1 Esdras


Character 1 Esdras (also known as Esdras A or 3 Esdras) is a Greek version of biblical history from the celebration of Josiah’s Passover to the time of Ezra. The relationship of 1 Esdras to canonical materials can be outlined as follows:

1 Esdr 1.1-22 = 2 Chr 35.1-19

1 Esdr 1.23-24 = no canonical parallel

1 Esdr 1.25-58 = 2 Chr 35.20-36.21

1 Esdr 2.1-5a = 2 Chr 36.22-23//Ezr1.1-3a

1 Esdr 2.5b-15 = Ezr 1.3b-11

1 Esdr 2.16-30 = Ezr 4.7-24

1 Esdr 3.1-5.6 = no canonical parallel

1 Esdr 5.7-73 = Ezr 2.1-4.5

1 Esdr 6.1-9.36 = Ezr 5.1-10.44

1 Esdr 9.37-55 = Neh 7.73-8.13a

The most noticeable differences from the canonical text are the inclusion of the Story of the Three Youths in 3.1-5.6 and the relocation of the verses equivalent to Ezr 4.7-24. The inclusion of Neh 7.73-8.12 immediately after Ezra 10 has led to the hypothesis that 1 Esdras is a fragment of a translation of an earlier edition of the Chronicler’s History (1 and 2 Chronicles; Ezra; Nehemiah), to which the Nehemiah Memoir (Neh 1.1-7.73a; 11.1-2; 12.31-43; 13.4-31) had not yet been added. 1 Esdras ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the account of Josiah. Another interpretation of this book considers the present text to be a complete and independent work, consisting of excerpts from Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah and the Story of the Three Youths that have been consciously crafted into a new literary entity. This view has gained greater prominence as recent scholars have called into question whether there ever was a Chronicler’ History consisting of all or parts of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The Hebrew/Aramaic text presupposed by the Greek text of 1 Esdras is apparently older and shorter than the Masoretic Text.

Context Because of the relative age of the underlying Hebrew text, it is probable that the book was composed as early as the second century B. C. Since it was used by Josephus in his own account of the Persian period, it must have come into existence in any case no later than the mid first century A. D. The addition in 1.23-24 helps to resolve the dilemma created by Josiah’s premature death while the Story of the Three Youths highlights the role of Zerubbabel, a descendant of David and explains why Darius was moved to support the building of the temple. Neither addition suggests a specific date of composition.

Reading Guide Our comments focus heavily, but not exclusively, on the materials not included in the canonical text. By shifting Ezr 4.7-24 to an earlier location, the book partially unscrambles the confusion in this passage in its canonical location, which puts Artaxerxes I (464-424) before Darius I (522-486). In 1 Esdras Darius’ efforts to stop the building of the temple (1 Esd 2.16-30) now come before his permission for Zerubbabel to go ahead and rebuild the temple in 1 Esdr 3.1-5.6. Reading the story of the Three Youths first will show the most dramatic change from the canonical text.

1.1-58 The Last Kings of Judah

2.1-30 The Early Days of the Return

3.1-5.6 The Story of the Three Youths

5.7-7.15 The Rebuilding of the Temple

8.1-9.55 The Career of Ezra


1.1-58 The Last Kings of Judah

1.1-22 (2 Chr 35.1-19): Josiah’s Passover. It is not likely that this is the original beginning of the book since Josiah is not introduced and there is no date formula in v. 1 (see 2 Chr 34.8). 6: The Levites killed the passover lamb as they had at the time of Hezekiah (2 Chr 30.17). 12: The Passover meal was both roasted and boiled (cf. Exod 12.8-9; Deut 16.7). 20: No Passover had been held like this one since the time of Samuel the prophet (cf. 2 Kgs 23.22). Its uniqueness apparently lay in the role of the Levites.

1.23-24 (without canonical parallel): Evaluation of Josiah. In spite of the personal piety of Josiah, there were people during his reign who were more wicked than any other people, with the result that God’s word of judgment fell on Israel (1 Kgs 13.2, 32 and 2 Kgs 23.24-27 may have served as a source for this addition). These words resolve the theological difficulty in the accounts of Josiah, in both Kings and Chronicles, which are not able to explain why the whole kingdom fell a few years after this great king died.

1.25-38 (2 Chr 35.20-27): The Death of Josiah. 26-27: Neco, king of Egypt, warns Josiah not to resist his march toward the Euphrates to shore up the reeling forces of the Assyrians. Since the LORD was with the Pharaoh, Josiah’s attack on him would be an attack on the LORD as well. 28: In 2 Chr 35.22 the words of Neco were said to come from the mouth of God; 1 Esdras adds that they were delivered by the prophet Jeremiah! By ignoring this prophetic word Josiah brought about his own premature death.

1.34-58 (2 Chr 36.1-21): Josiah’s Royal Successors and the Final Days of Jerusalem. 34: Instead of Jeconiah/Jehoiachin, we would expect Jehoahaz, as in 2 Chr 36.1. 38: Jehoiakim brought his brother Zarius back from Egypt, but according to the parallel text in 2 Chr 36.4, Neco took Jehoiakim’s brother Jehoahaz down to Egypt. 43: Instead of Jehoiakim in the Greek text, we would expect Jehoiachin, and NRSV so emends the text. 45: After the exile, the holy vessels of the LORD were returned to the temple in Jerusalem. 48: According to an addition in 1 Esdras, Zedekiah compounded his guilt known from 2 Chronicles (not listening to the word of the LORD and violating an oath he had sworn to Nebuchadnezzar) by transgressing the laws of the LORD, the God of Israel. 58: The devastated land enjoyed a sabbath rest during the exile (cf. Lev 26.34-35). The Chronicler expected the exile to last seventy years in fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah (25.11; 29.10).

2.1-30 The Early Days of the Return

2.1-5a (2 Chr 36.22-23; Ezr 1.1-3a): The Proclamation of Cyrus. 1 Esdras does not repeat the doublet at the end of 2 Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra. This has led a number of scholars to propose that the books of Chronicles and at least part of the book of Ezra once comprised the Chronicler’s history of Israel. 2: The author believes Cyrus was divinely inspired.

2.5b-15 (Ezr 1.3b-11): The Return Led by Sheshbazzar. 12: Sheshbazzar, though a Jew, has a Babylonian name, "May Shamash protect the father (of this child)." 15: The return of the captured vessels to Jerusalem established continuity between the First and Second Temples, just as the new temple was set on the site of its predecessor (1 Esd 6.24; Ezr 6.3) and the altar was placed on its original foundations (1 Esd 5.50; Ezr 3.3).

2.16-30 (Ezr 4.7-24): Opposition to the Jews. This passage consists of a letter to Artaxerxes in vv. 17-24, followed by the reply of the Persian king in vv. 26-29. These verses in their context in the book of Ezra justify the Jewish rejection of help from their neighbors (Ezr 4.3) since the subsequent behavior of the Samarians—fifty years later—proved that they had no positive interest in the restoration of Jerusalem. These hostile neighbors criticized the Jewish work on the city of Jerusalem and convinced Artaxerxes to put a stop to it. 1 Esdras moved the pericope to a different location so that Darius’ stopping of the work on the temple (v. 30) would precede the ringing endorsement of work on the temple by Darius in 1 Esd 3.1-5.6. The text of Ezr 4.7-6.18 is written in Aramaic and often referred to as the Aramaic Chronicle. 24: Coelesyria ("hollow Syria") is first attested in the fourth century B. C. It designated a large portion of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard extending eastward toward the Euphrates.

3.1-5.6 The Story of the Three Youths (without canonical parallel)

3.1-17a: A Contest among Three Young Men. 2: The Persian Empire lasted from 550 to 330 B.C, when Alexander the Great conquered it. 3: he went to sleep and woke up The king suffered from insomnia. 4-7: The three youths decide to while away the hours with a contest about what is the strongest thing in the world, and they even decide which prizes Darius should offer to the winner! In his retelling of this story, Josephus has the king himself propose the contest and determine the rewards (Antiquities of the Jews 11.3.2 ¶35). 12: The third young man proposes two answers: women are the strongest, but even stronger is truth. This ambivalence suggests that the story may have developed and changed over the course of its history. 16-17: The king’s decision to let the men explain the reasons for their choices results in speeches defending their viewpoints.

3.17b-24: Wine is the Strongest. 18-23: Alcohol affects thinking and emotions across social classes; it also makes people boast uncontrollably. Inebriated friends turn to violence, but forget everything when they sober up. 24: Since wine makes people do irrational things, it must be the strongest thing in the world.

4.1-12: The King is the Strongest. 3: The king’s superior strength emerges in his ability to order others around. 4-5: People fight and lose their lives at the king’s command and then turn over all the booty to him. 6: Farmers pay taxes at the king’s behest and use group pressure to bring compliance with the tax laws. 12: The speech seems to flatter the king, but readers detect an implicit criticism of the king’s autocratic power.

4.13-32: Women are the Strongest. 13: Zerubbabel, the only youth who is named, was also a renowned leader in the early post-exilic Jewish community (Ezr 3:2). 15-22: Women rule men because they give birth to them, raise them, and clothe them. Men fall in love with women and give them their money, or they leave their own country to be with their beloved and never look back. 23-26: Men engage in war or crime and turn their profits over to women. 27: The speaker seems to resent the power of women over individual men and blames them for men’s sins. 28-32: Even the mighty king yields to his favorite concubine, Apame, who toys with him and controls him. The king looks at her with open-mouthed amazement, just as commoners do with the women who control them (v. 19). This defense of women shows the folly of the second speaker’s proposal about the strength of kings.

4.33-41: Truth is the Strongest. 33: Just when Zerubbabel has apparently won the argument with his words about women, he makes a new proposal. 37: Truth is the opposite of unrighteousness and mortality. 38: Truth is everlasting. 39: Truth might be defined as virtue, integrity, or steadfastness. Truth is an impartial judge. That is why Zerubbabel could tell the truth about the king in vv. 29-32. 40: Truth has kingship, power, and majesty, which are ascribed to God in the doxological conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer (see 1 Chr 29:11-13). 41: Despite Zerubbabel’s ambivalence, the crowd unanimously accepts his argument for the superiority of truth.

4.42-57: Darius Rewards Zerubbabel. 42: Zerubbabel not only wins the contest against his Gentile rivals, but he also ingratiates himself with the king. 43-46: Zerubbabel uses the occasion of his victory to seek favors for the whole people, appealing to previous promises made by Cyrus and by Darius himself. 45: Zerubbabel accuses the Edomites of burning the temple even though 1:55 (2 Chr 36.19) reports that the kings of the Chaldeans had done this. 47-57: In his reply Darius combines excerpts from the decree of Cyrus (Ezr 1.2-4; 6.3-5), his own endorsement of that decree (Ezr 6.6-12), and Artaxerxes’ commission of Nehemiah (Neh 2.5-8). Hence the focus shifts to rebuilding the city rather than just the temple. Darius exempts the Jews from forcible entry of their property (4.49) and taxes (4.50) and expels the Idumeans (Edomites) from the land. 51-52: Darius sets up annual grants for constructing the temple and supporting the sacrificial system. He may have hoped that sacrifices would be made on his behalf (cf. 1 Esd 6.31; Ezr 6:10). There is no other biblical reference to seventeen offerings. 57: The temple vessels provide symbolic continuity between the first and the second temples. Zerubbabel’s predecessor Sheshbazzar also brought back temple vessels to Jerusalem (1 Esd 2:14-15; Ezr 1:11; cf. 1 Esd 6:18-19; Ezr 5:14-15).

58-63: Prayer and Praise. 48-50: The young man (Zerubbabel) praises God for giving him wisdom to win the contest. He identifies the King of heaven with the God of earlier generations. 61-63: Zerubbabel’s fellow exiles accept the news with joy and offer their own praises to God for seven days. Their response is more enthusiastic than one would expect from the canonical account.

5.1-6: The Leaders of the Returning Exiles. These verses form a transition to the materials drawn from Ezra in the next section. 5: Jeshua was high priest in the early post-exilic period (see Ezr 3.2). We need to emend the genealogy of Zerubbabel to read: Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, son of Jehoiachin, of the house of David. The Book of Ezra does not put Zerubbabel in the line of David, perhaps because the author was willing to accept Persian rule and did not want to encourage political or military activities by loyalists of the royal house.

5.7-7.15 The Rebuilding of the Temple

5.7-46 (Ezr 2.1-70; Neh 7.6-73a): The List of Those Who Returned from Exile. In its canonical context, this list is a composite of a number of returns during the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses, but in 1 Esdras it describes the return of Zerubbabel during the reign of Darius. While the list presupposes that the community in Palestine was composed almost entirely of Jews who had been in exile, this does not conform to historical fact. 9-23: Laity. 24-25: Priests. 26-35: Levites and other Temple Personnel. 26-35: Those who could not document their ancestry. 40: Attharias is a transliteration for a Persian word in the text meaning "governor." His identification with Nehemiah in 1 Esdras is mistaken.

5.47-65 (Ezr 3.1-13): The Altar and the Foundation of the Temple. 47: In Ezra the altar was set up in September, 538 B. C., but according to the new ordering of materials in 1 Esdras, the seventh month falls in the reign of Darius (522-486 B. C.). This creates a tension with v. 57, where the foundation of the temple is dated to the reign of Cyrus. The square before the first gate, not mentioned in Ezra, probably refers to the general area of the temple. 51: The festival of booths (Tabernacles) began on the 15th day of the month. 52: The sacrifices on sabbaths are not mentioned in Ezr 3.5. This addition may reflect the heightened importance of the Sabbath at the time of 1 Esdras. 57: The foundation of the temple is dated to the reign of Cyrus here (cf. 1 Esd 5.73) and in Ezr 3:8 even though historically this happened during the reign of Darius, in 520 B. C. This new date implies the faithfulness of the exiles immediately after their return. The ceremony at the beginning of the repairs on the temple recalls that of Solomon at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8; 2 Chr 5-7) and of David when he brought the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chr 15-16). 63: The first temple had been destroyed in 586 B. C. 65: The loud weeping of the people drowned out the sound of the trumpets, whereas in Ezr 3:13 the people could not distinguish between the shouts of joy and the shouts of weeping.

5.66-73 (Ezr 4.1-5): Interruption of the Building of the Temple. 66: The Jewish leaders did not accept the offers of help from the enemies of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin, who claimed to have been residents of Palestine since the time of Esarhaddon (680-669 B. C.). 73: According to Ezr 4:24, the building of the temple ceased until the second year of Darius, about seventeen years (not two years) after it had been interrupted.

6.1-7.15 (Ezr 5.1-6.22; [5.1-6.18 are in Aramaic]): Completion of the Temple. 1: The phrase second year of the reign of Darius has been added to Ezr 5.1. 3: Sisinnes and Sathrabuzanes are transliterations for Tattenai and Shetharbozenai in Ezr 5.3. Instead of Syria and Phoenicia, Ezr 5.3 reads "the province Beyond the River." 8-22: The letter from Sisinees and Sathrabuzanes to Darius asks him whether Cyrus and King Darius himself had approved the rebuilding of the temple, and it quotes the Jews in their own defense in vv. 13-20. 14: This king of Israel is Solomon. 15: The elders willingly admit their responsibility for the destruction of the temple. 17-19: Cyrus authorized the rebuilding of the temple and restored to Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar the vessels that had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezr 5.14 mentions only Sheshbazzar). 22: The king is asked whether Cyrus had originally authorized the rebuilding and whether Darius, the present Persian king, is willing to confirm that authorization. 23: Ecbatana was the former Median capital that had been conquered by Cyrus in 550 B. C. It served as the summer residence for the Persian kings. 24-26: A document in the Persian archives attests Cyrus’ rebuilding decree and his order to return the temple vessels to Jerusalem. 27: In Ezr 6.7 the governor of Judea is unnamed, and he is not given the title "servant of the Lord." The additions in 1 Esdras conform to its usual greater emphasis on Zerubbabel. 28: Darius gives his own endorsement to the rebuilding efforts. 29-31: The king authorizes financial and material support for the sacrifices of the temple in Jerusalem though his generosity is not without self-interest: the Jews are to pray for the king and his family. 32: The king makes violation of his orders a capital crime. 7.1-4: The Persian officials cooperated with the Jews, and the work on the temple was finished successfully. Three factors played a role: the encouragement of the prophets; the command of God; and the consent of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes I (464-424 B. C.). Artaxerxes ruled long after the completion of the temple. Perhaps his provisions for the temple at the time of Ezra led to the addition of his name here. 5: Ezr 6:15 dates the completion of temple to the 3rd of Adar. 1 Esdras may have changed the date since the 3rd of Adar in 515 B. C. fell on a Sabbath. 9: Ezr 6:18 lacks the gatekeepers were at each gate. 10: At the rededication of the temple in the time of Hezekiah and Josiah, Passover was also observed (2 Chr 30.13-27; 35.1-19).

8.1-9.55 The Mission of Ezra

8.1-7 (Ezr 7.1-10): Ezra Comes to Jerusalem. In the seventh year of Artaxerxes (458 B. C.), Ezra was sent to investigate the situation in Jerusalem on the basis of the law. 1-2: Ezra’s priestly genealogy.

8.8-24 (Ezr 7.11-26, vv. 12-26 are written in Aramaic): The King's Letter of Authorization. Ezra is to bring Jews to Jerusalem, deliver gifts to the temple, inquire about how the status of the law, appoint judges to administer the law, and teach the law to those who do not know it.

8.25-90 (Ezr 7.27-9.15): A Narrative about Ezra cast in the First Person.

8.28-40 (Ezr 8.1-14): A list of those who were Ready to Return with Ezra. 42: No priests or Levites were among those returning; Ezr 8.15 mentions only the absence of Levites. 47-48: Thirty-eight Levites joined Ezra’s group. 49: Two hundred twenty temple servants were also added. 54-60: The inflated total of gifts demonstrates the glory of the temple. 55: The king and the people gave generously, just as at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Chr 26.26). 65-66: The numbers of the sacrifices are all multiples of twelve. They symbolize that the restoration community was all Israel, all twelve tribes.

8.68-9.36 (Ezr 9.1-10.44) A Dispute about Mixed Marriages. 70: It is possible that the alien peoples of the land were Jews who had remained in Palestine during the exile. In any case, the leaders and nobles of the community were the chief culprits. 74-90: Ezra’s Prayer. Ezra recounts the present and former sins of the community, and tells how God has shown mercy to the community by restoring it and by giving them favor with the Persian kings, who had glorified the temple. The sin of intermarriage violates a number of Pentateuchal and prophetic texts to which Ezra alludes, and this sin puts the whole community in jeopardy. 92: Shecaniah, a lay person and apparently not guilty of intermarriage himself, led the people in a confession of their sins and called on Ezra to take action. 96: Ezra put all the leaders under an oath. 9.1-17 The Divorce of the Foreign Wives. 11: Because of the inclement weather and the large number of offenders, the people delegate the solution to a special investigative commission. 17: The new moon of the first month marked the end of the procedure, and the community was purified within about a year of Ezra’s arrival (8.61). 9.18-36 A List of the Priests, Levites, and Laity who had intermarried. While the problem was serious, it involved a very small percent of the total population.

9.37-55 (Neh 7.73-8.13a): Ezra Reads the Law. The author of 1 Esdras probably knew the present arrangement of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah though some scholars believe that his placement of Nehemiah 8 right after Ezra 10 represents the original location for this chapter. 41: The book from which Ezra read for some five or six hours was very likely a more or less final form of the Pentateuch. 47: By their Amen the people assented to the law. 49: Attharates is a transliteration for the Persian word for governor. We should probably emend the text to have Ezra address the Levites, who were teaching the multitudes. 55: The verse breaks off in mid-sentence, providing evidence for those who think 1 Esdras is a fragment, which originally ended with the equivalent of Neh 8.13-18 (cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 11.5.5 #157). The Feast of Booths celebrated on that day (Neh 8.17) was unparalleled since the days of Joshua (2 Chr 30.26; 35.18).