As with 1 Esdras, there is some confusion about the numbering of this book. The Vulgate of Jerome includes 1, 2, 3 and 4 Esdras. Protestant writers, after the Geneva Bible, called 1 and 2 Esdras of the Vulgate Ezra and Nehemiah, and called 3 and 4 Esdras of the Vulgate 1 and 2 Esdras which became common in English Bibles.
Jerome and the medieval Latin manuscripts denoted it 4 Esdras, which to this day is the name used for it in modern critical editions, which are typically in Latin, the language of its most complete exemplars.
It appears in the Appendix to the Old Testament in the Slavonic Bible, where it is called 3 Esdras, and the Georgian Orthodox Bible numbers it 3 Ezra. This text is sometimes also known as Apocalypse of Ezra (chapters 3–14 known as the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra or 4 Ezra, chapters 1–2 as 5 Ezra, and chapters 15–16 as 6 Ezra).
The first two chapters of 2 Esdras are found only in the Latin version of the book, and are called 5 Ezra by scholars. They are considered by most scholars to be Christian in origin; they assert God's rejection of the Jews and describe a vision of the Son of God. These are generally considered to be late additions (possibly third century) to the work.
Chapters 3–14, or the great bulk of 2 Esdras, is a Jewish apocalypse also sometimes known as 4 Ezra, or the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra. The latter name should not be confused with a later work called the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra.
The Ethiopian Church considers 4 Ezra to be canonical, written during the Babylonian captivity, and calls it Izra Sutuel (ዕዝራ ሱቱኤል). It was also often cited by the Fathers of the Church. In the Eastern Armenian tradition it is called 3 Ezra. It is conjectured by Protestant scholars to have been written in the late 1st century CE following the destruction of the Second Temple.
Among Greek Fathers of the Church, 4 Ezra is generally cited as Προφήτης Ἔσδρας Prophetes Esdras ("The Prophet Ezra") or Ἀποκάλυψις Ἔσδρα Apokalupsis Esdra ("Apocalypse of Ezra"). Wellhausen, Charles, and Gunkel have shown that the original composition was in Hebrew, which was translated into Greek, and then to Latin, Armenian, Ethiopian and Georgian, but the Hebrew and Greek editions have been lost.
Slightly differing Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Armenian translations have survived; the Greek version can be reconstructed (without absolute certainty, of course) from these different translations, while the Hebrew text remains a bit more elusive.
4 Ezra consists of seven visions of Ezra the scribe. The first vision takes place as Ezra is still in Babylon. He asks God how Israel can be kept in misery if God is just. The archangel Uriel is sent to answer the question, responding that God's ways cannot be understood by the human mind. Soon, however, the end would come, and God's justice would be made manifest. Similarly, in the second vision, Ezra asks why Israel was delivered up to the Babylonians, and is again told that man cannot understand this and that the end is near. In the third vision Ezra asks why Israel does not possess the world. Uriel responds that the current state is a period of transition. Here follows a description of the fate of evil-doers and the righteous. Ezra asks whether the righteous may intercede for the unrighteous on Judgment Day, but is told that "Judgment Day is final".
The next three visions are more symbolic in nature. The fourth is of a woman mourning for her only son, who is transformed into a city when she hears of the desolation of Zion. Uriel says that the woman is a symbol of Zion. The fifth vision concerns an eagle with three heads and twenty wings (twelve large wings and eight smaller wings "over against them"). The eagle is rebuked by a lion and then burned. The explanation of this vision is that the eagle refers to the fourth kingdom of the vision of Daniel, with the wings and heads as rulers. The final scene is the triumph of the Messiah over the empire. The sixth vision is of a man, representing the Messiah, who breathes fire on a crowd that is attacking him. This man then turns to another peaceful multitude, which accepts him.
Finally, there is a vision of the restoration of scripture. God appears to Ezra in a bush and commands him to restore the Law. Ezra gathers five scribes and begins to dictate. After forty days, he has produced ninety-four books: the twenty-four books of the Tanakh and seventy secret works:
Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people." (2 Esdras 14:45–46 RSV; 4 Ezra 12:45–46)
The "seventy" might refer to the Septuagint, most of the apocrypha, or the Lost Books that are described in the Bible.
Most Latin editions of the text have a large lacuna of seventy verses between 7:35 and 7:36 that is missing due to the fact that they trace their common origin to one early manuscript, Codex Sangermanensis I, which was missing an entire page. In 1895 Robert Lubbock Bensly and James published a critical edition restoring the lost verses; it is this edition that is used in the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate. The restored verses are numbered 7:35 to 7:105, with the former verses 7:36–7:70 renumbered to 7:106–7:140. For more information, see the article Codex Sangermanensis I.
Second Esdras turns around a radical spiritual conversion of Ezra in a vision, where he stops to comfort a sobbing woman who turns instantly into a great city (2 Esd. 10:25–27). On this pivotal event, one scholar writes that Ezra
is badly frightened, he loses consciousness and calls for his angelic guide. The experience described is unique not just in 4 Ezra but in the whole Jewish apocalyptic literature. Its intensity complements the pressure of unrelieved stress evident in the first part of the vision, and it resembles the major orientation of personality usually connected with religious conversion.
The following verses (10:28–59) reveal that Ezra had a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the true city of Zion, which the angel of the Lord invites him to explore. As the angel tells Ezra at the end of Chapter 10 in the Authorised Version:
But tomorrow at night thou shalt remain here and so shall the Highest show thee visions of the high things which the Most High will do unto them that dwell upon earth in the last days. So I slept that night and another like as he commanded me (2 Esd. 10:55–59).
The last two chapters, also called 6 Ezra by scholars, and found in the Latin, but not in the Eastern texts, predict wars and rebuke sinners. Many assume that they probably date from a much later period (perhaps late third century) and may be Christian in origin; it is possible, though not certain, that they were added at the same time as the first two chapters of the Latin version. It is possible that they are Jewish in origin, however; 15:57–59 have been found in Greek, which most scholars agree was translated from a Hebrew original.
The main body of the book appears to be written for consolation in a period of great distress (one scholarly hypothesis is that it dates to Titus' destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70). The author seeks answers, similar to Job's quest for understanding the meaning of suffering, but the author doesn't like or desire only the answer that was given to Job.
Critics question whether even the main body of the book, not counting the chapters that exist only in the Latin version and in Greek fragments, has a single author. Kalisch, De Faye, and Charles hold that no fewer than five people worked on the text. However, Gunkel points to the unity in character and holds that the book is written by a single author; it has also been suggested that the author of II Esdras wrote the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch. In any case, the two texts may date from about the same time, and one almost certainly depends on the other.
Critics have widely debated the origin of the book. Hidden under two layers of translation it is impossible to determine if the author was Roman, Alexandrian, or Palestinian.
The scholarly interpretation of the eagle being the Roman Empire (the eagle in the fifth vision, whose heads might be Vespasian, Titus and Domitian if such is the case) and the destruction of the temple would indicate that the probable date of composition lies toward the end of the first century, perhaps 90–96, though some suggest a date as late as 218.
The book is considered one of the gems of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Except for the Orthodox Slavonic Bible (Ostrog Bible, Elizabeth Bible, and later consequently Russian Synodal Bible), it was not received into European Christian canons. The chapters corresponding to 4 Ezra, i.e. 2 Esdras 3–14, make up the Book of II Izra, aka Izra Sutuel, canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; it was also widely cited by early Fathers of the Church, particularly Ambrose of Milan. It may also be found in many larger English Bibles included as part of the Biblical Apocrypha, as they exist in the King James version, the Revised Standard Version, and the earliest editions of the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible, among others.
The introitus of the traditional Requiem Mass in the Catholic Church is loosely based on 2:34–35: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." Several other liturgical prayers are taken from the book. In his Vulgate, Clement VIII placed the book in an appendix after the New Testament with the rest of the Biblical apocrypha, "lest they perish entirely".