At an early stage, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were regarded as a unity. From the time of Origen (third century CE), they were divided as we have them today.
Ezra 1–6 describes the return of the Jews to Jerusalem under Sheshbazzar (539 BCE) and the initial attempts to rebuild the Temple; their efforts, however, were frustrated by their enemies. Later, Zerubbabel, influenced by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, resumed the building of the Temple with the permission of the Persian king, Darius. The Temple was completed in 515 BCE.
Ezra 7–10 describes a much later situation, and tells of the return of Ezra and a certain group of Jews to Judah in the time of the Persian king Artaxerxes (presumably Artaxerxes I, 465–424 BCE). According to Ezra 7.7, this happened in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (458 BCE). However, in view of disturbed conditions early in his reign, scholars have found this reference to royal permission for the return exceedingly difficult to accept. Another problem arises with the memoir of Nehemiah, in which Ezra and his important religious activities are totally ignored. It is certainly difficult to explain why Ezra and Nehemiah, if they were contemporaries, would avoid mention of each other almost completely in their memoirs (see Nehemiah, The Book of). Scholars have proposed various solutions to this problem. Some have pointed out that with only a slight emendation in Ezra 7.7, where “thirty” may have fallen out as a result of haplography, one can read the “thirty‐seventh” year of Artaxerxes I. Thus, Ezra would have accompanied Nehemiah on his second visit to Jerusalem about 428 BCE; this solves some of the problems created by the traditional date of 458 BCE. Other scholars, assuming that the activities of Ezra and Nehemiah must be totally separated, have held that “in the seventh year of Artaxerxes” refers to Artaxerxes II (404–359/358 BCE), which brings us to 398 BCE. However, the traditional view, that Ezra arrived in 458 BCE, is still held by a number of modern scholars. In such a case, it is likely that Ezra's initial visit to Jerusalem was only a few months long. It is possible that he later returned to Jerusalem, but particulars about this are vague. Thus, it appears that the book of Ezra describes the history of certain Jews from 539 to 516 BCE and for a short period in 458 BCE.
This description, however, presents several problems: either the author assumed too much knowledge of certain events on the part of readers, or he himself was uncertain how events developed. One problem involves the role played by Sheshbazzar during the initial return, and his relationship to Zerubbabel. At a certain stage, Sheshbazzar completely vanishes from the sources; what happened to him? No satisfactory reply can be given, and some scholars identify him with Zerubbabel. But the root of this problem lies in the nature of the author's concerns. He is interested not in giving a full account of the life and acts of individuals but in the role that God played in Jewish history, namely, in allowing the people to return to Judah where they rebuilt the Temple. Another problem involves Zerubbabel: like Sheshbazzar, he simply vanishes from the sources. Yet, that he and the high priest Jeshua were active in the second attempt to rebuild the Temple is testified also by the books of Haggai and Zechariah (in both of which Jeshua is called Joshua); Zerubbabel was instrumental in obtaining permission from Darius to continue building, but in the description of the inauguration of the Temple, no mention is made of Zerubbabel. Since the sources imply that at a certain stage Zerubbabel may have been tempted to regard himself as a messiah‐king, some assume that he was forcefully removed by the Persians. Yet another problem involves the return of the exiles. Did a large number return with Sheshbazzar, or did various groups return on different occasions? Is the list in Ezra 2 (cf. Neh. 7) representative of one such group of those returning, or is it a list of several groups over a long period? Although there are indications that the list is made up from several groups, one cannot be certain.
It is clear from chaps. 7–10 that Ezra was dispatched by the Persian king Artaxerxes to Jerusalem to establish the Israelite law (Torah) among the Jews. A number of exiles returned with Ezra, a kind of ideal group consisting of, among others, priests and Levites. To his dismay, Ezra discovered that there had been intermarriage with the neighboring nations, and he ordered all foreign wives to be repudiated, so as to keep the religion of Jews pure of contamination by the worship of different gods.
From a historical perspective, the book of Ezra starts with the hegemony of a new imperial force in the ancient Near East, namely the domination of the Persians under Cyrus. The Persians' tolerance in religious matters is well known. The book of Ezra begins with Cyrus's decree allowing the Jews to restore their sanctuary in order to serve their God according to their prescribed laws. After Cyrus, there is a lapse of time until the description of the chaotic circumstances that took place just before Darius I assumed full control. It was at this stage that Zerubbabel and his compatriots started in earnest to rebuild the Temple. When Darius had gained firm control in 520–519 BCE, he granted the Jews the right, according to Cyrus's decree, to continue their building activities. This culminates in the dedication of the Temple in 515 BCE.
In 458 BCE, Artaxerxes I gave permission to Ezra and certain Jews to return to Judah; this was not without political motives, for in 460 BCE a revolt had broken out in Egypt under Inarus against the Persians. Pericles, the Athenian leader who had first decided to attack Cyprus, changed his plans and assisted the Egyptians against the Persians. In 460 and 459 BCE the rebels, with the aid of the Athenians, succeeded against the Persians. The latter kept only a small strip of land under their control, but they bribed the Spartans to start a war against the Athenians. In 458, the Persian general and satrap, Megabyzus, was fighting a successful war against the Egyptians, who were subdued in 456 BCE. It was thus expedient for Artaxerxes to send Ezra out in all goodwill to the Jews so that Judah, so close to the border of Egypt, could be pacified.
Author, Composition, and Sources.
The authorship of the book is difficult to determine. No doubt various persons worked on it during its long history of transmission before it reached its present form. Most scholars accept that the Chronicler (see Chronicles, The Books of) is responsible for the final form of the book of Ezra, for the history of Israel is not concluded at the end of 2 Chronicles (36.22–23), but continues into Ezra 1. The Chronicler is thus, from this viewpoint, responsible for editing Ezra and the commentary on the sources that he incorporated into the book.
Other scholars have held that Ezra was written and edited by an author quite different from the Chronicler, one who held a different ideology. It is true that the book of Ezra expresses some religious ideas not shared by the Chronicler. One's assessment, however, depends on how thoroughly the Chronicler edited his materials. It is probable that he did not radically change the view represented in his sources, and that this explains the differences. Although we cannot be certain, it seems likely that in the fourth century BCE the book of Ezra was edited by a later Chronicler.
In any case, it is obvious that the author of the book of Ezra used various sources and put them in chronological order. In Ezra 1–6, various documents are quoted or summarized in the final author's own words. Some of these documents are of Persian origin. Until recently, most scholars rejected the authenticity of these Persian documents, because, it was thought, no Persian king would be interested in finer details of the Jews' religious activities. However, extrabiblical texts have been discovered that show the special interest of Persian authorities in their subjects' religious activities; the edict of Cambyses on the sanctuary of Neith in Egypt and the Passover papyrus from Elephantine in Egypt are two examples. Like the Elephantine papyri, some of the official documents in Ezra are written in Imperial Aramaic with a number of Persian loanwords. Imperial Aramaic was at that stage the chancellery language of the Persian empire. The greatest majority of Persian loanwords occur in these documents and must be regarded as a further proof of the documents' authenticity. The use of Aramaic in Ezra is not restricted to these documents, however; Ezra 4.8–6.18 and 7.12–26 are in Aramaic, providing further evidence of the book's complicated literary history.
An important source in Ezra 7–10 is the Ezra memoir, written in the first person with some parts in the third person. It is probable that we have here an actual memoir used by the Chronicler. In the sections using the first person, the Chronicler has quoted from the memoir, and in those parts using the third person he has rendered it in his own words. Scholars have pointed out that the language and style of the first‐person and third‐person sections are similar, and that both are in the common language of the postexilic period.
We may conclude that the book of Ezra was compiled in its present form by the later Chronicler in the fourth century BCE. All indications are that the sources used for this compilation were carefully selected and edited.
In the book of Ezra, typical religious conceptions of the postexilic period predominate. The Chronicler has not changed conceptions of Ezra to agree with his own, and this is why certain differences between the conceptions of the Chronicler and Ezra can be discerned. In the first place, the role of Yahweh as the God of history is emphasized. This is a common characteristic of Jewish thought in postexilic times. Yahweh is God not only of the Jews, but also of the whole world. He can move the heart of a mighty Persian king in favor of his own people (Ezra 9.8–9). Also, the book of Ezra clearly displays a sense of guilt for sins committed in the past by Israel. In Ezra 9.6, the Israelites' sins and guilt are represented as mounting higher than their heads and even as reaching up to heaven. This view is not present in the work of the Chronicler, but it is discernable in the work of the Deuteronomic school. Finally, heavy emphasis is laid on the observance of the law of God. The recording of legal stipulations started before the exile, but it was a continuous process that lasted into the time of Ezra and even later. The law was used by Ezra as a new platform to discipline the Jewish people and give them something tangible to cling to in times of distress.
See also Esdras, The Books of.
F. Charles Fensham