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First Esdras

ESDRAS, FIRST (1) ĕz’ drəs (LXX ̓́Εσδρας, A, Heb. עֶזְרָא, meaning: help). First book of the OT Apoc. The Lat. Vul. designates it 3 Esdras, using 1 and 2 Esdras for the canonical Ezra and Nehemiah. Commonly known as the “Greek Ezra” to distinguish it from the canonical Ezra in Heb. and from the Apocalypse of Ezra in Lat. The author of the book is unknown.

Literary character.

The similarity to the canonical books of 2 Chronicles (chs. 35, 36), Ezra (nearly all) and Nehemiah (7:73b-8:12) is obvious. There are noticeable changes in literary usage; in addition 3:1-5:6 represent a unique section, having no parallel in the OT.

There is nothing in 1 Esdras which corresponds to Nehemiah 1:1-7:73a, nor is the name of Nehemiah mentioned in the narrative concerning the reading of the law (cf. 1 Esd 9:49 with Neh 8:9). Ezra is mentioned as “priest and reader” in 1 Esdras 9:39, the only place where the title occurs; Nehemiah 8:2 calls him “the priest.” Possibly this data was intended to show the prominence of Ezra in his role as spiritual leader of the Restoration period.


Due to the close relation of 1 Esdras to the canonical books of 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, the latter dating from the late 5th cent. b.c., and also some apparent dependence on the Book of Daniel in the LXX (see 1 Esd 4:58-60, RSV, with Dan 2:20-23), tr. in the 3rd and 2nd centuries b.c., the terminus a quo would be sometime in the 2nd cent. b.c. As the book is used by Josephus (Antiq. XI. V. 1-5), the terminus ad quem would be c. a.d. 90. Various dates have been suggested, ranging from c. 150-50 b.c.


The historical range extends from Josiah’s passover (1:1-24) to Ezra’s role as leader of the people in Jerusalem (9:37-55). An annotated structural outline follows:

(1) 1 Esdras 1:1-58 (cf. 2 Chron 35; 36). Josiah’s Passover; his battle with Pharaoh-Necho and resulting death; and the Babylonian invasion of Judah fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy.

(2) 2:1-15 (cf. Ezra 1:1-11). Cyrus’ decree allowing the Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple.

(3) 2:16-30 (cf. 4:7-24). Letter from Pers. officials in Samaria to Artaxerxes asking that construction of the Jewish Temple be stopped, and the granting of the request.

(4) 3:1-5:6 (no OT parallel). Story of King Darius and three of his court guards. In answer to the question, “What thing is the strongest?” they reply, respectively, (a) wine, (b) the king, and (c) women, but truth above all. The third guard was Zerubbabel; his answer gained him permission to return and rebuild Jerusalem.

(5) 5:7-73 (cf. Ezra 2:1-4:6). The roster of returning Jews and the beginning of the restoration of the Temple in the days of Cyrus.

(6) 6:1-7:15 (cf. Ezra 5:1-6:22). Haggai and Zechariah urge the building to continue, in the second year of Darius, and after some delay, the temple was completed in the sixth year (515 b.c.).

(7) 8:1-67 (cf. Ezra 7:1-8:36). The return of Ezra and his companions to Jerusalem with a commission from the Pers. King Artaxerxes. He was to administer, rebuild and teach.

(8) 8:68-90 (cf. Ezra 9). Ezra’s prayer of confession.

(9) 8:91-9:36 (cf. Ezra 10). Repentance on the part of the people, and Ezra’s reforms, including judgment against mixed marriages.

(10) 9:37-55 (cf. Neh 7:73-8:12). Ezra reads the law to the people, and the Levites carry on the work of instruction.

Attitude toward the law.

After a long period of neglect and disobedience, this prevailing attitude toward the law seems to have been due in great measure to the work and influence of Ezra. According to Albright, Ezra’s greatest importance “probably lay in the field of cultic reform than in that of political action.” The law was established as “the normative rule of Israel’s faith.”

The story of Darius and the youths.

While little background is supplied here for the story (3:1-3), Josephus (Antiq., XI, iii, 1) adds a number of details which shed a different light on the incident. Among other things, the latter reveals that “there had been an old friendship between him (Zerubbabel) and the king (Darius).”

The three wise sayings concerning what is strongest—wine, the king, and women, but, above all, truth—supply interesting insights into differing views on life, a common theme in Jewish wisdom writings.

Wine, said the first guard, is strongest, for it distorts the mental processes of those who consume it, causing them to do foolish and harmful things. Often one will reverse his normal attitudes toward his friends and his obligations.

The king is the strongest, averred the second man. He is absolute, bearing rule over even the strongest men. Obedience to the king is described by a rare word (ἐνακούουσιν), meaning “to hear to obey” (4:3). Every subject’s life is at his disposal, an apt description of the oriental monarch.

Zerubbabel first named women as the strongest, yet concluded that “truth is great, and stronger than all things” (4:35). His argument for the former may be reduced to a simple syllogism: kings and wine are both great; but, women as mothers bear the men who conquer and who grow grapes; therefore, women are strongest.

Similarly, his praise of truth followed this approach: Women, along with wine and the king, are unrighteous; but, there is no unrighteousness in truth; therefore, truth is strong and prevails for ever.

The people responded to his analysis, “Great is truth, and the strongest of all!” Based on the Lat. Vul. text of 1 Esdras this statement has become proverbial: magna est veritas et praevalet.

At this, Darius proclaimed Zerubbabel the wisest and promised him anything he wished, and that he would be called his “kinsman” (συγγενής, G5150, 4:42).


F. Josephus, The Antiquities; E. C. Bissell, The Apocrypha in Lange’s Commentary (1880); R. H. Charles, ed., Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, I (1913); W. O. E. Oesterley, An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha (1946); R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (1949); W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period (1950).