Testimony of the Nabonidus Chronicle
THE fall of strongly fortified Babylon came with a suddenness that must have surprised the ancient world. The conqueror, Cyrus the Great, diverted the waters of the Euphrates River that coursed through the city. Then his forces marched through the riverbed, taking the city by surprise through the unlocked gates along the quay. In one night Babylon fell, ending centuries of Semitic supremacy and fulfilling Jehovah’s word spoken through his prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.—Isa. 44:27; 45:1, 2; Jer. 50:38; 51:30-32.
The date of this event is of interest to students of the Bible. This is because the dates of many other happenings mentioned in the Holy Scriptures can be determined in relationship to the number of years they occurred before or after Babylon’s fall.
The Nabonidus Chronicle (also known as the “Cyrus-Nabonidus Chronicle” and “The Annalistic Tablet of Cyrus”), though very brief, contains the most complete extant cuneiform record concerning the fall of Babylon. This fragmentary clay tablet measures approximately five and a half inches in breadth at its widest point and about the same in length. On the basis of the script style, scholars have concluded that the tablet may date from some time in the Seleucid period (312-65 B.C.E.). But historians claim the inscription is probably a copy of an earlier document. As it tends to glorify Cyrus while presenting Nabonidus in a disparaging way, the thought has been advanced that the inscription was the work of a Persian scribe and has even been referred to as “Persian propaganda.” Nonetheless, the “circumstantial data” is considered to be reliable.
According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Cyrus, in the month Tashritu (Tishri [September-October]), attacked the Babylonian forces at Opis. The inscription continues: “The 14th day, Sippar was seized without battle. Nabonidus fled. The 16th day, Gobryas (Ugbaru), the governor of Gutium and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterwards Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned.”—Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by James B. Pritchard, p. 306.
The reference to Cyrus’ army entering Babylon “without battle” probably means without a general conflict. This agrees with Jeremiah’s prophecy that ‘the mighty men of Babylon would cease to fight.’—Jer. 51:30.
But does the Nabonidus Chronicle of itself provide the basis for establishing the year for this event? No. This inscription shows that Babylon fell to the army of Cyrus on the sixteenth day of Tishri (corresponding to October 11/12 [Julian calendar] or October 5/6 [Gregorian calendar] of the year 539 B.C.E.) but reference to the “seventeenth year” of Nabonidus (which year historians believe fell in 539 B.C.E.) has been inserted by translators. There being no extant cuneiform tablets dated beyond Nabonidus’ seventeenth year, it has been assumed that the fall of Babylon must have come in that year and that, if the tablet were not partially effaced, those words would appear in the space now damaged. (It may also be noted that the Jewish historian Josephus [quoting Babylonian priest Berossus (of the third century B.C.E.)] reports that Cyrus took Babylon in the seventeenth year of Nabonidus’ reign.)—Against Apion, Book I, par. 20.
Also other sources, including Ptolemy’s canon, point to the year 539 B.C.E. as the date for Babylon’s fall. For example, ancient historians such as Diodorus, Africanus and Eusebius show that Cyrus’ first year as king of Persia corresponded to Olympiad 55, year 1 (560/59 B.C.E.), while Cyrus’ last year is placed at Olympiad 62, year 2 (531/30 B.C.E.). (The years of the olympiads ran from approximately July 1 to the following June 30.) Cuneiform tablets give Cyrus a rule of nine years over Babylon. This would harmonize with the accepted date for the start of his rule over Babylon in 539 B.C.E.
Though the year is not found in the Nabonidus Chronicle itself, the available evidence is nevertheless sufficient for accepting 539 B.C.E. as the date for Babylon’s fall. Of course, this factor does lessen the value of the Nabonidus Chronicle in determining the time for the event. But the inscription is still of considerable value, for it provides noteworthy testimony concerning the manner of Babylon’s fall. Also, since the inscription shows that Nabonidus was not in Babylon at the time of the city’s fall, this explains why the Bible does not mention him by name. However, the Holy Scriptures imply his existence in that Belshazzar is shown to have offered Daniel the third position in the kingdom, the first being held by Nabonidus and the second by Belshazzar.—Dan. 5:16.