The books of Ezra and Nehemiah originally constituted one book, better labeled as Ezra-Nehemiah. It depicts the reconstruction of Jewish life in Judah during the Persian Period (539–333 B.C.E.) and bears the names of prominent leaders in the book: Ezra, the priest and scribe who establishes the Torah at the center of Jewish life, and Nehemiah, the Jewish governor of Judah responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem's walls. The name “Ezra” means “(God is my) help” and “Nehemiah” means “Yah's comforted” or “Yah the comforter” (“Yah” is a theophoric element abbreviated from God's Hebrew name, Yahweh [the LORD]).

Versions, Place in the Canons, and Date.

Although printed as two separate books in most modern Bibles, Ezra 1–10 and Nehemiah 1–13 appear as a single book in the earliest sources. In the Septuagint (LXX), this unified Ezra-Nehemiah is titled Esdras β; in Jerome's Vulgate (fourth century C.E.) it is divided into two, as Liber Ezrae I and II, though Jerome records that these were a single book in the Jewish tradition. Christian Bibles include Ezra-Nehemiah as two distinct books among the “Historical Books”; they follow Chronicles and precede Esther.

Ezra-Nehemiah in Jewish Bibles is part of the third division of the Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim), where it occurs last in the Jewish Masoretic tradition in the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, after the book of Daniel. However, early Jewish printed editions of the Bible from the fifteenth century separate the two, a practice followed in some modern Jewish editions. In contemporary versions of the Masoretic traditions such as BHS and JPS, Ezra-Nehemiah is the penultimate book of the Hebrew Bible, followed by Chronicles.

Estimated dates for Ezra-Nehemiah range from 400 B.C.E. to the Hellenistic period, with an early fourth-century B.C.E. date (during the Persian period) most widely accepted. Some portions of the book, such as the Nehemiah Memoir (see below), are often dated earlier.

Ezra-Nehemiah links to several ancient traditions. The most important is First Ezra or First Esdras, preserved as Esdras α in the LXX and as Third Esdras in the Vulgate. First Esdras is composed of 2 Chronicles 35:1—36:23 (Josiah's reign), Ezra 1–10, Nehemiah 7:72—8:13, and additional material about the work of Zerubbabel. Scholars disagree as to which book—Ezra-Nehemiah or First Esdras—is earlier and on whether one author knew the other or they reflect separate compositions based on a shared collection of sources. Only two small fragments from Ezra appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other Ezra traditions appear as Second Esdras (NRSV), preserved in Latin as Fourth Ezra (dated to the first century C.E.) and containing additional Christian material sometimes labeled Fifth Ezra and Sixth Ezra. Traditions about Nehemiah appear in Ben Sira (second century B.C.E.), who credits him with building Jerusalem's walls (Sir 49:13), and in 2 Maccabees, where Nehemiah also restores altar worship and assembles a library (1:18–36 and 2:13). Finally, Ezra 1:1–11 is almost identical to the conclusion of Chronicles (2 Chr 36), which led to Leopold Zunz's influential theory in 1832 that Chronicles along with Ezra-Nehemiah were originally a single book by the same author. Recent scholarship, however, largely abandoned this theory once the distinctive language and ideology of each work were better analyzed (see Japhet 1989, Williamson 1985, Eskenazi 1988).

The relationship between Ezra and Nehemiah as literary compositions has been reinvestigated, with a majority of scholars concurring that it is a unified work (see Boda and Reditt 2008).

Content and Structure.

Ezra-Nehemiah offers the only detailed account in the Bible of the reconstruction of Jewish life in the province of Judah (“Yehud” in Aramaic) from 538 to about 400 B.C.E., under the auspices of the relatively benevolent Persian/Achaemenid Empire. Ezra-Nehemiah describes how the devoted remnant from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi returned to their homeland after the Babylonian exile of 586 B.C.E., rebuilt the Temple and the city, and rededicated themselves to the Torah that God gave Israel through Moses.

In Ezra-Nehemiah's account, the Jews responded enthusiastically to the edict by the Persian King Cyrus (538 B.C.E.), who authorized the rebuilding of the Temple to Israel's God in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1–6) and returned Temple vessels to the Jewish leader Sheshbazzar for Jerusalem's Temple (1:7–11). Rebuilding efforts took place in three distinct stages, succeeding despite internal and external obstacles.

In Stage One (Ezra 3–6), the returnees rebuilt the altar and laid the foundations of the Temple, with Zerubbabel (a Davidic descendant) and Jeshua (the priest) as their leaders. They were forced to stop when the “peoples of the land” incited the Persian kings to prohibit rebuilding. But the returnees eventually resumed work, completed the Temple (“The Second Temple”) in the sixth year of the Persian King Darius (Ezra 6:13; 516/5 B.C.E.), and restored full Jewish ritual life in Judah.

In Stage Two (Ezra 7–10), Ezra the priest and scribe came from Babylonia to Jerusalem with an entourage and King Artaxerxes' authorization, to teach and implement the torah (NRSV: “the law of the LORD”; Ezra 7:7–10; 458 B.C.E.). His efforts to guide the community in accordance with the tradition were hampered by so-called “mixed marriages” with the peoples of the land. The crisis was resolved when the community determined to expel foreign wives.

Stage Three (Neh 1–7) was led by Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes' cupbearer, who was appointed governor of Judah and permitted to restore Jerusalem's broken walls (Neh 1:1; 2:1; 5:14; 445 B.C.E.). Nehemiah's rebuilding activities were challenged by leaders from the neighboring provinces and their aristocratic allies in Jerusalem. Despite obstacles, this work was finished quickly, and Jewish life in Judah and Jerusalem was secured (Neh 6:15 and 7:1–3; 444 B.C.E.).

The final section of Ezra-Nehemiah (Neh 8–13) focuses on rededication celebrations after the Temple, the community, and the city were restored. The people gathered around Ezra to hear the torah read (Neh 8). They thanked God (Neh 9) and pledged themselves to the torah and the Temple (10). Jerusalem, the “holy city” (Neh 11:1), was repopulated and the dedicatory ceremonies followed (Neh 12). The book concludes with additional reforms by Nehemiah (sometime after 432 B.C.E.; Neh 13:6 ff.).

Although the book is included in Christian Bibles among the “Historical Books,” tensions within the book and conflicts with other sources, especially the books of Haggai and Zechariah, have cast doubt about Ezra-Nehemiah's accuracy, and Ezra-Nehemiah played a marginal role in much biblical scholarship until the late twentieth century. At that time, however, the Persian Period (538–332 B.C.E.) came to be recognized as pivotal for the collecting and editing of biblical traditions, and the crucial value of Ezra-Nehemiah, when critically assessed, was (re)discovered. In addition, commonalities with other ancient historiographies, such as the Greek historian Herodotus's Histories (fifth century B.C.E.) and Thucydides' Peloponnesian Wars (fourth century B.C.E.), added new appreciation of its distinctive contribution.

A literary approach, attentive to Ezra-Nehemiah's distinctive mode of narration, shows that Ezra-Nehemiah interprets the reconstruction period by emphasizing the following three major developments (Eskenazi 1988):

The Textualization of the Tradition.

First, Ezra-Nehemiah advocates the primacy of the written word by showing the power of documents to generate events and shape history. Like other ancient historiographies such as Thucydides, Ezra-Nehemiah includes material that the author(s) composed in the name of others. But Ezra-Nehemiah's presentation of the events is unique in the Bible and in antiquity in the extent to which it employs reproduced documents to narrate the history of the period. Some 85 percent of the book is an overt amalgamation of documents. These include royal correspondence, memoirs (first-person accounts), and lists. Ezra-Nehemiah's mode of presentation places documents, and climactically the written Torah, as the decisive impetus for the events that transpire. Ultimately, the Torah, rather than priests or kings or prophets, becomes the authoritative source for communal life.

The Community as the Chief Protagonist of the Reconstruction.

Second, although Ezra-Nehemiah highlights some important individuals, it credits the community, not its leaders, as restorers of Jewish life in Judah. The numerous lists of names in the book insistently hammer this point: these people—not kings—actually build the Temple (contrast Solomon's Temple). The people initiate the reforms and commission Ezra (Ezra 9:1–2; 10:1–3). They build the wall (Neh 3). Finally they, not any individual leader, determine and orchestrate the events that follow: They summon Ezra to bring the Torah (Neh 8:1) and they offer the communal prayer (the longest prayer in biblical narrative) in Nehemiah 9. This feature is so unusual that the LXX inserts “Ezra said” in 9:6 at the prayer's beginning to conform to expected models. Then the people unilaterally commit themselves to the Torah, signing their names to a written pledge (Neh 10).

The Expansion of the “House of God” to Encompass the People and City, Not Only the Temple.

Third, the house of God in Ezra-Nehemiah is greater the Temple. This is evident when Ezra-Nehemiah describes the fanfare at the Temple's founding (Ezra 3:8–13) but gives scant attention to its completion (Ezra 6:15–18). It focuses on the festivities again only after the community has properly reoriented itself as a holy people and restored city walls ensure that Jewish life can be carried on in accordance with the Torah; only at that point Jerusalem is designated a holy city (Neh 11:1). The people, the walls, and the gates are purified (Neh 12:30), and the grand ceremonies of rededication take place (Neh 8–13). For Ezra-Nehemiah, this is when the house of God authorized by King Cyrus (Ezra 1:2–4) is deemed complete (see Eskenazi 1988).

Structure (based on Eskenazi 1988).

I. The call to restoration: decree to the community to build the house of God (Ezra 1:1–4)

II. Process of actualization: the community builds the house of God according to decree (Ezra 1:5—Neh 7:72)

A. Introduction: the community's enthusiastic response (Ezra 1:5–11)

1. Proleptic summary of compliance (1:5–6)

2. Sheshbazzar and the restoration of the Temple vessels (1:7–11)

B. List of returned exiles (Ezra 2:1–70)

C. The three stages of rebuilding the house of God (Ezra 3:1—Neh 7:72)

1. Stage One: community builds Temple with Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 3:1—6:22)

2. Stage Two: Ezra (priest and scribe) builds the community (Ezra 7:1—10:44)

3. Stage Three: Nehemiah and community build Jerusalem's walls (Neh 1:1—7:5)

B'. List of returned exiles—Recapitulation (Neh 7:6–72; repetition of Ezra 2)

III. The community celebrates the restoration and rededicates itself (Neh 8–13)

A. Consolidation according to Torah (Neh 8–10)

1. Ezra reads the Torah to the receptive community (Neh 8)

2. The people thank and beseech God (Neh 9)

3. The people pledge themselves to the Torah and the Temple (Neh 10)

B. The lists of participants (Neh 11:1—12:26)

C. The dedication of the restored “house of God,” namely the Temple, the community, and the city (Neh 12:27—13:3)

D. Coda: Nehemiah's reforms and request (Neh 13:4—31)

Scholarly Issues in Interpretation.

C. C. Torrey argued in 1896 that Ezra was not a historical figure and that the “Ezra Memoir” attributed to him (Ezra 7:27—9:15), as well as the material about him (Ezra 7:1–26; 10 and Neh 8), are fiction. These assertions not only challenged the historical veracity of Ezra but also launched different theories about the composition of Ezra-Nehemiah and its historical reliability. In general, scholars consider the basic contours of Ezra-Nehemiah to be credible even if many of the specifics are later retrojections: Jews returned and the Temple was built in the Persian period, both requiring Persian authorization. Conflicts over the composition and identity of the community in these circumstances are likely, and the Torah's new centrality is attested elsewhere as well. Scholars debate details about the historicity of Ezra but most believe that he, Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Nehemiah did in fact exist. The following questions continue to dominate scholarly inquiry:

How Authentic are Ezra-Nehemiah's “Documents”?

Some 85 percent of Ezra-Nehemiah is in the form of discernible documents that are contextualized by narrative. Scholars attempt to determine the authenticity, reliability, and provenance of these documents in order to reconstruct postexilic history and the composition of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Royal Edicts and Correspondence.

Ezra-Nehemiah's documents include:

• Cyrus's edict (Ezra 1:2–4) in Hebrew, authorizing the rebuilding of a Temple to the LORD in Jerusalem.

• Ezra 4:8–22: Aramaic correspondence with King Artaxerxes (presumably Artaxerxes I, 465–424 B.C.E.) that stops work on Jerusalem's Temple (placed out of chronological sequence).

• Ezra 5–6: Aramaic correspondence with King Darius (525–486 B.C.E.) in which his representatives report that the Jews are building of the Temple in Jerusalem (5:7–17) and that he authorizes the rebuilding and also provides an extensive financial support for it (Ezra 6:6–12).

Ezra and Nehemiah

Cylinder of Cyrus.

The text, dating to ca. 535 B.C.E., celebrates the rebuilding of the walls of Babylon, which Cyrus the Great (r. 558–529) had captured in 539. Cyrus proclaims that the chief god of Babylon, Marduk, had chosen him and commanded him to restore other deities to their sanctuaries; cf. 1:2–4. Size: 9 inches (22.5 centimeters). Photograph by Zev Radovan.

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• Ezra 6:2–6: An Aramaic memorandum retrieved from royal archives in which King Cyrus authorizes the building of Jerusalem's Temple at the Persian court's expense and the restoration of the Temple's vessels (Ezra 6:3–5).

• Ezra 7:12–26: Artaxerxes' Aramaic letter authorizing Ezra to bring the Torah and enforce its teachings. In addition, the Jerusalem clergy receive tax exemptions and Ezra is granted virtually unlimited support for the Temple from the royal treasury.

These documents conform in many respects to Persian period epistolary conventions. Cyrus's edict, for example, resembles the Cyrus Cylinder, a Persian period inscription now in the British Museum. Both proclaim in Cyrus's name and in the language of the subject people that Cyrus was divinely commissioned (by the LORD in Ezra 1; Marduk in the Cyrus Cylinder) to restore sacred shrines. Yet the authenticity of these “sources” in Ezra-Nehemiah is challenged due to the presence of post-Persian period/Achaemenid Aramaic and the pervasive Jewish theology in them. Moreover, the claimed royal benefits (such as exorbitant contributions for the Temple) are not consistent with known imperial policies. Eduard Meyer (1896), who already questioned their authenticity, concluded that Judeans had written these documents and had them ratified by Persian officials. Others hold that some authentic Persian documents lie behind Ezra-Nehemiah's sources but these have been reworked by the Jewish authors/editors of Ezra-Nehemiah (Williamson 1985, pp. xxii–xxiv). See Grabbe 2004 (pp. 76–78) for a concise summary of the positions.

Nehemiah Memoir.

Nehemiah 1:1—7:5 and Nehemiah 13:4–31 are first-person accounts in which Nehemiah describes his commissioning and subsequent activities as governor of Judah (e.g., building Jerusalem's walls, solving economic crises, insuring the purity of the Temple). Most scholars accept the Memoir as originating with Nehemiah himself and as a reliable source for the history it describes. Nehemiah's mission begins in 445 B.C.E., under Artaxerxes I, a date confirmed by the mention of his chief opponent, Sanballat of Samaria, in fifth century B.C.E. documents from Elephantine, Egypt. According to Nehemiah 13:6, his activities extended past 432 B.C.E. Following Reinmuth (2002), Grabbe represents a widely held scholarly view that most of the first-person narrative in Nehemiah's name is trustworthy: Nehemiah 1–7 (with the exception of the prayer in 1:5–10 and the list of builders in 3), 12:1–2, and 12:31–43, as well as most of 13:4–31 (Grabbe 2004, pp. 79–80). Wright (2004) however, proposes a more limited authentic core and illustrates how and why it had been expanded over time.

At the same time, however, the Memoir's veracity has come into question. Clines (1990) challenges readers not so much to question the authenticity of the Memoir but the reliability of Nehemiah's version of events. Knoppers (2007) gives evidence for doubting the degree to which Nehemiah's personal conflict with Sanballat of Samaria can be assumed for the province as a whole. Nonetheless, most scholars accept Nehemiah's basic claim that he was governor responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem's wall and for other reforms.

Ezra Memoir and Ezra “Source.”

Ezra 7:27—9:15 is a first-person account attributed to Ezra, the priest and scribe who records his arrival in Jerusalem and his response to the crisis of “mixed-marriages.” Since Torrey's critique (1896; 1970), scholars typically consider the Ezra Memoir a free composition to parallel, complement, or counter the Nehemiah Memoir (Blenkinsopp [1988, pp. 40–47] is in the minority when supposing an early authentic source). The narrative places his activities in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, which could mean 458 or 398 B.C.E., depending on whether Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424) or Artaxerxes II (r. 405–359) is meant. An earlier generation of scholars opted for 398 B.C.E. Today scholars more often date Ezra's mission (even when questioning the reliability of the details about him) to 458, because the evidence for shifting the sequence of Ezra and Nehemiah is not sufficiently compelling and because activities attributed to Ezra fit better as setting the stage for Nehemiah. But they consider this material to be late and not by Ezra.

Ezra 7:1–26 and Nehemiah 8 are narratives about Ezra, recounting how he was commissioned by the Persian king (Ezra 7:1–11), led the marriage reforms (10:1–44), and presented the Torah ceremonially to the entire people (Neh 8:1–13). The uncertainty about the Ezra Memoir extends also to the antiquity of this material. Most modern scholars consider the Ezra traditions to postdate the Nehemiah Memoir. Blenkinsopp (1988, pp. 40–47), however, supposes a reliable older tradition with later reworking.

The Lists.

Nearly half of Ezra-Nehemiah consists of lists. The most extensive is the repeated list (Ezra 2 and Neh 7) of those who returned to Judah/Yehud and resettled in their places of origin, numbering more than 42,360 (Ezra 2:64; Neh 7:66). However, recent archaeological excavations and surveys indicate that the population in the province of Judah during the Persian period had to have been considerably smaller. With rare exceptions, scholars concur that the initial return was very small and that the lists conflate several different stages of the return, along with residents who were never exiled. The lists in Nehemiah 3 (builders of the wall) and 11 (Jewish settlements throughout the province) likewise reflect an idealized Judah and record at best places where Jews lived during the Persian period but do not necessarily demarcate the boundaries of Judah/Yehud at this early period.

A generally accepted scholarly reconstruction of the return distinguishes two stages in the Persian period/Achaemenid era. According to this, only a small group repatriated in the first period (538–450 B.C.E.). Actual work on the Temple began in Darius's time (not Cyrus's) around 520 (as Hag and Zech 1–8 indicate) and was completed in 516/5 B.C.E. Carter (1999) estimates the population of the province at that time at about 13,350. The settlements increased only in the second period (450–332), probably in the mid-fifth century, which corresponds to the era of Ezra and Nehemiah, with a total population about 20,650 (Carter 1999) or 30,000 (Lipschits 2005). Jerusalem at its peak had at most 1,500 people (Carter) or 3,000 (Lipschits).

The lists of priests and Levites in the postexilic period (Neh 12:1–26) are highly problematic, showing artificial expansion and repetition. F. M. Cross (1975) attempted to map the chronology of the Persian period by recourse to this list, but later scholars began to recognize that drawing firm conclusions from this heavily edited source is questionable. Williamson considers Nehemiah 12:12–18 to be the core source which was expanded progressively down to the Hellenistic period (1985, pp. 359–361).

In sum, the ideological nature of the lists and other distinctive documents in Ezra-Nehemiah (such as the Temple vessels in Ezra 1:7–11 and the pledge in Neh 10), and the evidence of their expansion and revision, imply that whatever authentic documents from the Persian period underlie the lists, they have been heavily overlaid with later additions and cannot be relied upon to reconstruct the events they describe. Rather, even though Ezra-Nehemiah offers some reliable history for Persian-period Judah, the documents are a better witness for the convictions of a particular group or groups in the Jewish community at a later period (extending in places into the early Hellenistic period) than to the events they describe.

What Is the Compositional History of Ezra-Nehemiah?

There are two basic approaches to the redaction of Ezra-Nehemiah, with variations within each. One theory resembles the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch in that it presumes a number of independently transmitted sources compiled and modified with additional material in the late fifth or early fourth century (with some small additions by an even later hand). Williamson's influential analysis exemplifies a version of this theory. He suggests that the editor(s) combined existing sources such as the Nehemiah Memoir, Ezra Memoir, Ezra material, lists, and the royal correspondence, so as to highlight Nehemiah 8–10 as the capstone of the restoration. When Ezra 7 through Nehemiah 13 was unified, the editor(s) composed much of Ezra 1–6 based on these sources along with information from Haggai and Zechariah 1–8 (see, e.g., Williamson 1983, and Williamson 1985, pp. xxxiv–xxxv and 28–30). Blenkinsopp, who follows the same general documentary theory, proposes a different editorial sequence: first the material about Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and Joshua was combined, then the Ezra material, and finally the Nehemiah material with Nehemiah 10, a separate source, as the latest (Blenkinsopp 1988, pp. 40–47).

The second approach proposes a more gradual history of composition. Wright offers a new model that involves several generations of early interpreters responding to and expanding the original (shorter) edition of Nehemiah Memoir. Rather than an editorial compilation of independent documents, Wright illustrates how Ezra-Nehemiah developed continuously into the Hellenistic era, as a dialogue between literary tradition, community, and changing circumstances; this is similar to the supplementary hypothesis concerning the development of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch. In the process, discrete “sources” emerged so that the book resembles Greek works of historiography (Wright 2004 and 2007). Kratz (2005) proposes that two basic sources formed the early core of Ezra-Nehemiah and were gradually developed and expanded: the building chronicle (Ezra 5–6) and small portions of the Nehemiah Memoir.

What Was the Relationship between Samaria and Yehud/Judah?

Readers supposed for centuries that Ezra-Nehemiah describes the “Samaritan Schism” between Samaritans and Jews. The report in 2 Kings 17:22–41 that Samaria (the former territory of Israel) was inhabited by foreigners was taken at face value. These newcomers (it was claimed) hampered the building the Temple in Zerubbabel's time in the sixth century B.C.E. (Ezra 4–6) and opposed Nehemiah's rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. (Neh 2:10, 4:1—6:19, for example). Contemporary scholars, however, suggest that the tension Ezra-Nehemiah presents, especially between Nehemiah and Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, should not be generalized as an ongoing pattern. As Knoppers shows, the material culture in Judah and letters from Elephantine (which presume an amicable relationship between Samaria and Judah in the late fifth century) contrast with the animosity reflected in Ezra-Nehemiah; they reflect affinity and continuity. Ezra-Nehemiah, then, represents a specific polemical perspective on an issue debated in the Jewish community in its relationship with the more prosperous neighbor Samaria (Knoppers 2006, pp. 279–280), but it does not accurately reflect the long-term relationships between Judah and Samaria. Bedford dates the earliest likely stage of a conflict to the fourth century (2001, p. 302), but Plummer locates the parting of the way in the second century B.C.E. (Plummer 2007). Ezra-Nehemiah's attribution of the conflict in Ezra 4–6 to the early return serves to justify the delay in rebuilding, a delay likely caused by the Judeans' neglect, as Haggai 1:4–11 indicates.

What Was the Conflict with the People of the Land and the Crisis of “Mixed Marriages”?

Ezra 4:4 reports that the “people of the land” disrupted the building of the Temple. Ezra 9–10 reports that men, including priests, married women from the people(s) of the land (Ezra 9:1–2), designated at times as foreign (Ezra 10:2). Ezra opposes such unions and leads the effort to abolish them. Scholars debate the identity of the people of the land, the nature of the opposition, and the impact of Ezra-Nehemiah's reforms. Opposition to mixed marriages appears also in the Nehemiah Memoir (Neh 13:23–31), with men marrying Moabite, Ammonite, and Ashdodite women, much to Nehemiah's chagrin. In both cases, objectionable religious practices of the “foreign” women are invoked. The final status of most of these marriages in Ezra-Nehemiah remains unclear, in contrast to First Esdras, which reports that all the wives were sent away (1 Esd 9:36).

Earlier interpreters identified the “peoples of the land” as Samaritans and other non-Judeans or non-Israelites who settled in Judah after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and harassed the Jews (as in 2 Kgs 17 and Ezra 4:1–4). Contemporary scholars argue that Ezra-Nehemiah conflates different issues that developed over time. These issues include an inner Jewish conflict, with tension between Judeans who remained in the land (“people[s] of the land”) and some from the repatriating community from Babylon whose practices, traditions, and ethos evolved differently. The debate in Judah, which both Ezra-Nehemiah and scholars situate in the mid-fifth century, pertains to the question of “Who is a Jew?”—a subject that remained contested in subsequent Judaism. The debate would be particularly intense in the postexilic period when the community was in transition, with structures of authority for internal matters still in flux. Since both Ezra and Nehemiah focus on leaders and priests engaged in such marriages, class conflict may also be at work, with members of the upper strata associating themselves with the elite of the surrounding cultures (see Neh 13:28, for example). Ezra-Nehemiah demands strong communal boundaries based not only on genealogy but also on adherence to the Torah (interpreted as forbidding any such unions). These more stringent criteria for membership relate to Ezra-Nehemiah's advocacy of greater communal participation, which depends on clearer definition for membership (Eskenazi 2006). Some in Judah (as is apparent from Ezra 9:1–2 and Neh 6; 13:23–31) represented different views and relied on different criteria for membership (see Knoppers 2009). The debate is also evident in other postexilic texts that offer competing positions (see Ruth and Isa 56:1–8). Hoglund interprets the objections to mixed marriages in Ezra-Nehemiah as an extension of Persian imperial policies and interests (Hoglund 1992, pp. 207–240). Conversely, Smith (1991) interprets Ezra-Nehemiah's position on marriage as resistance to imperial domination. Brett compares these reforms to some anticolonial movements in modern contexts where “nativist” elites promoted social visions that were blind to particular groups within their own society (Brett 2008, pp. 112–131).

What Was Ezra's “Torah”?

Ezra-Nehemiah repeatedly presents the “torah” as the defining document for the reconstruction and as normative law for the Jewish community. The altar and worship are restored in accordance with the torah (Ezra 3:2); Ezra sets his heart to teach and implement its teachings and receives Persian authorization to do so (Ezra 7:1–26); the torah is invoked as basis for action the mixed-marriage crisis (Ezra 10:3). Most dramatically, Nehemiah 8 depicts the grand assembly around Ezra the priest and scribe who reads the scroll of the torah (sēper tôrat moshe asher tzivah yhwh, Neh 8:1; “the book of the law [torah] of Moses, which the LORD had given”) before the entire community, men and women, after which the people celebrate and act upon its teachings; and Nehemiah 10 reproduces the signed pledge by the people who “take an oath with sanctions to follow the torah of God, given through Moses the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of the LORD… His rules and laws” (Neh 10:30). Further implementations of the torah appear in Nehemiah 13:1–3, which virtually quotes Deuteronomy 23:4–7.

Traditionally, the torah in Ezra-Nehemiah has been understood as the Torah that God gave Israel through Moses and that it corresponded to the Pentateuch as we know it. However, scholars since Spinoza (seventeenth century) have credited Ezra, not Moses, with the final composing and/or editing of the Pentateuch. Recent analyses of the formation of the Pentateuch challenge crucial aspects of this view (note Grabbe's suggestive title: “The Law of Moses in the Ezra Tradition: More Virtual than Real?” Grabbe 2001B). Some propose a considerably later date for the final form of the Pentateuch, with Ezra and the Persian period as a pivotal nexus at the beginning of a process that extended well into the Hellenistic period (see essays in Grabbe 2001A for a range of different views). Ezra's “Torah” is then limited to Deuteronomy or portions of it, with small sections from Leviticus and Numbers. In addition, following Peter Frei's theory about an imperial authorization of the Torah, some scholars emphasize Persian vested interests as the incentive for the formation of it, rather than primarily an inner-Jewish development (see the essays by K. Schmid and D. Carr, and especially the editors' overview, “How, When, Where, and Why Did the Pentateuch Become the Torah?” [pp. 1–19], in Knoppers and Levinson 2007). The one conclusion that all sides of this debate agree upon is that the Persian period was the creative context for the formation of the Pentateuch as well as for other biblical traditions, and that Ezra-Nehemiah is a singular and significant witness to that critical era and processes.

The Impact of Ezra-Nehemiah.

For centuries scholars read Ezra-Nehemiah primarily in terms of the history it provided, and when that history was challenged, they dismissed Ezra-Nehemiah as lacking in value. Its subject matter, the postexilic era, was likewise deprecated because many scholars followed Wellhausen's perception of it as a time of decline into “mere Judaism” and, hence, less significant than preexilic literature. But the pendulum shifted in the mid-1980s with the fuller realization of the relevance of the postexilic era for the canonical process: if, as was argued since Spinoza, Ezra was the final editor of the Pentateuch, then the fifth (or fourth) century B.C.E. is of the utmost importance for understanding the Pentateuch's formation and ethos. Furthermore, the debate between so-called minimalists and maximalists about the history of ancient Israel placed Ezra-Nehemiah and the era it describes at the center of the controversy: once the continuity between preexilic Israel and the Jewish community in fifth-century B.C.E. Judah came into question, Ezra-Nehemiah, as the only historically focused source, written close in time to the events it described (even if ideologically driven), became a focal point.

Reception History of Ezra-Nehemiah.

The reception of Ezra-Nehemiah typically focuses on the individual figures separately. First Esdras omits Nehemiah (but includes Neh 8:1–13A) and magnifies Zerubbabel as well as Ezra, making them the chief protagonists of the restoration. Sirach 49:11–13 (second century B.C.E.) praises Zerubbabel as temple builder and Nehemiah as the builder of Jerusalem's walls, but does not mention Ezra. Second Maccabees 1:18—2:14 (late second century B.C.E.) elaborates on Nehemiah's role as one who restored the sacred fire for Temple worship and collected the writings of prophets and kings.

Fourth Ezra (first century C.E.) casts Ezra as a seer who, after the Temple's destruction, receives God's revelation that includes restoring Scripture. Like Moses, he works forty days and nights and produces new copies. His “Scripture,” however, include ninety-four books, seventy of which are to remain hidden for a time.

Josephus's Antiquities (first century C.E.) follows 1 Esdras in his account of the return. He thus depicts Zerubbabel's rise to prominence in Darius's court (XI.i.1–v.5) and presents Ezra independently of any relation to Nehemiah. He places Ezra at the time of King Xerxes (not Artaxerxes) and ends Ezra's story with the reading of the Torah (Neh 8:13A) and with Ezra's peaceful death and burial in Jerusalem (XI.v.6–8). His story of Nehemiah follows closely the account in Nehemiah 1–13 but concentrates exclusively on the building of Jerusalem's walls and repopulation of the city.

Jewish Rabbinic sources extol Ezra extensively, depicting him, among other things, as a reformer who instituted a number of new legislations, such as the regular public reading of the Torah on Saturdays as well as Mondays and Thursdays (b. B. Kam. 82a), and as a man worthy of bringing the Torah had Moses not preceded him (b. Sanh. 21b). They refer to Ezra-Nehemiah as the book of Ezra, even though they acknowledged Nehemiah's memoirs as Nehemiah's. The book was named after Ezra because Nehemiah was boastful. The rabbis also considered the peaceful restoration depicted in Ezra-Nehemiah superior to the conquest depicted in Joshua and therefore more enduring (b. Ḥag. 3b).

Early Christian sources are interested in Ezra when constructing chronologies or identifying precursors to Jesus. They typically portray Ezra as a prophet (see Fifth Ezra). Malalas in Chronographia 6 (6th c.) calls him also “governor.” Malalas describes Nehemiah as of Davidic descent and a eunuch, a tradition that grows out of the LXX Greek where the terms for “cup bearer” (Neh 1:11) and “eunuch” are similar (see further Kraft pp. 126–127). The Venerable Bede (eighth century) devoted a commentary to Ezra-Nehemiah in which he first introduces it as an allegory but then engages historical and exegetical issues in the commentary itself (see Williamson, 1999 p. 377).

The Qur'an mentions only Ezra, and in passing, as one who is falsely designated by Jews as a son of God (Sura 9.30).

In the modern era, under Spinoza's influence, Ezra was credited with composing or editing the final version of the Pentateuch. With new scholarly attention to the postexilic era as pivotal for understanding the Hebrew Bible as a whole, the historical and literary issues of Ezra-Nehemiah became subject to extensive research and debates. These concern the history of the period and Ezra-Nehemiah's reliability, as well as redactional issues, including the unity of Ezra; Nehemiah has also been questioned (see “Scholarly Issues in Interpretation” as well as Williamson 1999).

Outside of scholarly circles, Ezra-Nehemiah had been largely neglected in Christian sources in the West. However, in some colonial settings, such as South Africa, the conflict over “intermarriage” has been used, or rather abused, as an excuse for imposing white supremacy, notwithstanding the fact that Ezra-Nehemiah addresses a small community subject to imperial control, not representing the colonizing empire (see Brett 2008, pp. 112–131).

In Jewish circles, Ezra-Nehemiah has been viewed as pivotal for the establishing the role of the Torah as focal point of Jewish life and worship and for numerous synagogue practices. Ezra himself is viewed in the Talmud as worthy successor of Moses (b. Sanh. 21b) and a legislator in his own right, who presided over “The great Assembly” (forerunner of the Sanhedrin; b. Meg. 18b). Ezra-Nehemiah's position on intermarriage had been superseded by that of the book of Ruth, which was interpreted by rabbinic sources as depicting conversion and opening the door for those who, like Ruth, choose to join the people Israel and Israel's God.

The textualization of the tradition that Ezra-Nehemiah represents (i.e., granting the text, rather than authoritative individuals like kings and priests, the primary authority for normative practice), has influenced the formation of Judaism and subsequently influenced also Christianity and Islam as “peoples of the Book.”

In contemporary circles across disciplines and religious affiliation, Ezra-Nehemiah, when invoked, appears often in discourses about communal boundaries and displaced populations. It often generates debates between those who valorize strong communal boundaries as necessary for survival and those who opt for a more universal and inclusive position. As a result, current conversations replay the very tensions that Ezra-Nehemiah addresses (see Brett 2008, pp. 112–132).

There is now widespread agreement that Ezra-Nehemiah is vital as witness to the formative period of biblical literature and that analyzing its ideology and composition is significant for critical evaluation of the rest of the Bible.

[See also 1 AND 2 CHRONICLES; 1 ESDRAS; and 2 ESDRAS.]


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Tamara Cohn Eskenazi