The name ‘1 Esdras’ goes back to the Greek name of the book, Esdras A (Esdras B corresponds to Hebrew Ezra and Nehemiah). It is a reworking of 2 Kings 23–4, 2 Chronicles 35–6, Ezra 1–10, and Nehemiah 8: 1–13, and may be based on an Aramaic or Hebrew original, now lost. It was probably translated into Greek in the second century BCE. The narrative commences with Josiah's celebration of the Passover. Though based on 2 Chronicles, it adds more explicit praise of Josiah in 1 Esd. 1: 21, 31, stressing the virtues of Josiah's kingship. 1 Esd. 5: 7–9: 36 follows Ezra 4–10 fairly faithfully.
The main feature of 1 Esdras is the insertion of the Story of the Three Youths (1 Esd. 3–5: 6), in which three young bodyguards hold a competition in front of King Darius in order to decide what is strongest. The first argues that wine is strongest, and the second youth says that the king is strongest. The third, who is at this point identified as Zerubbabel, says that women rule both wine and the king, but that ultimately it is truth that prevails over all. The winner is judged to be the third youth. He reminds the king of a previous royal vow to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple and to restore the captured temple vessels, and as his prize he asks the king to fulfil this vow.
The insertion into the biblically based material of the Story of the Three Youths seems designed to enhance the status of Zerubbabel, who is already known from the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah as a leader of the first wave of returned exiles. Talshir (1999: 270) believes that this is in fact the raison d'être of the entire book, though De Troyer (2002: 55) goes further and sees Zerubbabel portrayed as a kind of Solomon redivivus. The Story of the Three Youths has been clearly influenced by Neh. 2: 1–9. Here Nehemiah is the Persian king's cupbearer, whose downcast looks the king notices. The king ascertains that Nehemiah is distressed over Jerusalem, and allows him to return there to rebuild the city. The motif of a high-ranking, trusted official close to the king receiving royal authorization and backing to return to Jerusalem is found in both Nehemiah and 1 Esdras. But in the Story of the Three Youths, the bodyguard Zerubbabel wins a public contest before the king through his own wisdom, and so appears a more worthy recipient of the king's favour. Zerubbabel's Davidic ancestry (cf. 1 Chr. 3: 19 and Hag. 2: 21–3) is also stressed in 1 Esdras. Zerubbabel's name is also added in 1 Esd. 6: 18 (cf. Ezra 5: 14), so that he and Sheshbazzar share the honour of having returned the temple vessels to Jerusalem. So altogether, Zerubbabel's role in 1 Esdras eclipses and replaces that of Nehemiah, who, moreover, goes unmentioned in the book: compare the otherwise similar verse Neh. 8: 9 with 1 Esd. 9: 49, where only Ezra appears.
This must surely reflect a debate within early Judaism concerning the relative merits of the various leaders of the exiles. Talshir (1999: 55–7) points out that in Sir. 49: 13, 2 Macc. 1: 18, and Josephus (AJ XI §§165, 169), Ezra is ignored and Nehemiah developed, whereas the rabbis prefer Ezra and denigrate Nehemiah (e.g. b. Sanh. 93b). The rabbis even identify Nehemiah with Zerubbabel. 1 Esdras makes Ezra the chief priest (1 Esd. 9: 39, 40, 49), whereas in the corresponding part of the book of Nehemiah, he is merely a priest and scribe (Neh. 8: 1, 2, 9). So, overall, in 1 Esdras, the figures given prominence are Josiah, Zerubbabel, and Ezra.
Another area of study is the relationship of 1 Esdras to Ezra–Nehemiah. Böhler (1997) argues that the biblical Nehemiah memoir was not known to the author of 1 Esdras, and that he therefore provides an independent and sometimes more accurate account. Most others would say that 1 Esdras is a tendentious reworking of Ezra–Nehemiah (see Williamson 1996).
Other biblical parallels apparent in 1 Esdras include Daniel and Joseph, who also prove their wisdom in royal courts. However, the wisdom of Joseph and Daniel consists of being able to interpret correctly the king's dreams, whereas the concept of wisdom in 1 Esdras is more philosophical, appropriately enough for the Hellenistic period. There are also similarities with the symposium scene in the Letter of Aristeas.
Whether the Story of the Three Youths was created for 1 Esdras is debatable. It is strange that none of the three youths is described as being Jewish, and that the third youth is identified as Zerubbabel only once, when he begins to speak in the contest (1 Esd. 4: 13), in a three-word phrase which looks very much like an insertion. Without it, the narrative in 1 Esd. 3: 1–4: 42, ending at the point where the king promises to honour the winning youth, could easily be a self-contained story. Zerubbabel's name in fact serves as the only point of contact with the rest of the book. If the story ever existed on its own, the climax would surely be the humorous reference to the king's concubine Apame, whose teasing and irreverent treatment of him only makes him fawn on her the more. A more serious note is struck by the praise of truth. This may also represent a later, non-Jewish layer in the original story, since the reference to God seems rather to be tacked on at the very end.
From the modern point of view 1 Esdras does not hang together well because of its anachronisms and inconsistencies. For instance, Cyrus is king in 1 Esdras 2; the Story of the Three Youths takes place under Darius (3: 1–5: 2); but then Cyrus seems to be king again in 5: 71, 73, before the mention of Darius's accession in 5: 73. But despite the chronological oddities, the book seems to be stressing the continuity between pre-exilic and post-exilic Judaism (deSilva 2002: 164), and begins and ends with the celebration of a major festival in Jerusalem.
Josephus seems to prefer 1 Esdras to Ezra–Nehemiah, and several early Christian writers cite the book, though Jerome rejected it (Myers 1974: 17–18). However, most of these citations refer not to the narrative parts of the book but to the praise of truth and God (1 Esd. 4: 35–41).