There is no connection between 1 and 2 Esdras of the Apocrypha (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha) beyond the fact that Esdras (Greek form of Ezra) is a central figure in each. 2 Esdras is most readily characterized as an “apocalypse”; 1 Esdras is a book of history, though it has sometimes been doubted that it should be called a book at all, since it may quite plausibly be regarded as a mere torso. The nature, history, and purpose of the book are among the perennial, and perhaps insoluble, problems of apocryphal literature.
In simplest terms, the book is an alternative version of the canonical book of Ezra, to which are prefixed and subjoined brief sections of, respectively, the books of Chronicles and Nehemiah; it also contains one major section (3.1–5.6) not found in the Hebrew Bible at all. In manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint this composite book (called Esdras A) stands just before the book called Esdras B, which is in fact a literal, unexpanded translation of the canonical Hebrew Ezra‐Nehemiah. In effect, then, the Septuagint contains two versions of the book of Ezra, one of which (1 Esdras) diverges considerably in matters of detail from the canonical book. Eventually, 1 Esdras was dropped from the canon of the western church and is included in the standard Apocrypha only because it appears, for purely historical reasons (under the title of 3 Esdras) in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate. It is not counted as one of the deuterocanonical books by the Roman Catholic church, but it is recognized as such by some Orthodox churches.
The contents of the book are as follows: (1) King Josiah celebrates the Passover in Jerusalem in a manner unseen since the early days of Israel; afterward, he is killed in a battle with the Egyptians, and is succeeded by Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, both of whom are eventually exiled to Babylonia; in the reign of Zedekiah, the Temple is destroyed and the Babylonian exile begins (chap. 1; except for vv. 23–24, which are wholly original, this material is substantially identical with 2 Chron. 35.1–36.21). (2) Cyrus of Persia issues a decree permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (2.1–15; [= Ezra 1]). (3) Persian officials in Palestine and neighboring areas succeed in getting King Artaxerxes to block the efforts of the Jews to rebuild the city and the Temple (2.16–30 [=Ezra 4.7–24]; not in chronological sequence in either position). (4) In the reign of Darius, three of his bodyguards debate the question of what is the greatest force in the world. The first says “wine,” the second “the king,” but the third, who is identified as Zerubbabel, says “women,” but then changes and argues for “truth.” The king awards the prize to the third speaker, Zerubbabel, who is thereupon given permission to build both the city and the Temple of Jerusalem (3.1–5.6; this story is found nowhere else). (5) A list of returning exiles is given, after which is related how the Temple was in fact rebuilt in the reign of Darius, and how, in the time of Artaxerxes, Ezra the scribe came to Jerusalem with his copy of the Torah and forced the dissolution of all marriages with non‐Jews (5.7–9.36; this is a translation of Ezra 2.1–10.44, with some differences, and the omission of 4.7–24, which had been included earlier [see (3) above]. Ezra 4.6 is omitted entirely). (6) The Torah that Ezra had brought is publicly read (9.37–55; this is Neh. 7.73–8.12, plus a fragment of 8.13). Note that the name of Nehemiah, which occurs in Nehemiah 8.9, does not appear in the translation. Nothing else from the book of Nehemiah is included.
Three principal problems have concerned scholars in connection with 1 Esdras: (1) Its character and purpose: Is it indeed a book, that is, a purposeful collection of items from Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, intended to support a particular viewpoint or special cause, or is it simply a mutilated remnant of a complete translation of those books, which has survived as if by accident? (2) What is the relation of this Greek text to that of the original Hebrew? How can one explain the numerous minor differences and the two major differences—the change in position of Ezra 4.7–24, and the presence in the Greek of the story of the three guardsmen, which has no parallel in the current Hebrew text? (3) What is the relation of this work to the canonical Greek 2 Esdras (i.e., the official translation of Ezra‐Nehemiah, which is also contained in the Septuagint)? Obviously, though these are three separate questions, they are interrelated and cannot be discussed in isolation.
Some scholars have maintained that 1 Esdras is a unified composition intended to give a history of the Temple from the late monarchy to its restoration in the time of Darius I, or to exalt the role of Zerubbabel over against Sheshbazzar, or of Ezra rather than Nehemiah in the life of the restored community. Reasonable arguments can be advanced in support of views such as these; but the stronger argument appears to be on the side of those, like C. C. Torrey and Robert H. Pfeiffer, who believe the book has no unity in itself and is merely the much‐abbreviated torso of an originally complete translation of the entire Hebrew‐Aramaic text of Chronicles and Ezra‐Nehemiah. According to this view, when the present Septuagint translation (Esdras B, or the 2 Esdras of the Septuagint) was made from a later Hebrew‐Aramaic edition—one that included the authentic memoirs of Nehemiah (Neh. 1.1–7.5a; 12.27–13.31) but omitted the story of the three guardsmen—the now‐outmoded older translation fell into disuse and would have been lost entirely, had it not been for the preservation of one mutilated copy, which survived by accident, by someone's special interest in the events surrounding the destruction and restoration of the Temple and its ritual, or—perhaps more plausibly—by someone's desire to preserve the story of the three guardsmen. Since that story is an element alien to the original text (an improbable, garrulous oriental wisdom tale in the context of a somewhat pedestrian historical narrative), and since its connection with Zerubbabel is clearly secondary, it may have been omitted in lieu of the obviously authentic memoirs of Nehemiah, which were of enormous historical value. That no great care was taken in the work of preservation is indicated by the ragged ending of 1 Esdras, which suggests something like a tear across the face of a manuscript.
As to the literary character of the two Greek translations, there can be no doubt that they are totally independent, though occasionally some slight influence (perhaps secondary) of one upon the other may be detected. 1 Esdras is a smooth, flowing, idiomatic rendering of the underlying Semitic text, whereas the Septuagint 2 Esdras (B) is woodenly literal. They come from different scribes, different circles of interest, and, almost certainly, different historical periods.
The fact that Ezra 4.7–24 appears at an early point in 1 Esdras (where it follows 2.15) may simply be a matter of different editorial tastes, since the passage is placed out of chronological order in both books. It could be that the circumstances it describes, namely, the antagonism of Persian officials in neighboring territories to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the consequent frustration of the Jews, is meant merely to illustrate the difficulties faced by the returned exiles throughout the period of national reconstruction, irrespective of the immediate chronological sequence.
The value the book may have for the modern reader is largely confined to the story of the three guardsmen, the only item in it not duplicated elsewhere—and the reason, perhaps, for the survival of the “book” at all. The story itself presents some quite special problems. For example, is it an originally Persian tale, written in Aramaic, adapted to its present use by the addition of 4.43–5.6 and the identification of the hero with Zerubbabel (4.13)? This seems the most likely hypothesis, but some continue to maintain that it is of Jewish origin. The surprising, and artificial, shift of the third speaker from a defense of women to “the truth” as the strongest force in the world is taken by some scholars to be part of the Persian color of the story (“truth” being paramount in Persian religion), while others insist upon its significance also in ancient Judaism (e.g., Pss. 15.2; 51.6). The story is frequently referred to in early Christian literature and its climactic words, “Great is truth, and strongest of all” (4.41; Latin “magna est veritas et praevalet”), provide one of the great texts of the Bible.
Robert C. Dentan
2 Esdras, one of the Apocrypha, is commonly referred to as “4 Ezra” after the enumeration in many manuscripts and the Latin Vulgate, where it has stood since 1560 in an appendix after the New Testament. “Esdras” is the Greek form of “Ezra”; Latin can use either form. The book was never a part of the Hebrew or Greek canon. Our principal authority is the Latin text, of which there are several old manuscripts and many late ones. It was translated from a Greek text, of which a few scattered verses remain, preserved on papyrus or in patristic citations.
The core of the book (chaps. 3–14) is a Jewish apocalypse, originally written around 100 CE in Hebrew or Aramaic. The date is indicated roughly by the historical allusions in chap. 12, and more precisely by the phrase “the thirtieth year after the destruction” of Jerusalem (3.1); this is doubtless a veiled reference to the calamity of 70 CE, though ostensibly it refers to that of 587/586 BCE. For these chapters, there are versions in several languages based on the Greek, the most important of which are the Syriac and the Ethiopic. These ancient translations frequently supply a satisfactory sense where the Latin is defective or obscure, as reference to the NRSV footnotes will show.
The first two chapters are generally held to be a Christian addition, preserved in two Old Latin recensions. The replacement of Israel by a new people is foretold in language reminiscent both of the prophets and of the New Testament (cf. 1.30, 32 with Matt. 23.34–37, and 2.42–48 with Rev. 7.9). The last two chapters (15–16) are a further addition, with dire warnings and invective against enemies of God's people; they appear to reflect a knowledge of events in the third century CE. In the manuscripts, these pairs of chapters are often designated 2 Esdras and 5 Esdras respectively, and modern scholars have sometimes advocated these or similar labels. Except for one Greek fragment preserving the text of 15.57–59, they exist only in Latin.
(chaps. 3–14) relates revelations given to Ezra in seven visions by the angel Uriel. The general theme is the suffering and restoration of Israel in light of God's justice and mercy, but it is widened to include the sin and destiny of all humanity and the fate of individual souls. In the first three visions, these problems are examined at length. Ezra begins each time by pouring out his troubled thoughts and prayers; one of these has been particularly admired (8.20–36), and many manuscripts of the Vulgate include it among other canticles as a separate item entitled “Confession of Ezra.” The angel replies with arguments and discourses, often illustrated with parables or riddles. With Ezra pressing his questions, this is the most valuable part of the book (see below).
In the fourth vision (9.26–10.59), Ezra encounters a woman mourning for her husband and son; she represents Zion in her desolation, and is transformed into a glorious new city. The fifth vision (chaps. 11–12) is closely modeled on Daniel 7, where the fourth beast with many horns symbolizes Hellenistic kings; the image here is of an eagle with many wings and three heads, evidently representing Roman emperors and usurpers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. The eagle's doom is pronounced by a lion, symbol of the Messiah, who comes to destroy the godless and to deliver the righteous remnant. In the sixth vision (chap. 13), the Messiah is depicted as a man rising from the sea (some of the language reflects Dan. 7.13), and his victory is described in some detail; standing on a huge mountain, he confronts a great concourse of enemies and destroys them, not with any weapon but with a stream of fire from his mouth.
In the final vision (chap. 14), the tone changes; Ezra becomes the inspired writer who dictates ninety‐four books to five scribes. Twenty‐four of them are the canonical scriptures, which (it is said) had been burned when the Temple was destroyed (14.21; cf. 10.22); these are now restored, and published in a new script (i.e., the Aramaic square characters now used for writing Hebrew); the other seventy books are esoteric writings for “the wise” alone to read, for they contain the secrets that had been revealed to Ezra.
Ezra is portrayed as a man of great piety, who prepares for his visions by seven‐day fasts (5.20; 56.35; 12.51); he is called “the prophet” and is the shepherd, as it were, on whom the people depend for leadership and support (5.18; 12.42). But the picture is a conventional one, and has little in common with the historical Ezra of the Hebrew Bible; there is perhaps one deliberate point of contact in the story of the restoration of the scriptures, since the historical Ezra was scribe of the law of Moses (Ezra 7.6; Neh. 8.1). “Ezra” is in fact a pen name, in accordance with the custom of apocalyptic writers, who present their insights in the form of discourses to holy men of old. Like Enoch and Elijah (and Moses according to postbiblical tradition), Ezra is destined not to die but to be “taken up” (8.19; 14.9).
Points of Special Interest.
2 Esdras is an important book for students of Jewish apocalyptic; it throws light on developments parallel to Christianity, and therefore, at least indirectly, on Christian origins. A few points may be mentioned here.
(1) Human sin is traced back to Adam (3.21–2; 4.30; 7.48 ; cf. Rom. 5.12; 1 Cor. 15.21–22). Ezra bewails the “evil heart” implanted in Adam, and the calamitous consequences he bequeathed, apparently inevitably. In striking contrast is the affirmation of individual responsibility found in another Jewish apocalypse, closely similar to 2 Esdras in date and character: “each of us has become our own Adam” (2 Baruch 54.19).
(2) The seventy verses that follow 7.35 in the RV (1895), RSV, NRSV, NEB, and REB give a uniquely detailed account of what happens in the seven days after death. The soul's destiny is by then irrevocably fixed, and no intercession for the dead will avail. The reader will not find this passage in the AV; one page of an archetypal Latin manuscript was deliberately cut out, presumably in an attempt to suppress this harsh doctrine. Consequently the passage is absent from later manuscripts, and remained virtually unknown until the nineteenth century, when it was rediscovered in some other old Latin manuscripts and in some ancient versions. It has a further remarkable feature of theological importance: it presents an “eschatology of the individual.”
(3) In other sections, the traditional corporate eschatology prevails: the hope that God will bring deliverance to Israel. This will be brought about by his Son, the preexistent Messiah, “whom the Most High has been keeping for many ages” (13.26; cf. 12.32). In the eagle vision, the hope takes an almost political form. In 7.28–29, the Messiah will bring four hundred years of felicity for the righteous, after which, before the final resurrection and judgment, all will die, including the Messiah. This striking statement rules out Christian authorship. It should be noted, though, that Christians preserved the book, that there are some parallels with the language and ideas of the New Testament, and that there is one unmistakable Christian interpolation, namely at 7.28, where the Latin manuscripts read “my son Jesus.”
(4) In 2 Esdras, the Messiah is son of the Most High, and is described (at 13.3) in language strongly reminiscent of Daniel 7.13—more obviously so in the versions than in the Latin. It has long been a matter of controversy whether for Daniel the “one like a son of man” is the preexistent Messiah, and whether it was so interpreted at a time earlier than Jesus and the Gospels. It is therefore important to note that this equation is made in 2 Esdras, though it and the other document that makes this equation unambiguously (the Parables of Enoch [1 Enoch 37–71]) are assigned to a date too late to settle the question whether “Son of Man” as applied to Jesus reflects a vocabulary that was already established. Since 2 Esdras may be composite, and may in any case incorporate older writings or traditions, the problem remains.
Value for the General Reader.
What is most likely to impress the general reader is the determined way in which Ezra tries to probe the problems of human sin and destiny, and of God's mercy and justice. The far‐ranging discussions with the angel, especially in the first three visions, have a depth of faith, honesty, and compassion that it is hard to express in a brief summary.
Ezra presses the questions persistently. First, the suffering of Israel: True, Israel's sins deserve punishment, but surely the other nations, Israel's oppressors, have defied God's laws far more flagrantly; in comparison, Israel is almost a model of obedience. But, even if the righteous are promised a glorious age of virtue and prosperity in the future, the fact remains that the majority are not virtuous; can God's mercy reach them? Are there, indeed, any who have escaped the corruption inherited from Adam? Ezra confesses himself a sinner, and asks what hope there can be for him. Finally, if judgment is all that the vast majority of humanity can expect, what picture of God are we left with? What has become of the mercy with which he is credited in scripture? Is intercession useless? Surely, if damnation is to be the general fate, God has wasted all his work in creation, as well as all his patient efforts to build up obedience and virtue. The problems of theodicy, of justifying God's ways, have seldom been put more vividly and honestly.
In reply, the angel makes many detailed points. His first answer is perhaps the best: These things lie beyond the limit of human experience and comprehension. But his attempts to silence Ezra with puzzling riddles fail; Ezra maintains that from our human experience we know quite enough about good and evil, right and wrong, to ask for answers. The angel assures him that deliverance will come, the reign of virtue is sure, but the harvest of good requires time to grow, and we must be patient; the time, however, is now short. Those who have died will not lose their reward. The wicked deserve their punishment, and they have had ample warning. Few will be saved—enough, however, to make God's work worthwhile; after all, precious stones are rarer than base metal. Ezra himself has a balance of good works to his credit and must stop being anxious.
The angel's answers hardly match the depth of Ezra's questions. But though he does not succeed in reconciling God's justice and love, he will not abandon either of them. The most precious of the angel's words are the reminders (5.33; 8.47) that the creator loves Israel and the creation better than Ezra can.
G. M. Styler