The Book of Ezra-Nehemiah

I. Title

The title of the book of Ezra is taken from the name of one of the principle characters in the book. The name is Aramaic, meaning "help". It is a shortened form of the name "Azariah", which means "Yahweh helps" or "Helped by Yahweh". The Greek form of his name is Esdras.

Nehemiah is a separate book in our current versions of the biblical text. The name is Hebrew and means "Comforted by Yahweh".

II. Author and Setting

A. Authorship and Composition

Ezra is linked closely with the book that follows it in the canon, Nehemiah. In fact, the two books are counted as one in the Talmud, in Josephus, and in the Canon of Melito of AD 171. They are also treated as one book in the Masoretic Text, where, at the end of the two books (and such statements follow each book in the Masoretic Text) the following subscription appears:

The totality of the verses of Ezra and Nehemiah is 688; its sign is "Yahweh, remember the reproach of your servants"; its half way point [comes in the sentence] "unto the ascent of the corner" [Nehemiah 3:31]; its chapters are ten; its sign is "Get up upon a high mountain, you who announce good news to Zion."

In the Septuagint, Ezra-Nehemiah is called Esdras B, while an apocryphal Book of Ezra is called Esdras A. In the catalogs of the Old Testament writings given by Origen, Cyril, Melito, Jerome and the Council of Laodicea, the Protestant book of Ezra is called 1 Ezra, while Nehemiah is called 2 Ezra. The apocryphal Esdras A is called 3 Ezra and an apocalyptic book claiming Ezra as author is designated as 4 Ezra.

The author of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah is unknown, though Ezra 7-9 apparently were written by Ezra, since they are written in the first person. The account in chapters 1-6 is compiled from records, including decrees (1:2- 4; 6:3-12), genealogies and name lists (2), and letters (4:7-22; 5:6-17). There are two sections that have been preserved in Aramaic (4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26). Aramaic was the diplomatic language during this period. Sources for the section labeled "Nehemiah" in our text include what appear to be memoirs of Nehemiah, written in the first person: Nehemiah 1:1-7:73a; 11:1-2; 12:31-43; 13:4-31.

The other main source of the book is a section of the Ezra narrative which is inserted within the story (Nehemiah 7-8). It is inserted here either because the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah overlapped or because the Chronicler has arranged the material thematically.

The first explanation, though the most natural, creates the difficulty that, though Ezra had been sent by the Persian emperor in 458 BC (assuming he had been sent by Artaxerxes I and not Artaxerxes II) to proclaim the Pentateuchal law to the Jewish people in Jerusalem, it was not until Nehemiah's arrival in 444 BC that he read it publicly to the people. It seems unlikely that he would have waited fourteen years to get around to doing what the king of Persia had told him to do.

Therefore, the second explanation seems more likely, especially considering that Ezra-Nehemiah were originally one book. As an integral whole, the compiler/editor/author of Ezra-Nehemiah was concerned with showing how the Jewish community that came to live within the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1-2) was united in its faithfulness to the Pentateuch (Nehemiah 8), begging forgiveness for their previous disobedience to the Pentateuch (Nehemiah 9), and resolved to maintain their fidelity to the smallest detail of the law (Nehemiah 10).

Other sources for the Nehemiah section were lists of various kinds: (Nehemiah 3, 7:6-73a, 9:38-10:39, 11:3-19, 11:25-36, 12:1-26).

B. Setting and Date

When Ezra went to Jerusalem is the subject of great controversy. Two possibilities exist. The text tells us that Ezra went to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes. This would be enough, except that there were two Artaxerxes. Therefore, Ezra might have gone to Jerusalem about 458 BC, during the reign of Artaxerxes I, or he might have gone about 398 BC, during the reign of Artaxerxes II.

No such controversy exists for dating Nehemiah. Although again, the text does not specify Artaxerxes I or II, there is enough information in the text to make it clear that it was during the reign of Artaxerxes I that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem -- therefore Nehemiah was appointed governor in 445 BC.

As to when the book was finally composed, it was obviously sometime after Ezra and Nehemiah. The evidence generally suggests a date sometime during the fourth century BC.

III. An Outline of Ezra-Nehemiah

I. Cyrus permits the Jews to return 1:1-11
II. The list of those who returned 2:1-70
III. Altar and temple foundations established 3:1-13
IV. Opposition 4:1-24
V. Renewal of construction work on the temple 5:1-6:22
VI. Ezra is sent to enforce the Law 7:1-8:36
VII. The problem of mixed marriages 9:1-10:44
VIII. Nehemiah's mission 1:1-7:73a
IX. Ezra reads the law 7:73b-8:18
X. Nehemiah's reformation 9:1-13:31

Questions on Ezra-Nehemiah

1. When did Zerubbabel return to the land of Israel?

2. When did Ezra return to the land of Israel? Be sure to discuss the different possibilities.

3. When did Nehemiah return to the land of Israel?

4. What great festivals were celebrated in Ezra-Nehemiah?

5. What is the purpose of Ezra 4?

6. Whose prophecies encouraged the rebuilding of the temple?

7. Who was the high priest in Zerubbabel's days?

8. Identify the following people:

a. Hanani
b. Hananiah
c. Sanballat
d. Tobiah
e. Geshem
f. Shemaiah
g. Joiakim