1. Author and Time of Writing
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Nehemiah (= comfort of Jah) forms a unity with the preceding book of Ezra (compare with the notes on Ezra). Although the books bear different names they follow each other without paragraph and the numeration of the Masorah is listed at the end of Nehemiah for both books. It is however questionable whether it has always been one single book. Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 contain a nearly identical list of the returning Jewish genealogies, which would be a repetition difficult to understand if contained in a single work. But if the two books were individual books to start with the reason for the importance of the genealogies after the exile in each book would be a very good explanation. Later the books were differentiated and separated again as we know it in modern bible editions.
The first verse of Nehemiah reads: "The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah". The author writes mostly in the first person "I" throughout the book (Neh. 1:1-7:5; 12:31-13:31). The chapters 7 and 10-12 contain lists of names on which the author Nehemiah could rely.
According to his own statement Nehemiah travelled twice from Shushan to Jerusalem. The first journey took place in the 20th year of Artaxerxes I., king of Persia, and lasted until the king's 32nd year (Neh. 2:1; 5:14; 13:6). After this Nehemiah undertook a second journey to Jerusalem (Neh. 13:6-7). King Artaxerxes reigned from 464 to 424 BC. So Nehemiah's first stay lasted from 445 to 433 BC and the second stay probably followed soon after. The book of Nehemiah can therefore have been composed up to around 400 BC.
2. Purpose of Writing
As sequel of the book of Ezra the book of Nehemiah reports the third return to Jerusalem in 445 BC. Ezra stresses the religious restoration of the remnant when writing of the erection of the altar, the building of the temple and the law of Jehovah (that is the Word of God).
Nehemiah's task was to rebuild the walls and the gates of the city of Jerusalem. The city pictures the living together of the people of God. Likewise the daily life of the believers ought to be constantly governed by the word and will of God. The faithful servant Nehemiah faces enemies from without and resistance from within. But he does not let himself be put off and his desire is to distinctly show:
The wall of Jerusalem preserved, protected and separated the inhabitants from all attacks and influences from the outside. - We find the same meaning with most of the practical admonitions at the end of the New Testament letters.
Nehemiah was a man of prayer. See Neh. 1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4+9; 5:19; 6:9+14; 13:14+22+29+31.
b) The Papyri found in Elephantine
At the time of the Babylonian exile a Jewish military colony was stationed in Elephantine (a town near Asw‚n in Upper Egypt). This is where the so-called Elephantine papyri were found in 1903. These papyri contain parts of a correspondence of the Jews stationed in Elephantine with Jews living back home. On one of these papyruses written in Aramaic dating 408/407 BC Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, and Johanan the son of Eliashib are mentioned. Both these names appear in the book of Nehemiah also (chapter 2:10; 4:1-2; 12:23).
4. Overview of Contents
I. Nehemiah 1-2: Nehemiah's Journey to Jerusalem
II. Nehemiah 3-7: The Wall of Jerusalem Built
III. Nehemiah 8-10: Reforming Spiritual Life
IV. Nehemiah 11-13: Reforming Life in the City