The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II is one of the greatest villains of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). In the biblical book 2 Kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his army lay siege to Jerusalem, loot gold and other treasures from the temple, abduct the Judean king and his court, and carry off 10,000 officers, artisans and skilled workers into exile in Babylon. Ten years later, Nebuchadnezzar returns and razes Solomon's temple to the ground.
And in another unforgettable story in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is punished for his hubris and wanders the wilderness like a beast eating grass for seven years.
The question is: Did any of this really happen? For centuries, historians and biblical scholars have searched for clues about the real-life Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled the Babylonian Empire at the peak of its power from 605 to 562 B.C.E. We know from the archaeological record that Nebuchadnezzar was a master builder, raising Babylon to a grandeur unmatched in the ancient Near East.
But was Nebuchadnezzar really the tyrant who sacked Jerusalem and sent the Judeans into exile, and is there any truth to the Bible's account of his "bestial" bout with madness?
The Babylonians Left Great Records
"Nebuchadnezzar is one of those characters in the Bible for whom we have an enormous amount of data from non-biblical sources," says Eckart Frahm, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale University. "There's just a tremendous amount of material."
Archaeologists have recovered tens of thousands of clay tablets and other inscribed objects from sites across the ancient Babylonian Empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean Sea (modern-day Egypt and Israel) to the Persian Gulf (Iraq, Iran and Kuwait). They were written in cuneiform and include everything from royal proclamations to accounting documents.
"Among [these texts] are many, many inscriptions written in Nebuchadnezzar's own name," says Frahm, "and obviously in these texts he presents himself not as a villain, but as the 'great builder.' He's very eager to indicate that he built these massive temples and palaces, and that he's also very pious. He confesses that he's constantly thinking of the gods when building temples to them."
Nebuchadnezzar doesn't write anything about his political or military exploits, but some important details were captured in a remarkable set of clay tablets known as the Babylonian Chronicles.
In 2 Kings, we learn that the Judean King Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute to Babylon, so Nebuchanezzar invaded Judah to quash the rebellion. The Babylonian Chronicles confirm this, and provide an exact date for the conquest of Jerusalem (597 B.C.E.):
"There's no reason to doubt that this really happened," says Frahm of both the first Babylonian siege in 597 B.C.E. and the second in 587 B.C.E. "On both occasions, many people in Jerusalem were in fact taken into exile, including the royal family."
Proof of Judah in Exile
King Jehoiakim died either before or during the siege, leaving his 18-year-old son Jehoiachin to taste Nebuchadnezzar's wrath. Along with the young king and his extended royal family, thousands of Jerusalem's elites — officials, priests, warriors, artisans — were all marched to Babylon.
The bitterness of the Babylonian exile for the Judeans is captured in the famous opening lines of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept / when we remembered Zion.
But what proof do we have that King Jehoiachin and thousands more Judeans were in fact hauled off to Babylon?
In the early 20th century, archaeologists excavating beneath the ruins of an ancient Babylonian palace found 14 vaulted rooms they first believed to be part of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but later figured out were part of a royal storehouse. In that storehouse were more clay tablets, mostly records of the day-to-day affairs of the palace. And among those tablets was a 3-inch tall fragment containing the name "Jehoiakhin, king of Judah."
The fragment turned out to be part of a "ration list" indicating how much oil and foodstuffs were given to King Jehoiachin and his exiled Judean court in Babylon.
"That was a remarkable find," says Frahm.
The ration list specifically mentions Jehoiachin, other Judean dignitaries and Jehoiachin's five sons. The quantities of the rations were sizable, which historians take as a sign that the exiled royal family were treated well in Babylon, and that Jehoiachin probably wasn't locked up for 37 years as related in 2 Kings 25:27.
The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar?
So where does this leave the famous story of Nebuchadnezzar losing his marbles and eating grass for seven years? Are there also hints in the historical record?
First, let's recap the tale as told in Daniel 4. In the Bible account, Nebuchadnezzar has a disturbing dream that none of his court magicians could interpret, so he asks Daniel, a young exiled Judean known as a visionary. To Daniel, the dream is clear: If Nebuchadnezzar doesn't repent and praise the one true God, he will be stricken with a madness that will cause him to wander the wilderness like a beast. The story continues:
Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
A Tale of Two 'Mad Kings'
Incredibly, there is an independent record of a Babylonian king going mad and wandering in the wilderness for years. But it wasn't Nebuchadnezzar, says Frahm. In Babylonian texts, the "mad king" was Nabonidus, a king who ruled two decades after Nebuchadnezzar and ended up losing the Babylonian Empire to the Persians.
According to the records, King Nabonidus replaced the Babylonian gods with a new moon god and then led his troops on a strange campaign into the Arabian Desert to attack some towns, including Yathrib, the later Medina. He then dwelled the next 10 years in the Arabian city of Tayma.
"This sojourn of Nabonidus in Arabia for 10 years is clearly the background of the story of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness," says Frahm.
There's even physical proof of the Nabonidus story also being tied to a Hebrew sage. Four fragments discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls contained what's now known as the Prayer of Nabonidus:
Frahm says that the "exorcist" in the Nabonidus account is clearly Daniel, and it's easy to understand why the authors of Daniel would have substituted the "tyrant" Nebuchadnezzar in their retelling. (There's no evidence that Nabonidus ate grass.)
"In this theology, where you have to be punished for the sins you committed, it makes sense that it's Nebuchadnezzar and not Nabonidus who is said to have had this strange episode," says Frahm.
History vs. Literature
The Hebrew Bible is an incredible document, not only for the faithful, but for historians like Frahm. In books like 2 Kings and Jeremiah, there are accounts of Nebuchadnezzar and later Babylonian kings that have been independently confirmed by ancient cuneiform tablets recovered from Babylonian sites.
But then you have the stories in Daniel about the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar's dreams and being cursed with a seven-year madness, all of which Frahm describes not as history, but literature.
What does the example of Nebuchadnezzar teach us about the historicity of the Bible? That it's neither entirely factual nor entirely made up, Frahm says.
"You have to look at the details," says Frahm. "When we have these independent sources, as we do for the sixth century B.C.E., you do have a good chance of figuring out what is historically correct and what is later theological interpretation."