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Book of Ezra

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The Book of Ezra is a book of the Hebrew Bible. Originally combined with the Book of Nehemiah in a single book of Ezra–Nehemiah, the two became separated in the early centuries of the Christian era. Its subject is the Return to Zion following the close of the Babylonian captivity, and it is divided into two parts, the first telling the story of the first return of exiles in the first year of Cyrus the Great (538 BC) and the completion and dedication of the new Temple in Jerusalem in the sixth year of Darius I (515 BC), the second telling of the subsequent mission of Ezra to Jerusalem and his struggle to purify the Jews from what the book calls the sin of marriage with non-Jews. Together with the Book of Nehemiah, it represents the final chapter in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible.


Ezra is written to fit a schematic pattern in which the God of Israel inspires a king of Persia to commission a leader from the Jewish community to carry out a mission; three successive leaders carry out three such missions, the first rebuilding the Temple, the second purifying the Jewish community, and the third sealing of the holy city itself behind a wall. (This last mission, that of Nehemiah, is not part of the Book of Ezra.) The theological program of the book explains the many problems its chronological structure presents. It probably appeared in its earliest version around 399 BC, and continued to be revised and edited for several centuries before being accepted as scriptural in the early Christian era.

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The Book of Ezra consists of ten chapters: chapters 1–6, covering the period from the Cyrus the Great to the dedication of the Second Temple, are told in the third person; chapters 7–10, dealing with the mission of Ezra, are told largely in the first person. The book contains several documents presented as historical inclusions, written in Aramaic while the surrounding text is in Hebrew (1:2-4, 4:8-16, 4:17-22, 5:7-17, 6:3-5, 6:6-12, 7:12-26)

Chapters 1–6 (documents included in the text in italics)
  • 1. Decree of Cyrus, first version: Cyrus, inspired by God, returns the Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, "prince of Judah", and directs the Israelites to return to Jerusalem with him and rebuild the Temple.
  • 2. 42,360 exiles, with men servants, women servants and "singing men and women", return from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua the High Priest.
  • 3. Jeshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel build the altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In the second year the foundations of the Temple are laid and the dedication takes place with great rejoicing.
  • 4. Letter of the Samaritans to Artaxerxes, and reply of Artaxerxes: The "enemies of Judah and Benjamin" offer to help with the rebuilding, but are rebuffed; they then work to frustrate the builders "down to the reign of Darius." The officials of Samaria write to king Artaxerxes warning him that Jerusalem is being rebuilt, and the king orders the work to stop. "Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia."
  • 5. Tattenai's letter to Darius: Through the exhortations of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Joshua recommence the building of the Temple. Tattenai, satrap over both Judah and Samaria, writes to Darius warning him that Jerusalem is being rebuilt and advising that the archives be searched to discover the decree of Cyrus.
  • 6. Decree of Cyrus, second version, and decree of Darius: Darius finds the decree, directs Tattenai not to disturb the Jews in their work, and exempts them from tribute and supplies everything necessary for the offerings. The Temple is finished in the month of Adar in the sixth year of Darius, and the Israelites assemble to celebrate its completion.
  • Chapters 7–10
  • 7. Letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra (Artaxerxes' rescript): King Artaxerxes is moved by God to commission Ezra "to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God" and to "appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God." Artaxerxes gives Ezra much gold and directs all Persian officials to aid him.
  • 8. Ezra gathers a large body of returnees and much gold and silver and precious vessels for the Temple and camps by a canal outside Babylon. There he discovers he has no Levites, and so sends messengers to gather some. The exiles then return to Jerusalem, where they distribute the gold and silver and offer sacrifices to God.
  • 9. Ezra is informed that some of the Jews already in Jerusalem have married non-Jewish women. Ezra is appalled at this proof of sin, and prays to God: "O God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence."
  • 10. Despite the opposition of some of their number, the Israelites assemble and send away their foreign wives and children.
  • Historical background

    In the early 6th century BC, the Kingdom of Judah rebelled against the Neo-Babylonian Empire and was destroyed. As a result, the royal court, the priests, the prophets and scribes were taken into captivity in the city of Babylon. There a profound intellectual revolution took place, the exiles blaming their fate on disobedience to their God and looking forward to a future when he would allow a purified people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The same period saw the rapid rise of Persia, previously an unimportant kingdom in present-day southern Iran, to a position of great power, and in 539 BC Cyrus II, the Persian ruler, conquered Babylon.

    It is difficult to describe the parties and politics of Judea in this period because of the lack of historical sources, but there seem to have been three important groups involved: the returnees from the exile who claimed the reconstruction with the support of Cyrus I; "the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"; and a third group, "people of the land", who seem to be local opposition against the returnees building the Temple in Jerusalem.

    The following table is a guide to major events in the region during the period covered by the Book of Ezra:


    The oldest texts of the Bible treat Ezra-plus-Nehemiah as a single book (Ezra–Nehemiah). It was divided into two separate works by the time of the 3rd-century Christian scholar Origen, and the separation became entrenched in Christian Bibles in the Western European tradition when this was followed by Jerome in his Latin translation. It was not until the Middle Ages that the two became separated in Jewish Bibles.

    First Esdras

    1 Esdras, also known as "Esdras α", is an alternate Greek-language version of Ezra. This text has one additional section (and related changes) in the middle of Ezra 4. The addition arranges the text around a chiastic structure and relieves a textual problem surrounding the identity of King Ahasuerus in Ezra 4:6. Although the content is substantially the same, the verses are numbered differently from Ezra.


    The contents of Ezra–Nehemiah are structured in a theological rather than chronological order: "The Temple must come first, then the purifying of the community, then the building of the outer walls of the city, and so finally all could reach a grand climax in the reading of the law."

    The "plot" follows a repeating pattern in which the God of Israel "stirs up" the king of Persia to commission a Jewish leader (Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah) to undertake a mission; the leader completes his mission in the face of opposition; and success is marked by a great assembly. The tasks of the three leaders are progressive: first the Temple is restored (Zerubabbel), then the community of Israel (Ezra), and finally the walls which will separate the purified community and Temple from the outside world (Nehemiah). The pattern is completed with a final coda in which Nehemiah restores the belief of Yahweh. This concern with a schematic pattern-making, rather than with history in the modern sense of a factual account of events in the order in which they occurred, explains the origin of the many problems which surround both Ezra and Nehemiah as historical sources.


    Twentieth-century views on the composition of Ezra revolved around whether the author was Ezra himself (and who may also authored the Books of Chronicles) or was another author or authors (who also wrote the Chronicles). More recently it has been increasingly recognised that Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles all have extremely complex histories stretching over many stages of editing, and most scholars now are cautious of assuming a unified composition with a single theology and point of view. As an indication of the many layers of editing which Ezra has undergone, one recent study finds that Ezra 1–6 and Ezra 9–10 were originally separate documents, that they were spliced together at a later stage by the authors of Ezra 7–8, and that all have undergone extensive later editing.


    Most scholars date the work to the fourth century BCE. The events described in Ezra-Nehemiah are mostly dated to the fifth century BCE, and Darius II's (423-405) being mentioned (Neh. 12:22) would appear to support an early fourth-century BCE date for the work's completion and compilation. Other details from the late fourth century BCE are missing.

    There is general recognition, however, that the editing of the book continued well into the Hellenistic era. The question of when the core of the book originated depends in the first place on the dates assigned to Ezra himself (assuming him to have been a historic person). The only clue to go by is the note in Ezra 7:7–8 that he arrived in Jerusalem in "the seventh year of Artaxerxes." Unfortunately there were three kings of this name and the text does not specify which one. The traditional date, and currently the most popular candidate, is 458 BC, based on the assumption that the king is Artaxerxes I. A date of 398 BC, based on the possibility that the king might be Artaxerxes II, was once popular but has been seriously challenged in recent scholarship. A date of 428 BC, based on the idea that the "seventh" year of Artaxerxes is a mistake for "thirty-seventh" year, has become less popular, as it is based entirely on conjecture.

    Persian documents

    Seven purported Persian decrees of kings or letters to and from high officials are quoted in Ezra. Their authenticity has been contentious; while some scholars accept them in their current form, most accept only part of them as genuine, while still others reject them entirely. L.L. Grabbe surveys six tests against which the documents can be measured (comparative known Persian material, linguistic details, contents, presence of Jewish theology, the Persian attitude to local religions, and Persian letter-writing formulas) and concludes that all the documents are late post-Persian works and probable forgeries, but that some features suggest a genuine Persian correspondence behind some of them.


    Book of Ezra Wikipedia

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