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Book of Ezra

EZRA, BOOK OF. So named because Ezra is the principal person mentioned in it; possibly also because he may be its author. It does not in its entirety claim to be the work of Ezra, but Jewish tradition says it was written by him. Supporting this view is the fact that chapters 7-10 are written in the first person singular, while events in which he did not take part are described in the third person. The trustworthiness of the book does not, however, depend on the hypothesis that Ezra is the author. The majority of modern critics believe that the two books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah constitute one large work, compiled and edited by someone designated the Chronicler, who has been dated from 400 to 300 b.c. Ezra’s ministry is to be placed during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 b.c.).

The Book of Ezra continues the narrative after Chronicles and records the return from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple. The purpose of the author is to show how God fulfilled his promise given through prophets to restore his exiled people to their own land through heathen monarchs, and raised up such great men as Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra to rebuild the temple, reestablish the old forms of worship, and put a stop to compromise with heathenism. All material that does not contribute to his purpose he stringently excludes.

As sources for the writing of the book, the author used genealogical lists, letters, royal edicts, memoirs, and chronicles. Some of these were official documents found in public records. This diversity of material accounts for the varied character of the style and for the fact that it is written in both Hebrew and Aramaic.

The order of the Persian kings of the period is Cyrus (538-529 b.c.), Darius (521-486), Xerxes (486-464), and Artaxerxes I (464-424). In view of this succession, Ezra.4.7-Ezra.4.23 departs from the chronological order of events. The reason for this is probably that the author regarded a sequence of content more important than a chronological order. He brings together in one passage the successful attempts of the Samaritans to hinder the building of the temple and the city walls.

The period covered is from 536 b.c., when the Jews returned to Jerusalem, to 458, when Ezra came to Jerusalem to carry out his religious reforms. It thus covers a period of about seventy-eight years, although the fifteen years between 535 and 520 and the fifty-eight years between 516 and 458 are practically a blank. We have a description of selected incidents, not a continuous record of the period.

For an understanding and appreciation of the book, a few historical facts must be kept in mind. The last chapter of 2 Kings records the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the deportation of many of its inhabitants into Babylonia. There they were settled in colonies and were not mistreated as long as they were quiet subjects. Many of them prospered so well that when, later, they had an opportunity to return to their homeland, they chose not to do so. Since the temple was destroyed, they could not carry on their sacrificial system; but they continued such religious ordinances as the Sabbath and circumcision, and gave great attention to the study of the Law. The chapter concludes by noting that Evil-Merodach, in the year he became king (561 b.c.) released Jehoichin from prison and allowed him to eat from then on at the king’s table (2Kgs.25.27-2Kgs.25.30). This was about twenty-five years before the first events recorded in Ezra.1.1-Ezra.1.11.

The Exile was brought to a close when the Babylonian Empire fell before Cyrus, king of Persia, in 538 b.c. The way in which the expectations of the Jews respecting Cyrus were fulfilled is told in the opening narrative of the Book of Ezra. The return from exile did not bring with it political freedom for the Jews. They remained subjects of the Persian Empire. Jerusalem and the surrounding districts were under the control of a governor, who sometimes was a Jew, but usually was not. Persian rule was in general not oppressive; but tribute was exacted for the royal treasury and the local governor. The hostile population surrounding them, especially the Samaritans, did all they could to make life miserable for them, especially by trying to bring them into disfavor with the Persian authorities. There were a few differences in the religious life of the Jews before and after the Exile. Idolatry no longer tempted them—and never did again. The external features distinctive of Jewish worship and the ceremonial requirements of the laws were stressed. Prophecy became less important, scribes gradually taking the place of the prophets.

The Book of Ezra consists of two parts. The first (Ezra.1.1-Ezra.1.11-Ezra.6.1-Ezra.6.22) is a narrative of the return of the Jews from Babylonia under Zerubbabel and the restoration of worship in the rebuilt temple; the second (Ezra.7.1-Ezra.7.28-Ezra.10.1-Ezra.10.44) tells the story of a second group of exiles returning with Ezra and of Ezra’s religious reforms.

Bibliography: J. M. Meyers, Ezra, Nehemiah (AB), 1965; P. R. Ackroyd, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah (TBC), 1973; Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (TOTC), 1979.——SB




The books of Ezra and Nehemiah originally were regarded by the Jews as a single work, and a general introduction must treat them together. Moreover, the opening vv., when compared with the closing verses of Chronicles, show that Ezra-Nehemiah continues the Chronicler’s history (see Books of Chronicles).

After recounting the history of the monarchy and the Temple until the Exile, the writer passes over the period when the Temple lay in ruins, and the key men in Judah were in Babylonia, and records the predicted return—leading to the rebuilding of the Temple through Zerubbabel (of the line of David) and Joshua (of the line of Aaron). He describes the establishment of the new Jewish community during the period 538-433 b.c.

The Jews came under the Pers. empire when Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 b.c. The names of the Pers. kings are important for the understanding of these Books.

Cyrus (539-530). Cyrus allowed other captive peoples to return also (Ezra 1).

Cambyses (530-522).

Gaumata, or Pseudo-Smerdis (522). A usurper.

Darius I (522-486). Ezra 5, 6.

Xerxes I (486-465). Ezra 4:6. Also Esther. (Ahasuerus)

Darius and Xerxes both made ill-fated invasions of Greece.

Artaxerxes I (464-424). Ezra 4:7-23; 7:1-10:44. The whole of Nehemiah’s work belongs to this reign. Some suppose that Ezra himself belongs to the reign of Artaxerxes II (see Book of Nehemiah).


Style and approach, as well as the verbal link already noted, suggest that the compiler of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah is the same person. In much of the book he is a compiler, since he makes extensive use of documents and often inserts them word for word. Thus the authorship must in the first instance be applied to the individual documents.

The following form the basis of the present book:

Memoirs of Ezra,

in the first person sing. (7:27-9:15) preceded and followed by third person narratives (7:1-26; 10) that could be based on a record made by Ezra himself, or, since they incorporate a verbatim decree and legal affairs, could come from the Temple archives.

Memoirs of Nehemiah.

These are in the first person sing. (1:1-7:5; 11:27-43; 13:4-30).

Aramaic documents.

Aram. was the diplomatic language of the day.

1. Letter of complaint to Artaxerxes I about the rebuilding of the city walls, and his reply (Ezra 4:8-24). Chronologically this prob. comes immediately before Nehemiah 1, which refers to a recent destruction of the walls (Ezra 4:23; Neh 1:3).

2. A letter to Darius I and his reply (Ezra 5:1-6:18). The whole incident is appropriately related in Aram.

3. The official authorization of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:12-26).


Listings of names are included for various purposes.

Returned exiles, perhaps including some who came at later dates (Ezra 2 [cf. Neh 7]).

Those who returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:1-14).

Those who had married pagan wives (Ezra 10:18-43).

The builders of the wall and the sections where they worked (Neh 3).

The leaders who set their seal to the covenant (Neh. 10:1-27).

The allocation of the people in Jerusalem and neighborhood (Neh 11).

Lists of priests and Levites down to Jaddua (Neh 12:1-26). This may be the Jaddua who was high priest in the reign of Darius II (338-331).

These lists would have been filed in the Temple archives.


It is not possible to say how much of the remaining narrative comes from the Chronicler himself, and how far he drew upon oral or documentary sources. The Temple staff would naturally hand on oral and documentary records of the first return and rebuilding of the Temple, and there would also be background material in the Temple to supplement the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah.


The latest name mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah is Jaddua, who was prob. the high priest in the reign of Darius III (338-331; Neh 12:11, 22). This need not mean that the Chronicler compiled his work as late as this. Copyists on the Temple staff would tend to keep a simple list of this kind up-to-date.

Since the Chronicler writes on the assumption that the Priestly Code was in force all through the monarchy, scholars who hold that P was introduced by Ezra and then later incorporated into the previously existing codes, naturally place the Chronicler sufficiently long after Ezra for this to be possible. Those who date Ezra’s coming in 398 (see Book of Nehemiah) place the compilation of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah in the last part of the 4th cent. b.c., although some hold that further additions were made after this.

If, however, the Pentateuch in its present form existed from the time of Moses, we are free to postulate any reasonable date for the compilation of the Books after about 430 b.c.

The identity of the compiler must remain unknown, but it could have been Ezra himself. He had the ability and aptitude as a student-scribe, and, as priest, he had access to the Temple records (Ezra 7:1-6). Talmudic tradition (Baba Bathra 15a) regards Ezra as the writer of Chronicles and of Ezra-Nehemiah up to his own day, though it suggests that Nehemiah completed the work.


In the Heb. Bible, Ezra-Nehemiah is placed in the third group of Books (The Writings), which were the last to be recognized as inspired Scriptures (see Canon of the Old Testament). Illogically it precedes Chronicles, but this may be because it covered an entirely new field, whereas Chronicles was parallel with Samuel and Kings, and so might be read as a supplement.

For its relationship with 1 Esdras of the Apocrypha, with its confusion of people and dates, see (1) 1 ESDRAS, BOOK OF.

Special problems of the Book of Ezra

There are two periods where scholars have queried the Biblical account, and it will be convenient to consider these separately, and deal with the first here, and the other in the article Nehemiah, Book of.

The Chronicler is said to be in confusion over the rebuilding of the Temple. Ezra 3:10 says that the foundation was laid in 536 by Zerubbabel and Joshua. The work was hindered, and lapsed until 520, when, through the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, it was taken up again and completed by 516 (Ezra 6:15). On the other hand, according to Haggai’s own words, the foundation was laid in 520 (Hag 2:18). Some suppose that only a small number returned in 537, and were content to worship on the ruined site of the Temple. A fresh party of enthusiasts came with Zerubbabel, Joshua, Haggai, and Zechariah, in 520, and laid the foundation.

The whole weight of national psychology is against this view. It is the enthusiasts who flock back in large numbers as soon as the doors are opened, without waiting for seventeen years, although even enthusiasts can be diverted by intense opposition from building the Temple to building their own houses and scraping a living for themselves (Hag 1:4, 9-11). Haggai 2:18 may not mean that the foundation had only just been laid in 520, but this interpretation is probable. If so, since so little had been done since 536, the enthusiasm of the Jews would be kindled by a fresh foundation ceremony. This would not be unusual, since Akkad. and Hitt. rituals exist for founding and repairing temples, and mention more than one foundation stone in different parts of the building (see J. B. Pritchard, ANET., 339f., 356).

In Ezra 3:8 Zerubbabel lays the foundation, but in 5:16 this is said to be the work of Sheshbazzar, who is spoken of there as though he were dead, whereas Zerubbabel is still alive. The Jews (5:13-17) were trying, however, to identify a missing document that they hoped would be in the Pers. archives. This document was the authorization given to Sheshbazzar, who had been appointed governor (1:8), and it would be useless to look for one with the name of Zerubbabel, although Zerubbabel had actually been the prime mover. The statement that the work had been going on ever since (5:16) is purely diplomatic, since, if they had admitted that they had stopped building, the answer would have been, “If Cyrus really gave you permission, why did you stop?”

There are variant VSS of Cyrus’ decree in chs. 1 and 6. But the public decree of Ezra 1, with Cyrus’s acknowledgment of Yahweh, is paralleled by extant inscrs. in which Cyrus acknowledges the Babylonian god Marduk in speaking to the Babylonians. The filed decree in 6:1-5 is naturally formal, and contains maximum dimensions of the Temple for which Cyrus was prepared to make a grant.

There is, then, no inconsistency between individual sections of the Book of Ezra, or between Ezra and Haggai or Zechariah. An interesting link may be found between the letter of complaint to Darius in Ezra 5, which might have resulted in the work being stopped, and the great mountain (Zech 4:7) that was blocking Zerubbabel’s completion of the Temple.

Content and outline


Cyrus authorizes the return of the Jews under Sheshbazzar, and gives them their Temple treasures. It is known that he allowed other captive peoples to take back their idols.


A list of those who returned, classified under various heads.


The altar is set up for regular offerings. Later the foundations of the new Temple are laid.


Many non-Jews, including the semipagan inhabitants from the N (2 Kings 17:33-41) offer to help, but are refused. They then hinder the work.


The compiler brings together subsequent occasions of opposition, but has dated them carefully as happening in the reigns of Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. There is no mention of the building of the Temple but only of the city and the walls. Artaxerxes orders the work to cease, and the enemies use violence to stop it.


The opening words refer back to 4:5 to take up the story again. Haggai and Zechariah, who may have been infants at the original return, urge the people to take up the building again. The authorities make a formal protest, and are referred to the decree of Cyrus.


The decree is found in the Pers. archives, and Darius orders the work to proceed. The Temple is finished in four years (516), and now returned Israelites, and others of the northern kingdom who had not gone into exile, are allowed to celebrate the Passover, once they have broken with everything pagan.


There is a gap between 516 and 458, when Ezra is sent by Artaxerxes I to investigate and enforce the operation of the Jewish law in the province of Judah.


Ezra’s journey, with another group of exiles and gold and silver for the Temple.


Ezra’s prayer of anguish after hearing of mixed marriages with pagan peoples.


The people unitedly investigate all the alleged cases, and almost unanimously (10:15) agree that the Jews should divorce their pagan wives. In all probability with the Jews being a minority group, the parents and families of the wives would secure proper alimony for them.


C. C. Torrey, Ezra Studies (1910); L. W. Batten, ICC (1913); L. E. Browne, Early Judaism (1920); W. F. Albright, “The Date and Personality of the Chronicler,” JBL, XL (1921); A. C. Welch, Post-exilic Judaism (1935); W. Rudolph, Esra und Nehemia, HAT (1949); K. Galling, “The Gola-list according to Ezra ii/Neh vii,” JBL (1951); R. A. Bowman, IB (1954); J. S. Wright, The Building of the Second Temple (1958). See also Book of Nehemiah.

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