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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Esdras

This book is confusingly known as 1 Esdras or Esdras A in the Greek Bibles (Esdras is the Greek spelling of Ezra), as well as in the Old Latin and the Syriac. But in the Vulgate it is named 3 Esdras. Of the early Greek texts, that which is preserved in Codex Alexandrinus is generally agreed to be the best of those preserved.

The Schøyen Collection Ms 46. Location: Oslo & London/Courtesy Sotheby's.

1 Esdras is unique in being only partly a translation of a Hebrew book. 1: 1–2: 15 is clearly a translation of 2 Chronicles 35: 1–36: 23, 1 Esdras 2: 16–30 a translation of Ezra 4: 7–24, and Esdras 5: 7–9: 55 a translation of Ezra 2: 1–10: 44 (with the omission of Ezra 4: 6–23 ), plus Nehemiah 7: 73–8: 12 . But there it ends in the middle of a sentence! The material in 1 Esdras 3: 1–5: 6 , containing the story of Darius' bodyguards, is, on the other hand, entirely new.

What, then, is the relationship of the book to its biblical counterparts? It cannot simply be assumed that the biblical texts are the more original and that 1 Esdras has inserted a new tale from somewhere into the middle of a Greek translation. In any case, there is a (rather inelegant) Greek translation of Ezra itself (Esdras B) in the Greek Old Testament, which is different and follows the contents of the Hebrew/Aramaic. And in any case, 1 Esdras is not based exactly, as is the Greek translation of Ezra, on the received Hebrew/Aramaic Masoretic text.

Perhaps 1 Esdras reflects a quite early form of the material. It has been argued that the order of the material in 1 Esdras is more logical, providing a continuous account of Ezra's mission by leaving out Nehemiah 1–7 . This might point to harmonizing revisions, but equally to an early version of an Ezra story. The fact that the historian Josephus at the end of the first century CE used 1 Esdras rather than the biblical Ezra-Nehemiah may suggest that the biblical form of these books was not necessarily the standard edition in his own day. Challenges to the once widely held view that Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah was composed as a single work have complicated the picture further: the suggestion that 1 Esdras is a truncated version of the entire ‘Chronicler's work’ is now less plausible.

Thus, it remains possible that the author of 1 Esdras wished to create an ‘Ezra story’ from the biblical material. Yet most scholars agree that Nehemiah 8 once belonged to Ezra, and it has been argued recently that Ezra and Nehemiah were once quite separate books before being artificially and clumsily united—so that 1 Esdras might well preserve a more original state of affairs than the biblical versions.

The view of most modern scholars is that 1 Esdras and the biblical Ezra-Nehemiah both go back to a common prototype. But that prototype may well have been an early form of a book of Ezra, independent of Nehemiah, which diverged into a form that was combined with a Nehemiah story to form the biblical Ezra-Nehemiah, and into another form later translated as 1 Esdras.

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