In his memoirs, Nehemiah states that his intercessory prayer for the Jewish people took place in the month of Kislev in the twentieth year of the king (Neh. 1:1). Kislev is the Jewish name for one of the months on the Babylonian calendar, employed during the fifth century BC by both the Jews and the Persians (1).

Here is where a knotty problem arises. In the days of Artaxerxes, the Persian month equivalent to Nisan on the Jewish calendar was the beginning of the regnal year; that is, the beginning of the next year in the numbered years of a king’s reign. If a king ascended the throne in any other month, his first year did not start until the following Nisan, and the remaining time until Nisan was called his accession year. Thus, the first Nisan during his reign marked the beginning of his first year, the second Nisan the beginning of his second year, and so on.

The date of Nehemiah’s prayer appears inconsistent with the date given for his later interview with the king. Although the stated month is Nisan, the stated regnal year is still the twentieth (Neh. 2:5). If the first date is year 20, the second should be year 21. But what looks like a difficulty evaporates when the matter is probed more deeply with the aid of some reasonable assumptions.

1. The dates in Nehemiah 1 and 2 are free of thoughtless error. The first assumption accords well with who Nehemiah was. As a high official in the Persian court, he certainly knew when events took place in relation to the king’s official regnal years. Since the dates in his memoirs do not agree with standard Persian reckoning, the most reasonable explanation is that he chose not to use it. Instead, he computed the king’s regnal years from a starting point other than Nisan.

Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood point out that if Nehemiah’s dates did not follow an accepted calendar, the error would have been transparent to early readers and would not have been passed on faithfully without correction (2). Yet we find no correction either in any Hebrew text or in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament translated in perhaps the third and second centuries BC). It is well known that the translators of the Septuagint did not hesitate to change the Hebrew text wherever they thought (incorrectly) that it could be improved (3). Evidently, early readers understood that Nehemiah was using a valid form of reckoning.

1. In the kingdom of Judah, the first month of the regnal year was Tishri. Tishri was the month of the autumnal equinox, whereas Nisan was the month of the vernal equinox. From ancient times, the Israelites had regarded the older equivalent of Nisan (Abib) as the beginning of the religious year (Exod. 12:2; 13:4) and the older equivalent of Tishri (Ethanim) as the beginning of the agricultural (4) or civil year (5). Still today, Tishri is the month of the Jewish New Year. Several converging lines of evidence suggest that Tishri was also the beginning of the regnal year in the kingdom of Judah, at least in its closing days (6).

To demonstrate that Judah’s regnal year during this period did not begin in Nisan, Edwin R. Thiele points to the dates in the Biblical account of the reforms initiated by King Josiah, a king of Judah whose reign ended a few decades before the fall of Jerusalem (7). In 2 Kings 22:3, the opening event leading to these reforms—the king’s dispatch of his emissary Shaphan to see Hilkiah the high priest—is placed in the king’s eighteenth year. During his interview with Hilkiah, Shaphan learned that the priests had recently discovered the book of the law. Subsequently, in compliance with the law, the king led the nation in the celebration of Passover. In 2 Kings 23:23, this Passover is placed in the king’s eighteenth year also. Obviously, since preparations for the festival were elaborate, the eighteenth year could not have started on Nisan 1, just two weeks before the start of the festival on Nisan 14 (8).

Further evidence that Tishri-to-Tishri reckoning was actually employed by the Jews in the period before 586 BC is provided by the Book of Daniel. In Daniel 1:1 it is stated that Nebuchadnezzar besieged (or threatened siege to (9)) Jerusalem in Jehoiakim’s third year. Jehoiakim had come to the throne in the autumn of 609 (10). The Babylonian Chronicle records that in 605, Nebuchadnezzar routed the Egyptian army at Carchemish in northeastern Syria (11) and swept southward to conquer all the region about Hamath in west-central Syria (12). In reference to the same events, Josephus says that Nebuchadnezzar “occupied all Syria, with the exception of Judaea, as far as Pelusium [on the Egyptian border]” (13). Then, after hearing of his father’s death on Ab 8 (August 16 (14); Ab is before Tishri), Nebuchadnezzar rushed back to Babylon to claim the throne (15). Berosus, a Babylonian priest who died about 250 BC, states in his history of Babylon that Nebuchadnezzar had Jewish captives in his possession before he returned home for his coronation (16). Thus, the incident in Daniel 1:1 must have occurred in the late spring or the summer of 605.

Notice that the incident could not be dated in Jehoiakim’s third year if Daniel was computing regnal years from Nisan to Nisan. Then it was his fourth year by accession year dating and his fifth year by nonaccession year dating. It was his third year only if Jehoiakim ascended the throne after Tishri 1, 609, and Tishri-to-Tishri accession year dating was the basis of his regnal years. In that case, his first year began in Tishri 608 and his third year began in Tishri 606; thus, the siege of Jerusalem fell in his third year (17).

3. The settlement founded in Jerusalem by returning exiles continued to regard Tishri as the first month of a king’s regnal year. During this period, the people of Judah enjoyed considerable autonomy (18). The Persians allowed them to strike their own coins (19) and granted broad civil as well as religious authority to their priests (20). For a while, as an expression of anti-Persian nationalism, the Jews in their everyday speech abandoned Aramaic, the predominant language of the empire, and reverted to Hebrew (21). It would not be surprising if concurrently they also returned to a traditional calendar.

4. If Nehemiah is not using Persian reckoning, he must be using Jewish reckoning. Internal evidence (Neh. 13:6–7, for instance) suggests that the book was written in Jerusalem. Moreover, his choice of language (Hebrew), his careful recording of facts that he did not need to record for himself, and the actual survival of his book—all indicate that his purpose was to set down a history that would be read by Jewish posterity. Therefore, he computed the dates at the outset of his memoirs in terms of a regnal year beginning in Tishri (22). Many scholars have endorsed this conclusion (23).

Footnotes

  1. In the Jewish version of the Babylonian calendar, the twelve months in an ordinary year are Tishri, Heshvan, Kislev, Tebet, Shebat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Ab, and Elul. Notice that Kislev falls between Tishri and Nisan.
  2. Siegfried H. Horn and Lynn H. Wood, The Chronology of Ezra 7 (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1953), 70.
  3. Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, new revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 209.
  4. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964), 34–36.
  5. Thiele, 51–52; Josephus Antiquities 1.3.3.
  6. Thiele, 52–53; A. Malamat, "The Twilight of Judah: In the Egyptian-Babylonian Maelstrom," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 28, Congress Volume: Edinburgh, 1974 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), 124; K. S. Reedy and D. B. Redford, "The Dates in Ezekiel in Relation to Biblical, Babylonian and Egyptian Sources," Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (1970): 464–465.
  7. Thiele, 52–53.
  8. D. J. A. Clines argues that just as all of Josiah’s reforms could not have been completed within a few weeks, so also they could not have been completed within six months (the interval between Tishri 1 and Passover). He concludes that the reported dates are the invention of a historian who did not consider whether they are compatible with the narrative. See D. J. A. Clines, "The Evidence for an Autumnal New Year in Pre-exilic Israel Reconsidered," Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974): 32–33. But Clines misses the point. Undoubtedly, as he observes, "The reforms . . . were in fact spread over a considerable number of years" (ibid., 32). At issue, however, is the duration not of these reforms but of all the events that must have intervened between Shaphan’s mission to the high priest and the celebration of Passover. These events included Shaphan’s mission, his return with the book of the law, the reading of the law, the deliberations of the king, his appointment of a delegation to consult again with Hilkiah, the visit of this delegation, the visit of Hilkiah and the king’s emissaries to Huldah the prophetess, the carrying of her words back to the king, further deliberations of the king, his issuing of a summons to all the elders of the nation, the proclamation of this summons throughout the land, all the preparations and travel required for compliance, the mass gathering at the Temple, the reading of the law, the announcement of Josiah’s program of reform, the cleansing of the Temple, the return home of the people so that they could make ready for Passover (each family would have to provide its own lamb), and finally the gathering for the feast itself. To place all these events within six months is not unreasonable. But even if it is imagined that Shaphan went to the Temple on the first day of the month and that the further comings and goings were so hurried that the king’s summons was sent forth on the same day, it is most unreasonable to place all these same events within two weeks. Thus, the calendar year at the basis of the reported dates could not have begun in Nisan.
  9. D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy, 1983 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 23.
  10. D. J. Wiseman, "Historical Records of Assyria and Babylonia," In Documents from Old Testament Times, ed. D. Winton Thomas (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1958), 77. According to the Babylonian Chronicle, the military campaign that Pharaoh Necho II was attempting to join when he met and killed Josiah, king of Judah, lasted from Tammuz (starting June 25) until Elul (ending August 23) in 609. See A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, vol. 5 of Texts from Cuneiform Sources, ed. A. Leo Oppenheim et al. (Locust Valley, N.Y.: J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1975), 96. The conversion from Babylonian to Julian dates is based on Richard A. Parker and Waldo H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 BC–AD 75 (Providence: Brown University Press, 1956), 27. Since only three months elapsed between the death of Josiah and the accession of Jehoiakim (2 Chron. 36:1–4), Jehoiakim must have become king in the autumn of 609.
  11. The Babylonian Chronicle places the Battle of Carchemish in the twenty-first year of Nabopolassar (Grayson, 99). The twenty-first year began Nisan 1, 605 (April 12, 605; Parker and Dubberstein, 27).
  12. Grayson, 99.
  13. Josephus Antiquities 10.6.1.
  14. Parker and Dubberstein, 27.
  15. Grayson, 99–100.
  16. Josephus Against Apion 1.19.
  17. Joseph Wilson, Did Daniel Write Daniel? The Genuineness and Authenticity of the Book of Daniel Discussed (New York: Charles C. Cook, n.d.), 35; Thiele, 183; John F. Walvoord, Daniel: the Key to Prophetic Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 32; Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), 26; Malamat, 129; A. R. Millard, "Daniel 1–6 and History," The Evangelical Quarterly 49 (1977): 69; Finegan, 387 n.; Edwin M. Yamauchi, "The Archaeological Background of Daniel," Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 4; John C. Whitcomb, Daniel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 21–25.
  18. Elias Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees: Foundations of Post-Biblical Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), 13–14.
  19. J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, 3d ed., revised (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982) 229; Joseph Naveh, "Inscriptions of the Biblical Period," in Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel, ed. Hershel Shanks and Benjamin Mazar (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1984; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1984), 66.
  20. Thompson, 217.
  21. Naveh, 66.
  22. Derek Kidner protests that if Nehemiah were using a Tishri-to-Tishri calendar, he would not call Tishri the seventh month (Neh. 7:73; 8:2, 14). See Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (n.p.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 78. But Nehemiah is merely giving Tishri one of its conventional designations. The month was known as Tishri (or Tashritu) the seventh month among both Jews and Babylonians.
         Clines argues: "It would certainly be remarkable if Nehemiah in composing his memoirs ca. 430 BC had persisted in painfully translating the legal dates of the beneficent Persian ruler into a Judean system which most agree had been abandoned by the end of the seventh century in Judah and was not employed by the deuteronomistic historian, Ezekiel, P, the post-exilic prophets, or the Chronicler. Thiele thinks that Nehemiah’s usage of the Tishri new year system is an expression of a 'spirit of intense nationalism,' but he does not explain how Nehemiah happens to be alone among the intense nationalists of the exilic and post-exilic ages in expressing his patriotism in this fashion" (Clines, 34–35). We find three flaws in this reasoning.
    1. To suppose that a few simple calculations would have required Nehemiah’s painful persistence demeans the man’s intelligence.
    2. Resting only on "most agree," the assertion that Judean reckoning had been abandoned by the end of the seventh century is begging the question.
    3. Clines states that on Thiele’s hypothesis, Nehemiah is alone among exilic and post-exilic nationalists in using Judean reckoning. But Nehemiah’s date seems anomalous to Clines only because he overlooks another instance of the same reckoning—in Dan. 1:1. How else would we describe Daniel if not as an exilic nationalist?
  23. Julian Morgenstern, "The New Year for Kings," in Occident and Orient: Gaster Anniversary Volume, ed. Bruno Schindler and A. Marmorstein (London: Taylor’s Foreign Press, 1936), 441–443; Thiele, 53; Judah J. Slotki, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah: Hebrew Text and English Translation with Introductions and Commentary (London: Soncino Press, 1951), 182; S. H. Horn and L. H. Wood, "The Fifth-Century Jewish Calendar at Elephantine," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 13 (1954): 14; J. Carl Laney, Ezra/Nehemiah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 74; F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 150.