On Dating Biblical Texts to the Persian Period

Discerning Criteria and Establishing Epochs

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Richard J. Bautch, Mark Lackowski
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , February
     189 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume, On Dating Biblical Texts to the Persian Period, contains eleven essays by an international team of scholars. In general, there is little consensus among experts regarding which pericopes in the Bible were produced in the post-exilic period under Achaemenid rule (539–333 BCE). This is true for texts throughout the canon, in the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings alike.

Yet, although there may never be a consensus on such issues, dealing with the problem of dating texts is an essential first step in advancing historical research, as well as the foundation of the basic academic premise of reading ancient texts from within their sociohistorical contexts. Indeed, as Jill Middlemas’ article in the volume makes clear, one’s reading of the book of Esther will look very different depending on whether one dates its production to the Hellenistic versus Persian eras. The debate over dating biblical texts is, in other words, a necessary difficulty; ignoring the problem is the worse of the two options.

With a few exceptions, the essays in this edited volume are narrow case studies using specific texts, including Numbers 6, Isaiah 63–64, Ezra 4, among many others. This zooming in on specific texts is, in my view, an effective approach towards the controversies surrounding the dating of texts, and the volume does a sufficient job of balancing out such close readings with broader historical thinking as well, in part by establishing three epochs within the Persian era: early (539–486 BCE), middle (485–398 BCE), and late (397–333 BCE).

Another strength of the volume is that it contains different scholars’ reflections on the alternative criteria and methods of dating texts to the Persian period. For example, Joseph Blenkinsopp evaluates whether scholars can depend on the Bible’s own internal dates of events if these dates are corroborated by either another biblical text or, better yet, by an Achaemenid source such as the Behistun inscription. One example of this is the statement in Ezra 6:15 that the Temple was rebuilt in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius, in 516–515 BCE.

In another essay, Dalit Rom-Shiloni provides an analysis of the literary trope of the “empty land,” as well as intertextual allusions and exegesis in prophetic literature as a framework through which to date texts. In a similar vein, Georg Fischer discusses a method of comparing “exclusive relationships,” which are “phrases or expressions that occur only in two literary corpora and nowhere else” (58, author’s italics). Of course, one inherent flaw in dating one text vis-à-vis another “datable” text is that the latter text’s date must be correct, otherwise the entire process is misguided. Konrad Schmid makes this point about the Priestly source in his essay entitled “How to Identify a Persian Period Text in the Pentateuch,” writing: “The possible identification of Persian material in the Pentateuch depends above all on how one dates the so-called Priestly texts (in short: P). P is employed more and more as a historically fixed point in reconstructions of the Pentateuch’s composition. Therefore, if texts are identified as post-P, and P is early Persian, then this post-P material belongs at the earliest to the Persian period as well. . . . However, its date is unclear” (109). As this quotation suggests, relying on the relationship between texts is not always a scientific way of dating a source.

Finally, other essays, such as those by Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer and Konrad Schmid, examine other dating techniques, such as how to interpret references to historical personages and how to use linguistic data.

In sum, these methods of dating texts are ones that many scholars use instinctively. Thus, part of this volume’s value is that it helps to lift the curtain on academics’ longstanding assumptions and hermeneutics, hopefully leading to greater reflection on how to handle the issue of dating texts. While this volume itself demonstrates that there can never be a single standard surrounding the dating of texts, and also that different methods lead to different datings, what this all means to me is that it behooves biblicists to clarify the criteria that they are using as the basis of their decisions about the datings of texts, rather than taking such decisions for granted.

Perhaps the only two weaknesses of the essays are that they could engage Persian-Achaemenid studies more thoroughly, and that it would be useful to have a concluding essay that synthesizes, or even lists, all the various methods that the volume highlights in a concise manner. Overall, however, this book is a valuable addition to biblical studies and ancient studies, more broadly, and is recommended reading for graduate students and scholars whose research heavily relies on the dating of texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Mokhtarian is Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard J. Bautch is Professor of Humanities at St. Edward's University.

Mark Lackowski is a doctoral candidate in Ancient Judaism at the University of Notre Dame.


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