The Missing Two Hundred Years and the Historical Veracity of Hazal

Modern Jews often encounter a tug of war between scholarship and rabbinic tradition. Hazal have left us with an extensive and exacting record of what to do and what to believe. It is our task to sift through this record and determine which parts of this record are incumbent upon us today. While the halakhah laid down by Hazal is indisputably binding for Orthodox Jews, some of Hazal’s statements may be overlooked as anecdotal advice, such as in the realms of beauty, medicine, and astrology. Where do Hazal’s view on history fall in this discussion? Is the Jewish historical timeline set out in the midrashic work known as Seder Olam Rabban (“The Long Order of the World,” sometimes called simply as “Seder Olam”) merely a record of the world as they saw it in their time or an integral part of an Orthodox Jew’s hashkafic to-do (or believe) list? This question, as well as the tension between modernity and tradition that lies beneath it, come to the fore in the discussion of the so-called missing two hundred years of Jewish history.[1] This refers to the discrepancy in dating the Jewish timeline between the secular Greek historical sources and the midrashic, Rabbinic tradition of Seder Olam, which amounts to about 164 years.[2] Do we wave the white flag and take up the position of the secular historians or must we defend Hazal’s account of Jewish history as a key aspect of our Jewish belief?

The debate between Seder Olam and the Greek secular scholars focuses on the length of the Persian’ rule over the Jews before Alexander the Great overthrew them. The secular scholars claim that the Persian period began about 164 years prior to the date given by the Rabbinic scholars. Their opinion is based off of their records of at least thirteen Persian kings during this period of time, which calls for a sufficient period of time to accommodate them all.[3] The Rabbinic tradition as laid out in Seder Olam measures the Persian rule as about 164 years shorter than the dating of the Greek historians. It may be tempting for modern Jews to shrug off this discrepancy and squarely place the historical account of Seder Olam in the same aggadic, non-binding bin as the Rabbinic advice on stomach pain cures and astrological harbingers, but the implications of the “missing” (or, more accurately, misplaced) years are much greater. Because Seder Olam based its calculations of the Persian rule on a peshat understanding of a prophecy by the prophet Daniel, the debate between the secular and Rabbinic dating may in truth be an issue that challenges the sacred text of the Bible itself. [4]

In the critical verse Daniel tells Cyrus, “And now I will tell you the truth: Persia will have three more kings, and the fourth will be wealthier than them all; by the power he obtains through his wealth, he will stir everyone up against the kingdom of Greece.”[5] Seder Olam understands this verse to mean that there were four Persian Kings before the reign of Alexander the Great brought an end to the Persian Empire: Darius the Mede, Cyrus, Ahasuerus, and Darius.[6] Because there were only four Persian Kings, the timespan of the Persian rule in Rabbinic tradition is much shorter than that of the Greek scholars who believe there to have been as many as thirteen kings.[7] It seems that Hazal’s understanding is the simple reading of the verse; thus the Greek historical record appears to directly contradict Daniel’s prophecy.

The classic commentators corroborate, at least in part, Hazal’s interpretation of the verse. Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain that the plain meaning most clearly points to five Persian kings, Cyrus plus four more, but note that the Seder Olam’s reading of four kings can fit with the plain meaning as well. Rashi, quoting from the list of Persian Kings laid out in Josephus, names Bambisha, Cyrus’s son, who most scholars pair with the Greek name Cambyses, as the fifth Persian King.[8] Although Rashi and Ibn Ezra favor the interpretation of five kings, which goes against the opinion of Seder Olam, they both seem to draw the line at the existence of five Persian Kings, placing them in the basic confines of Hazal’s historical account. Ibn Ezra is even more emphatic than Rashi in this regard. He quotes the opinion of the rishon Rav Moshe ha-Cohen, who claims that there were six Persian kings, and strongly rejects this interpretation as a contradiction of Daniel’s words.[9]  Rav Sa’diah Gaon in Emunot ve-de’ot also refers to this controversy; he responds to the claim that there were some seventeen Persian Kings with a similarly emphatic response that such a position directly contradicts Daniel 11:2 and thus could not possibly be true.[10]

Can Orthodox Jews accept the Greek historical timeline as historical fact if it contradicts the prophecy of Daniel? If one chooses to accept the veracity of Hazal’s timeline in Seder Olam the upwards of thirteen Persian Kings documented by name in Greek sources must be accounted for in some way. Seder Olam addresses this issue by quoting the Talmudic statement, “He is Cyrus, he is Darius, he Artaxerxes; Cyrus because he was a good king, Artaxerxes was the name of the kingship and Darius was his name.”[11] This statement accounts for the Greek’s long list of Persian Kings in two ways. Firstly, many of the kings could have had more than one name. Darius was called by the nickname Cyrus to compliment his kingship, a practice that may have manifested itself amongst other rulers as well. Thus some of the Persian kings known to the Greeks may be repeats of the same person. Secondly, it is noted that Artaxerxes was the Persian term for ruler, similar to Pharaoh in Egypt. Thus each Artaxerxes does not refer to a new Persian king, but rather the title for a king already named.[12]

The second approach would be to accept the veracity of the secular historians. Azariah Dei Rossi, a 16th century Orthodox Jewish scholar who lived in Italy during the Renaissance, was the first to discuss this issue in depth. Dei Rossi was well versed in both the Jewish and Classical Greek sources and believed that Hazal had no special authority over historical documentation as they do over halakhah.[13] Concerning the issue of the misplaced years of the Persian rule, Dei Rossi, controversially, sided with the secular scholars.[14] Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, commonly known as Maharal, addressed Dei Rossi’s claim on the misplaced years issue specifically in his sefer Be’er ha-Golah. Using the peshat understanding of the text along with the interpretations of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Maharal points out that Dei Rossi’s favoring of the Greek secular source ends up contradicting the plain meaning of Daniel’s prophecy. Maharal sharply condemns Dei Rossi’s opinion because he sees it as a blatant dismissal of the biblical text. Dei Rossi’s stance was so controversial that Rabbi Yosef Caro considered putting him in herem, although Rabbi Yosef Caro passed away before the idea ever reached fruition.[15]

How can we reconcile Die Rossi’s stance, which seems particularly appealing to the modern Jew, with the plain meaning of Daniel’s prophecy? Rav Shimon Schwab famously claimed that the prophecy of four Persians kings is inaccurate, and the Greek historical account is in fact correct. Daniel was commanded to confound the calculations of Mashiah, derived from another verse in Daniel, “close the words and seal the book,” and thus this prophecy was meant to throw us off the scent of the ge’ulah.[16] However this understanding would also mean that Daniel was commanded to intentionally sabotage the calculations of the yovel and shemmtah years; in light of this Rav Schwab later retracted his statement.[17]

Another possible understanding of this issue lies in a re-interpretation of the verse in Daniel. When Daniel tells Cyrus “Persia will have three more kings, and the fourth will be wealthier than them all,” he is simply highlighting the three or four Persian kings that will be most noteworthy in the greater scheme of history.[18] In this light, Dei Rossi’s acceptance of the secular sources over Seder Olam is not so dangerous. Maharal’s critique of Dei Rossi focuses on the fact that Seder Olam’s account is based on the straightforward understanding of a verse in the Bible. However, if one can read the verse in a way that allows for the existence of more than five kings, then Dei Rossi’s embrace of the secular sources does not contradict the Bible.

The highlighting method of listing characters is one that we are familiar with in the Bible. For example, there were more prophets during the first temple years than are delineated in the Bible, but only those who delivered eternal messages relevant to later generations were recorded in the Bible.[19] The biblical narrative focuses on these figures, but acknowledging the existence of other prophets in no ways contradicts that scared narrative. The concept of highlighting key figures can also be seen in the commentary of Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, more commonly known as the Shadal, on the descendants of Levi as listed in Shemot Chapter 6. The Bible lists three generations from Levi until Moshe and gives the count of the tribe at the time of Moshe as totaling 22,300 people.[20] Shadal claims that there must have been at least two missing generations between each generation explicitly recorded in order to account for the massive number of Levi’s descendants. The Bible chooses to record the generations of Kahat, Amram and Moshe because these generation produced the most noteworthy figures for our narrative, but other generations must have existed and gone unnamed.[21] In the same vein, it is possible that Daniel’s prophecy refers to the four (or five) major Persian kings as listed by Seder Olam, while many more Persian Kings, as fitting with the secular historical record, existed in addition.

It is incumbent upon modern Jews to determine for ourselves how we view the veracity of Hazal’s historical record. Many great scholars, like Rav Sa’adiah Gaon and Maharal, have declined to privilege secular historians and have instead chosen to defend the Jewish historical account laid out by Hazal in Seder Olam Rabbah. However the approach of Azariah Dei Rossi, which places Hazal’s historical views in the realm of aggadah and advice, may be more appealing to many Orthodox Jews facing the challenges of modernity. The misplaced 164 years of Jewish history bring this issue to forefront. Although Hazal’s historical interpretation may fit more smoothly with the plain meaning of Daniel’s prophecy, if one views the verse as more of a “best hits tour,” then Dei Rossi’s interpretation can also be defended. Thus the modern Jew can certainly find support in viewing Seder Olam as an aggadic work, rather than a strictly binding historical narrative. Of course even if we understand Seder Olam in this light, it is still incumbent upon us, as with all works of Hazal, to find meaning within it.


[1] I extend my gratitude to Ellie Schwartz for introducing me to this topic and many of these sources.

[2] “Missing Years (Jewish Calendar).” World Public Library. World Public Library Association. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Seder Olam Rabbah chapter 28

[5] Daniel, 11:2

[6] Seder Olam Rabbah

[7] “Missing Years (Jewish Calendar).” World Public Library. World Public Library Association. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.

[8] Landy, Yehuda. Purim and the Persian Empire: A Historical, Archaeological, & Geographical Perspective. Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010. Print. Page 13.

[9] Mikrot Gedolot, Commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Daniel, 11:2

[10] Sefer Emunot ve-de’ot, end of Miamar 8

[11] Mesechet Rosh Hashana 4a, Quoted in Seder Olam Rabbah Chapter 30

[12] Landy, Yehuda. Purim and the Persian Empire: A Historical, Archaeological, & Geographical Perspective. Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010. Print.

[13] Encyclopedia Judaica  p.317

[14] Sefer Me’or Einayim, Imeri Binah (third section)

[15] Encyclopedia Judaica  p.317-318

[16] Daniel 12:4

[17] Missing Years (Jewish Calendar).” World Public Library. World Public Library Association. Web. 07 Feb. 2016. <>.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Clinton, Boruch. “Isaiah (Yeshayahu).” - The Judaism Site. Project Genesis, Inc. Web. 07 Feb. 2016.

[20] Shemot, 6:16-30

[21] Commentary of Shadal on Shemot, 6:16-30