Second Esdras

ESDRAS, SECOND (2) (see previous article for pronunciation and root words). The title comes from the Geneva Bible; in the Vul. it is called 4 Esdras. Sometimes called the “Ezra Apocalypse” (due to the character of chs. 3-14). Many writers regard chs. 1, 2 and 15, 16 to be Christian interpolations and give them the names 5 Ezra and 6 Ezra, respectively (e.g., Eissfeldt). See below under Date.

Literary character.

In words reminiscent of the prophet Habakkuk, the writer of 2 Esdras wrestled with the problem of evil: “How long and when will these things be? Why are our years few and evil?” (2 Esd 4:33; see also 6:59; cf. Hab. 1:2). Even when his angelic informant explained (2 Esd 4:10, 11), Ezra showed his bewilderment (4:12).

Much of the message is conveyed by symbolism. Outstanding are the fifth and sixth visions where (1) an eagle with twelve wings and three heads was encountered by a lion (11:1, 37) and (2) a man-like figure who rose from the sea and flew with the clouds of heaven was opposed by an innumerable multitude of men (13:3, 5).


Probably the main reasons for rejecting the Pers. setting and placing the book in the Christian era are (1) the interpretation of the eagle vision (11:1-12:51) as a symbol of the Rom. empire (during the time of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian); and (2) the anti-Jewish or Christian character of much of the material in chs. 1, 2 (e.g., affinities to the gospels and the NT Apocalypse, and the anti-Jewish sentiments found in 1:24-27, 30-32, 33-35; 2:7).


As indicated above, there are nine parts in the book, made up of an introduction and conclusion with seven visions:

(1) 1:1-2:48. The genealogy of Ezra and the record of the commands he received from the Lord to deliver the people of Israel (notice 1:4; 2:33, 42).

(2) 3:1-5:20. At Babylon, thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem, Ezra saw the contrast between the destruction of his city and the affluence of Babylon. He was perplexed over the seeming injustice, but was assured that God would solve the problem justly.

(3) 5:21-6:34. Seven days later he received a vision concerning the scattering of Israel among the nations (“O Lord, why hast thou...scattered thine only one among the many?”). Much of the discussion sounds similar to the Book of Job, and the solution to the problem seems to echo the Book of Revelation (on the former, see 5:35-55; on the latter, 6:17-24).

(4) 6:35-9:25. This is the longest of the visions. Eight days after the previous vision he spoke “in the presence of the Most High.” Perplexity over the contrast between the many who will perish and the few who will be saved dominates this section. The judgment of mankind is vividly described. (Verses 36-105, appearing in brackets, are found in many ancient MSS but are missing from the Lat. Vul. and the KJV. It is the opinion of some that theological reasons were involved in the latter, for these vv. strongly prohibit prayer for the dead, e.g., v. 105.)

(5) 9:26-10:59. Ezra saw a woman mourning because her son had died. Then he saw a city of huge foundations. The vision was explained as follows: the woman was the heavenly Zion (10:44; cf. Rev. 21:9, 10); her son was the earthly city (10:46); and his death was the destruction which befell Jerusalem (10:48).

(6) 11:1-12:51. An eagle, having twelve wings and three heads, arose from the sea. He reigned over the earth, but was soon countered by a lion who uttered the words of the Most High against him. The interpretation identified the eagle as the fourth kingdom of Daniel’s vision, and the lion as the Messiah who shall destroy the enemies of the Lord.

(7) 13:1-58. Seven days later Ezra saw “something like the figure of a man” arising from a stormy sea, and the man “flew with the clouds of heaven,” language similar to Daniel 7:13. Opposed by a great multitude, the man sent forth fire from his mouth and burned them all up. The man was the Son of the Most High (13:32) who shall destroy the wicked and gather the people of Israel from their dispersion.


(8) 14:1-48. In this final vision the prophet was commissioned to write for forty days, then would be taken to live with the Son until the times were ended. He wrote ninety-four books; twenty-four were to be made public; seventy were to be kept secret for the wise among the people. The former represented the Heb. canon (five, the Law, eight, the Prophets and eleven, the Writings); the latter prob. apocalyptic books. The Holy Spirit, sent into him as a cup full of fiery water, enabled him to write.

(9) 15:1-16:78. This final section, added in the 3rd cent. a.d., consists mainly of warnings of divine judgments against the nations. Egypt, Arabia, Parthia (Carmania), Babylon, Asia and Syria are mentioned by name. God’s elect shall be delivered from the days of tribulation.


Second Esdras shares in common with other Jewish apocalypses a concern for the future. This concern is backed by a variety of affirmations about God and man, and by an expectation of the appearance of the Messiah (or, a Messiah) and the kingdom of God, along with a variety of beliefs about resurrection and judgment. Some of these conceptions in this book are the following:

(1) God. The favorite title is “the Most High” (at least sixty-eight times, RSV text), followed by “Lord” (at least sixty, RSV). There are various combinations, in addition, such as “Lord God” (4), “the Lord Almighty” (6) and “the Mighty One” (5). The name God occurs some twenty-one times.

One interesting variant may be noted. “Most High” does not occur in chs. 1, 2, 15 or 16, the “interpolated” sections of the book. On the other hand, the title “Lord” (and its combinations) is found many times (at least forty-three out of seventy) in these same chapters.

Human understanding is limited (4:1, 2), and man cannot understand God’s ways (4:11). When he is questioned he is unable to fathom the depths (4:1-12; 5:33-40).

While many of the lines are not clearly defined, one point is made often—the solution to the prevailing state of evil and the fate of both the good and the bad is the day of judgment, when all shall be made right by the Most High.


R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, II (1913); ibid., Religious Development Between the Old and New Testaments (1914); W. O. E. Oesterley, An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha (1946); D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Or The Apocalyptic Esdras:


1. Name 2. Contents 3. Language 4. Versions 5. Origin of the Book 6. Date


This book was not received by the Council of Trent as canonical, nor has it ever been acknowledged as such by the Anglican church.

1. Name:

The book is not found in the Septuagint and no complete copy of the Greek text is known, though at one time it did exist. The oldest extant name is "The Prophet Ezra" (Esdras ho prophetes; see Clement of Alexandria, Strom., iii.16): It has been often called the Latin Esdras because it exists more completely in that language; compare the name Greek Esdras for 1 Esdras.

3 Esdras is the designation in old editions of the Vulgate, 1 Esdras being Ezr and Neh, 2 Esdras denoting what in English is called 1 Esdras. But in editions of the Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 AD.) later than the Council of Trent, and also in Walton’s Polyglot, Ezra is called 1 Esdras, Nehemiah, 2 Esdras, 1 Esdras = 3 Esdras, the present book (the Latin Esdras) being known as 4 Esdras. In authorized copies of the Vulgate, i.e. in those commonly used, this book is lacking. On account of its contents, Westcott, following the example of Anastasius Sinaita (bishop of Antioch from 559 AD), called the book the "Apocalypse of Esdras." But as Tischendorf in 1866 edited a later and inferior work with this title the present writer suggests the name "The Apocalyptic Esdras." Of all the Jewish apocalypses this is the sublimest and most pleading.

See Apocalyptic Literature, sec. II, 1, 5.

2. Contents:

The original work consists of 2 Esdras 3-14, chapters 1 f and 15 f being late additions. The entire book of 16 chapters exists in the Latin version only, the other versions containing chapters 3-14 only. The real 2nd (apocalyptic) Esdras, consisting of chapters 3-14, is made up of 7 visions given to Ezra in exile 30 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The drift of these visions is, How can a just and loving God allow His own people to suffer so much? The problem thus raised is fully and beautifully dealt with. For lack of space the present writer must refer for a fuller analysis to the article APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, sec. I, 5, and the literature there cited. For 2 Esdras 1 ff and 15 ff see under ESDRAS 5 AND 6.

3. Language:

Though no complete text even of 2 Esdras 3-14 has survived, a careful examination of the Latin shows that it has been made from a Greek original.

(1) Some fragments of the Greek can be traced, as 5:35 in Clement of Alexandria and 8:23 in the Apostolical Constitutions.

(2) The order of the twelve prophets in 1:39 f follows that in the Septuagint.

(3) The Latin version bears throughout clear traces of Greek idiom.

Thus the gen. is used with the comparative (5:3; 11:29); we have the genitive (not ablative) absolute in 10:9, the double negative and the use of de (Greek apo) and ex (Greek ek) with the genitive in various parts. But there are cogent reasons for concluding that the Greek version implied in the Latin itself implies a Hebrew original, and the proof is similar to that of a Greek version as the basis of the Latin In the Greek there are idioms which are Hebrew, not Greek, not even in their frequency Hellenistic Greek. The participle used to strengthen the finite verb is the regular Hebrew idiom of the absolute with the finite verb: see 4:2 (excedens excessit); 5:30 (odiens odisti). For other examples see Gunkel (in Kautzsch, Die Apokryphen u. Pseud. des Altes Testament, 332 f); R. H. Charles (Enc Brit, X, 106). Ewald was the first to defend a Hebrew original, but in 1866 he was followed by his distinguished pupil Wellhausen and also by R. H. Charles (Apoc Bar, lxxii).

4. Versions:

(1) Latin.

The Latin version is far the most important and on it the English Versions of the Bible depends. But all published editions of the Latin text (those of Fabricius, Hilgenfeld, Fritzsche, etc.) go back to one and the same MS, the so-called Codex Sangermanensis (date 822), which omits a large part of the text between 2 Esdras 7:36 and 7:37 Any reader of the English text can see the lack of continuity between these verses. In 1875 Bensly published the missing fragment with an Introduction and critical notes. In 1895 Bensly and James published a critical edition of The Fourth Book of Ezra in Latin, restoring the missing fragment and correcting with the aid of the best-known manuscripts.

(2) Other Versions.

There are Syriac (Peshitta), Ethiopic, Arabic, Armenian and yet other VSS, but all depend on the lost Greek except one of the two extant Arabic translations. The number and variety of versions show that 2 Esdras was widely circulated. By the Greek and Latin Fathers it was quoted as a genuine prophetical work. Its importance in the estimation of the medieval Roman church is vouched for by the fact that it has reached us in a number of wellknown manuscripts of the Scriptures, and that it was added to the authorized Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 AD.) as an appendix.

5. Origin of the Book:

Two main views may briefly be noted:

(1) That of Kabisch (Das vierte Buch Esra, 1889) who holds that the editor of the book freely used a goodly number of sources, subtracting, adding and altering to suit his purpose. He gives a list of probable sources. R. H. Charles (Enc Brit, X, 107) is inclined to adopt this analysis.

(2) Gunkel (loc. cit.) maintains and tries to prove that the book is the production of a single writer. Yet he admits that the book contains a large number of inconsistencies which he explains by assuming that the editor made free use of oral and written traditions. The two views do not therefore stand very far apart, for both take for granted that several sources have been used. It is simply a question of more or less.

Wellhausen is probably right in saying that the author of 2 (4) Esdras had before him the Apocrypha of Baruch, written under the impression awakened by the destruction of Jerusalem in 71 AD.

6. Date:

The opinion of the best modern scholars is that the book was written somewhere in the East in the last decade of the 1st century of our era. This conclusion rests mainly on the most likely interpretation of the vision of the Eagle and the Lion in 2 Esdras 11:1-12:51; but also on the fact that Clement of Alexandria (died 217 AD) quotes the Greek of 5:35.


Besides the literature referred to above see Schurer, A Hist of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, II, iii, 93 ff (Ger. edition 4, III, 315 ff); the articles in HDB (Thackeray) and Encyclopedia Biblica (James); the New Sch-Herz under the word "Pseudepigrapha, Old Testament" (G. Beer), and in the present work under APOCRYPHA and APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE.

T. Witton Davies