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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Ezra

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. Ezra - Nehemiah was one book in the early Hebrew text (MT) and in the early copies of the Septuagint (from the Uncial manuscripts א, A, & B). Baba Bathra 15a. called both books Ezra.

1. This is unusual because it is obvious they both contain the same genealogical list: Ezra 2:2-16 and Nehemiah 7:6-63.

2. Because the lists, though slightly different, are basically the same, the implication is that these were originally two books.

3. This is confirmed by the use of “I” sections in both Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah.

B. They were possibly combined because the ministry of Ezra (Ezra 7-10) is continued in Neh. 8-10.

C. The titles of Ezra and Nehemiah vary between the ancient translations:

Septuagint(Greek)Vulgate(Latin)Wycliffe & Coverdale(Old English)Modern English
Esdras B (Beta) Esdras C (Gamma)Esdras A (Alpha)Esdras (Delta) Esdras I Esdras IIEsdras IIIEsdras IV I Esdras II Esdras---------------------- Ezra NehemiahI Esdras (Apocrypha)II Esdras (Pseudepigrapha - EzraApocalypse, sometimes called IV Ezra)

D. The first Hebrew text to split these books was the A.D. 1448 edition of the MT.


A. The book of Ezra is part of the third division of the Hebrew canon called the “Writings” (kethubim).

B. In the MT it was placed before Chronicles. This was an unusual arrangement. The chronological order should be Chronicles, then Ezra/Nehemiah. There are several theories which try to explain this order.

1. It comes before “Chronicles,” which is surprising since historically/chronologically it is subsequent to the historical account of Chronicles. Some have tried to explain this.

a. Chronicles is a summary of the time from Adam to Cyrus.

b. Ezra-Nehemiah was accepted as canonical before Chronicles.

c. Chronicles is placed last because the Jews wanted the canon to end on a positive note (i.e., decree of Cyrus).

2. No one really knows the criteria or rationality of the formation of “the Writings” section of the Hebrew canon.


A. It is historical narrative in straight forward prose.

B. It includes many quotes from official documents.

1. Persian (Aramaic, cf. Ezra 4:7-18; Ezra 7:12-26)

2. Jewish (Hebrew)


A. Baba Bathra 15a-16a says that Ezra wrote his book, but this does not imply that he wrote Nehemiah also. As a matter of fact, other Jewish sources (Gemara) say Nehemiah finished the unified composite of Ezra - Nehemiah. The MT's endnotes (finalized in the A.D. 900's) are found only at the end of Nehemiah.

B. Josephus (A.D. 37-100), in his Contra Apion 1.8, and Melito of Sardis (A.D. 160-170,177), quoted by Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 4.26, both assert Ezra's authorship.

C. The part of Ezra that deals with Ezra the scribe's life (Ezra 7-10) is written in the first person, Ezra 7:27-28; Ezra 8:1-34; Ezra 9:1-15. Ezra was a priest of the line of Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5) and a scribe (cf. Ezra 7:6-7) at the Persian court of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.).

D. There is much literary similarity between Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

1. The close of 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 is almost exactly like Ezra 1:1-4 in Hebrew.

2. They both have the same theological perspective.

a. focus on the temple and its priesthood (especially lists of Levites)

b. extensive use of statistical records and genealogies

3. Their vocabulary (e.g., “singer,” “gatekeeper” and “temple servant”) and literary style are similar.

4. Both use a later form of Hebrew script.

5. However, it must also be stated that there are notable differences (cf. Sara Japhet, Vetus Testamentus 18 (1968):330-371).

a. in the spelling of royal names

b. Ezra and Nehemiah focus on the covenant with Moses, while I & 2 Chr. focus on the covenant with David

6. The book of the Talmud which gives traditional Jewish views of the authorship of OT books (Baba Bathra 15a-16a) states that Ezra also wrote Chronicles. This view has been followed by W. F. Albright, John Bright, E. J. Young, and G. L. Archer. However, it is just possible that the similar close to Chronicles and the opening to Ezra was an intentional literary design to show that Ezra-Nehemiah continue the history begun in I & 2 Chr..

E. Origen (A.D. 185-253), the Christian scholar of Alexandria, was the first to divide the book into the separate books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jerome did the same in his Latin Vulgate.

F. The first Hebrew manuscript to divide the book was in A.D. 1448. Apparently by this time the Jewish mystical desire to have only 22 books in the OT to match the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which had been so popular, had passed.

G. The author/compiler used many sources.

1. list of vessels from YHWH's temple that were in Babylon, Ezra 1:9-11; Ezra 7:19-20 (Persian)

2. list of returning exiles, Ezra 2:1-70; Ezra 2:1-70 (Persian or Jewish)

3. the genealogy of Ezra, Ezra 7:1-5 (Jewish)

4. heads of clans, Ezra 8:1-20 (Jewish)

5. list of those involved in mixed marriages, Ezra 10:18-43 (Jewish)

H. Ezra has a primary status in rabbinical Judaism because it is he who brought and taught the writings of Moses to the restored Judah. He is also said to have instituted “the Great Synagogue,” which later became the Sanhedrin. This one quote shows how highly he was thought of, “Ezra was sufficiently worthy that the Torah could have been given through him if Moses had not preceded him” (Sanj. 4.4).


A. Ezra was a priest of the line of Zadok (Ezra 7:1-5) and a scribe (Ezra 7:6-7) in the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.):

1. Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I, 458 B.C., as the political/religious leader (Ezra 7:8), with a third wave of returning Jewish exiles (7-10).

2. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, 445 B.C., as the Persian governor.

B. It seems that the genealogies of Ezra/Nehemiah place the author or compiler at the end of the 5th century B.C.:

1. this is assuming that 1 Chronicles 3:15-24 lists four generations after Zerubbabel, not six:

2. this is assuming that Jaddua of Nehemiah 12:10-11 was:

a. not the same as Jaddua whom Josephus puts in the time of Alexander the Great (336- 323 B.C.)

b. or that this genealogy was added by an editor, after the original was written, to upgrade the information (typical of Egyptian scribes)

c. or that he was very young in Nehemiah's day and lived to a very old age in Alexander's day

C. This would put the authorship of these related biblical histories at about:

1. 440 B.C. for Ezra

2. 430 B.C. for Nehemiah

3. 400 B.C. for Chronicles


A. The form of documents in Ezra follows the pattern and style of the official documents of the Persian period:

1. decree of Cyrus (Hebrew translation), Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 1:2-4 (about the Jews returning to Jerusalem and the temple)

2. legal charges by Rehum to Artaxerxes I, Ezra 4:7-16 (about royal permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem)

3. response of Artaxerxes I, Ezra 4:17-22

4. legal charges by Tattenai to Darius I, Ezra 5:6-17

5. Darius I's response (about the temple)

6. Artaxerxes I's decree to Ezra, Ezra 7:12-26

B. The Elephantine Papyri (a letter from Jewish mercenaries on an island in the Nile to the priests in Jerusalem) in 408 B.C. establishes the historicity of Ezra/Nehemiah by mentioning Sanballat (Sin-Uballit in Babylonia, cf. Nehemiah 2:10, Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1). The letter also exhibits the typical style of Imperial Aramaic correspondence.

C. Several silver bowls which were found at Succoth were inscribed “to Geshem's son Qainu,” also confirm the historicity of Geshem the Arab in Ezra/Nehemiah, who ruled the kingdom of Kedar (cf. Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 6:1, Nehemiah 6:6).


A. The early returns to Jerusalem, Ezra 1:1-70

1. In Cyrus' reign (550-530 B.C.) Sheshbazzar was appointed governor (cf. Ezra 5:14). He was a prince of Judah (cf. Ezra 1:8), possibly Jehoiachin's son or relative. He returned to Jerusalem with the Temple treasures (cf. Ezra 1:1-11). He “laid the foundation” of the Temple, but could not finish it (cf. Ezra 5:13-17).

2. In Cyrus' and Darius I's reigns (522-486 B.C., cf. Ezra 4:5) Zerubbabel, also of the line of David, was appointed governor. He returned along with Joshua (or Jeshua) of the line of the last High Priest, to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 2:2, Ezra 2:36-39).

B. The reestablishment of the Mosaic worship of YHWH in Jerusalem by Zerubbabel and Joshua (cf. Ezra 3:1-22).

1. Feast of Booths and regular sacrifices reinstated (cf. Ezra 3:1-13).

2. There were political problems with the surrounding provinces about finishing the building projects in Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 4:1-24):

a. the temple (cf. Ezra 1-5, 24)

b. the walls of Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 6-23)

3. Prophets (Haggai and Zechariah) encouraged the rebuilding of the temple, but the leaders had to wait for official Persian approval (cf. Ezra 5:1-17).

4. Cyrus' decree was found and official permission given to rebuild the Temple (cf. Ezra 6:1-22).

C. The third wave of returnees under Ezra the Scribe (cf. Ezra 7:1-44)

1. Ezra's genealogy and the return to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:1-10)

2. Artaxerxes I's letter to Ezra (cf. Ezra 7:11-26) and his prayer of thanks (cf. Ezra 7:27-28)

3. the return (cf. Ezra 8:1-36)

4. the problem of mixed marriages (cf. Ezra 9:1-44)


A. Ezra/Nehemiah continues the history of the post-exilic Persian Period, where 2 Chr. ends.

B. It shows the racial validity (seed of Abraham) of the returning exiles by the following:

1. the extensive tribal genealogies

2. the extensive Levitical lists

3.the religious exclusivism of the returnees in relation to the offer of help by the surrounding Persian provinces who were a mixture of YHWHism and paganism.

C. God has reestablished the Covenant with the descendants of the Patriarchs. However, this is not the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Ezekiel 36:22-38). Both Ezra and Nehemiah document reoccurrence of the same sins that caused the exiles! God's continuing love and faithfulness to His promises is highlighted, but the continual inability of fallen humanity, even the covenant people, to love and obey god is also highlighted!

D. It shows the development of a new pattern of worship which focuses on the local synagogue and scribes. This, of course, was not to the exclusion of temple worship in Jerusalem.

E. Ezra as a person is a great example of spiritual leadership to be emulated.

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