4 Ezra


Handout for a lecture on 19 April 2002
By James R. Davila


1. (Hebrew 2 Esdras 3-14 [=4 Ezra]) –>(Greek)–>Latin
2. (Greek 2 Esdras 1-2 [5 Ezra] and 2 Esdras 15-16 [6 Ezra])–>Latin
3. Latin of 2 Esdras 1-16 combined into single work
4. (Greek 4 Ezra)–>Syriac/Ethiopic/Coptic/Arabic1 & 2/Armenian/Georgian

  • The Hebrew is lost (if the work was not actually composed in LXX-style Greek to begin with)
  • The Greek is lost, apart from three patristic quotations
  • The Greek translation underwent several redactions
  • Major Christian alterations include: 7:28 “Jesus”(Latin); 7:28-29 “30 years” (Syriac) 6:1 “Son of Man” (Ethiopic); 13:35 “And a man will arise on Golgotha, which is at Zion” (Arabic2); deletion of Ezra’s ascent (14:48b) in Latin. Armenian introduces more drastic changes in 6:1 and 13:32-40. See Bergren for details.
  • All surviving copies of 4 Ezra are in a Bible or collections of biblical material


  • Earliest complete MSS: Syriac, 6th century; Latin, 9th century
  • Sahidic Coptic fragments, 6th-8th centuries.
  • Quoted often in Latin by Ambrose in the late fouth century; and 5:35 is quoted in Greek by Clement of Alexandria in the late second century
  • 3:1 – 30th year (after destruction in 70 C.E.?)
  • No allusions to Bar Kokhba revolt in 132-135 C.E.
  • Eagle vision in 11-12 is usually understood to belong in context of late 1st century C.E. But note that DiTommaso argues that Eagle Vision dates to c. 218 C.E (reign of Septimus Severus), although composed originally c. 100 and updated and redacted such that original is irrecoverable. If he is correct, this is an important example of a Christian addition to an OT Pseudepigraphon which entirely lacks Christian signature features.


Numerous and pervasive. Some examples:

  • Nationalist: 3:33-36; 4:23; 5:26-30; 6:55-59; 7:10-14
  • The Torah: 5:27; 7[79]-[81], [89], [94]; 8:56; 9:29-37; 13:42; 14:21-22

THE PROBLEM OF THEODICY IN 4 EZRA (a survey of selected approaches)

The Problem: Ezra has the stronger argument and Uriel never refutes it, yet Ezra is converted to Uriel’s view.

Box (OTP) – Source-critical approach. Breaks 4 Ezra down into the following sources:

  • 1. Salathiel Apocalypse (chaps 1-10 – Ezra Apocalypse material)
  • 2. Extracts from the Ezra Apocalypse (4:52-5:13a; 6:13-29; 7:26-44; 9:63-9:12)
  • 3. Eagle Vision (11-12)
  • 4. Son of Man Vision (13)
  • 5. An Ezra-Piece (14)
  • 6. The Redactor combined and adapted 1-5 above to make 4 Ezra.

Breech – Box’s approach treats 4 Ezra as a heap of fragments. Breech proposes the following coherent reading of the work:

  • 3:1-9:22 – A “triptych of dialogues with Uriel, setting out the problem of the desolation of Zion
  • 9:24-13:58 – The consolation of Ezra. A series of visions that console Ezra without actually addressing his initial questions
  • 14:1-38 – A necessary epilogue in which Ezra mediates the revelation to his community

Merkur and Stone (esp. Hermeneia Commentary, “On Reading an Apocalypse,” and “Apocalyptic–Vision or Hallucination?”) – Focus on the importance of revelatory experience to make sense of 4 Ezra. They show that Ezra is presented as having an overwhelming visionary experience amounting to a religious conversion. The descriptions of Ezra’s experience correspond to practices that do in fact generate visionary experiences. This may reflect practices and a conversion event actually undertaken and experienced by the author.

Longenecker (1991) – reads 4 Ezra along the following lines:


  • 3:1-9:22 – Three dialogues between Ezra and Uriel, in which Uriel’s position, that only a few will be saved, is disputed by Ezra.
  • 9:26-10:60 – The vision of the woman (= the mourning heavenly Jerusalem) precipitates a conversion experience in Ezra. His questions are not answered but he is comforted.
  • 11:1-12:35 – The Eagle Vision is an earlier tradition incorporated into the book but reinterpreted to teach that a remnant of a few worthy ones will be saved at the eschaton (12:34). Only the wise (the same remnant) are worthy of receiving this teaching (12:36-38). In accordance with this new revelation, Ezra dissembles when he meets with the people in 12:46-49, comforting them because, although they are among the lost, they are not worthy to know it.
  • 13:1-58 – The Vision of the Man from the Sea –again, an incorporated earlier tradition–is reinterpreted to say that the ten lost tribes (who kept the Torah even without the Temple) and a remnant of the rest of Israel will achieve eschatological salvation. Thus a multitude will be saved after all, but this is no comfort to Ezra’s people, since only a few of them will be.
  • 14:1-38 – God agrees to allow Ezra to restore the lost scriptures but warns him to reveal only public knowledge to the people and to save the secrets for the wise (14:26, cf. vv. 5-6). Accordingly, Ezra gives them a traditional prophetic harrangue (14:27-36) which, however, fails to tell them the secret that only a few of them will be saved. This secret doctrine is reinforced by the subsequent restoration of the exoteric scriptures (the twenty-four books) and also seventy esoteric books (70 is a gematria for the Hebrew word “secret” [SWD]) reserved for the wise alone.

    SOCIAL CONTEXT (some perspectives)

    Esler – 4 Ezra is an example of literature produced by an indigenous people confronted by a colonial power, the goal of which is to reduce cognitive dissonance raised by the discrepancy between the people’s expectation of divine vindication and what actually happens to them (Jewish belief in divine election vs. the Roman conquest of Judea). Cf. Maoir Ringatu movement and Handsome Lake’s Iroquois millennial movement. Vision sidesteps reason in chap. 14.Longenecker (1997) – 4 Ezra is not sectarian (it defends Israel as a whole and not a subgroup within it) and is aimed at a learned prerabbinic group in post-70 C.E. Yavneh (Jabneh), instructing them to teach the people to manage their grief, follow the Torah, and avoid militant eschatological activism.


    Some highlights from Kraft‘s article:

    • Broadly two views of Ezra in antiquity
      1. A priest who led a return from Babylon to Judea and who was a scribe who reintroduced the Torah (Ezra, Nehemiah, I Esdras, Justin, Epiphanius, etc.)
      2. A prophet who consorted with angels, received apocalyptic secrets, and restored the lost scriptures (4-6 Ezra, Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, Coptic Apocryphon of Jeremiah, Clement, Malalas, etc.)
    • Unclear if these were originally the same figure and, if not, which came first
    • The biblical chronologies are unclear and there is textual confusion regarding where and when Ezra appeared
    • Ben Sira does not mention Ezra
    • 4 Ezra 3:1 gives Ezra the name Salathiel, unknown from elsewhere


    As per the course bibliography for 4 Ezra

  • (c) 2002
    Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.


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