When Judaean Elites became Persian Subjects

18.12.2019
Jason Silverman’s new book, Persian Royal—Judaean Elite Engagements in the Early Teispid and Achaemenid Empire (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019), provides an analysis of the ways the Persian kings attempted to engage local elites and how these elites responded.

What is the book about?

When ancient empires took over new territories, they encountered pre-existing communities and social structures. Such encounters required adaptation by all parties involved. Scholars have been very much interested in these processes over the past several decades. This book takes the example of the Judaeans—one of the minorities of the Ancient Near East that lived in several different regions—and looks at how they dealt with the regime change that occurred in 539 BCE when the Persians conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

In particular, this book takes two literary texts that deal with key social institutions (kingship and temples) and other cultural themes as the primary evidence for the exploration. These texts are known to scholars as Second Isaiah and First Zechariah, both now within the Hebrew Bible. Understanding these texts in their historical context, however, also requires analyzing a wide array of other contemporary sources. To understand how such different types of sources can provide perspectives on ancient elites, the book draws on rhetorical criticism, media theory, the sociology of migration and minorities, ancient iconography, and the psychology of dreams.

Why is the book important?

There has been a trend in scholarship to look at the encounter between imperial elites and local elites primarily through a perspective of resistance. While there is no doubt that empires encountered resistance, this is not the whole story. A major problem with this focus is it ignores evidence to the contrary, and it denies ancient elites their own agency: they were able to choose how to respond to changing political perspectives, and those choices were not always what the historian would have expected or wished. This book tries to provide a more holistic analysis that takes into account a variety of historical and sociological factors to understand how some elites reacted. Hopefully this provides a more realistic picture better reflecting ancient thought than studies that are fixated on chronicling how local elites resisted empire.

Perspectives

Modern study has rightly taken up serious critiques of empires and their inequities, particularly in relation to modern European and American empires. It is anachronistic, however, to assume ancient empires operated in identical ways to modern ones or that similar critiques necessarily informed ancient reactions. The possibility must be entertained that in the Ancient Near East “empire” was taken for granted. Further, modern empires have operated in mercantile and capitalist context that raise questions concerning correlated social structures. The integral nature of “religion” in political, social, and economic structures also means multiple aspects must be rethought. This book shows two ancient texts using inherited institutions (kingship, prophecy, oral poetry, temples) to adapt creatively to changing social and political circumstances. For future study, in order to better understand these social effects, social classifications such as “elite” need to be better defined for the ancient world.

You can order the book on Bloomsbury’s website or Amazon, or read a summary essay on it at the Bible and Interpretation website.

Cover of Jason Silverman's book Persian Royal–Judaean Elite Engagements in the Early Teispid and Achaemenid Empire - The King's Acolytes