Introduction to 1 Esdras

And now for a book review maybe two people on the planet were looking for… the First Book of Esdras!

Where does this book come from?

In the Greek Old Testament, there are a number of books that aren’t found in the Hebrew Old Testament. These writings are called “Apocrypha” by Protestants, as an accusation of their spurious status and origin. Most of them are accounted “Deuterocanon” by Roman Catholics, as an affirmation of their full canonicity – belonging in the Old Testament on equal footing with the books in Hebrew Bible. But a few books are omitted in the Roman accounting of the Deuterocanon, and this is one of them. 1 and 2 Esdras are, however, included in the Latin Vulgate Bible as an appendix, much like how they and the rest of the apocrypha/deuterocanon were included as an appendix in the original Protestant Bibles.

It can be read on in certain translations, on this University of Michigan site if you prefer seeing the whole thing on one page, in the Orthodox Study Bible under the title of 1 Ezra (because they placed it as a prequel to the book of Ezra), or in any other edition of the Bible you might find that has the full deuterocanon and apocrypha included.

What is this book?

The name Esdras is actually the Latin form of the name Ezra. In the Latin Bible, and some early English Bibles, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are called 1 and 2 Esdras, thus rendering this book 3 Esdras (and its sequel, 4 Esdras). However, once English Bibles switched to labeling Ezra and Nehemiah by their modern names, the extra books were re-labelled 1 and 2 Esdras. This can be a little confusing for those first introduced to this book, but fortunately the literature and resources (in English) these days are pretty standard in the new name scheme.

Despite its name, Ezra is probably not the author of this book. It is associated with his name (along with the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and 2 Esdras) because he is a main character within its pages. Indirectly, though, Ezra is the primary source for 1 Esdras, as the majority of its composition is a retelling of the book of Ezra.

What is in this book?

A simple summary of 1 Esdras is that it re-tells (or summarizes) the end of 2 Chronicles, the majority of Ezra, and parts of Nehemiah. Here is an outline of its contents:

Chapter 1 = The end of the Kingdom of Judah [like in 2 Chronicles]

  • verses 1-31: King Josiah’s Passover and Death
  • verses 32-55: The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem

Chapters 2-5:46 = The Return of the Exiles [mostly from Ezra]

  • 2:1-11: The Edict of King Cyrus
  • 2:12-26: Opposition to the Rebuilding of the Temple
  • 3-4: Story of the Three Young Guards [original material]
  • 5:1-46: The List of Returning Exiles

Chapters 5:47-7:15 = The Building of the Temple [like in Ezra]

  • 5:47-71: Reconstruction
  • 6-7: Completion

Chapters 8-9 = The Life of Ezra [mostly like in Ezra]

  • 8:1-67: Ezra’s Arrival in Jerusalem
  • 8:68-9:36: The Incident of Marriage with Pagans
  • 9:37-55: The Reading of the Law [like in Nehemiah]

I would have to do further study to be able to comment on how closely it repeats the narrative of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Some sections may be word-for-word copied, others might be rephrased; I’ve yet to investigate in that level of detail.

What is the use of this book?

One might ask why bother with reading 1 Esdras if so much of it is a repeat of three other books in the undisputed canon of Scripture. First of all, it is listed in our 6th Article of Religion as one of the addition books useful for instruction in manners and the Christian life.

Second, and more practically, the repetitious nature of this book does not necessarily negate its usefulness. 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings are closely replicated in 1 & 2 Chronicles, but with different details and emphases along the way. Occasionally they even seem to contradict each other, though most of those differences can be understood with careful study of the relevant terminology and writing styles and purposes. A similar benefit could be derived from the comparative study of 1 Esdras against Ezra and Nehemiah. In particular, the inclusion of the end of 2 Chronicles at the beginning of 1 Esdras highlights a sense of continuity from the Kingdom of Judah to 2nd Temple Judea that isn’t depicted as explicitly in other books.

Last but not least, 1 Esdras has an original story in chapters 3 and 4. The lack of reference to this story in any other book of undisputed canonicity suggests that we ought not take this story seriously in the historical sense, but as a story it still delivers some excellent lessons.

The Three Young Guards

Under the Persian King, Darius, three bodyguards challenge one another to impress the king with a contest, determining and arguing “what one thing is strongest; and to him whose statement seems wisest, Darius the king will give rich gifts and great honors of victory” (3:5). They consider the rewards before them and summarize what their answers will be through verse 17.

In 3:17-24 the first guard delivers his argument. “Gentlemen, how is wine the strongest? It leads astray the minds of all who drink it. It makes equal the mind of the king and the orphan, of the slave and the free…

In 4:1-12 the second guard delivers his argument. “Gentlemen, are not men strongest, who rule over land and sea and all that is in them? But the king is stronger; he is the lord and master…

In 4:13-41 the third guard delivers his argument in two parts. “Gentlemen, is not the king great, and are not men many, and is not wine strong? Who then is their master, or who is their lord? Is it not women? Women gave birth to the king and to every people that rules over sea and land…” (It’s an excellent speech uplifting the dignity and power of women that is worth visiting in these tumultuous times!) “Gentlemen, are not women strong? The earth is vast, and heaven is high, and the sun is swift in its course, for it makes the circuit of the heavens and returns to its place in one day. Is he not great who does these things? But truth is great, and stronger than all things. The whole earth calls upon truth…

This third guard is named Zerubbabel, and he wins the contest. He is, in this book, the Zerubbabel who returns to Jerusalem with the favor (and riches) of the king to rebuild the Temple. There is a chronological issue here: Zerubbabel in the book of Ezra was in the first group of exiles who returned under King Cyrus, not Darius. So either this story has the wrong king named or it’s more legend than fact. But that lack of historicity does not take away from the value of the discourses from the three guards, and the speech by Zerubbabel on the supremacy of God’s truth is perfectly sound teaching both for its Old Covenant Jewish context and for our New Covenant Christian context. I daresay it’s worth a read, and even a sermon at some point.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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