As with other books of the Bible, such as Chronicles, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were once read as a single scroll by ancient eyes. In the third century AD, Origen, a Christian scholar from Alexandria, proposed dividing the scroll into Ezra I and II (or in Greek “Esdras”), however this never transpired, and even Jerome rejected this proposal in his Latin translation of the Vulgate. It was only later that Christian scribes divided the scroll into two separate books: Ezra and Nehemiah. From Chronicles to Nehemiah, the three books compose a concise history of ancient Israelite, from the time of Adam to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
To place Ezra and Nehemiah in context, recall the story of Chronicles which recounts the Israelites entire genealogical up to the Babylonian exile, in which the kingdom was split in two and Judea rebelled against Babylon and was placed in captivity and the Babylonians sacked the city of Jerusalem, destroying the temple. Then, with the rise of the small empire of Persia under Cyrus, Babylon fell to Persia around 539 BC, and Cyrus ordered that the Jewish temple be rebuilt and the Jewish exiles returned. For this reason, much of the Biblical writings look to Cyrus as a great man, a kind of savior (as evidenced in the book of Isaiah). Under the reign of Cambyses, the temple construction is halted due to Samaritan tensions and the Persians conquer Egypt. Under Darius, the edict to rebuild the temple is rediscovered. Xerxes reissues Cyrus’s decree, but spends the bulk of his tenure battling the Greeks in the Mediterranean (Persian Wars, as recounted by Herodotus). Under the reign of Artaxerxes I, the remaining Jewish exiles are returned to Jerusalem (including Ezra and also including the time-frame of Nehemiah’s mission). Then the temple is rebuilt under Darius II of Persia, though the empire of Persia experiences a rapid decline under Darius II, Artaxerxes II and III, and finally under Darius III Persia is conquered by Alexander the Great.
While the Babylonians led a repressive empire, enslaving the conquered, the Persians allowed the various peoples and cultures of their empire to flourish in their own ways, so long as they paid tribute and submitted ultimately to Persia. This imperial model was later mirrored by Alexander the Great, whose Hellenic empire absorbed the many cultures under its power.
In Ezra and Nehemiah we get a sense of the paranoid nativism among the Israelites, as they fear mixing their “pure” race and religion with the unclean women of Babylon or Persia. They were advised to remain separate by Persia. This is a distinct theme not found in other books, such as Ruth, in which we encounter a Moabite woman who finds praise in the eyes of the Israelites and ultimately becomes the great-grandmother of David.
The Book of Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, while the Book of Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra’s role was to return to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile to refocus the laws of Israel on the Torah, the Mosaic law. Nehemiah was the diplomatic ruler -the governor of Judea under the rule of Persia.
The bulk of Ezra and Nehemiah are written in ‘Late Hebrew’, however there are also portions written in Aramaic, the language of the people (the language later spoken by Jesus). This is also the case with Daniel.