Leslie J. Hoppe
The Book of Ezra
This book and the book of Nehemiah are the only narrative accounts of the postexilic period to have survived in the Hebrew Bible. Originally the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were components of a single work. The book of Nehemiah does not even have its own title in Jewish Bibles. There is simply a marginal notation alongside Nehemiah 1, 1 that reads “The Book of Nehemiah.” In most editions of the Septuagint (the second‐century BC Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), the two books form a unit.
The Vulgate (St. Jerome's translation of the Bible) separated the two books, and this is how the separation came into our English Bibles. It was only during the sixteenth century AD that what was one book became two in Jewish Bibles (see the introduction to the book of Ezra, OT, p. 509 ).
There is some internal evidence that these books form a coherent unit. The whole period of the restoration as covered by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is one great era of return and rebuilding framed by two celebrations of the Feast of Booths. (Booths is the fall harvest festival, also known as Tabernacles and as Sukkoth, its Hebrew name.) The first celebration takes place after the return (Ezr 3, 4 ) and the second after the rebuilding is complete (Neh 8, 13–18 ). Both celebrations are in accord with what is “written” in Torah (Ezr 3, 4; Neh 8, 14.18 ).
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal with the restoration of Judah following the years of exile in Babylon (587–539 BC). These books deal with two phases of the restoration. The first is the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the second is the reordering of Jewish life. The Temple was rebuilt in 515 BC. Determining the dates for the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were responsible for the reordering of Jewish life in Jerusalem, is one of the more perplexing problems for the historian of early Judaism. The problem centers on Ezra 7, 7f and Nehemiah 2, 1 . The former asserts that Ezra's ministry began in the seventh year of Artaxerxes' reign, while the latter states that Nehemiah's projects began in “the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” There were, however, three Persian monarchs who had this name and who are potential candidates for the Artaxerxes mentioned in these texts.
The biblical text appears to assume that Ezra's ministry preceded that of Nehemiah. The chronological priority is due less to historical memory than to the Bible's view that Ezra was the real restorer of Jewish life following the exile. Although there is no real consensus on this issue, it is probable that Nehemiah's ministry preceded that of Ezra. Ezra's work appears to presuppose that the reconstruction and repopulation of Jerusalem had taken place, but it was Nehemiah who was responsible for restoring the city. Then, too, the high priest during Nehemiah's time was Eliashib (Neh 3, 1. 20; 13, 4 ) while the high priest during Ezra's time was the son of Eliashib, Johanan (Ezr 10, 6; see note on this verse, OT, p. 519 ). The order and names of the postexilic high priests are additional problems for historians; still it seems likely that Nehemiah preceded Ezra. It is more likely that the restoration of communal life in Jerusalem preceded the restoration of religious life. Nehemiah, then, worked during the reign of Artaxerxes I and arrived in Jerusalem in 445 BC, while Ezra worked during the reign of Artaxerxes II and arrived in Jerusalem in 398 BC.
The chronology of the Judean restoration given in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is ambiguous. Reconstructing this chronology is not very easy. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are more interested in presenting the religious dimension to the activities of the two men whose names they bear. Despite the many problems in reconciling the details of this narrative, the author of Ezra and Nehemiah achieved his principal goal: to describe the beginning of renewal in the life of Judah.
There are important political reasons that explain why Persian rulers expressed concern about conditions in Judah. By supporting the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Persian emperors were staking their claim to be the legitimate rulers of Judah. In the ancient Near East, temple building was a royal prerogative. Since the beginning of both Nehemiah's and Ezra's missions coincided with Egyptian revolts against Persian hegemony, it was important for the Persians to have a sympathetic and supportive Judah in their rear as they moved against the rebellious Egyptians.