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(Or EZRA.)

Esdras the man

Esdras is a famous priest and scribe connected with Israel's restoration after the Exile. The chief sources of information touching his life are the canonical books of Esdras and Nehemias. A group of apocryphal writings is also much concerned with him, but they can hardly be relied upon, as they relate rather the legendary tales of a later age. Esdras was of priestly descent and belonged to the line of Sardoc (Ezra 7:1-5). He styles himself "son of Saraias" (vii, 1), an expression which is by many understood in a broad sense, as purporting that Saraias, the chief priest, spoken of in 2 Kings 25:18-21, was one of Esdras's ancestors. Nevertheless he is known rather as "the scribe" than as "priest": he was "a ready scribe [a scribe skilled] in the law of Moses", and therefore especially qualified for the task to which he was destined among his people.

The chronological relation of Esdras's work with that of Nehemias is, among the questions connected with the history of the Jewish Restoration, one of the most mooted. Many Biblical scholars still cling to the view suggested by the traditional order of the sacred text (due allowance being made for the break in the narrative — Ezra 4:6-23), and place the mission of Esdras before that of Nehemias. Others, among whom we may mention Professor Van Hoonacker of Louvain, Dr. T.K. Cheyne in England, and Professor C.F. Kent in America, to do away with the numberless difficulties arising from the interpretation of the main sources of this history, maintain that Nehemias's mission preceded that of Esdras. The former view holds that Esdras came to Jerusalem about 458 B.C., and Nehemias first in 444 and the second time about 430 B.C.; whereas, according to the opposite opinion, Esdras's mission might have taken place as late as 397 B.C. However this may be, since we are here only concerned with Esdras, we will limit ourselves to summarizing the principal features of his life and work, without regard to the problems involved, which it suffices to have mentioned.

Many years had elapsed after permission had been given to the Jews to return to Palestine; amidst difficulties and obstacles the restored community had settled down again in their ancient home and built a new temple; but their condition, both from the political and the religious point of view, was most precarious: they chafed under the oppression of the Persian satraps and had grown indifferent and unobservant of the Law. From Babylon, where this state of affairs was well known, Esdras longed to go to Jerusalem and use his authority as a priest and interpreter of the Law to restore things to a better condition. He was in favour at the court of the Persian king; he not only obtained permission to visit Judea, but a royal edict clothing him with ample authority to carry out his purpose, and ample support from the royal treasury. The rescript, moreover, ordered the satraps "beyond the river" to assist Esdras liberally and enacted that all Jewish temple officials should be exempt from toll, tribute, or custom. "And thou, Esdras, appoint judges and magistrates, that they may judge all the people, that is beyond the river" (Ezra 7:25). Finally, the Law of God and the law of the king were alike to be enforced by severe penalties. The edict left all Jews who felt so inclined free to go back to their own country. Some 1800 men, including a certain number of priests, Levites, and Nathinites, started with Esdras from Babylon, and after five months the company safely reached Jerusalem. Long-neglected abuses had taken root in the sacred city. These Esdras set himself vigorously to correct, after the silver and gold he had carried from Babylon were brought into the Temple and sacrifices offered. The first task which confronted him was that of dealing with mixed marriages. Regardless of the Law of Moses, many, even the leading Jews and priests, had intermarried with the idolatrous inhabitants of the country. Horror-stricken by the discovery of this abuse — the extent of which was very likely unknown heretofore to Esdras — he gave utterance to his feelings in a prayer which made such an impression upon the people that Sechenias, in their names, proposed that the Israelites should put away their foreign wives and the children born of them. Esdras seized his opportunity, and exacted from the congregation an oath that they would comply with this proposition. A general assembly of the people was called by the princes and the ancients; but the business could not be transacted easily at such a meeting and a special commission, with Esdras at its head, was appointed to take the matter in hand. For three full months this commission held its sessions; at the end of that time the "strange wives" were dismissed.

What was the outcome of this drastic measure we are not told; Esdras's memoirs are interrupted here. Nor do we know whether, his task accomplished, he returned to Babylon or remained in Jerusalem. At any rate we find him again in the latter city at the reading of the Law which took place after the rebuilding of the walls. No doubt this event had rekindled the enthusiasm of the people; and to comply with the popular demand, Esdras brought the Book of the Law. On the first day of the seventh month (Tishri), a great meeting was held "in the street that was before the watergate", for the purpose of reading the Law. Standing on a platform, Esdras read the book aloud "from the morning until midday". At hearing the words of the Law, which they had so much transgressed, the congregation broke forth into lamentations unsuited to the holiness of the day; Nehemias therefore adjourned the assembly. The reading was resumed on the next day by Esdras, and they found in the Law the directions concerning the feast of the Tabernacles. Thereupon steps were at once taken for the due celebration of this feast, which was to last seven days, from the fifteenth to the twenty-second day of Tishri. Esdras continued the public reading of the Law every day of the feast; and two days after its close a strict fast was held, and "they stood, and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers" (Nehemiah 9:2). There was a good opportunity to renew solemnly the covenant between the people and God. This covenant pledged the community to the observance of the Law, the abstention from intermarriage with heathens, the careful keeping of the Sabbath and of the feasts, and to various regulations agreed to for the care of the Temple, its services, and the payment of the tithes. It was formally recited by the princes, the Levites, and the priests, and signed by Nehemias and chosen representatives of the priests, the Levites, and the people (strange as it may appear, Esdras's name is not to be found in the list of the subscribers — Nehemiah 10:1-27). Henceforth no mention whatever is made of Esdras in the canonical literature. He is not spoken of in connection with the second mission of Nehemias to Jerusalem, and this has led many to suppose that he was dead at the time. In fact both the time and place of his death are unknown, although there is on the banks of the Tigris, near the place where this river joins the Euphrates, a monument purporting to be Esdras's tomb, and which, for centuries, has been a place of pilgrimage for the Jews.

Esdras's role in the restoration of the Jews after the exile left a lasting impression upon the minds of the people. This is due mostly to the fact that henceforth Jewish life was shaped on the lines laid down by him, and in a way from which, in the main, it never departed. There is probably a great deal of truth in the tradition which attributes to him the organization of the synagogues and the determination of the books hallowed as canonical among the Jews. Esdras's activity seems to have extended still further. He is credited by the Talmud with having compiled "his own book" (that is to say Esd.-Nehem.), "and the genealogies of the book of Chronicles as far as himself" (Treat. "Baba bathra", 15a). Modern scholars, however, differ widely as to the extent of his literary work: some regard him as the last editor of the Hexateuch, whereas, on the other hand, his part in the composition of Esdras-Nehemias and Paralipomenon is doubted. At any rate, it is certain that he had nothing to do with the composition of the so-called Third and Fourth books of Esdras. As is the case with many men who played an important part at momentous epochs in history, in the course of time Esdras's personality and activity assumed, in the minds of the people, gigantic proportions; legend blended with history and supplied the scantiness of information concerning his life; he was looked upon as a second Moses to whom were attributed all institutions which could not possibly be ascribed to the former. According to Jewish traditions, he restored from memory — an achievement little short of miraculous — all the books of the Old Testament, which were believed to have perished during the Exile; he likewise replaced, in the copying of Holy Writ, the old Phoenician writing by the alphabet still in use. Until the Middle Ages, and even the Renaissance, the crop of legendary achievements attributed to him grew up; it was then that Esdras was hailed as the organizer of the famous Great Synagogue — the very existence of which seems to be a myth — and the inventor of the Hebrew vocal signs.

The books of esdras

Not a little confusion arises from the titles of these books. Esdras A of the Septuagint is III Esdras of St. Jerome, whereas the Greek Esdras B corresponds to I and II Esdras of the Vulgate, which were originally united into one book. Protestant writers, after the Geneva Bible, call I and II Esdras of the Vulgate respectively Ezra and Nehemiah, and III and IV Esdras of the Vulgate respectively I and II Esdras. It would be desirable to have uniformity of titles. We shall follow here the terminology of St. Jerome.

I Esdras

(Gr. Esdras B, first part; A.V. Ezra). As remarked above, this book formed in the Jewish canon, together with II Esdras, a single volume. But Christian writers of the fourth century adopted the custom — the origin of which is not easy to assign — of considering them as two distinct works. This custom prevailed to such an extent that it found its way even into the Hebrew Bible, where it has remained in use. On the other hand, the many and close resemblances undeniably existing between Esd.-Neh. and Paralipomenon, and usually accounted for by unity of authorship, have suggested that possibly all these books formed, in the beginning, one single volume, for which the title of "Ecclesiastical Chronicle of Jerusalem" has been proposed as fairly expressing its contents. Should these books be regarded as independent, or as parts of a larger work? There is little discussion as to the union of I and II Esdras, which may well be considered as a single book. As to the opinion holding Esd.-Neh. and Par. to be only one work, although it seems gaining ground among Biblical students, yet it is still strongly opposed by many who deem its arguments unable to outweigh the evidence in the opposite direction. We should not expect to find in I Esdras, any more than in II Esdras, a complete account of the events connected with the Restoration, even a complete record of the lives of Esdras and Nehemias. The reason for this lies in the author's purpose of simply narrating the principal steps taken in the re-establishment of the theocracy in Jerusalem. Thus, in two parallel parts, our book deals

In the former, with the decree of Cyrus (i, 1-4) and the enumeration of the most prominent members of the caravan (ii), we read a detailed account of the rebuilding of the Temple and its successful completion, in spite of bitter opposition (iii-iv). The events therein contained cover twenty-one years (536-515). The latter part deals with facts belonging to a much later date (458 or 397). Opening with the decree of Artaxerxes (vii) and the census of the members of the party, it briefly relates the journey across the desert (viii), and gives all the facts connected with the enforcement of the law concerning marriages with foreign women (ix-x).

I Esd. is a compilation the various parts of which differ in nature, in origin, and even in language. At least three of the parts may be recognized:

These the compiler put together into the present shape, adding, of course, now and then some remarks of his own, or some facts borrowed from sources otherwise unknown to us. This compilatory character does not, as some might believe, lessen in any way the high historical value of the work. True, the compiler was very likely not endowed with a keen sense of criticism, and he has indiscriminatingly transcribed side by side all his sources "as if all were alike trustworthy" (L.W. Batten); but we should not forget that he has preserved for us pages of the highest value; even those that might be deemed of inferior trustworthiness are the only documents available with which to reconstruct the history of those times; and the compiler, even from the standpoint of modern scientific research, could hardly do anything more praiseworthy than place within our reach, as he did, the sources of information at his disposal. The composition of the work has long been attributed without discussion to Esdras himself. This view, taught by the Talmud, and still admitted by scholars of good standing, is, however, abandoned by several modern Biblical students, who, although their opinions are widely at variance on the question of the date, fairly agree, nevertheless, that the book is later than 330 B.C.

II Esdras

See the Book of Nehemiah.

III Esdras

(Gr. Esdras A; Protestant writers, I Esdras)

Although not belonging to the Canon of the Sacred Scriptures, this book is usually found, ne prorsus intereat, in an appendix to the editions of the Vulgate. It is made up almost entirely from materials existing in canonical books. The following scheme will show sufficiently the contents and point out the canonical parallels:

The book is incomplete, and breaks off in the middle of a sentence. True, the Latin version completes the broken phrase of the Greek; but the book in its entirety probably contained also the narrative of the feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8). A very strange feature in the work is its absolute disregard of chronological order; the history, indeed, runs directly backwards, mentioning first Artaxerxes (ii, 16-31), then Darius (iii-v, 6), finally Cyrus (v, 7-73). All this makes it difficult to detect the real object of the book and the purpose of the compiler. It has been suggested that we possess here a history of the Temple from the time of Josias down to Nehemias, and this view is well supported by the subscription of the old Latin version. Others suppose that, in the main, the book is rather an early translation of the chronicler's work, made at a time when Paralipomenon, Esdras, and Neh. still formed one continuous volume. Be this as it may, there seems to have been, up to St. Jerome, some hesitation with regard to the reception of the book into the Canon; it was freely quoted by the early Fathers, and included in Origen's "Hexapla". This might be accounted for by the fact that III Esd. may be considered as another recension of canonical Scriptures. Unquestionably our book cannot claim to be Esdras's work. From certain particulars, such as the close resemblance of the Greek with that of the translation of Daniel, some details of vocabulary, etc., scholars are led to believe that III Esd. was compiled, probably in Lower Egypt, during the second century B.C. Of the author nothing can be said except, perhaps, that the above-noted resemblance of style to Dan. might incline one to conclude that both works are possibly from the same hand.

IV Esdras

Such is the title of the book in most Latin manuscripts; the (Protestant) English apocrypha, however, give it as II Esdras, from the opening words: "The second book of the prophet Esdras". Modern authors often call it the Apocalypse of Esdras. This remarkable work has not been preserved in the original Greek text; but we possess translations of it in Latin, Syriac, Arabic (two independent versions), Ethiopian, and Armenian. The Latin text is usually printed in the appendix to the editions of the Vulgate; but these editions miss seventy verses between vii, 35, and vii, 36. The missing fragment, which was read in the other versions, was discovered in a Latin manuscript by R.L. Bensly, in 1874, and has been since repeatedly printed. In the Latin the book is divided into sixteen chapters. The two opening (i, ii) and the two concluding (xv, xvi) chapters, however, which are not to be found in the Eastern translations, are unhesitatingly regarded by all as later additions, foreign to the primitive work.

The body of the Fourth Book, the unity of which appears to be unquestionable, is made up of seven visions which Esdras is supposed to have seen at Babylon, the thirtieth year after the destruction of Jerusalem (the date given is wrong by about a century).

The Fourth Book of Esdras is reckoned among the most beautiful productions of Jewish literature. Widely known in the early Christian ages and frequently quoted by the Fathers (especially St. Ambrose), it may be said to have framed the popular belief of the Middle Ages concerning the last things. The liturgical use shows its popularity. The second chapter has furnished the verse Requiem æternam to the Office of the Dead (24-25), the response Lux perpetua lucebit sanctis tuis of the Office of the Martyrs during Easter time (35), the introit Accipite jucunditatem for Whit-Tuesday (36-37), the words Modo coronantur of the Office of the Apostles (45); in like manner the verse Crastine die for Christmas eve, is borrowed from xvi, 53. However beautiful and popular the book, its origin is shrouded in mystery. The introductory and concluding chapters, containing evident traces of Christianity, are assigned to the third century (about A.D. 201-268). The main portion (iii-xiv) is undoubtedly the work of a Jew — whether Roman, or Alexandrian, or Palestinian, no one can tell; as to its date, authors are mostly widely at variance, and all dates have been suggested, from 30 B.C. to A.D. 218; scholars, however, seem to rally more and more around the year A.D. 97.

About this page

APA citation. Souvay, C. (1909). Esdras. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Souvay, Charles. "Esdras." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sean Hyland.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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