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The Book of Ezra is a book of the Bible in the Old Testament and Hebrew Tanakh. It is the record of events occurring at the close of the Babylonian captivity, especially The Return to Zion. At one time, it included the Book of Nehemiah, and the Jews regarded them as one volume. The two are still distinguished in the Vulgate version as I and II Esdras.

The book is divided into two principal parts:

  • The history of the first return of exiles, in the first year of Cyrus the Great (536 BCE), till the completion and dedication of the new Temple in Jerusalemmarker, in the sixth year of Darius (515 BCE). From the close of the sixth to the opening of the seventh chapter there is a period of about sixty years.

The book thus contains memorabilia connected with the Jews, from the decree of Cyrus to the reformation by Ezra (456 BCE), extending over a period of about eighty years.


Cyrus, inspired by God, permits the Israelites to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and returns to them the golden vessels which had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar. The number of the captives that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judah with Zerubbabel is stated as 42,360, besides 7,337 men servants and women servants and 200 singing men and women.

Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel build the altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In the second year the foundations of the Temple are laid, and the dedication takes place with great rejoicing. The adversaries of the Jews, especially the Samaritans, make efforts to hinder the Jews from building the Temple. A letter is written by the Samaritans to Cambyses II (called "Ahasuerus" in 4:6) to procure a prohibition of the construction of the Temple, and the work is interrupted till the second year of Darius.

Through the exhortations of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Joshua recommence the building of the Temple. Tatnai, the governor "on this side the river," sends to the king a report of their action. Darius finds the decree of Cyrus in the archives of Achmethamarker (modern Hamedanmarker), and directs Tatnai not to disturb the Jews in their work. He also exempts them from tribute and supplies everything necessary for the offerings. The Temple is finished in the month of Adar, in the sixth year of Darius, and is dedicated with great solemnity.

Artaxerxes I gives Ezra a commission to bring with him to Jerusalem all the captives that remain in Babylon. Ezra institutes a fast while on his way to Jerusalem. The princes of Israel inform Ezra that many have not repudiated their foreign wives. Those who have taken foreign wives are compelled to send them away and to bring each a sin offering.

Origin, structure, and authorship

The canonical Book of Ezra commences where the Books of Chronicles leave off, and indeed with slight variation repeats the last two verses of II Chronicles. What follows consists of three portions:
  1. an account of the return of the exiles and a brief survey of the fortunes of the Jewish community down to the reign of Xerxes;
  2. extracts from a collection of historical documents in Aramaic, illustrating the fortunes of the community in the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius, with a short appendix in Hebrew;
  3. a record of the enterprise of the author of the book, including a copy of the decree granted to him by Artaxerxes I, with an account of the author's work at Jerusalem.

The first section includes a document also transcribed in Nehemiah, called by Nehemiah a genealogical table of the first return. A third copy is found in the apocryphal I Esdras.

Character of composition

The documents embodied in the second section are described as "written in Aramaic and 'targumed' in Nehemiah Aramaic" (iv. 7). Since a work can not be translated into the same language as it is composed, the expression "targumed" must mean "described," a sense which corresponds closely to the sense of the Arabic word "tarjamah," which, used of a tradition, signifies the heading in which its contents are described. This phrase, then, implies that the contents of this section were transcribed from a collection of documents and accompanied with a commentary, probably made for the benefit of the Eastern community. In these extracts there is evidently a chronological transposition; for the correspondence with Artaxerxes I. (ch. iv.) is placed before the correspondence with Darius (ch. v., vi.), who is certainly Darius I. This may be a confusion on the author's part between Darius I. and Darius II.; but it is surprising, since in iv. 5-7 he shows himself well acquainted with the order of the Persian kings. Thus the period covered by the commentary on the documents in ch. v. and vi. is earlier than that covered by the documents in ch. iv.

On the other hand, this apparent confusion is resolved if one looks at I Esdras. There, the first section of the book is arranged with a literary device, the chiasm, repeating "in the second year of Darius's reign" at the beginning and the end of the section; a reference to King Artaxerxes is repeated in the same way. Thus, the text does not jump around chronologically, but frames and sets off the most important part of the book between refrains.

For a further explanation of the arrangement, see the section following.

Comparison with Greek Ezra

The book of Ezra exists in three forms accepted as canonical by different Christian churches. Masoretic Ezra is accepted by Jews and the Western churches. The Eastern churches also accept Greek Ezra (1 Esdras), which survives among the Apocrypha in the West. First Esdras contains the whole of Ezra with additions equivalent in size to about four chapters of Ezra. Moreover, just as Ezra begins with the last two verses of 2 Chronicles, 1 Esdras begins with the last two chapters; and it concludes with a section closely resembling part of Nehemiah.

The core of 1 Esdras is arranged in a beautiful literary chiasm around the celebration in Jerusalem at the exiles’ return. This arrangement is possible only with the material not found in Ezra. Since this material is essential to the purpose and structure of the book, it suggests that the two books in fact originally formed two books, rather than a single Ezra-Nehemiah. Moreover, with the passages exclusive to 1 Esdras, the chronology makes much better sense and the narrative is less confusing.


The authenticity of the documents is a matter on which there is difference of opinion, with critics being disposed to regard all of them as inauthentic, whereas before the time of Heinrich Graetz they were generally thought to be genuine. The custom in use among ancient historians of illustrating their histories by speeches and letters of their own composition makes the treatment of such questions difficult.

The edict of Cyrus, said to have been found at Achmethamarker (vi. 3-5), is the boldest of these fabrications, if they be such; but the mention of that ancient capital implies some very remarkable knowledge on the part of the author here excerpted. Some other reasons for believing these documents genuine are alleged by Levi Herzfeld. The character of the Aramaic in which they are couched agrees fairly well, both in vocabulary and in grammar, with that of early inscriptions and papyri; and there would be nothing surprising in successive compilers having assimilated the language somewhat to the dialect with which they were most familiar. It is also possible that these Aramaic texts are translations of documents in Old Persian, and were accommodated to the taste of those whom they were intended to reach.

The third part of the book appears to be a personal memoir; and the decree there given (vii. 11-26), coming from an Artaxerxes whom the author distinguishes by spelling from Artaxerxes I, cannot be regarded as spurious without seriously shaking the writer's credit. The narrative which he proceeds to give of his journey, however, contains little which might have been invented for the purpose of edification. The narrative of Ezra's doings at Jerusalem is also not marked by exaggeration. Chapter ix. records a lengthy prayer offered by him on receipt of the intelligence of the mixed marriages, and chapter x. the measures taken by him to separate the erring couples, with a list of the persons affected. The objection urged by some critics that so severe a measure would not have been obeyed, seems insufficient to justify the condemnation of this part of the narrative as unhistorical; since the author may well have supposed it would be more effective than it turned out to be. Nor indeed does the recurrence to the subject in Nehemiah x. 31 and xiii. 23 render it improbable that severe measures were taken years before in the same direction.

Chronological placement

The date of Ezra's arrival in Judaea depends on the identification of the Persian King Artaxerxes I ca. 457 BC.


  1. Herzfeld, Levi. "Geschichte des Volkes Israel," i. 125

See also

External links

Jewish translations

Christian translations

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