The book of First Esdras (1 Esd) has survived in Greek as one of the books of the Apocrypha. The greater part of 1 Esdras (chs. 1–2 and 5–9) is mostly a straightforward translation of 2 Chronicles 35–36, Ezra 1–10, and part of Nehemiah 8. Chapters 3 and 4 have no counterpart in the canonical books, and tell the Story of the Three Youths. The relationship between 1 Esdras and Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah is, therefore, comparable to the relationship between the canonical books of Daniel and Esther, and their expanded Septuagint versions. The Story of the Three Youths was probably written in Aramaic (or Hebrew) and interpolated into the Hebrew-Aramaic material that now forms the canonical books. This composite version was then translated into Greek.

The following table aligns the contents of 1 Esdras and the canonical books:

1 Esdras Canonical Books
ch. 1 From Josiah's Passover to the End of Judah 2 Chr 35–36
ch. 2:1–14 Cyrus Edict Ezra 1
ch. 2:15–25 The Complaint to Artaxerxes Building of the Temple interrupted Ezra 4:6–24
chs. 3–4 The Story of the Youths –––
ch. 5 List of returnees headed by Zerubbabel Building the Altar and founding the Temple Intervention of adversaries Ezra 2:1—4:5
ch. 6–7 Building of the Temple resumed, completed and inaugurated Ezra 5–6
ch. 8–9 The Story of Ezra Ezra 7–10 ; Neh 8

Although other models explaining the relation between 1 Esdras and the comparable material in he Hebrew Bible have been suggested (Schenker 1991; Böhler 1997), the following features substantiate the dependence of 1 Esdras as a book, on the books of Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah.

The Abrupt Opening and Ending.

The most obvious indication of 1 Esdras's secondary nature is its abrupt beginning and brusque ending. First Esdras must have originally started at the point at which it starts today, with the Passover celebrated by King Josiah of Judah, who ruled in the late seventh century B.C.E. It is a strange point to begin, since it takes place in the middle of Josiah's reign. However, it is quite unlikely to be accidental, as it does begin at the very beginning of the Passover account found in 2 Chronicles 35. It is understandable why the book would begin with Josiah, given his prestige in biblical and postbiblical literature (see Sirach 49:3 and the additional verses in 1 Esdras 1:22–23, which, except for the story of the Youths and the ensuing changes, form the most striking discrepancy between 1 Esdras and the canonical books). There is no satisfactory answer, however, regarding the beginning with the Passover; indeed, 1 Esdras now begins and ends with a celebration, but this would be a rather artificial framework for this book.

Whether the ending of 1 Esdras in mid-sentence (“and they came together” [NRSV]) is accidental or calculated decision made by the compiler (van der Kooij, “On the Ending,” 1991) is another longstanding question in the study of the book. Nevertheless, it is clearly not the end of an original, freestanding composition. If the compiler deliberately stopped with “and they gathered.…” he must have meant to imply something like “to be continued.”

Both the ending and the beginning of 1 Esdras prove that the book is an extract from a larger composition of the sort of the canonical books.

Interpolation of the Story of the Youths in the Narrative of the Return.

The Story of the Youths tells about a wisdom contest held in the Persian king Darius's court. His three bodyguards contrive a debate around a famous topic of folklore: what is the most powerful thing of all? They suggest three answers: wine, the king, and women, and substantiate their choice in lengthy wisdom-oriented speeches. The third guard—briefly identified as Zerubbabel—continues with a fourth speech whose subject is truth, and the audience concludes: “Great is truth, and strongest of all!”, a celebrated saying in its Latin version frequently cited in later times: “Magna est veritas et praevalet.” Zerubbabel, having won the contest, is accordingly rewarded: by receiving a royal decree according to which he is allowed to lead his people to their homeland and rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.

No mainstream scholars seriously consider the possibility that 1 Esdras as is, with the Story of the Youths, preceded the canonical version of the return history. The story is by its very nature alien to the context, and was created to fill a gap in the narrative of the canonical version where Zerubbabel appears out of the blue as leader of the returnees. The story rather introduces him on the stage of history with great ado. He distinguishes himself in the court of the foreign king, comparable to Joseph, Esther, and Daniel. The story probably circulated as an independent composition before it was integrated into the narrative of the return.

The rest of 1 Esdras is parallel to the canonical version of 2 Chronicles 35–36, the entire book of Ezra, and Nehemiah 8. The parallel chapters are not just similar to the canonical material, neither are they only a compilation of passages thereof. They neither summarize it nor elaborate on it. They simply feature the very same material, the main difference being the rearrangement of certain units. The suggestion (Schenker; Böhler) that 1 Esdras existed as an independent work before the Story of the Youths was incorporated into it is unlikely (see below). The interpolation of the Story of the Youths being the major contribution of 1 Esdras compared with the canonical books, it is probable that the main reason for its composition was to incorporate the Story of the Youths in the narrative of the return. The Story of the Youths is thus the raison d'être of 1 Esdras.

The interpolation of the story is clearly marked by a transition passage (1 Esd 5:1–6), provided to link the story to Zerubbabel's return narrative (5:7ff // Ezra 2:1—4:5). This passage (specifically vv. 1, 4–5) duplicates the original introduction of the list of returnees (vv. 7–8, that run parallel to Ezra 2:1–2). This is another characteristic of later rewriting.

A Mixture of Genres.

While the parts of 1 Esdras that are parallel to the books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are best categorized as “historiography,” this genre label does not do justice to the main independent contribution of this work, that is, the additional Story of the Youths. This story is of a different genre compared with the material that surrounds it. It is a deipno-sophistic account, a literary genre in its own right, in which a conversation takes place at the banquet table between several participants who show off their brilliance in wisdom-oriented talk (such as found in the Letter of Aristeas §§181–194). These speeches have nothing in common with history or historiography. The Story of the Youths completely blurs the genre of the material into which it was incorporated.

Juxtaposition of Alternative Narratives and Chronological Confusion.

The incorporation of the Story of the Youths resulted in an extraordinary state of affairs: the book of 1 Esdras as a whole offers two alternative narratives regarding the events that took place at the beginning of Darius's reign: the first follows the Story of the Youths (1 Esd 3–4), while the other runs parallel to the canonical version (Ezra 5–6 repeated in 1 Esd 6–7). The Story of the Youths is set at the beginning of Darius's reign (522-486 B.C.E.). First Esdras 2 begins with the first year of Cyrus (538), continues with Artaxerxes (465–424), and ends with the interruption of the building of the Temple, said to be on hold until the second year of Darius (520; 2:25). Chapters 3–4 follow smoothly, introducing the Story of the Youths that conveniently takes place in the reign of Darius. However, chapter 5 narrates that the work at the Temple site stops again, and is delayed, once again, until the second year of Darius (5:70). The account then goes on to tell about the intervention of the prophets that encouraged the people to resume the building of the Temple. According to 1 Esdras, then, the building of the Temple stops and is delayed twice, both times until the second year of Darius; and it is resumed twice, once as a result of Zerubbabel's winning the wisdom contest that is introduced by the Story of the Youths, and the second time through the encouragement of the prophets as recounted in the canonical version. In sum, 1 Esdras not only presupposes the confused chronology of Ezra-Nehemiah, but further complicates it (see Hanhart 2003, pp. 11–13, note 1).

Reordering the Narrative of the Return: Zerubbabel's Return History (Ezra 2:1—4:5 // 1 Esd 5:7–45) and the Complaint to Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:7–24 // 1 Esd 2:15–25).

Besides the interpolation of the Story of the Youths, the major difference between 1 Esdras and the parallel canonical material lies in substantial transpositions triggered by the need to accommodate the Story of the Youths.

In order to set the stage for the Story of the Youths the compiler had to transpose a large-scale, continuous, unit from its canonical setting to a later stage, that is, Ezra 2:1–4:5, that comprises the list of returnees (Ezra 2), the building of the altar and foundation of the Temple (Ezra 3), and the interference of the local adversaries (Ezra 4:1–5). In the canonical book, Ezra 2:1—4:5 immediately follows the Cyrus account (Ezra 1), while in 1 Esdras it is postponed in its entirety until after the Story of the Youths comes to an end (1 Esd 5:7–45). The reason behind this reordering of the material is simple: the hero of the transferred unit (again: Ezra 2:1—4:5) is Zerubbabel; hence, it cannot take place before Zerubbabel is introduced to the stage of history through the wisdom contest in the Story of the Youths.

On the other hand, there was no need whatsoever to move the Artaxerxes correspondence (Ezra 4:6–24 // 1 Esd 2:15–25), since Zerubbabel is not part of it, and the order of the Persian kings was of no concern to the compiler. On the contrary, the Artaxerxes section ends with mentioning the second year of Darius and thus forms a perfect setting for the Story of the Youths. The position of the Artaxerxes section closer to the beginning of the return narrative is thus only a by-product of the compiler's main move.

The reordering of materials resulted in an impossible sequence of events. The complaint sent to Artaxerxes revolves around the ongoing building activity, but there is not one hint beforehand that any actual building took place, in either the city or the Temple. The complaint immediately follows the decree of Cyrus, with nothing in between that would justify a complaint. The explicit complaint against the building of the city remains hanging in the air. It is difficult, then, to envisage a calculated plan behind this chronologically confused course of events.

Regardless of its different setting, the Artaxerxes section disturbs the course of events both chronologically, since Artaxerxes interrupts the Cyrus-Darius narrative, and, in terms of contents, since the building of the city disrupts the Temple-oriented context. In 1 Esdras an attempt was made to bridge the gap by artificially inserting the Temple into the correspondence (Ezra 4:12 compared with 1 Esd 2:17; and Ezra 4:14 compared with 1 Esd 2:18).

The Reading of the Torah (Neh 8:1–13 // 1 Esd 9:36–55) and the Omission of Nehemiah's Memoirs.

Another section that takes its place at different points in the canonical book compared with 1 Esdras is the reading of the Torah. While in the canonical book it is located in Nehemiah 8, in the midst of Nehemiah's operations, in 1 Esdras it follows immediately upon the separation from the foreign women. The canonical sequence is problematic for two main reasons: Ezra abruptly reappears on the scene after a long absence throughout Nehemiah 1–7; and the reading of the Torah (Neh 8) together with the ensuing events (Neh 9–10) interrupts Nehemiah's actions, since his initiative to repopulate Jerusalem (Neh 7) is not resumed until chapter 11.

Does 1 Esdras, where the reading of the Torah is conveniently appended at the end of the Ezra material, offer an earlier arrangement of the material? As many scholars have argued, the reading of the Torah may have originally belonged to the Ezra narrative, but then it should have been located immediately on Ezra's return and certainly before the separation from the foreign women, and not, as in 1 Esdras, after Ezra's main reform has taken place.

First Esdras 9:37 offers overwhelming evidence regarding the dependence of 1 Esdras on the canonical version. After the conclusion of the separation unit (Ezra 10:44 // 1 Esd 9:36), 1 Esdras goes on with the reading of the Torah, beginning with an exposition in v. 37: “And the priests and the Leuites and those from Israel settled down in Ierousalem and throughout the country. On the new moon of the seventh month—and the sons of Israel were in their settlements— (NETS [New English Translation of the Septuagint]).” This verse parallels Nehemiah 7:72, which immediately precedes the reading of the Torah. However, while in the canonical version this verse concludes—just as in Ezra 2:70—the preceding list of returnees, adduced by Nehemiah in preparation for his planned rehabilitation of Jerusalem, in 1 Esdras it is completely out of place, since it certainly cannot serve as a conclusion to the list of those who married foreign wives. This proves that 1 Esdras borrowed this verse together with the following section (1 Esd 9:37–55) from its place in the canonical version, beginning one verse earlier than he should have. The seams of his cut-and-paste procedure are visible. This verse provides the key to the nature of the relationship between the versions regarding the position of the reading of the Torah.

The compiler of 1 Esdras thus used the simple redactional tool of reordering sections in order to combine the Ezra materials that belong together, whereas in his source they were intertwined with the Nehemiah memoirs. He may have decided to leave out the Nehemiah memoirs altogether, given that the last part of the Story of the Youths depicts Zerubbabel, rather than Nehemiah, as the principal rebuilder of Jerusalem.

First Esdras as a Whole—Title, Structure and Concept.

Many contemporary biblical scholars attempt to understand literary works as a whole, regardless of the history of their creation. Recent studies that sought to determine the literary design and the ideological purpose that guided the compiler of 1 Esdras have defined it as a book in its own right, with an identity of its own (see Japhet 2001; Williamson 2003). Furthermore, the work has been said to have a clear and innovative theological concept, since for the first time the fall of Judah and the postexilic restoration form one continuous narrative. This presupposes that the compiler of 1 Esdras is the first to have created the continuity between Chronicles and Ezra; but what if he was already working with a continuous composition? Since the only outstanding contribution of 1 Esdras is the Story of the Youths, concerned with the return, it is unlikely that he would have bothered to look for a beginning other than the first year of Cyrus. Rather, in his milieu the books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah formed one entity.

The evaluation of 1 Esdras as an integrated, carefully planned work guided by theme and concept hardly fits the book as is, and overlooks its abrupt beginning and ending, its mixture of genres, its unwarranted setting, the jumbled chronology and the awkward course of events. The compiler of 1 Esdras invested his efforts in one direction only: the integration of the Story of the Youths into the narrative of the return in order to set the stage for the appearance of Zerubbabel. He did not offer other insights into the history of his people.

In sum, while the canonical book of Ezra-Nehemiah is the product of editorial processes comparable to those at work in 1 Esdras, they should be judged on different levels. The compiler of Ezra-Nehemiah exercised his redactional skills on sources whose nature we can only imagine, whereas the compiler of 1 Esdras was operating with sources that are well known to us, that is, a composition that ran parallel to the canonical books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. We are not in the position to reconstruct the original form of the books under discussion, but the interrelationship between the surviving compositions is clear.



Critical editions

  • Brooke, A. E., and N. McLean, eds. I Esdras, Ezra-Nehemiah. The Old Testament in Greek IV. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1935.
  • Hanhart, R. ed. Esdrae liber I. Septuaginta Vetus Testamentum Graecum VIII, 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974.
  • Hanhart, R. Text und Textgeschichte des 1. Esrabuches. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974.
  • Hanhart, R, Text und Textgeschichte des 2. Esrabuches. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003.

Translations and Commentaries

  • Cook, S. A. “I Esdras.” In The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pp. 1-58, edited by R. H. Charles. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913.
  • Fritzsche, O. F. Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zu den Apokryphen des Alten Testament. Leipzig: Weidmann, 1851. See vol. 1, pp. 1–66.
  • Japhet, S. “I Esdras.” In The Oxford Bible Commentary, I, edited by J. Barton and J. Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Talshir, Z. I Esdras: A Text Critical Commentary. Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 50. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
  • Williamson, H. G. M. “1 Esdras.” In Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, edited by J. D. G. Dunn and J. W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003.

The Story of the Youths

  • Goodman, W. R. A Study of I Esdras 3:1–5:6. PhD diss. Duke University, 1972.
  • Rudolph, W. “Der Wettstreit der Leibwächter des Darius.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 61 (1945/48): 176–190.
  • Schalit, A. “The Date and Place of the Story about the Three Bodyguards of the King in the Apocryphal Book of Ezra.” Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society 13 (1947): 119–128 [Hebrew].
  • Smitten, W. Th. in der. “Zur Pagenerzählung im III.Esra.” Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972): 492–495.

Special Studies on the Provenance of 1 Esdras

  • Böhler, D. Die Heilige Stadt in Esdras α und Esra-Nehemia. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 158. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997.
  • Böhler, D. “On the Relationship between Textual and Literary Criticism: The Two Recensions of the Book of Ezra: Ezra-Neh (MT) and 1 Esdras (LXX).” In The Earliest Text of the Hebrew Bible, edited by A. Schenker, pp. 35–50. Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 52. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Kooij, A. van der. “On the Ending of the Book of 1 Esdras.” Proceedings of the XVII Congress of the IOSCS 1989, pp. 37–49. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
  • Kooij, A. van der. “Zur Frage des Anfangs des 1. Esrabuches.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103 (1991): 239–252.
  • Pohlmann, K. F. Studien zum dritten Esra. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970.
  • Pohlmann, K. F. 3. Esra-Buch. Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit I, 5. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 1980.
  • Schenker, A. “La Relation d'Esdras A’ au texte massorétique d'Esdras-Néhémie.” In Tradition of the Text, edited by Gerard J. Norton and Stephen Pisano, pp. 218–249. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 109. Fribourg-Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991.
  • Talshir, Z. “Ezra-Nehemiah and First Esdras: Diagnosis of a Relationship between Two Recensions.” Biblica 81(2000): 566–573.
  • Talshir, Z. I Esdras: From Origin to Translation. Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 47. Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 1999.
  • Talshir, Z. “Synchronic Approaches with Diachronic Consequences in the Study of Parallel Redactions: First Esdras and 2 Chronicles 35–36; Ezra 1–10; Nehemiah 8.” In Yahwism After the Exile, edited by R. Albertz and B. Becking, pp. 203–207. Studies in Theology and Religion, vol. 5. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 2003.
  • Torrey, C. C. Ezra Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910.
  • Torrey, C. C. “A Revised View of First Esdras.” Louis Ginzberg: Jubilee Volume, pp. 395–410. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945.

Collection of Papers on 1 Esdras

  • Fried, L. S., ed. Was 1st Esdras First? An Investigation into the Priority and Nature of 1 Esdras. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Zipora Talshir