2 Esdras

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2 Esdras (sometimes also referred to as Ezra/Shealtiel or the Apocalypse of Ezra, which is also the name of a different but interdependant work) is a Jewish apocalypse that some many scholars purport to be written toward the end of the first century AD. It is not accepted as scriptural by most Christians, who list it among the Apocrypha. However the Ethiopian and Russian Orthodox churches consider it canonical, and it was often cited by the Fathers of the Church.


Naming, numbering, and language

As with 1 Esdras, there is some confusion about the numbering of this book. Some early Latin manuscripts call it 3 Esdras, and Jerome denoted it 4 Esdras. Once Jerome's 1 and 2 Esdras were denoted Ezra and Nehemiah in more recent times, the designation 2 Esdras became the most common. The Russian Orthodox Church, which accords this book canonical status in the Slavonic Bible, calls it 3 Esdras, with Ezra-Nehemiah being "1 Esdras" and what would otherwise have been called 1 Esdras being "2 Esdras."

Among Greek Fathers of the Church, the book is generally cited as Εσδρας Προφήτης ("The Prophet Esdras") or Αποκάλυψις Εσδρα ("Apocalypse of Ezra"). Wellhausen, Charles, and Gunkel have shown that the original composition was in Hebrew, which was translated into Greek, and then to Latin, but the Hebrew and Greek editions have been lost. Sometimes widely differing Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Armenian translations have also survived; the Greek version can be reconstructed (without absolute certainty, of course) from these different translations, while the Hebrew text remains a bit more elusive.


The first two chapters of the Latin version of the book are definitely assumed by most scholars to be Christian in origin; it describes God's rejection of the Jews in favor of the Christians. These are generally considered to be late additions (possibly third century) to the work, and they are found only in the Latin, not in the Eastern translations.

The rest of the book comprises seven visions of Ezra the scribe. The first vision takes place as Ezra is still in Babylon. He asks God how Israel can be kept in misery if God is just. The archangel Uriel is sent to answer the question, responding that God's ways cannot be understood by the human mind. Soon, however, the end would come, and God's justice would be made manifest. Similarly, in the second vision, Ezra asks why Israel was delivered up to the Babylonians, and is again told that man cannot understand this and that the end is near. The third vision asks why Israel does not possess the world. Uriel responds that the current state is a period of transition. Here follows a description of the fate of evil-doers and the righteous. Ezra attempts to intercede for the condemned, but is told that no one can escape his destiny.

The next three visions are more symbolic in nature. The fourth is a woman mourning for her only son, who is transformed into a city when she hears of the desolation of Zion. Uriel says that the woman is a symbol of Zion. The fifth vision concerns an eagle with three heads and twenty wings (twelve large and eight smaller wings "over against them"). The eagle is rebuked by a lion and then burned. The explanation of this vision is that the eagle refers to the fourth kingdom of the vision of Daniel, with the wings and heads as rulers. The final scene is the triumph of the Messiah over the empire. The sixth vision is a man who burns a crowd that is attacking him. This man then turns to another peaceful multitude, which accepts him. The man represents the Messiah, who is attacked by sinners but accepted by the tribes of Israel.

Finally, there is a vision of the restoration of scripture. God appears to Ezra in a bush and commands him to restore the Law. Ezra gathers five scribes and begins to dictate. After forty days, he has produced ninety-four books: the twenty-four books of the Tanakh and seventy secret works. (This vision is omitted in the Latin translation of the text.):

"Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people." (14:45-46 RSV)

The "seventy" might refer to the Septuagint, most of the apocrypha, or the Lost Books that are described in the Bible.

The last two chapters, which are found in the Latin but not in the Eastern texts, predict wars and rebuke sinners. Many assume that they probably date from a much later period (perhaps late third century) and may be Christian in origin. It's possible that they are Jewish in origin; however, 15:57-59 have been found in Greek, which most scholars agree was translated from a Hebrew original.

Author and Criticism

The main body of the book appears to be written for consolation in a period of great distress (most likely Titus' destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70) according to the modern theory. The author seeks answers, similar to Job's quest for understanding the meaning of suffering but the author doesn't like or desire only the answer that was given to Job.

Critics question whether even the main body of the book [not counting the chapters that exist only in the Latin version and in Greek fragments] has a single author. Kalisch, De Faye, and Charles hold that no less than five people worked on the text. However, Gunkel points to the unity in character and holds that the book is written by a single author; it's even possible that the so-called "Christian" chapters were originally in the work. However it has also been suggested that the author of II Esdras wrote the Apocalypse of Baruch. In any case, the two texts (we don't have the original texts of these works so we really can't say for certain) may date from about the same time, and one almost certainly depends on the other.

Critics have widely debated the origin of the book. Hidden under two layers of translation it is impossible to determine if the author was Roman, Alexandrian, or Palestinian.

The interpretation of the eagle being the Roman Empire (the eagle in the fifth vision, whose heads are most likely Vespasian, Titus and Domitian if such is the case) and the destruction of the temple would indicate that the probable date of composition lies toward the end of the first century, perhaps 90–96, though some suggest a date as late as 218.


The book is considered one of the gems of Jewish apocalyptic literature. While it was not received into European Christian canons, it is regarded as Scripture in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as in the Russian Orthodox Church, and it was also widely cited by early Fathers of the Church, particularly Ambrose of Milan. The introitus of the traditional Requiem in the Catholic Church is loosely based on 2:34-35: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." Several other liturgical prayers are taken from the book. In his Vulgate, Clement VIII placed the book in an appendix after the New Testament with the rest of the Apocrypha, "lest they perish entirely"

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