The Glossary of Terms

2 Esdras


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Esdras, the Second Book of, a Jewish apocalypse dating from the very end of the first century a.d. The material was written under the pseudonym of Ezra in order to use the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians a century prior to Ezra as a means of reflecting upon the intense suffering occasioned by the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in a.d. 70. The work is at times designated 4 Esdras or 4 Ezra (chaps. 3-14). It is included among the Apocrypha by Protestants and is sometimes printed by Catholics along with 1 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh in an appendix following the nt. The original language was probably Hebrew, which was then translated into Greek. Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek is extant, but the book survives in a number of versions made from the Greek, including Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Armenian. Chaps. 1-2 and 15-16 represent Christian additions to the original Jewish apocalypse and are occasionally designated 5 and 6 Ezra, respectively.


The Second Book of Esdras

I. 5 Ezra: an apocalypse of Christian composition concerned with the rejection of Israel and the announcement of the rewards of the coming kingdom to all of the nations (chaps. 1-2)

II. 4 Ezra: a Jewish apocalypse of seven visions (chaps. 3-14)

A. Vision 1: a dialogue between Ezra and Uriel concerning God’s justice and the seed of evil sown in Adam (3:1-5:20)

B. Vision 2: a dialogue concerning the mystery of God’s choice of Israel in light of the people’s subsequent suffering (5:21-6:34)

C. Vision 3: a dialogue concerning creation, the messianic age, and the subsequent judgment (6:35-9:25)

D. Vision 4: Ezra encounters Zion as a woman mourning for her dead son (9:26-10:59)

E. Vision 5: an allegorical vision of an eagle (cf. Dan. 7:3-8), representing the Roman Empire (chaps. 11-12)

F. Vision 6: an allegorical vision of a man from the sea (chap. 13; cf. Dan. 7:13-14)

G. Vision 7: the legend of Ezra and the restoration of the Scriptures (chap. 14)

III. 6 Ezra: an apocalypse of Christian origin describing the tribulations of the end of history (chaps. 15-16)

The apocalypse in chaps. 3-14 is divided into seven visions, some of which contain dialogues between Ezra and the angel Uriel concerning God’s justice in permitting his chosen people to suffer at the hands of the unrighteous Babylonians, others of which deal allegorically with history, the sufferings of the present, and the coming of the messianic age. In this they are similar to the visions of Revelation. The seventh vision, chap. 14, parallels Ezra to Moses and has Ezra dictate while in a trance the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures lost in the burning of Jerusalem. The book thus reflects the Palestinian or rabbinic definition of the canon of Scripture, which implicitly treats Moses and Ezra as the beginning and end of revelation.

While chaps. 3-14 ultimately conclude that the mysteries of sin and suffering are unfathomable, they do develop a theology of history that claims that the whole of the human race from Adam on is sinful, subject to the evil inclination, and therefore deserving God’s punishment. After the fashion of the wisdom tradition, various analogies are drawn from nature and human life to deal with the limits of human knowledge and to justify the suffering of the righteous and God’s slow pace in setting things right. The goal of history is a four-hundred-year messianic age, following which the messiah will die and all things will be returned to a seven-day primeval silence. Then will come the resurrection and last judgment. The sixth vision of the man from the sea in chap. 13 is remarkable in that it is based on Dan. 7:13-14 and thus plays an important role in scholarly discussions of the christological title ‘Son of man’ in the nt.


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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