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Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem, illustration by Adolf Hult, 1919

Nehemiah is the central figure of the Book of Nehemiah, which describes his work in rebuilding Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. He was governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I of Persia (465-424 BC).[1][2] The name is pronounced /ˌnəˈmə/ or /ˌnhəˈmə/ in English. It is in Hebrew נְחֶמְיָה, Nəḥemyāh, "Yah comforts".[1]

Most scholars believe Nehemiah was a real historical figure and that the Nehemiah Memoir, a name given by scholars to certain portions of the book written in the first person, is historically reliable.[3][4][5]

Book of Nehemiah[edit]

In the 20th year of Artaxerxes I (445 or 444 BC), Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king.[6] Learning that the remnant of Jews in Judah were in distress and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, he asked the king for permission to return and rebuild the city.[7] Artaxerxes sent him to Judah as governor of the province with a mission to rebuild, letters explaining his support for the venture, and provision for timber from the king's forest.[8] Once there, Nehemiah defied the opposition of Judah's enemies on all sides—Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines—and rebuilt the walls within 52 days, from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananeel Tower at the North West corner, the Fish Gate in the West, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount's South West corner, the Dung Gate in the South, the East Gate and the gate beneath the Golden Gate in the East.

Appearing in the Queen's presence[9] may indicate him being a eunuch,[10] and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, he is described as such: eunochos (eunuch), rather than oinochoos (wine-cup-bearer). If so the attempt by his enemy Shemaiah to trick him into entering the Temple is aimed at making him break Jewish law, rather than simply hide from assassins.[11]

He then took measures to repopulate the city and purify the Jewish community, enforcing the cancellation of debt, assisting Ezra to promulgate the law of Moses, and enforcing the divorce of Jewish men from their non-Jewish wives.

Gustave Doré, Nehemiah Views the Ruins of Jerusalem's Walls, 1866.

After 12 years as governor, during which he ruled with justice and righteousness, he returned to the king in Susa. After some time in Susa he returned to Jerusalem, only to find that the people had fallen back into their evil ways. Non-Jews were permitted to conduct business inside Jerusalem on the Sabbath and to keep rooms in the Temple. Greatly angered, he purified the Temple and the priests and Levites and enforced the observance of the law of Moses.

Book of Maccabees[edit]

2 Maccabees assigns several roles to the subject which is not attested elsewhere.[12] In 2 Maccabees 2:13 the subject founded the library of the Second Temple along with Judas Maccabeus.

Rabbinic literature[edit]

Nehemiah is identified in one aggadah with Zerubbabel, the latter name being considered an epithet of Nehemiah and as indicating that he was born at Babylon.[13] However, rabbi Isaiah di Trani, in his commentary to the book of Nehemiah, writes as factual that Nehemiah was a Kohen.[14]

With Ezra, Nehemiah marks the spring-time in the national history of Judaism (Cant. R. ii. 12). A certain mishnah is declared by the Rabbis to have originated in the school of Nehemiah (Shab. 123b). Still, Nehemiah is blamed by the Rabbis for his seemingly boastful expression, "Think upon me, my God, for good" (Neh. v. 19, xiii. 31), and for his disparagement of his predecessors (ib. v. 15), among whom was Daniel. The Rabbis think that these two faults were the reason that this book is not mentioned under its own name, but forms part of the Book of Ezra (Sanh. 93b). [The division of the book into two is a Christian development.] According to Baba Bathra 15a Nehemiah completed the Book of Chronicles, which was written by Ezra.[15]


Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented on the dearth of a classical painting featuring Nehemiah.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gesenius, Friedrich Wilhelm (1846). Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon. Baker Book House; 7th edition, 1979. p. 544. ISBN 0801037360.
  2. ^ James D. G. Dunn; John William Rogerson (19 November 2003). Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 321. ISBN 978-0-8028-3711-0.
  3. ^ For confirmation that many scholars share this view, see Anne Fitzpatrick (2009). Zuleika Rodgers; Margaret Daly-Denton; Anne Fitzpatrick Mckinley (eds.). "What did Nehemiah do for Judaism," in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne. BRILL. pp. 93–. ISBN 90-04-17355-2.
  4. ^ For confirmation that most scholars share this view, see Jack Pastor (2010). Menahem Mor; Friedrick V. Reiterer (eds.). "The Contribution of the Samaria Papyri from Wadi Daliyeh to the Study of Economics in the Persian Period," in Samaritans: Past and Present: Current Studies. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 52–. ISBN 978-3-11-019497-5.
  5. ^ For an author who disagrees with the scholarly majority position on the historicity of Nehemiah and Ezra, but acknowledges the existence of that majority, see Philip R. Davies (3 September 2014). Rethinking Biblical Scholarship: Changing Perspectives 4. Taylor & Francis. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-317-54443-2. The essential historicity of the events described [in Ezra and Nehemiah] has rarely been questioned.
  6. ^ On the date, see Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. 1 January 1988. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-664-22186-7.
  7. ^ Nehemiah 1:1-2:5
  8. ^ Nehemiah 2:6-9
  9. ^ Neh 2:6
  10. ^ R. J. Coggins. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 73; also F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 140
  11. ^ John Barton, The Oxford Bible commentary, Oxford University Press, 2001
  12. ^ Bergren, Theodore A. “Nehemiah in 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, vol. 28, no. 3, 1997, pp. 249–270. JSTOR website Retrieved 2 May 2020.
  13. ^ "Zera'+ Babel"; from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a. See the Soncino translation [1].
  14. ^ Published by R. Mass, Jerusalem 5738 HC
  15. ^ "Babylonian Talmud: Baba Bathra 15". Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  16. ^ Paley, Morton D. (10 July 2008). "Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Fine Arts". OUP Oxford. Retrieved 2 April 2018 – via Google Books.

Further reading[edit]

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