2 Esdras - Introduction
Fourth Ezra, the longest and most complex of the three, is also the earliest. Written in Hebrew by an anonymous Jew in Israel near the end of the first century CE, it sets forth its author's anguished reflections on the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The author adopts the pseudonym of Ezra, the character known from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, whom he presents as living after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and also refers to Rome by a pseudonym, “Babylon.” Thus he writes on two levels, comparing his own situation with that of his biblical hero. The book's central concern is the issue of theodicy: How could a just God allow such misfortunes to happen to God's chosen people?
The author of 4 Ezra is a deeply reflective and highly imaginative thinker, who is moreover skilled and sophisticated enough to present divergent theological viewpoints in different parts of the book. In the first three of the book's seven “visions,” Ezra, the book's spirited and loquacious hero, argues persuasively a profoundly humanistic viewpoint that stresses the ideals of God's mercy, justice, and care for humanity, especially Israel. Ezra is rebuffed time and again, however, by an angel, who emphasizes the limitations of human reasoning.
In the fourth vision, the book's central and pivotal section, Ezra experiences a profound psychological shift from his previous attitude to a state of unquestioning acceptance of God's will. As a sign of this transition he receives a mystical vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. Equipped with his newly acquired state of mind, Ezra in the last section of the book receives two further mystical visions (the fifth and sixth), both indicating that the true solution to the problem of God's justice is an apocalyptic one: The suffering righteous will receive their reward at the end of the world. Finally, in the climactic seventh vision, the inspired Ezra is granted permission by God to rewrite the scriptures that had been burned by the “Babylonians,” but with one variation: In addition to the traditional books of the Hebrew canon, he writes seventy secret books meant for the “wise” among his people. Fourth Ezra's author thus displays his penchant for mystical, esoteric, and apocalyptic modes of thinking, and his conviction that these hold the answers to the ethical and theological dilemmas of Israel, and indeed of all humankind.
Sometime in the second century CE, 4 Ezra was translated into Greek, and subsequently into many other languages. Although both the original Hebrew text and the Greek translation were lost over time, the book is known in no less than eight versions: Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, two independent Arabic versions, and a fragmentary Coptic version. This large number of translations attests to the book's immense popularity in the many Christian churches of the early Middle Ages.
Fifth Ezra, a Christian writing of the second or third century CE, is also attributed to Ezra. It was composed in either Greek or Latin; its place of composition is uncertain. Fifth Ezra reflects the growing tension between Christian and Jewish communities. It indicts the people of Israel for their sins and “predicts” the coming of a new people (the Christians) who will inherit the promises originally made to Israel.
Sixth Ezra is a Christian composition of the third century, probably from Asia Minor. In it an anonymous prophet predicts terrible catastrophes that will afflict the whole earth as a result of human iniquity and warns God's “elect” to abstain from sin if they wish to escape the calamities. The book reflects a situation in which its Christian community was experiencing persecution and strives to convince its audience to stand firm. Although 6 Ezra survives in full only in Latin, a fourth‐century Greek parchment fragment of 15.57–59 found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, indicates that the book was composed in Greek.
Some time before 400 CE, a Latin form of 6 Ezra was appended to the end of 4 Ezra. In turn, a Latin form of 5 Ezra was later added to the end of that composite, probably before 450. Then, prior to 800, 5 Ezra was moved to the head of the collection, resulting in the form of the book known today.