ʿEZRĀ, BOOK OF, canonical biblical book emanating from the early portion of the Second Temple period (515 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) of Jewish history. Despite bearing the name of “ʿEzrā,” the title character only figures in the final chapters (7-10) of the book. Therein ʿEzrā is portrayed as an emissary of the Achaemenian monarch Artaxerxes I charged with restoring the Temple cultus at Jerusalem for the benefit of both the citizenry of the province of Yehud and the royal family. The preceding six chapters of the book introduce the mission of ʿEzrā by describing previous failed attempts to reconstitute the Temple service during the reigns of Cyrus, Darius I, and Xerxes. Hence the book of ʿEzrā provides potentially valuable testimony for the role played by the central Persian administration in managing provincial affairs during the Achaemenid period.
Of especial significance for assessing the historical worth of the book is the person and office of ʿEzrā himself. While some have argued that “ʿEzrā” is a fictional character (e.g., Torrey), the general consensus accepts his historicity. ʿEzrā is identified as a “priest” and “scribe” in the official commission addressed to him by Artaxerxes (7.12-26). He is dispatched from Babylon with a contingent of fellow Israelites, including authorized Temple personnel, in order “to inspect (the province of) Yehud and (the city of) Jerusalem (to determine their concordance) with the law of your God which you possess” (7.14). He also bears financial subsidies contributed by both the Persian administration and the Jewish inhabitants of Babylon for the restoration of the Temple cultus. ʿEzrā moreover is granted full authority to appoint magistrates and judges to insure compliance with “the law of your God” and “the law of the king” (7.25-26).
The authenticity of such a commission was forcefully defended by Schaeder (1930a), and in spite of criticisms, remains a viable position today. The office of “scribe” (Aramaic sāprāʿ) should not be confused with mere clerical duties. It marked a lofty status in administrative circles of the ancient Near East, as is attested by the same title (in almost identical language to that of ʿEzrā 7.6) being ascribed to the legendary Ahiqar at the court of Esarhaddon. Moreover, an important extrabiblical parallel to the office and mission of ʿEzrā occurs within the context of the Achaemenid administration of Egypt. The figure of Udjahorresnet, also described as “priest” and “scribe,” is given similar charges and responsibilities regarding the restoration of native cultus and civil order during the reigns of Cambyses and Darius I (Blenkinsopp).
Another important feature of the book of ʿEzrā is its apparent preservation of authentic Aramaic versions of decrees issued by Cyrus (6.3-5; compare 1.2-4), Darius I (6.6-12), and Artaxerxes I (4.17-22), interspersed with correspondence emanating from local Persian governmental officials based in Samaria (4.11-16; 5.7-17). The essential authenticity of these documents was vigorously championed by Meyer and Schaeder (1930b), and the cogency of their arguments continues to be recognized by most biblical scholars. They pointed to the numerous parallels in literary form and expression that link the ʿEzrā documents with recovered examples of authentic Aramaic governmental correspondence unearthed in Egypt (see Cowley and Driver). They noted the high percentage of Akkadian and Iranian loan-words appearing in the correspondence and the decrees, suggesting that the ʿEzrā documents had been translated from official archival copies. They also utilized Achaemenid royal inscriptions to demonstrate that certain expressions or syntagms once thought “Jewish” were actually common ancient Near Eastern formulae.
Despite these arguments, objections continue to be raised against the reliability of the ʿEzrā documents (Grabbe, p. 35). Perhaps the most compelling is the undeniable presence of Jewish religious and cultic expressions within the governmental records, especially in 7.12-26 (see Meyer, p. 65). Could Achaemenian officials have possibly been cognizant of all the different nuances of conception and expression employed by the various local cults under their administration? Schaeder suggested that ʿEzrā himself was responsible for adapting the official decree of 7.12-26 to a Jewish context (1930a, pp. 54-55). While this is possible, it is nevertheless evident from the Udjahorresnet inscription, the Egyptian Demotic Chronicle (see Blenkinsopp), and the Jewish Aramaic correspondence from Elephantine that Achaemenid rulers displayed a keen interest in the ordering of native religious affairs in distant foreign provinces. The ʿEzrā documents augment this evidence.
See J. Blenkinsopp, “The Mission of Udjahorresnet and Those of Ezra and Nehemiah,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, 1987, pp. 409-21.
A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923.
G. R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1957.
L. Grabbe, Judaism From Cyrus to Hadrian, Volume One: The Persian and Greek Periods, Minneapolis, Minn., 1992, pp. 32-36.
E. Meyer, Die Entstehung des Judentums, Halle, 1896.
H. H. Schaeder, “Esra der Schreiber,” in Beiträge zur historischen Theologie 5, Tübingen, 1930a.
Idem, “Iranische Beiträge I,” Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, Geisteswissenschaftliche Klasse, 6. Jahr, Heft 5, Halle, 1930b.
C. C. Torrey, Ezra Studies, Chicago, 1910.
Originally Published: December 15, 1999
Last Updated: December 15, 2012
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Vol. IX, Fasc. 2, pp. 130-131