Next Friday marks the anniversary of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great’s capture of the city of Babylon in 539 B.C. It was a momentous event, not only for the Persians who became de facto world conquerors, but also for the Jews. Cyrus, unlike Babylonian rulers, had a more magnanimous and PR-savvy style of leadership. His conquest of Babylon led to the return of exiled Jews to their homeland, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and even the collecting together of ancestral texts into the Torah—the first five books of the Bible. Jews were grateful for his generosity—so grateful that one biblical author calls Cyrus the Messiah and presents him as a God-given savior figure. So who was the foreign king hailed by the Bible as the Messiah?
According to the legend told by the Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus’ maternal grandfather, Astyages, king of Media (northwest Iran), had several dreams before Cyrus’s birth that he interpreted as signs that his unborn grandson would supplant him. Summoning his pregnant daughter to him, Astyages attempted to have Cyrus killed. He delegated the task to a courtier and general named Harpargus, ordering him to expose the child on a hillside. But Harpargus, in turn, outsourced the infanticide to a local shepherd. The shepherd’s wife delivered a stillborn child around the same time and the shepherd switched the two boys and raised the young prince as his own. Around the age of ten the mix-up was discovered and Cyrus was sent to live with his father’s family.
Astyages punished Harpargus for his failure to follow through on the command by taking Harpargus’ own son and feeding him to him during a banquet. He cruelly presented Harpagus with the head of his executed son as proof of the atrocity. Apparently Harpargus did not react: he calmly collected up the pieces of his slaughtered child and buried them. He then proceeded to work with Cyrus to turn the leaders of Media against Astyages. When he felt that the nobles were on the cusp of rebellion he sent Cyrus a secret message, hidden in the stomach of a hare, assuring him that the army would mutiny if only Cyrus would attack.
Much of this story is legend, but a historical document known as the Nabonidus Chronicle confirms that Harpargus and several other generals defected in the war between Persia and Media (553-550). Cyrus emerged victorious. In the following decades Cyrus went on to conquer Lydia (part of modern Turkey) and, in 539, Babylon itself. In both his conquest of Media and his conquest of Lydia he was known for his magnanimity: according to some sources he spared the lives of both his grandfather and Croesus (the King of Lydia and subject of the saying “rich as Croesus”).
At the time Babylon was the capital of the illustrious Neo-Babylonian Empire. It was a center of literature, astronomy, science, and culture, and ruled over other conquered territories including Syria and Judea (what we now know as Israel). A generation before Cyrus’s arrival, the Babylonians had successfully conquered Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judea. They had destroyed the Temple built by Solomon and taken members of the leading families into captivity in exile in Babylon.
Immediately after conquering Babylon, Cyrus the Great proclaimed himself the “King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Corners of the World.” His empire was, at the time, unquestionably the largest that ancient Near Easterners had known, stretching from the west coast of Turkey all the way to the Indus River in the east.
Cyrus’ rule of the conquered territories relied as much on personal propaganda as it did on military power. He deposited a declaration, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, in the Temple of Marduk (the god of the city of Babylon), in which he declared that he was the chosen one of Marduk. According to Cyrus, the Babylonian king was impious and Cyrus’ victory was desired by Marduk himself. It was an impressive piece of religio-political propaganda that portrayed Cyrus as a liberator who restored temples and repatriated exiled peoples.
The Cyrus Cylinder makes no mention of the Jews directly, but it does support the general idea that Cyrus was responsible for sending the Jews home from Babylonia. Repatriating conquered peoples was one of Cyrus’s strategies and, according to the biblical book of Ezra, it was Cyrus the Great who ended the exile in 538 B.C., the year after he had conquered Babylon.
What is most impressive is how Cyrus was able to use religious propaganda to present himself as liberator rather than conqueror. This strategy worked so well that conquered religious leaders adopted his perspective for themselves. It appears to have been effective with Jews as well. In the lengthy prophetic book attributed to the prophet Isaiah, the author explicitly states that Cyrus is God’s anointed: “Thus says the Lord to his Anointed (Messiah), to Cyrus whom I took by his right hand” (Isa 45:1). The overwhelming majority of scholars believe that the exquisite poetry that makes up Chapters 40—55 of Isaiah were written around the time of the return from exile and the years that followed. A number of sections of this work, called “Cyrus Songs” by modern scholars, seem to praise the victories of Cyrus and describe God’s role in facilitating his conquests.
This section of Isaiah, known in scholarly circles as “Second Isaiah” (to distinguish it from the writings of the earlier prophet Isaiah, who wrote in the eighth century B.C. and whose words are found in Isaiah 1–39) is especially important to Christians because it contains many of the central prophecies used as predictions of the Messiah. To the writers of the New Testament and Christians, of course, these prophecies are understood to be prophecies about Jesus. But Isaiah 45:1 is pretty explicit that the “anointed one” of God is actually Cyrus, the non-Jewish Persian king. An article in Harvard Theological Review by Lisbeth Fried, for example, argues that Second Isaiah was presenting Cyrus as a Davidic king and making a theological claim about the relationship between the God of Israel and the Persian king. “Instead of the Davidic monarch,” she writes, “it is now Cyrus for whom [God] subdues kings.” In this way Second Isaiah was part of the Persian propaganda machine and was intended “to facilitate local acceptance of the foreign ruler.”
In the opening of the biblical book of Ezra, Cyrus is quoted as declaring that “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build a Temple at Jerusalem in Judah” (Ezra 1:2). Some scholars, following Ezra, think that Cyrus, his delegates, and successors actually sponsored the rebuilding of the Temple as well as the assembly of the Torah. From the perspective of the Persians, their goal was to support a theocratic local government that would remain loyal to divinely-backed Persian monarchs. It was a system that worked with the priests of Marduk in Babylon, so why not the priests of the God of Abraham? If this theory is correct, it would mean that Cyrus was not only the Messiah proclaimed by Second Isaiah but, in practical terms, a pivotal figure in the rebuilding of the Temple.
Those who want to pay their respects to Cyrus can visit the groundbreaking Cyrus Cylinder on display in the British Museum. The more intrepid can follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and visit his tomb in Pasargadae, Iran. Apparently, in the ancient times, the tomb contained a gold coffin, golden bed, and table. No inscription remains at the tomb today but one source records that it originally read, “O man, whoever you are, wherever you come from, for I know you shall come, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Cyrus, it seems, is waiting for us.