Therefore, current scholarship tends to view the Pentateuch taking shape at Judean (and Samaritan) initiative within a legal and literary context shaped by Persian norms and power relations, but not as a response to specific Persian policy initiatives.[4]

Lee's major conclusion is that the Persians did not systematically authorize local laws across the empire, but did respond positively to local requests from Asia Minor and Egypt to recognize officially some local cult practices and laws. Such requests were usually mediated by officials in the Persian bureaucracy with ethnic ties to the local communities. It is therefore likely that the Persians responded positively to such requests from Judeans like Ezra as well (p. 263).

After reviewing the reception of Frei's theory in biblical studies (chap. 1), Lee devotes two chapters to re-examining the evidence for Persian imperial authorization of local law in Egypt (chap. 2) and Asia Minor (chap. 3). Frei cited three major pieces of evidence for Persian influence on Egyptian laws and cults: Udjahorresnet's inscription, the claim by Diodorus and the Demotic Chronicle that Darius collected or reformed Egyptian law, and the Aramaic Passover Letter from Elephantine. Lee finds in Udjahorresnet's inscription a clear example of an Egyptian official in the Persian court who uses his position to gain imperial support for restoring particular temples and cult practices, as well as scribal or medical institutions. The Passover Letter from Elephantine is more ambiguous because of its fragmentary state, but Lee effectively marshals the arguments that local initiative likely prompted these ritual instructions too. The evidence that points most to imperial initiative behind the Persian authorization of Egyptian law is found in Diodorus and the Demotic Chronicle. These Hellenistic-era histories claim that Darius collected or renewed Egyptian law. Like Frei, Lee thinks these accounts do reflect some degree of Persian involvement in Egyptian law. It is disappointing that she reports but does not counter the skepticism of some Egyptologists as to whether the Persians did anything more than gather financial documents for taxation purposes.[5] She should have engaged more seriously the argument that historiographical sources (which include Ezra as well as Diodorus and the Demotic Chronicle) tend to emphasize royal initiatives because of their own rhetorical interests. They are therefore less dependable on this issue than the primary sources that emphasize local initiatives to gain imperial authorization (Udjahorresnet, the Elephantine letters, and the Letoon inscription).[6] This argument would have bolstered her book's main thesis.

After surveying Persian-Greek relations as reported by Herodotus and Diodorus (pp. 93–104), Lee reviews the evidence that Frei identified for imperial authorization in Asia Minor: an inscription recording a satrap's resolution of a border dispute between Miletus and Myus, the Letoon inscription at Xanthos recording a satrap's authorization of that temple's laws, and the Gadates inscription which records Darius rebuking his officials for not honoring the exemption of a temple's servants from forced labor. Though the latter is widely regarded as a Roman-era forgery, Lee follows several recent studies that defend the possibility that it is a translation of a Persian-period document. That decision complicates the arguments for her thesis that Persians authorized local laws and temples in response to local initiatives. While the other two inscriptions speak of such local initiatives explicitly, the Gadates inscription speaks instead of an intervention by Darius. Lee thinks the king must have been responding to a local complaint, but the inscription itself contains no such indication.

Lee then turns to Judea in the Persian period. One chapter surveys Persian-Judean relations, including the role of the Temple in Judea and the importance of Judea to Persian imperial interests. She concludes that Persian interventions in Judean affairs tended to be sporadic responses to specific circumstances, not the product of consistent policies (p. 158). Nevertheless, the claim in Ezra that Persians supported rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple corresponds to their efforts elsewhere and so is historically plausible (p. 210). These conclusions will not surprise scholars who work on this period. Lee's review of the arguments and evidence for them nevertheless feels underdeveloped, perhaps necessarily so in covering a great deal of material in sixty-five pages.

Lee makes up for this by devoting an entire chapter to the decree of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:12–26. After reviewing in detail the century-long discussion of the historicity of this text, Lee concludes with many others that the decree is the product of a complicated redactional history stretching into the Hellenistic period. She sides, however, with those voices who maintain that core elements of the decree go back to Persian imperial actions. Her previous surveys of Persian practices lead her to suggest that this core involved only the support and provisioning of the Jerusalem temple. Its depiction of Persian concern for legal practice in Judea reflect later Jewish interests, not Persian. And she argues that it was the local populace in Jerusalem who applied for this support from the empire.

The view that the Persians provided imperial authorization of local laws and cults in responses to some native requests, but had no policy to do so systematically throughout their empire, has been voiced several times in recent scholarship. Lee's contribution lies in substantiating it with a thorough review and evaluation of the arguments for and against imperial authorization, not only in biblical scholarship but also in Egyptology and Achaemenid studies. In that sense, this book does not advance new arguments, but it does gather and evaluate the evidence and arguments in a long-running debate in one well-organized package. That will make Lee's work a valuable springboard for future contributions to this discussion.

James W. Watts, Syracuse University

[1] P. Frei, “Zentralgewalt und Lokalautonomie im Achämenidenreich,” in P. Frei and K. Koch (eds.), Reichsidee und Reichsorganisation im Perserreich (OBO, 55; Fribourg: Univesritätsverlag, 1984). reference

[2] Published along with an English translation of Frei's own summary of his theory in J. W. Watts (ed.), Persia and Torah. The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch (Symposium, 17; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). reference

[3] J. W. Watts, Reading Law. the Rhetorical Shaping of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 137–43; idem, “Introduction,” in Persia and Torah, 3–4; G. N. Knoppers, “An Achaemenid Imperial Authorization of Torah in Yehud?” in Persia and Torah, 133–34; D. M. Carr, “The Rise of Torah,” in G. N. Knoppers and B. M. Levinson (eds.), The Pentateuch As Torah. New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 54–56. reference

[4] See the essays by K. Schmid, D. Carr, and A. Hagedorn in Pentateuch As Torah, 23–76. reference

[5] So W. Spiegelberg, Die sogenante demotische Chronik des Pap. 215 der Bibliotheque Nationale zu Paris (Leipzig: Hinrichsche, 1914), 31–32; D. Redford, “The so-called ‘codification’ of Egyptian law under Darius I,” in Persia and Torah, 135–59. reference

[6] So U. Rütersworden, “Die persische Reichsautorisation der Thora: Fact or Fiction?” ZAR 1 (1995), 51; Watts, Reading Law, 139. reference