Second Esdras is a composite book, with three parts. Its oldest part, 2 Esdras 3–14, is a Jewish apocalypse better known as 4 Ezra or the Apocalypse of Ezra. It was written between 95 and 100 C.E. Fifth Ezra and 6 Ezra, corresponding to 2 Esdras 1–2 and 15–16, are Christian apocalyptic texts from the second or third century C.E. and will be discussed separately.
Second Esdras is not part of the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Septuagint, but is included in the Latin Vulgate under the title “IV Esdras.” Confusingly, the Septuagint contains a book called “2 Esdras,” but this is a Greek translation of the book of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible (“Esdras” is the Greek form of the name “Ezra”). Similarly, the Vulgate contains a work titled “II Esdras,” but this is a Latin translation of the second half of the same book of Ezra, which in most English Bibles is the book of Nehemiah.
Protestant Bibles include 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha. Catholic Bibles exclude it from their deuterocanonical books, although it is part of the Douay-Rheims Bible, a Reformation-era English Catholic translation of the Vulgate. Fourth Ezra is considered canonical in the Ethiopic and Russian Orthodox churches, and in Slavonic Bibles it is known as 3 Esdras. It has semicanonical status in the Armenian tradition.
Language, Date, and Provenance.
The linguistic features of the versions of 4 Ezra suggest that it was composed in Hebrew or perhaps in Aramaic, and thereafter translated into Greek. Neither the Semitic original nor the Greek translation survives, except for a few Greek passages quoted by early Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria. In addition to its Vulgate Latin form as 2 Esdras 3–14, 4 Ezra is extant in Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic, Armenian, and Georgian versions, as well as in a Coptic fragment. A missing leaf in one early Latin manuscript led to a lacuna in later renditions of 2 Esdras 7 between VERSES 35 and 36; the restored text now occupies verses –.
Fourth Ezra purports to have been written in Babylon by Ezra, thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E (3:1). This is a fiction, typical to apocalypses—attributing a text to a wise figure from the past accords authority to the revelation and permits the presentation of historical events as future prediction. Fourth Ezra actually was written at the end of the first century C.E. “Babylon” stands for Rome, and the fall of Jerusalem refers to the capture of the city by the Romans in 70 C.E. as a consequence of the Jewish Revolt. Although a round number (cf. Ezek 1:1), the “thirty years” of 3:1 is sufficiently precise to date the book to around the year 100. Corroborative evidence is provided by the historical allusions in the book's Eagle Vision (see below), which indicate a date of composition shortly after the assassination of the Roman emperor Domitian in 96 C.E., although they were later updated circa 218 C.E.
The probability that 4 Ezra was composed in Hebrew and its intense concern with the fate of a ravaged Jerusalem imply that the book was composed in Judea. Alternately, the fact that Ezra identifies himself in exile in Babylon/Rome might denote a Diaspora setting.
Form and Function.
Fourth Ezra consists of seven visions. The first three are formulated as dialogues between Ezra and the angel Uriel, the next three are symbolic visions, and the last is a theophany that introduces a narrative about Ezra and the sacred and secret books. Yet any notion that 4 Ezra is merely an editorial compilation of disparate sources disregards the book's fundamental unity. The author of 4 Ezra may have used existing material, and certainly drew upon Daniel and the rich apocalyptic tradition of early Judaism, but there is a creative individualism which is reflected in the book's form and function, and which expresses what Michael E. Stone calls “the Odyssey of Ezra's soul” (Stone 1990, p. 32, and Stone 2003, p. 169).
Fourth Ezra is a sustained defense of the apocalyptic worldview as a system of knowledge and a theory of justice, and a response to the historical situation. Fourth Ezra presumes that the worldview's postulates and claims appropriately describe all aspects of time, space, and the human condition. This presumption constitutes the author's perspective. Since apocalypticism posits the existence of a transcendent reality as the veritable reality, in contrast to which the present world is inherently imperfect and transitory, the author's perspective and that of the angel Uriel—the representative of the transcendent reality—are identical.
Fourth Ezra gradually harmonizes this perspective with that of the figure of Ezra, which is the primary function of the book. Whereas the author's fixed perspective represents his solution to the plight of his people, Ezra's changing perspective exemplifies the protracted and often emotionally painful process where this solution is encountered, evaluated, and ultimately accepted. Disagreements and inconsistencies between the two are temporary manifestations of this process, and subordinate to the book's function. At the conceptual level, they reflect the fundamental inability of humans to comprehend the mysteries of God, which is why Uriel has to interpret Ezra's visions.
If Uriel epitomizes the perspective of the author, then Ezra embodies that of the intended audience. This is the true genius of 4 Ezra. It aims to console its readers for their catastrophic loss, and to assure them that relief is imminent and there is justice and purpose to existence. But it can do this only if Ezra accepts the angel's perspective. The reader participates in the seer's journey toward understanding, which culminates in his “conversion” in the fourth vision of the book. If Ezra seems persistent in his questions or dissatisfied with Uriel's answers, it is because he (and the reader) must test the apocalyptic worldview against both tradition and logic, and fully explore what its claims entail, however alien or disagreeable they might initially appear. Tensions between free will and determinism are addressed through an ongoing subtext involving covenant obligation and the apocalyptic theology of history. For these reasons and more, 4 Ezra is arguably the most sophisticated of the apocalypses, and represents the intellectual limits of the apocalyptic worldview.
Each of the first three visions of the book begins with a prayer by Ezra, in which he asks questions about God, Israel, and history. Next, Ezra and Uriel engage in dialogue about the substance and assumptions of these questions. Each vision concludes with the angel's discourse about the time of the end and a description of the signs of its coming. Despite their common structure, the three dialogues exhibit a series of progressive recapitulations of the central issue of the book that mark the mileposts of Ezra's journey.
In the first vision (3:1—5:19), Ezra asks God why Israel must suffer while Babylon, far more wicked, goes unpunished. Implicit in the question are issues regarding theories of justice and theodicy, or how to reconcile a good God with a world where suffering or evil exists. Uriel's answer, conveyed partly in the form of a parable, unexpectedly turns the question back on Ezra. On what basis, the angel replies, can humans know the ways and means of God?
Ezra continues his inquiry in the second vision (5:20—6:34). If God chose Israel, why has he treated it worse than the nations, and left its punishment to them? Uriel responds that humans cannot comprehend the purpose of history. Ezra persists: this purpose may be a mystery, but the promise of an imminent end is clear. What, then, about those who have already died? The angel's answer encapsulates the apocalyptic notion of history: to God, time is not the same as it is to humans.
The third vision (6:35—9:25) is structured by a long series of questions, answers, and discourses about the fate of the world and its inhabitants. Why do the nations rule over Israel, Ezra asks, and when will Israel be granted its promise? What is the point of this cruel life, knowing that judgment stands at the end, with punishment for all but a few? Can the righteous intercede on behalf of the wicked? Uriel's responses again assure Ezra that God's plan remains in effect, that it is underwritten by logic and justice and his love for Israel, and that is coherent and comprehensive, even if it is not comprehensible to humans. The vision ends with Ezra's three appeals to God's mercy, but the responses are adamant: the end to suffering is near, but salvation is only for a few.
Ezra's fourth vision (9:26—10:59) is the structural and conceptual center of the book. Like the first three visions, it begins with a prayer. This time, however, he sees a woman in mourning. She explains to Ezra how her only son, born after thirty years of barrenness and raised with care, suddenly died on his wedding night. Grieving, the woman has decided to fast until she also dies. Ezra is furious: how can she mourn one person, when the Temple has been destroyed, Zion ravaged, and its people enslaved or killed? Ezra urges the woman to master her despair, confident that God's ultimate design is just, and that she will soon see her son again. Suddenly, the woman's face begins to shine, and she is transformed into a glorious city. A swooning Ezra is revived by Uriel, who interprets the vision. The woman is Zion, and her story represents the history of Israel, which very shortly will culminate with the advent of the new, heavenly Jerusalem.
Thus with fourth vision comes Ezra's “conversion,” which may reflect the author's own religious experience. Whatever the case, the seer has internalized the shift in perspective precipitated by his previous dialogues with Uriel, to the point that he now articulates the angel's logic. Thereafter Ezra accepts matters without debate, and the visions that follow represent the answers to his earlier questions—both for him and for the reader.
In the fifth vision (11:1—12:51), Ezra is shown a mighty eagle, which oppresses the entire earth. This, the angel tells him, represents the fourth kingdom of Daniel's visions (12:11; cf. Dan 2 and 7). The vision proceeds to describe the eagle, its multiple wings and winglets, its three heads, and how each ruled in succession. It ends with the appearance of a lion, which the angel reveals as the Messiah, a preexistent figure held back until the last days (12:32, cf. 13:25–26), who judges, convicts, and destroys the eagle. Originally the heads, which are kept until the end (11:9), alluded to the three Flavian emperors: Vespasian (ruled 70–79), and his sons Titus the conqueror of Jerusalem (79–81) and Domitian (81–96). In its present form, however, the Eagle Vision seems to have been updated around the year 218, with the result that it now refers to a more expansive sequence of Roman rulers and other figures, culminating in the three Severan emperors: Septimius Severus (ruled 193–211), and his sons Geta (211–212) and Caracella (211–217).
Ezra's sixth vision (13:1–58) describes a man who emerges from the sea, against whom the armies of the world assemble to wage war. But the man destroys the armies before they can engage in battle, after which he summons to him a peaceful group. The angel interprets what Ezra has been shown. The man from the sea is the Messiah—the title is not used here, but his actions, the context, and the reference to “my son” make the identification certain. He will make his stand on Mount Zion, the heavenly and preexistent New Jerusalem, which is created by God, a mountain hewn not by human hands (13:36), calling to mind the words of Daniel 2:34 and 45. He will judge and destroy the nations, and then call all Israel to himself at Mount Zion, including the lost tribes and those of Ezra's time who have survived the recent calamity and exile.
The seventh and final vision of 4 Ezra (14:1–48) is a theophany. God appears to Ezra from a bush (cf. Exod 3:4), and instructs him to memorize the visions he has been shown and their interpretations, now that the world's evil increases with approaching end. God tells Ezra to gather five scribes, and having been given a cup filled with a liquid of understanding, Ezra is filled with wisdom and begins to speak. The scribes record his words for forty straight days, producing ninety-four books (the Latin is unclear on the number), of which seventy are to be reserved for the wise.
Although a Jewish apocalypse, 4 Ezra was preserved entirely by Christians, in both the East and the West. The book was popular, giving rise to a host of later apocalyptic writings, including 5 Ezra and 6 Ezra, the Greek Apocalypse of Esdras, the Apocalypse of Sedrach, the Vision of Esdras (Visio beati Esdrae), and the Questions of Ezra. Ezra also lent his name to the Reuelatio or Supputatio Esdrae, a medieval prognostic text that forecasts the upcoming year on the basis of the day of the week upon which a special date such as Christmas occurs.
Fifth Ezra and 6 Ezra.
Fifth Ezra (= 2 Esdras 1–2) is a Christian apocalyptic text. In it, Ezra prophesies that Israel, in rejecting God, will itself be rejected and superseded by the Church. After this, he is granted a vision of the eschatological age, where a tall man (Jesus) stands on Mount Zion (cf. Rev 14:1) and crowns the heads of the resurrected Christians. Fifth Ezra was probably composed in Latin, two recensions of which survive, although Greek is possible. The book appears to reflect a Christian community attempting to distinguish itself from Judaism. Various dates of its composition have been proposed; the second half of the second century C.E. best accommodates the scant evidence.
Sixth Ezra (= 2 Esdras 15–16) was composed likely as an appendix to 4 Ezra, although it is unclear whether its present form is original. It is a collection of apocalyptic oracles of wars and judgment against the Roman Empire and its provinces, prefaced by a prophetic proclamation that the end is near and God will show no mercy to sinners. It culminates with the warning that sins cannot be concealed from God, and the exhortation that despite the coming tribulations salvation is close. Sixth Ezra was probably written in Egypt or Asia Minor during the second or third centuries, possibly between 262 and 313 C.E. (Bergren 1998), and assumes a situation of Christian persecution. Sixth Ezra is preserved in its Latin translation only, although a fourth-century fragment containing 15:57–59 of the Greek original is known.
Fifth Ezra and 6 Ezra are a distant cry from the existential depth and theological sophistication of 4 Ezra. Instead, their structure and tone anticipate the uncomplicated oracles of doom and destruction typical of medieval apocalyptic literature.
- Knibb, Michael A. “Second Esdras.” In The First and Second Books of Esdras, by R. J. Coggins and M. A. Knibb, pp. 76–305. Cambridge Bible Commentary 14. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- Myers, J. M. I and II Esdras. Anchor Bible 42. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.
- Stone, Michael E. Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. The best commentary, particularly for specialists.
Recent Survey Studies and Monographs
- Bergren, Theodore A. Fifth Ezra: The Text, Origin, and Early History. Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 25. Atlanta: Scholars, 1990; and Sixth Ezra: The Text and Origin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. The standard works on 5 Ezra and 6 Ezra.
- DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Dating the Eagle Vision of 4 Ezra: A New Look at an Old Theory.” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 10 (1999): 3–38.
- Hogan, Karina Martin. Theologies in Conflict in 4 Ezra: Wisdom, Debate and Apocalyptic Solution. Journal for the Study of Judaism: Supplements 130. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2008.
- Humphries, Edith McEwan. The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and Apocalyptic Identity in Joseph and Aseneth, 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse and the Shepherd of Hermas. Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha: Supplements 17. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1995.
- Longenecker, Bruce W. 2 Esdras. Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. A fine introductory survey.
- Stone, Michael E. Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Armenian Studies. Collected Papers, Volume I. Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta 144. Leuven: Peeters, 2006. Collects many of the author's recent short studies on 4 Ezra.
- Stone, Michael E. “A Reconsideration of Apocalyptic Visions.” Harvard Theological Review 96 (2003): 167–180. A superb essay on the meaning and purpose of 4 Ezra.