Notes on 1 and 2 Esdras

The Books of First and Second Esdras (or “Ezra” meaning something like “help” in Hebrew) are apocryphal and somewhat apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew biblical tradition, particularly the second book of Esdras. They are non canonical Biblical books, however they do appear in certain Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran Bibles. At the Council of Trent in 1540s-1560s, the books of First and Second Esdras were recognized, however they were in reference to the division of the Book of Ezra (as found in the Bible), which is commonly referred to today as “Ezra-Nehemiah”. The apocryphal books of First and Second Esdras appear in the Vulate however only under the name for the Book of Ezra (with 2 Esdras excluded) and they appear in the Septuagint, as extensions of the book of Ezra. This overlap has caused considerable consternation and confusion for biblical compilers.

First Esdras is nine chapters in length. It tells of Israel’s skirmishes with the Egyptians, and its failed kings who become subjugated by Babylon until the reign of Cyrus comes and returns balance to the region. The book tells an amusing story of three Persian guardsmen who attempt to claim what is most powerful to the Persian emperor, Darius  – three of his guards write a praise of what is strongest – wine, the king, and women and truth – and they each place their account under Darius’s pillow. In the end, the praise of truth wins riches for that guardsmen. In closing, the text recounts the celebration of Darius’s rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It ends with an account of Ezra – a kind of summary of the Ezra story.

Second Esdras is 17 chapters in length. The first few chapters of 2 Esdras are believed to be latter interpolations by Christian scholars. Chapters 3-14 detail a Hebrew apocalyptic vision, ascribed to Ezra in his “thirtieth year” after the desolation of Babylon. The early visions contain the archangel Uriel -a mother mourning her son, and an eagle containing three heads who is attacked by a lion, and so on. Uriel serves as Ezra’s guide, a la Virgil to Dante, and many of the images mirror the apocalyptic visions in the book of Daniel. Chapters 16-17 conclude the book with a prophesy of a future Israel and a rebuke of Israel’s sinful nature -though it has been suggested that these last chapters are also latter Christian interpolations.

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