Esdras is the Greek and Latin version of the name of Ezra. Ezra is the central character in this book, which is the second book connected with Ezra in the Apocrypha of most English Bibles. So it is usually known as 2 Esdras in English, but there is no uniform usage: the term 2 Esdras is sometimes confusingly used of the LXX translation of Ezra-Nehemiah; if so, this writing is called 3 Esdras). The alternative name 4 Ezra is applied because there are two books in the Hebrew Bible associated with Ezra (Ezra and Nehemiah), and two more in the Apocrypha.
‘2 Esdras’ or ‘4 Ezra’ is the name applied only to the core of the present book, chapters 3-14 (chapters 1-2 are often called Fifth Ezra and chapters 15-16, Sixth Ezra). The book of Ezra in the Jewish canon and the apocryphal 1 Esdras both tell the story of the rebuilding of the temple in the Persian period under Joshua and Zerubbabel and then the story of the scribe and priest Ezra who brings the law. In 2 Esdras the name of Ezra is used for the central character, but he is concerned about why the temple and the Jewish people are in such a low state. Little else matches Ezra and 1 Esdras.
Place in the canon
2 Esdras is unknown to either the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Bible (Septuagint), being known in ancient times only in Latin and Syriac. Since the Council of Trent (1546), the Catholic tradition has considered 2 Esdras to be non-canonical but places it as an appendix to the Vulgate.
The book is preserved in Latin and Syriac translation, though the original was probably in Hebrew. It asks the question, in the person of Ezra, as to why the temple lies in ruins and the Jewish people are in such a low state. This question, asked of God in prayer, is essentially one of theodicy: why does God allow his people to suffer and even his own temple to remain in a destroyed state? An answer is conveyed by means of a series of revelations, but the final answer—given by the Eagle Vision (4 Ezra 11-12)—seems to be that the messiah will take a hand and Rome will fall.
Date and authorship
There is no genuine connection with Ezra. The character has been picked up from the biblical book of Ezra, though most of the rest of 2 Esdras is currently unique in Jewish literature. Yet 4 Ezra 14 (in which Ezra restores the law by writing it out again by divine inspiration after it has been lost) may well represent an adoption, and perhaps adaptation, of an earlier Ezra tradition.
The book itself is generally associated with a group of writings that are thought to have arisen about 100 CE, including 2 Baruch, the NT book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse of Abraham. The statement in 3.1 that Ezra asks his question ‘30 years after the fall of Jerusalem’ has been thought a significant chronological statement, since 30 years after the fall of the temple in 70 CE would be about 100 CE, which is also approximately the date of the Christian Apocalypse of John. Also, the Eagle Vision (chapters 11-12) seems to show the Roman emperors up to about Domitian (82-96 CE). The composer of the book is anonymous but thought to be a Jew who stood in an apocalyptic tradition and expected God to intervene in world affairs, destroy Rome, and exalt the faithful Jews in the near future. The writer was not of necessity a Jew living in Palestine, but to expect that he lived in Jerusalem is a reasonable guess.
4 Ezra/2 Esdras is closely related to 2 Baruch, though which is prior is debated. A number of themes are found in it, with most of them also shared with 2 Baruch, Revelation, and Apocalypse of Abraham. (1) A preoccupation with Roman rule and an expectation of the imminent end of the Roman empire (shown by the Eagle Vision of chapters 11-12). (2) The rise or coming of a messianic figure; 4 Ezra 7.26-32 posits an earthly messiah who will rule for 400 years, after which he and all mankind will die, but then the resurrection and judgment will follow after seven days. In 4 Ezra 13, however, the ‘man from the sea’ also appears to be a messianic figure, one coming from heaven. (3) The ‘messianic woes’ (the various problems, plagues, and unnatural events preceding the end time) have a prominent place in 4 Ezra (5.1-13; 6.18-28) but also in some of the other apocalypses. (4) The fate of the individual after death is also a major concern. The soul has some sort of existence continuing immediately after death, perhaps kept in a storage place or ‘treasury’ (4 Ezra 7.78-101). At the time of the end, there will be a resurrection and judgment, followed by reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked (4 Ezra 7.28-44). (5) 4 Ezra apparently calculates history according to a 7000-year period or millennial week (cf. 14.48 Syriac; Grabbe 1981). (6) History culminates in new heavens and a new earth (4 Ezra 7.31-44) and a new stylized Jerusalem, to be preceded by a messianic age (4 Ezra 7.26-30).
The book was taken up by Christians. Unlike some Jewish works preserved by Christians, it does not for the most part appear to suffer from Christian interpolations (with the exception of the words ‘my son Jesus’ in 7.28 in the Latin version, though other versions have ‘messiah’). But later Christian writers wrote chapters 1-2 and 15-16, probably as supplements specifically created for the book.
Box, George H. The Ezra-Apocalypse, Being Chapters 3–14 of the Book Commonly Known as 4 Ezra (or II Esdras). London: Pitman, 1912.
Myers, J. M. I and II Esdras. AB 42. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Stone, Michael E. Fourth Ezra. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Grabbe, Lester L. “Chronography in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.” Pages 49-63 in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1981. SBL Abstracts and Seminar Papers; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981.
Grabbe, Lester L. “4 Ezra and 2 Baruch in Social and Historical Perspective.” Pages 221-35 in Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch: Reconstruction after the Fall. Edited by Matthias Henze and Gabriele Boccaccini (with Janson M. Zurawski). JSJSup 164. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Hayman, A. Peter. “The ‘Man from the Sea’ in 4 Ezra 13.” JJS 49 (1998): 1-16.
Henze, Matthias, and Gabriele Boccaccini (with Janson M. Zurawski), eds. Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch: Reconstruction after the Fall. JSJSup 164. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Schmid, Konrad. “Esras Begegnung mit Zion: Die Deutung der Zerstörung Jerusalems im 4. Esrabuch und das Problem des ‘bösen Herzens’.” JSJ 29 (1998): 261-77.
Stone, Michael E. Features of the Eschatology of IV Ezra. Harvard Semitic Studies 35. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.