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Cyrus the Messiah

Cyrus Cylinder

Many people are anointed in the Hebrew Bible, and many are referred to as the messiah or anointed one. The high priest is called the anointed priest (Lev 4:3). God tells Elijah to anoint two different men as kings of their people: Hazael as king of Aram (1Kgs 19:15) and Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. God also instructs Elijah to anoint his own successor, Elisha son of Shaphat, as prophet (1Kgs 19:16). At this point, the term messiah or anointed one did not refer to the apocalyptic savior of humankind.

The Persian emperor Cyrus is the only foreigner in the Bible to be identified as the messiah or anointed one of Yahweh, the Israelite God. Isaiah tells us that Yahweh spoke “to his messiah, to Cyrus, whom I [Yahweh] took by his right hand to subdue nations before him” (Isa 45:1). The other people called messiah or anointed one in the Bible aren’t designated Yahweh’s messiah, as Cyrus is.

Cyrus the Great (559–530 B.C.E.), whom Isaiah 45 calls Yahweh’s anointed, was the Persian king of Fars, a southern province of present-day Iran. By 546 he had defeated the wealthy king Croesus of Lydia (in modern Turkey), and the Lydian capital of Sardis fell to him along with all the other cities of Asia Minor. Cyrus then turned his attention to the most powerful kingdom in Central Asia: Babylon. By the end of 539, he had taken Babylon and captured its king, Nabonidus. The Persian Empire founded by Cyrus extended from the Aegean to Central Asia.

Who is this prophet who identifies Cyrus as Yahweh’s shepherd and anointed?

Second Isaiah, author of Isa 40-65, probably lived in Babylon during the late exilic period (late sixth century B.C.E.). We know he wrote after 539 because Isa 40-65 mentions Cyrus the Great.

What does it mean to be called Yahweh’s anointed, as Cyrus is called by Second Isaiah? We know that the title always refers to the ruler of Judah. To the biblical writers, however, the term Yahweh’s anointed is more than a title. It also connotes a theology. Yahweh’s anointed is the legitimate king appointed and protected by God. In the Psalms, he is idealized and mythologized.

How, then, knowing the full theology associated with the term Yahweh’s anointed, could Second Isaiah have applied this title to Cyrus, the Persian emperor?

Whenever Cyrus or his son and successor Cambyses extended the mighty Persian empire, local priests of powerful temples would apply the titles and theologies of their own kings to their Persian conquerors.

Second Isaiah appears to have done the same.

After Cambyses successfully invaded Egypt, the local priests hailed him as pharaoh, or King of Upper and Lower Egypt. In Babylon, too, Cambyses was hailed as the Babylonian crown prince and, later, as king at a New Year’s festival reserved for the legitimate Babylonian monarch.

Why did the prophet Isaiah, the priests of Marduk, and the Egyptian priests bestow this honor on Cyrus?

First, self-interest. These priests tied their own successes to the success of their conquerors. Second, the priests recognized that the restoration of their temples depended on the good will of the Persian leader.

The famous Cyrus Cylinder, a 10-inch-long inscribed clay barrel bearing the story of Babylon’s “liberation” by Cyrus, tells how Cyrus, with the help of the Babylonian god Marduk, restored worship at temples where Nabonidus had removed the cult images and brought them to Babylon.

But there was a third, more powerful reason that he and other priests collaborated with their conquerors: they believed the Persian invaders had the local gods of the conquered nations on their side. How could they have conquered these nations if the local gods had not allowed it? Isaiah too knew that Yahweh had brought Cyrus to conquer Babylon and return Judeans to their homeland.

This article was adapted from “Cyrus the Messiah” in Bible Review 19, no. 5 (Oct. 2003), published by the Biblical Archaeology Society.

  • Lisbeth Fried

    Lisbeth S. Fried is visiting scholar at the University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. She is the author of The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire (Eisenbrauns, 2004) and Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition (University of South Carolina Press, 2014). She is preparing a critical commentary on Nehemiah for Sheffield Academic Press.