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The Book of Ezra

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Teaching Outline for Ezra

Text and Canonicity

In the Hebrew Bible (MT) Ezra-Nehemiah is a single work. But in the Septuagint (LXX), Latin Vulgate (ca. AD 400) and our English Bible it has been divided into two separate works.1 In the LXX, the title Ezra is Esdras Beta (the name Esdras is a translation equivalent for Ezra), and Nehemiah is Esdras Gamma. In the Latin Vulgate, Ezra is known as 1 Esdras and Nehemiah is known as 2 Esdras. This can be confusing since in the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha there are two other, similarly named works. See the chart below.

Septuagint (LXX):

Esdras Beta

Esdras Gamma

Esdras Alpha

 

Latin Vulgate:

1 Esdras

2 Esdras

3 Esdras

4 Esdras

NRSV:

Ezra

Nehemiah

1 Esdras2

2 Esdras

Ezra and Nehemiah: Contemporaries?

There have been three primary views with regard to the date of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. It is clear that the text joins his coming to Jerusalem with the reign of Artaxerxes, but which Artaxerxes is in view? 3 If Artaxerxes I, Ezra returned in 458 BCE, the seventh year of the king’s reign (Ezra 7:8). After completing certain reforms, it is conceivable that Ezra returned to Susa. Some thirteen years later in 445, Nehemiah came to Jerusalem and began rebuilding the walls. He stayed for twelve years. During this twelve years Ezra returned again, and the two worked together reforming the exiles. This means that both Ezra and Nehemiah were for a time contemporaries, as is suggested by Nehemiah 8:2. This is the traditional view, but it is not without its problems. Why is Nehemiah the governor not mentioned in Ezra? Further, why is Ezra only mentioned once in Nehemiah’s memoirs and nothing is said of his reforms earlier in 458 BCE?

For these and other reasons, some scholars have developed other scenarios. It has been suggested that Ezra did not return under Artaxerxes I, but Artaxerxes II, in 398 BCE. This places Ezra after the time of Nehemiah. This seems to cohere better with the problem of marriage to foreign wives. If, under the traditional view, Ezra had dealt with that problem, why was it still an issue when Nehemiah arrived some thirteen or so years later? To some scholars it seems that Ezra came after Nehemiah, in the reign of Artaxerxes II, in 398. But that is not the only problem.

More central to this view is the mention of Ezra going to the private room of Johanan (Ezra 10:6). But in Nehemiah 12:22 Johanan is referred to as the grandson of Eliashib, who himself was a contemporary of Nehemiah. If the people have been correctly identified, this means that Ezra must have been in Jerusalem much later than Nehemiah.

There are three important reasons, however, that make a 398 return highly unlikely. First, as we indicated above, Nehemiah 8:2 suggests that both Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries. Second, Fensham speaks to the issue of marriages to foreign women:

When Nehemiah returned from Jerusalem a few years later, he was shocked by the increase in foreign marriages. As Nehemiah 13 shows, even the cultic services at the temple had come to a standstill. This was one of the bleak moments in the history of Judaism, when the people were prone to forget the reforms of their leaders. If such regression could have happened in only a few years since Nehemiah had left Jerusalem (433-430), quite conceivably the same could have occurred after a thirteen-year interval from the start of Ezra’s reforms (458-445).4

Third, there is no evidence at all that the Johanan mentioned in Ezra 10:6 is really the same person as the grandson of Eliashib mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22. The fact that Johanan was a common name at the time makes this association highly unlikely.5 Thus the traditional view is to be preferred over a view which endorses a late return for Ezra (i.e., around 398).

Another view argues that Ezra returned in the thirty-seventh year of Artaxerxes I, during Nehemiah’s second term (428 BCE). This argument is based largely on the unfounded supposition that there is a textual corruption in Ezra 7:8 where it is alleged that the “seventh” year should be amended to the “thirty-seventh” year. As ingenious as this solution appears, it unfortunately lacks even a shred of textual evidence to commend it.

In short, though it is not without its problems, the traditional view is still the most likely and therefore the one to be preferred. Thus a plausible outline of events would include: (1) Ezra returns in 458 and initiates certain reforms. After this, he returns to Susa; (2) appointed by Artaxerxes I, Nehemiah takes up the governorship of Judah in 445. He remains twelve years, during which Ezra returns to Jerusalem; (3) Ezra helps Nehemiah as governor and is thus mentioned in Nehemiah 12 (e.g., vv. 26, 36). This scenario also explains why Nehemiah the governor is not mentioned in Ezra’s reforms (Ezra 8-10). In the end, through their combined efforts, the temple and the city walls were rebuilt.

Authorship and Date

Several suggestions have been made as to the author(s) of the combined work of Ezra-Nehemiah. It seems likely that whoever edited the Chronicles, since 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 leads naturally into the first few verses of Ezra, probably edited the production of Ezra-Nehemiah. Strands of Jewish tradition regard Ezra as the compiler of the Chronicles and therefore the author/editor of Ezra-Nehemiah (e.g., Baba Bathra 15a). Most modern interpreters, however, do not regard Ezra as the final editor, but rather see a process of editing that may have continued down to 400 BCE.6

Historical Background

In 722 BCE Israel in the north (i.e., Samaria) had finally given way to Assyrian aggression. But Assyria herself was eventually overrun by the Babylonians in 612 BCE when they plundered Ninevah, Assyria’s capital. The Babylonians repeatedly attacked Judah’s capital, Jerusalem, finally laying siege to it and exiling many of her important people (artisans, craftsmen) in 586 BCE. Judah had been punished by God just as Jeremiah and the prophets had predicted. But punishment was not to last forever.

The Persian empire was growing in strength until 539 BCE, when Cyrus II, the Persian king, overran Babylon with relative ease, establishing Persia as the new super-power of the Near East. The Persians, however, maintained a different policy toward conquered peoples, permitting them to return to their homelands. The first return of the Jews, then, came in 538/537 BCE when Zerubbabel and several thousand Jews went up to the city of God to establish the altar and resume sacrifices (Ezra 1-6). Later, under the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-423), both Ezra (Ezra 7-10) and Nehemiah returned, in 458 and 445 respectively. Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem for at least twelve years though it only took him 52 days to complete the building of the walls (Neh 6:15).

Theological Themes

The book of Ezra, in conjunction with Nehemiah, records the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore his people to their land after seventy years of Babylonian captivity. In keeping with this, there is stress laid on God’s sovereignty over both his own people, but also foreign kings and peoples as well. It was he who “stirred up the spirit” of Cyrus II (1:1) to permit any willing Israelite to return to his land. And it was he who later prompted Darius I (6:14, 22) and Artaxerxes I (7:11-13ff) to decree similarly (9:9).

Ezra also lays stress on the theme of God’s covenant with his people, reflected especially in the Lord’s special presence in the temple and Israel’s special access to him through God-appointed sacrifice. Thus the rebuilding of the altar and the temple (Ezra 3-6), and the offering of sacrifices, receives considerable attention in Ezra. So also the joy and exuberance of the people (3:10-13; 6:22).

But religious reform is essentially meaningless in Israelite theology without spiritual and ethical reform. Marriages to foreign women, though forbidden in the law of Moses (cf. Ezra 9:11-12), were rampant during Ezra’s time and posed an enormous threat to Israel’s future commitment to remain true to YHWH. The solution was drastic, yet necessary: after Ezra’s lengthy confession to God and plea for his mercy (9:5-15), the people decide to put their foreign wives away (10:19). Thus, the religious purity of the people was restored, if ever so briefly, through the work of Ezra. The overall focus in Ezra, then, is on the return of the Lord’s people to (1) the worship of the God who keeps his covenant; (2) to the land He promised to give his people; and (3) to religious and ethical purity.


1 The same is true of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

2 1 Esdras is part of the OT Apocrypha and dates from about the second century BCE (ca. 150). 2 Esdras is an apocalyptic work for the most part and forms part of the OT Pseudepigrapha. It dates from the end of the first century CE and is probably written in response to the Jewish sufferings in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Neither 1 nor 2 Esdras is part of the Protestant canon, but since the Council of Trent 1 Esdras has been recognized by the Catholic church as deutero-canonical, though Jerome relegated it to an appendix in his Latin Vulgate. For further information on these books, including their provenance, themes and problems, see J. E. Wright, “Esdras, Books of,” in Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 337-40; Z. Talshir, “1 Esdras,” in Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 341-42.

3 In Ezra 7:1, 8 the text joins the return of Ezra to the reign of king Artaxerxes, either Artaxerxes I Longimanus (464-423) or Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-359 BCE). See Gleason Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1974), 419.

4 F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 7.

5 Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 8.

6 Cf. Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 229-30, who argue that, while there are no historical errors in the text, a Chronicler (not Ezra) later wove together the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah (with other reliable sources) into a theological history of the restoration of the people of Israel. This, they argue, does not impinge on the inspiration of scripture for God inspired the Chronicler much like he did Luke in the collecting, editing, and employing of sources in the writing of his gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4).