Ezra and Nehemiah

Ezra–Nehemiah is the combined biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah - the two were originally one, but were divided by Christians in the 3rd century AD, and in Jewish circles in the 15th century.[1] Covering the period from the fall of Babylon in 539 BC to the second half of the 5th century BC, it tells of the successive missions to Jerusalem of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and their efforts to restore the worship of the God of Israel and a purified Jewish community.[2] The narrative is highly schematic, each stage of the restoration following the same pattern: God "stirs up" the Persian king, the king commissions a Jewish leader to undertake a task, the leader overcomes opposition and succeeds, and success is marked by a great assembly.

In the 19th century and for much of the 20th it was believed that Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah came from the same author or circle of authors, (similar to the traditional view which held Ezra to be the author of all three), but the usual view among modern scholars is that the differences between Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah are greater than the similarities, and that Ezra–Nehemiah itself had a long history of composition from many sources, stretching from the early 4th century down to the Hellenistic period.[3]

Summary and structure


Ezra–Nehemiah is made up of three stories: (1) the account of the initial return and rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1-6); (2) the story of Ezra's mission (Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8); (3) and the story of Nehemiah, interrupted by a collection of miscellaneous lists and part of the story of Ezra.[2]

Ezra 1-6

God moves the heart of Cyrus to commission Sheshbazzar "the prince of Judah", to rebuild the Temple; 40,000 exiles return to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. There they overcome the opposition of their enemies to rebuild the altar and lay the foundations of the Temple. The Samaritans, who are their enemies, force work to be suspended, but in the reign of Darius the decree of Cyrus is rediscovered, the Temple is completed, and the people celebrate the feast of Passover.

Ezra 7-10

God moves king Artaxerxes to commission Ezra the priest and scribe to return to Jerusalem and teach the laws of God to any who do not know them. Ezra leads a large body of exiles back to the holy city, where he discovers that Jewish men have been marrying non-Jewish women. He tears his garments in despair and confesses the sins of Israel before God, then braves the opposition of some of his own countrymen to purify the community by dissolving the sinful marriages.

Nehemiah 1-6

Nehemiah, cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes, is informed that Jerusalem remains without walls. He prays to God, recalling the sins of Israel and God's promise of restoration in the land. Artaxerxes commissions him to return to Jerusalem as governor, where he defies the opposition of Judah's enemies on all sides - Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines - to rebuild the walls. He enforces the cancellation of debts among the Jews, and rules with justice and righteousness.

Nehemiah 7-10

The list of those who returned with Zerubbabel is discovered. Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people and the people celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days; on the eighth they assemble in sackcloth and penitence to recall the past sins which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jews, and enter into a covenant to keep the law and separate themselves from all other peoples.

Nehemiah 11-13

Nehemiah takes measures to repopulate the city and returns to Susa after 12 years in Jerusalem. After some time in Susa he returns, only to find that the people have broken the covenant. He enforces the covenant and prays to God for his favour.

Historical background

In the early 6th century Judah rebelled against Babylon and was destroyed (586 BC). The royal court and the priests, prophets and scribes were taken into captivity in Babylon. There the exiles blamed their fate on disobedience to God and looked forward to a future when a penitent and purified people would be allowed return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. (These ideas are expressed in the prophets Jeremiah, although he was not in Babylon, Isaiah, and, especially, Ezekiel). The same period saw the rapid rise of Persia, previously an unimportant kingdom in present-day southern Iran, and in 539 BCE Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, conquered Babylon.[5]

King of Persia[6] Events in the wider region[7] Correlation with Ezra–Nehemiah[8]
Cyrus (550-530) Fall of Babylon, 539 Edict of Cyrus: directive to the Jews to rebuild the Temple; first return of exiles to Jerusalem, 538; altar restored and foundations of Temple laid.
Cambyses (530-522) Conquest of Egypt, 525 Work on the Temple halted due to the plots of the Samaritans.
Darius I (522-486) Secures the throne in 520/519 after fighting off various rivals Edict of Cyrus rediscovered: Temple rebuilt, sixth year of Darius (515)
Xerxes (486-465) Failed attempt to conquer Greece, beginning of struggle with Greeks for control of the eastern Mediterranean
Artaxerxes I (465-424) Successful suppression of Greek-supported revolt in Egypt, 460-456; revolt of Megabyzus, governor of the territory which included Judah, 449 Most widely accepted period for arrival of Ezra in the "seventh year of Artaxerxes"; second return of the exiles to Jerusalem (458 if the king is Artaxerxes I, or 428 if the year is read as his thirty-seventh instead of his seventh); mission of Nehemiah, 445-433
Darius II (423-404)
Artaxerxes II (404-358) Egypt regains independence, 401 Alternative period for arrival of Ezra and second return of exiles to Jerusalem (398 if the king is Artaxerxes II)
Artaxerxes III (358-338) Egypt reconquered
Darius III (336-330) Persia conquered by Alexander the Great


The Mercer Bible Dictionary notes three notable theological themes in Ezra and Nehemiah: God's use of foreign rulers for Israel's sake; opposition to Israel from foreign neighbours; and the need to separate Israel from foreign neighbours to preserve the purity of the people of God.[9] In the last half of Nehemiah the emphasis shifts to the joint role of Ezra and Nehemiah in instructing the people in the Law and in the dedication of the wall, these two activities together forming the reconstitution of Jewish life in Jerusalem;[9] Dillard and Longman describe this as the moment when "the whole city becomes holy ground."[10]

Textual history

The Masoretic text of Ezra–Nehemiah - the Hebrew-language text that forms the basis of Christian translations - is composed largely in Late Biblical Hebrew, with significant sections in "Official Aramaic"; there are occasional reflections of Old Persian vocabulary, but little significant influence from Greek.[11]

The Hebrew Ezra–Nehemiah was translated into Greek in the centuries immediately before the time of Jesus. The Greek and Roman version of Ezra's name is Esdras, and there are two versions of the Greek Ezra–Nehemiah, Esdras alpha and Esdras beta. Esdras beta, which is still used in churches of the Greek-speaking and other Orthodox Christian traditions, is close to the standard Hebrew version, but Esdras alpha (or 1 Esdras) is very different: it reproduces only the material that pertains to Ezra, and ignores Nehemiah. Most scholars consider it a late work.[12] but some believe that it was translated from a Hebrew version of Ezra–Nehemiah which was not the same as the Masoretic version.

The fact that Ezra–Nehemiah was translated into Greek by the mid-2nd century BCE suggests that this was the time by which it had come to be regarded as scripture.[1] It was treated as a single book in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, but Origen separated it into two books and when Jerome followed suit in his translation of the Bible into Latin the two-books tradition became fixed in the Western church. Jewish bibles continued to treat as a single work, with the title "Ezra," until the 15th century CE,[1] but modern Hebrew bibles still print the Masoretic notes at the end of Nehemiah listing the middle verse as Nehemiah 3:32, indicating that a complete work of Ezra–Nehemiah is in view.[13] (To confuse the matter further there are several quite distinct works called Esdras, largely dealing with visions and prophecies).


Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles

The accepted view throughout the 19th century and for much of the 20th was that Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah made up a single "Chronicler's History" by an anonymous "Chronicler". This consensus was challenged in the late 1960s in an important article by Sara Japhet, and today three positions dominate discussion: first, an affirmation that a Chronicler's History existed and included all or part of Ezra–Nehemiah; second, a denial that Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah were ever combined; and third, the suggestion that the two were by the same author but written at different times and issued as separate works.[14] Of the three, it is generally accepted that Ezra–Nehemiah forms a unified work separate from Chronicles: the many scholars who agree on this include H. G. M. Williamson,[15] Sara Japhet, and Gary Knoppers[16]


Ezra 1 (the decree of Cyrus) and Ezra 2 (the list of returnees) are presented as Persian documents; Ezra 3-6, which contains further supposed Persian documents mixed with third-person narrative, may be based on the prophetic works of Haggai and Zechariah, who were active at the time; Ezra 7-10, partly in the first-person, is sometimes called the "Ezra Memoir", but has been so heavily edited that the source, if it exists, is very difficult to recover.[2] There is widespread agreement that a genuine memoir underlies Nehemiah, although it has clearly been edited.[17] It can be no earlier than about 400 BC, but is probably later, possibly even as late as 336-331 BC (the reign of Darius III, the last Persian king); it probably circulated as an independent document before being combined with Ezra.[17]

There are seven Persian documents embedded in Ezra–Nehemiah, six in Ezra and one in Nehemiah.[18] All but one are in Aramaic, the administrative language of the Persian empire. Many scholars accept these as genuine, but a study by Lester Grabbe indicates that while genuine Persian documents may underlie a number of them, they have been reworked to fit the purposes of later writers.[2]

Composition history

H.G.M Williamson (1987) sees three basic stages to the composition of Ezra–Nehemiah: (1) composition of the various lists and Persian documents, which he accepts as authentic and therefore the earliest parts of the book; (2) composition of the "Ezra memoir" and "Nehemiah memoir", about 400 BCE; and (3), composition of Ezra 1-6 (the story of Zerubabbel) as the final editor's introduction to the combined earlier texts, about 300 BCE.[19]

More recently Juha Pakkala (2004) has carried out an extensive analysis of the layers in Ezra. He sees the account of the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 5:1-6:15) and the core of the "Ezra memoir" (Ezra 7-10/Nehemiah 8) developing separately until they were combined by an editor who wished to show how Temple and Torah were re-introduced into Judah after the exile. This editor also added Ezra 1-5. The combined text was then further developed by priestly circles who stressed Temple over Torah, transformed Ezra from scribe to priest, and stressed the primacy of the Babylonian returnees over those who had remained in the land, a distinction that had not appeared in the original Ezra material. Still later, Levitical editors combined Ezra and Nehemiah to produce the final form of the book, reintroducing interest in Torah and stressing the primacy of the Levites.[20]

Jacob Wright (2004) has carried out similar work on Nehemiah. According to his study the original "Nehemiah memoir" was an account of the rebuilding of the city walls. Successive layers were then added to this, turning the building report into an account of Judah's restoration and depicting Nehemiah as a Persian governor who reforms the community of Israel. Finally, after Ezra had come into existence through the combination of Ezra 1-6 with Ezra 7-10, the accounts of the repopulation and dedication of the city and the friction between Temple and torah were added to produce the final Nehemiah.[21]

Lester Grabbe (2003), based on various factors including the type of Aramaic used in the youngest sections and the ignorance of Ezra–Nehemiah as a single book displayed by other Hellenistic Jewish writers, suggests that the two texts were combined, with some final editing, in the Ptolemaic period, c.300-200 BC.[3]


Chronological order of Ezra and Nehemiah

The order of the two figures, Ezra and Nehemiah, is perhaps the most debated issue regarding the book. Ezra 7:8 says that Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the seventh year of king Artaxerxes, while Nehemiah 2:1-9 has Nehemiah arriving in Artaxerxes' twentieth year. If this was Artaxerxes I, then Ezra arrived in 458 and Nehemiah in 445 BCE. Ezra 8-9, in which the two appear together, supports this scenario.[22]

In 1890, however, it was proposed that Ezra's Artaxerxes was Artaxerxes II, and that the sequence should be reversed, with Nehemiah arriving in 445 and Ezra in 398 BCE. The argument has some persuasive evidence; for example: Nehemiah's mission is to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra 9:9 notes that Ezra found the walls in place when he arrived, and while Nehemiah lists the returnees who came back with Zerubbabel he seems to know nothing about the 5,000 or so who accompanied Ezra. Nevertheless, there are counter-arguments to each of these and other arguments, and the 398 date has not replaced the traditional one.[22] A proposal that the reference to the "seventh year" of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7-8) should be read as "thirty-seventh year", putting Ezra's return in 428 BCE, has not won support.[22]

Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel

Ezra begins with Cyrus entrusting the Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, "prince of Judah"; this apparently important figure then disappears from the story almost entirely, and Zerubbabel is abruptly introduced as the main figure. Both are called governors of Judah and are both credited with laying the foundation of the Temple. A number of explanations have been proposed, including: (1) the two are the same person; (2) Sheshbazzar was in fact Shenazzar, Zerubabbel's uncle (mentioned in Chronicles); (3) Sheshbazzar began the work and Zerubbabel finished it.[23]

The "law-book of Moses" read by Ezra

Ezra's mission according to

See also

  • Esdras, for a description of conflicting numbering schemes of books of Esdras
  • 1 Esdras - the variant text of Chronicles-Ezra–Nehemiah


External links

Commentaries on Ezra–Nehemiah
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph, "Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary" (Eerdmans, 1988)
  • Coggins, R.J., "The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah" (Cambridge University Press, 1976)
  • Fensham, F. Charles, "The books of Ezra and Nehemiah" (Eerdmans, 1982)
  • Grabbe, L.L., "Ezra-Nehemiah" (Routledge, 1998)
  • Throntveit, Mark A., "Ezra-Nehemiah" (John Knox Press, 1992)
  • Williamson, H.G.M, "Ezra and Nehemiah" (JSOT Press, 1987)
General bible commentaries
  • Oxford Bible Commentary (ed. John Barton, John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (ed. James D. G. Dunn, John William Rogerson, Eerdmans, 2003)
  • Clements, R.E. (ed), "The World of Ancient Israel" (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph, "Judaism, the first phase" (Eerdmans, 2009)
  • Garbini, G., "Myth and history in the bible" (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003)
  • Grabbe, L.L., "A history of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, Volume 1" (T&T Clark, 2004)
  • Graham, M.P, and McKenzie, Steven L., "The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues" (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Pakkala, Juha, "Ezra the scribe: the development of Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8" (Walter de Gryter, 2004)
  • Pleins, J. David, "The social visions of the Hebrew Bible: a theological introduction" (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
  • Wright, Jacob, "Rebuilding identity: the Nehemiah-memoir and its earliest readers" (Walter de Gruyter, 2004)
  • Bible Gateway (opens at NIV version)
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