2 Esdras

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The Second Book of Esdras (Esdras IV) is found among the books of the Septuagint, and among the books of the Old Testament of the Vulgate. The core of the book, the "Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra", 2 Esdras 3–14, is canonical scripture in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is not recognized as canonical by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants. It was not included in the canon of scripture by the Third Council of Carthage (397). Since the Council of Trent it is not accepted as inspired and canonical by the Catholic Church in the Catholic Bible—books of the Bible accepted as divinely inspired by the majority of Christian believers in the United States and throughout the world.[1][2]

The apocryphal book of 2 Esdras is included in many English translations of the Bible. In printed Bibles of the 17th through 18th and 19th centuries, II Esdras (2 Esdras) was listed as IV Esdras (4 Esdras), the Book of Ezra was called I Esdras (1 Esdras), the Book of Nehemiah was called II Esdras (2 Esdras), and I Esdras (not Ezra) was called III Esdras (3 Esdras), hence this book was designated IV Esdras (4 Esdras). This has been a source of some confusion for many beginning students of the Bible.

While 1 Esdras (3 Esdras) is presented as an historical text, 2 Esdras (4 Esdras) is an example of a Jewish apocalypse, similar to parts of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch, and to Christian works such as the Book of Revelation. It describes seven visions given to Ezra, three of which come in answer to his questions about human suffering as related to God's justice. Its outlook is profoundly pessimistic. The vast majority of humanity as well as many Jews will be eternally damned. God is unconcerned about the fate of those who do not obey him. Ezra himself is presented as a paragon of righteousness and asceticism, chosen by God to renew the divine word of the sacred scriptures to the chosen people.

II Esdras was first included in the Apocrypha by Martin Luther in the 16th century.

See Apocrypha.

Naming and numbering

The naming and numbering of this book is varied. There have been four books associated with the prophet Ezra (in Greek spelled Esdras). In some circles these became known as 1, 2, 3, and 4 Esdras. The first two of the four books (1 and 2 Esdras) became known as Ezra and Nehemiah, while the second two (3 and 4 Esdras) became known as 1 and 2 Esdras. In some early Latin manuscripts 2 Esdras is "3 Esdras". Jerome titled it 4 Esdras in the Vulgate. Books that Jerome called 1 and 2 Esdras were later called the Book of Ezra (1 Esdras) and the Book of Nehemiah (2 Esdras). The designation 2 Esdras (for 3 Esdras) became common in most English Bibles, but not all of them. It appears in the Appendix to the Old Testament in the Slavonic Bible as 3 Esdras. The Georgian Bible numbers it 3 Ezra, with the canonical Book of Ezra (Ezra-Nehemiah combined) being called 1 Esdras and the book known in most English editions as 1 Esdras labeled as "2 Esdras" (which makes 2 Esdras "3 Esdras"—"3 Ezra").

Canonical status

Ezra and Nehemiah (1 and 2 Esdras) are accepted by both Catholics and Protestants as canonical. Some sources say that Church councils such as the Third Council of Carthage (397) and the Council of Trent (1546) did not accept 1 and 2 Esdras, but these sources are using the modern system of book names and are referring to the two books formerly known as 3 and 4 Esdras. In older Catholic Bibles the books called 1 and 2 Esdras are now, in more recent editions such as The New American Bible, Revised Edition NABRE, more commonly called Ezra and Nehemiah. The second two of the four books (sometimes known as 3 and 4 Esdras, sometimes known as 1 and 2 Esdras) are not accepted by either Catholics or Protestants.

While 3 and 4 Esdras are not accepted by Catholics or Protestants, some Eastern Orthodox Christians accept one or the other of them. The core of the book of 2 Esdras, the "Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra", 2 Esdras 3-14, is canonical scripture in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

1 Esdras is found today in standard editions of the Greek Bible in the Septuagint (Old Testament), but 2 Esdras (4 Esdras, the Apocalypse of Ezra) is not.

See Elpenor's Bilingual (Greek / English) Old Testament. Greek original according to the text used by the Church of Greece. English translation by L.C.L. Brenton, published side by sidescroll down the site page to see table of contents.


Ezra's three questions

Chapters 3–14, the main text of 2 Esdras, is presented as a Jewish apocalypse of seven revelations given to Ezra while he was in Babylon. Here Ezra "the Scribe," is also a great prophet, a new Moses who fasts and prays in the wilderness as he is being prepared by God to renew God's Law to the people.

"In the thirtieth year of the ruin of the city, I, Salathiel (the same is Esdras), was in Babylon, and lay troubled upon my bed." 2 Esdras 3:1a.

In the First Vision (3:1–5:19) Ezra/Esdras asks God how Israel can be kept in such misery, and how the misery of Israel can be in keeping with divine justice, if God is just. The archangel Uriel is sent from God to answer him, to be Ezra's guide and teacher, responding that the answer is: God's ways are unsearchable and cannot be understood by the human mind; the human mind cannot grasp them. The end of the current world will soon come to pass. But after the end of this world everything will be clear and God's justice will be manifest. There follows a description of the signs of the end.

In the Second Vision (5:20–6:34) Ezra/Esdras asks why Israel is delivered up to the heathen Babylonians? Uriel responds with an answer similar to that of the first vision: Ezra is told that man cannot solve the problem, that man cannot understand God's ways; and that the end is near. The signs are again revealed.

In the Third Vision (6:35–9:25) Ezra asks why Israel, as God's chosen people, does not yet possess the world? Uriel tells him the current state of the people is a period of transition; the present state is a necessary transition to the future. There follows a detailed description of the fate of the wicked and the righteous: few will be saved; the fate of evil-doers, who are the vast majority of mankind, as well as many Jews, is described—and is compared to the fate of the few righteous ones who will be saved. Because the world is populated primarily by sinners, the vast majority of human souls will suffer eternal damnation. As Ezra/Esdras attempts to intercede for the sinners, those who are so harshly condemned, he is told that nobody will escape, that no one can escape his destiny. God answers that he cares only for the few truly good people like Ezra.
"I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made my glory to prevail now, and through them my name has now been honored. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish; for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke—they are set on fire and burn hotly, and are extinguished." (8:61-62)
Ezra is told that God has predestined from the beginning of creation those who are to be saved and those who are to be condemned, and it is not for Ezra, a mere human, to intervene on behalf of the damned, even when their fate seems cruel to him. No one can escape his fate, and even the prayers of parents begging for the lives of their children cannot influence the eternal decree of the sovereign and almighty God. This is similar to the doctrine of double predestination also found in Calvinism.

Four symbolic visions

The Fourth Vision (9:26–10:59) is of a woman mourning for her only son. Esdras pictures to her the desolation of Zion, who, when she hears of the desolation of Jerusalem and its temple, is suddenly transformed into a city instead: the woman appears as a "builded city". Uriel explains that the woman represents Zion, and is a symbol of the holy city.

The Fifth Vision (11–12): shows Ezra an eagle which has three heads, and 20 wings (twelve large wings, and eight smaller wings "over against them"), which is rebuked by a lion and then burned. Uriel interprets the eagle as a symbol of the fourth kingdom of the vision seen by Daniel; the wings and heads as ruler, and the lion is the Messiah. The vision presents the triumph of the Messiah over this empire.

The Sixth Vision (13) is of a man, representing the Messiah, who breathes fire on the crowd attacking him, and burns the assaulting multitude. He then turns toward another peaceful multitude, and then calls to himself this peaceable multitude, which accepts him. The man is the Messiah; the first multitude are the sinners; the second are the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Ezra transcribes the scriptures

The Seventh Vision (14) concerns the restoration of the sacred Scripture. Esdras, sitting under an oak, is addressed by God from a bush. God appears to Ezra in the bush and reveals that he will soon be translated. Esdras asks for the restoration of the Law, and God commands him to procure many tablets and five scribes and to tell the people to stay away for forty days, and then commands him to restore the Law. Ezra/Esdras does so, and gathers five scribes and, after having received a wondrous drink, begins to dictate. Within forty days ninety-four books are written. After 40 days, he has produced 94 books: of these, twenty-four books are to be published and seventy are to be kept secret. These are the 24 books of the Hebrew canon of the Tanakh, and 70 secret works which he is not to reveal to the masses.[3]

The account of Esdras' translation is found only in the Oriental versions, in the Greek text (it is not included in the current Septuagint Old Testament of the canonical Greek Bible). In the Latin translation of the text, it was omitted, because chapters 15 and 16 were added.

Historical-grammatical analysis: Historical setting

The extant text of 2 Esdras states it was written by "Ezra", the name of the great Jewish priest-scribe and leader who primarily established Second Temple Judaic tradition around 400 B.C. after the Babylonian exile. This same author Ezra is also called "Salathiel" in the book, which could make him the father of the exile leader Zerubbabel, rather than Ezra the Scribe, since Zerubbabel is of the line of David, and Ezra the priest-scribe is of the line of Aaron.

The book sets the date of the appearance of Uriel to Ezra/Esdras "In the thirtieth year of the ruin of the city" (3:1), in 557 B.C. The destruction of the city and the temple is generally held by historians to have occurred in 587 B.C. (587 B.C. – 30 = 557 B.C.).

See Literalist Bible chronology.

Historical-critical textual analysis

One of the most interesting, and the profoundest, of all Jewish and Christian apocalypses is known in the Latin Bible as "Esdræ Quartus." (Fourth Esdræ). The number, usually a part of the name, depends on the method of counting the canonical Ezra-Nehemiah and the Greek Ezra: the book is called "I Esdras" in the Ethiopic, but is called "II Esdras" in late Latin manuscripts and in the English Bible, and "III Esdras" in other Latin manuscripts. Another division in Latin Bibles, separates II Esdras into three parts, each with a separate number, of which the main part is "Esdræ Quartus." Greek Fathers quote it as Ἔσδρας Προφήτης (Esdras Prophetes) or Αποκάλυψις Ἔαδρα (Apocalypsis Eadra). The most common modern names for this book are "IV Esdras" and "II Esdras".

II Esdras is a characteristic example of the growth of apocalyptic literature: the misery of the present world leads to the seeking of compensation in the happiness of the future. But besides its historical value, this book is an unusually important monument of religious literature for all times.

Study of 2 Esdras is complicated by the debatable probability that some chapters may or may not have been added to the beginning of the book and that later chapters may or may not also suffer from similar additions. Despite these and other difficulties with the text, the bulk of the work is considered by literary scholars to be one of the gems of Jewish apocalypticism. See Messiah son of David

Original language

Only the body of the book, chapters 3—14, the original apocalypse, was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Greek, as has been proved by Wellhausen, Charles, and finally by Gunkel; but neither the Hebrew nor the Greek text is extant. From the Greek were made the following versions:

(1) Latin, which is the basis of the English version;
(2) Syriac;
(3) Ethiopic;
(4) and (5) two independent Arabic versions;
(6) Georgian.

The Armenian version differs from the others; textual historians have not decided whether it was made from the Syriac or from a separate Greek version. The seven sections of the book have been called "visions" since Volkmar (1863):[4] chapters 1–3 treat chiefly of religious problems; chapters 4–6 consist mainly of eschatological visions; chapter 7 tells of Ezra's literary activity and death.


Critics have widely debated the origin of the book. It has been questioned whether this apocalypse was written by one author. Hidden under two layers of translation and probably the work of more than one writer, it is difficult to determine whether the primary Jewish author hailed from Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome, or some other location. Although it claims to have been written by Ezra/Salathiel around 400 B.C., internal evidence suggests a much later date, probably late A.D. first century, with other sections possibly added even later.

Kalisch (Das 4te Buch Esra, Göttingen, 1889) tried to prove that it had five different sources; his views were largely adopted by De Faye and by Charles. Gunkel, however, rightly calls attention to the fact that the uniform character of the book does not allow its reduction to several independent documents, pointing out that its repetitions and slight discrepancies are the author's own peculiarity in dealing with his complicated problems. The Apocalypse of Baruch is closely akin to this book; and therefore it has been suggested that both of them might have been written by the same author. While this cannot be proved, it is certain that both books were composed at about the same time, and that one of them was the prototype of the other.

Apart from the chapters found only in the Latin version, it is an open question among critics whether even the main body of the book has a single author. Some see in the text evidence of no fewer than five hands at work, except for the apparently late Christian (?) interpolations. Some commentators even defend the "Christian" chapters as representing an authentic Jewish concept of the Messiah as a supernatural being, as occasionally can be seen in later Midrashim and in the Talmudic rabbinical tradition.

The author of II Esdras, also called "the prophet Ezra," in all probability had before him the Baruch Apocalypse, as shown by Wellhausen (Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, vi. 248 and following), written under the impression of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans; he reasons less on the national problem of Israel's adversity and the prosperity of the heathen, and more on the general problems of sin and death and on the design of God regarding the few that are saved. As to the question, "is it good for man to be born or not" ( ; 'Er. 13b), in view of the prevalence of sin and sorrow, in the controversy between the schools of Shammai and of Hillel the author sides with the pessimistic view of Shammai: "It would be better if we were not born than to live in sin and suffer, not knowing why" (II Esdras 4:12). He views the final judgment of man by God similarly. "The germ of evil sown into man by the first sin of Adam" ( ; 'Ab. Zarah 22b) results in sin and damnation for the great majority of men—indeed, there is no man who sinneth not—and makes the human destiny far inferior to that of the animal, which needs not fear the great Judgment Day (II Esdras 7:45 [R. V. 115] and following; 8:35). In spite of the fact that the number of those lost is greater than the number of those that are saved (9:15), the author recognizes God's love for all His creatures (8:47), but for him the end must be unrelenting justice and no mercy nor any intercession of saints; truth and righteousness alone must prevail (7:32-38 [R. V. 102-115]). In this too, the author does not agree with the Hillelites, who teach that those souls whose merits and demerits are equal are saved by the mercy of God (who inclines the scale toward mercy), and he sides with the Shammaites, who claim that these souls must go through the purgatory of the Gehenna fire before they are admitted into paradise (Sanh. xiii. 4; R. H. 16b). In another respect II Esdras manifests the spirit of the Shammaites in finding Messianic salvation granted only to the remnant of Israel (see 3:30, 9:22 and following, 12:34, 13:37 and following), for, in opposition to the school of Hillel, it is Eliezer the Shammaite who denies all Gentiles a share in the world to come (Tosef., Sanh. xiii. 2).

The author also shares the view of Eliezer in regard to the return of the Lost Ten Tribes, in opposition to Akiba, that they will take part in the Messianic redemption. However, the very name used by him for the land of the exile of the Ten Tribes, obviously misunderstood by the translator, rests on the same Biblical words referred to by the two tannaim—"ereẓ aḥeret" (another land; Deut. xxix. 27; II Esd. xiii. 45, comp. 40; Sanh. x. 3; see Arzareth).

The Messianic era is stated as being 400 years (II Esdras 7:28), based on Psalm 90:15 and Genesis 10:13; (comp. Sanh. 99a; Pesiḳ. R. 1). The apocalyptic sign for the Messianic era, taken from Genesis 25:26, R. V. ("His [Jacob's] hand had hold on Esau's heel"), is especially significant, being interpreted as: "The end of Esau's [Edom's] reign, will form the beginning of Jacob's—that is, the Messiah's—kingdom" (II Esdras 6:8, exactly as in Gen. R. lxiii.; comp. Yalḳ.). Other parallels to rabbinical sayings of the first century are found in Rosenthal, Vier Apocryphische Bücher aus der Zeit und Schule R. Akiba's, 1885, pp. 39–71. Rosenthal (p. 40) also thinks the five sages, who put into writing the twenty-four canonical and seventy hidden (apocryphal) books dictated by Ezra under divine inspiration during forty days (II Esdras 24:23-46), are an allusion to the work of the five disciples of Johanan ben Zakkai.

Date and Value

Most critics agree with the scholarly interpretation that the eagle in the fifth vision of 2 Esdras 5 undoubtedly represents the Roman empire. If that is the case, then the three heads of the Roman Empire are possibly Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian; and since most scholars today suggest the destruction of Jerusalem so often referred to in 2 Esdras must be that by Titus in A.D. 70, this indicates that the most likely probable date for the composition of 2 Esdras is after Titus' destruction of the Second Temple, and that the book must date sometime toward the end of the first century, or more nearly from the last quarter of the century—probably between 90 and 96, though some suggest a date as late as 218.

Additions: Christian interpolations

The Greek form of this book in the Septuagint does not have the first two chapters of 2 Esdras which appear in the Latin version of the book. For this reason most scholars hold Chapters 1 and 2 of the Latin and English versions to be of Christian origin (probably second century), because they assert God's rejection of the Jews and speak of the Messiah in Christian terms: they describe the rejection of the Jews in favor of the Christians in words resembling Christian theological language of the second and third centuries.
"I gathered you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but now, what shall I do to you? I will cast you out from my presence." (1:30) —Compare Matthew 23:37; Luke13:34; Deuteronomy 32:10-18.
This section also contains a vision of the Messiah as the Son of God who ministers to the martyred saints in heaven:
"Then I said to the angel, 'Who is that young man who places crowns on them and puts palms in their hands?' He answered and said to me, 'He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.'" (2:46-47) —Compare Revelation 6:9-11; Daniel 7:13-14, 27.
Because of their apparently Christian character, many scholars and students of the Bible regard these first two chapters as late second or third century Christian additions to the work.

The final two chapters of 2 Ezra, 15 and 16, found in the Latin version, are not in the Eastern Greek texts. These chapters which predict wars led by the Messiah, called "son of God", and harshly rebuke sinners at length, may be Jewish; they date from the middle of the third century. Many also suggest that these chapters date from a much later period (the late second half of the third century?) and may be Christian in origin, possibly that they were added at the same time as the first two chapters of the Latin version. It is also possible that they are actually Jewish in origin, having been found in some Greek manuscripts which most scholars agree were translated from a Hebrew original.

Lost verses

Most Latin editions are tracable to a common origin, to one early manuscript, Codex Sangermanensis, which was missing an entire page, a large lacuna (a section of missing text) of about 70 verses between 7:36 and 7:37. An 1895 published critical edition restored the lost verses, numbered 7:36 to 7:106, with the verses formerly numbered 7:37–7:69 in the defective manuscripts being renumbered to 7:107–7:137.


The author wishes to console himself and his people in a time of great distress. He struggles with the deepest religious problems: What is the origin of suffering and evil in the world? Why does the All-Righteous create men, who He knows will suffer, or will do wrong and therefore perish? While for Job the question is why God imposed what appears to be clearly unfair suffering on a righteous man (Job), in 2 Esdras it is the question of why God allows so many people to be eternally damned, and why he has allowed his beloved people of Israel to suffer. Ezra is deeply concerned with fairness, justice, and with theodicy, the problem of evil—why good people suffer, and why evil prospers, if God is both almighty and just. Why does man possess the mind or reason which makes him conscious of these things? Throughout these struggles the writer strives for assurance of salvation. Since this is reserved for some future era, he lays much stress on eschatology. Confidence in God's justice underlies all his thoughts. The answer given to Ezra is like that given to Job: God is absolutely sovereign, and his ways are not to be questioned by mere humans.


The book is considered an outstanding and valuable example of Jewish apocalyptic literature. It was widely cited by early Church Fathers, especially Ambrose of Milan.

The introitus of the traditional Requiem in the Catholic Church is drawn from 2 Esdras 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. Pope Clement VIII placed the book (in the Clementine Vulgate) in an appendix after the New Testament with the rest of the Apocrypha, 1 Esdras and Prayer of Manasseh, "lest they perish entirely".


  1. The Catholic Church is the world's largest Christian body comprised of several distinct "Rites". The Catholic Church (Latin Rite) is the largest religious body in the United States, with over 60 million adherents (4 times as large as the second largest church, the Orthodox).
    “The Global Catholic Population,” © 2011, Pew Research Center.
    The Largest Catholic Communities
    The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church, and also referred to as the Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy, is the second largest Christian church in the world, with an estimated 225–300 million adherents, most of whom live in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia.
    The Greek (Eastern) Orthodox Church. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Of America (1983). Retrieved on 7 May 2014.
    Christianity:Basics:Eastern Orthodox Church Denomination. about.com. Retrieved on 22 May 2014.
    Christianity. Major Branches of Religions Ranked by Number of Adherents. adherents.com. Retrieved on 22 May 2014.
  2. See Percentage of Christians in Protestant Denominations (29.5%).
  3. See The Qabbalah, the Secret Doctrine of Israel (sacred-texts.com)
  4. Volkmar's view of the book as set forth in his Das vierte Buch Esra, Zürich 1858, was criticised by Hilgenfeld 1858. Source
    William Smith, Dr. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible: Comprising Its Antiquities, Biography, Geography, and Natural History, Volume 1. Houghton, Mifflin, 1881. Esdras, second book of. page 769a (Google eBook)


  • Coggins, R.J., and Michael A. Knibb. The First and Second Books of Esdras. The Cambridge Bible commentary, New English Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. ISBN 9780521097574
  • Myers, Jacob Martin. I and II Esdras. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. ISBN 9780385004268
  • Taylor, Leslie, John. Extra-Biblicals: Forgotten Books of the Bibles. [S.l.]: 1st Books, 2003. ISBN 9781410735676
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., 1898, iii. 246-250 (contains a complete bibliography); Gunkel, in Kautzsch, Apokryphen, etc., ii. 331 et seq.; idem, Der Prophet Esra, Tübingen, 1900.

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