The severity of the blow of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE to Israel is hard to overstate. How could YHWH have yet again delivered His people over to their enemies? Why would He allow His holy places to be again trampled by the uncircumcised? In the late first century CE an Israelite sought to understand this destruction of Jerusalem in terms of the first destruction of Jerusalem and in apocalyptic terms. The result is now called 4 Ezra.
4 Ezra claimed to have been written by Ezra the scribe of the Persian period, but the work is universally understood to be pseudepigraphal, written instead in the late first century CE. 4 Ezra seems to have been originally composed in Hebrew but then translated into Greek; from the Greek it was translated into many languages. 4 Ezra has been best preserved in Latin, but exists in Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, and two Arabic translations as well. “4 Ezra” is the conventional name for the work among scholars, and it is known by different names in different editions. In antiquity it was sometimes referred to as the Apocalypse of Ezra; “4 Ezra” derived from the Clementine Vulgate, in which Ezra was 1 Esdras (Esdras is Ezra in Greek), Nehemiah was 2 Esdras, the work now known as 1 Esdras in many versions of the Apocrypha but 2 Esdras in the Septuagint was 3 Esdras, and our current text was known as 4 Esdras. It was known to some early Christians as 3 Esdras; in many editions of the Apocrypha today 4 Ezra is called 2 Esdras. If this were not confusing enough, the first and last two chapters of 4 Ezra are generally recognized to be later Christian interpolations, and thus called 5 Ezra (= 4 Ezra 1:1-2:48) and 6 Ezra (= 4 Ezra 15:1-16:78). 4 Ezra was held as inspired only among certain Ethiopic Orthodox; it was declared in the Roman Catholic Church to be “tritocanonical,” often found as an appendix to the New Testament. 4 Ezra represents a series of visions with revelations designed to work Israel through their questioning of God and ultimately to provide comfort after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in terms of the first destruction by the Babylonians; Christians throughout time have found the work compelling, which explains its presence in the Latin Vulgate and existence in translation in many other languages.
4 Ezra 3:1-14:48 contains a series of seven visions “Ezra” received from God and interpreted by angelic intermediaries, most often Uriel. In the first vision, “Ezra” was deeply distressed at the desolation of Zion and the wealth of Babylon: he rehearsed Israel’s history to David and Solomon, recognizing the sins of the people, but wondering how God could destroy His elect nation but allow their oppressors to prosper (4 Ezra 3:1-36). In the second vision, “Ezra” was again distressed: this time he insinuated that YHWH should have punished Jerusalem Himself and should not have handed it over to Babylon (4 Ezra 5:21-30). The third time “Ezra” described the order of creation and asked why God’s people do not stand in possession of all of it (4 Ezra 6:37-59). With each complaint Uriel would come and remind “Ezra” of God’s great power and purposes which are beyond “Ezra’s” ability to understand, and assured “Ezra” of God’s coming judgment of the nations and restoration of Israel under the Messiah (4 Ezra 4:1-5:20, 5:31-6:36, 7:1-9:25). Toward the end of the third vision “Ezra” experienced a “conversion moment” in which he gave thanks to God for His blessings and trusted in His ultimate goodness and justice (4 Ezra 4:8-36).
“Ezra’s” last four visions better reflect the apocalyptic genre. In the fourth vision “Ezra” saw a woman whose child was killed; he upbraided her for her concern about the one child when Zion had been bereft of so many more; she suddenly turned into a city, and Uriel explained to “Ezra” how the woman was the city Zion, and he was commended for his humility and faith (4 Ezra 9:26-10:59). In the fifth vision “Ezra” saw an eagle which ruled over the earth but then destroyed after a rebuke from a lion; “Ezra” is then given its explanation: the eagle is the fourth empire of which Daniel had envisioned (cf. Daniel 2:36-44, 7:1-14), and its specifics point to the reign of Domitian as the time of authorship; the lion is the Messiah who would lay low the Roman menace (4 Ezra 11:1-12:51). In the sixth vision “Ezra” perceived a man coming from the sea breathing fire on those who made war on him but proved peaceable to those who accepted him; it was explained to “Ezra” how the man was the Son of God, the Messiah, who would make war on those who would reject him but lead peaceably those from the northern tribes of Israel who had gone afar off and maintained the Law of Moses whom the Messiah would gather to himself (4 Ezra 13:1-58). In the seventh vision “Ezra” is told to spend forty days with selected scribes to write down all he has seen to make them known and give understanding to the people, and he did so (4 Ezra 14:1-48).
We can see why many would find 4 Ezra compelling; many people ask the same questions as “Ezra” did in the wake of great tragedy or catastrophe, and even if uninspired, the answers have strong parallels in the books of Job and Lamentations. In 4 Ezra we see the prevalence of apocalyptic language and imagery to address how God interacts with the world, and many of its images find parallels in the Revelation given to John by God in Christ. 4 Ezra speaks of “Gehenna” as a place of torment, as hell, in 4 Ezra 7:36, consistent with Jesus’ use of the term in Matthew 5:22, 29-30, etc.
As Christians we understand that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah to Israel, rejected by most of His people, and who thus prophesied the desolation and fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-24:36). We thus believe the author of 4 Ezra to be misguided about his expectations of another Messiah for Israel, and wished he had perceived how Jesus fulfilled all which had been written. And yet early Christians are the ones who preserved and read 4 Ezra; its effect in Judaism can barely be perceived. We also can find ways to appreciate the difficulties with which the author of 4 Ezra is grappling, and perhaps gain something from his meditations on the subject. May we put our trust in God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Stone, Michael and Henze, Matthias. 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2013.