What are the reasons for identifying Ezra's Artaxerxes as Artaxerxes I vs Artaxerxes II?
Why is there a problem?
In Ezra 7:7, reference is made to Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem in "the seventh year of King Artaxerxes" (= 458 BCE), as depicted earlier in the chapter:
7:1 Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra ... 7:6 ... went up from Babylon ... 7:7 ... to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king. 7:8 He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.
That this should be Artaxerxes I "Makrocheir" ("Long Hand") is "clear" from the sequence in Ezra 4:1-7 which moves from Xerxes (= Ahashuerus) to Artaxerxes.
The book of Nehemiah is closely related to Ezra, of course, and Nehemiah's own "mission" to Jerusalem dates from the the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I (c. 444 BCE):
Neh. 2:1 In the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, when wine was before him, I picked up the wine, and gave it to the king. ... 2:5 I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you would send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may build it.” ... 2:8b The king granted my requests, because of the good hand of my God on me. ... 2:11 So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. ...
According to this scenario, then, Ezra and Nehemiah were both contemporary reformers/restorers, active in Jerusalem at the same time, with Ezra arriving first, followed some years later by Nehemiah.
What's the problem? The problem is that on this simple reading, when Nehemiah arrives, there is no sign of Ezra's activity. There is, in fact, no sign of Ezra. This was the clue that set off scholarly alarm bells in the latter part of the 19th C.
One solution, proposed, elaborated, and defended over decades by Albin van Hoonacker was that this conundrum was most easily solved by positing Ezra's mission took place under the second "Artaxerxes" rather than the first, so there was no Ezra for Nehemiah to encounter. van Hoonacker's hypothesis would put Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem at 398 BCE, long enough after Nehemiah's mission to disentangle the two.
What reasons (OP's interest) can one put on either side to support/refute these identifications?
Van Hoonacker's suggestion to reverse the order of the two missions (of Ezra and Nehemiah) found some supporters, and the view persists in some quarters. (See Yamauchi's survey in the "Further reading", below, for examples.)
The simple advantage it had was of making sense of the state of Jerusalem on Nehemiah's arrival, and accounting for the apparent non-reference of Nehemiah to Ezra (and vice-versa).
This view finds apparent support in the political situation in the time of Artaxerxes II, in which turmoil in Egypt would have created "space" for Ezra's work.
Corroboration was found, it was argued, in the succession of priestly names found scattered throughout the book of Nehemiah, and having extra-biblical evidence in the Elephantine papyri, especially the so-called "Passover Papyrus".
It is safe to say that van Hoonacker's view, while it does not lack support, is most definitely a minority view today. According to H.G.M. Williamson,1
their arguments are not at all convincing and they have rightly been rejected by the overwhelming majority.
In his commentary (see "Further Reading", below), he lists the main reasons for opting for the 458 date associated with the reign of Artaxerxes I (beyond the simple fact that this is the most natural reading of Ezra 4-7, that is):
- the sources underlying Ezra and Nehemiah were combined early, and without regard to strict chronological ordering (this is widely agreed);
- the mutual non-mention of Ezra/Nehemiah is not unusual for contemporaries in the biblical record, and in any case they were interested in different things;
- the character of various related reforms by Ezra and Nehemiah are best explained by the traditional ordering;
and to this Blenkinsopp's observation (dealt with elsewhere by Williamson) can be added:
- when handling priestly names, great care is needed; the practice of naming boys after grandfathers in successive generations (which was the case here) can lead to real confusion.
There is a great deal of detail associated with each of these bullet points; see the literature cited below to see these details in all their complexity.
Caveat lector! The issues and arguments are complex, and rely on careful evaluation of the intersection of the inter-relationship of biblical texts, theories of composition, extra-biblical evidence, and wider cultural context in Yehud ("Judah") in the Persian period. While the consensus view on 458 seems sound, understanding why this might be the case requires more study than this "answer" can provide. See the resources in "Further Reading", below, to open out the discussion.
- a PDF of careful review of the issues and scholarship on this question by Edwin Yamauchi, “The Reverse Order
of Ezra/Nehemiah Reconsidered,” Themelios 5.3 (1980): 7-13.
- two major commentators who converge on this issue (but diverge on others): J. Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox, 1988), pp. 139-144; and H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah (Word, 1985), pp. xxxix-xliv. These should be readily available in seminary or university libraries.
- S.R. Driver's still valuable work, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (9th edn, 1913) has a brief but helpful discussion of the early phase of this debate, on pp. 552-553.
- Livius.org on the Achaemenids (excellent site, and wonderful resource; now being migrated to a new interface)
- H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah (OT Guides; Continuum, 1987), p. 55.