Old Testament texts and the history of a priestly scribe
Who was Ezra? Old Testament texts mention him, and a biblical book bears his name, but Erza remains a mysterious figure to most. While the post-Exilic period (late sixth–fifth centuries B.C.E.) is an often overlooked time in ancient Israel’s history, it is one filled with many intriguing people and events, including the figure of Ezra.
According to the biblical account, in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia (c. 457 B.C.E.), about 60 years after the Second Temple was completed, a man of priestly background named Ezra was living in Babylon. He was a scribe and a scholar of the law of Moses who had apparently earned the ear of the king. The king gave Ezra leave to take sacred tributes, along with notable members of the Levitical priesthood still living in Babylon, to Jerusalem in order to further establish the sacred rites that had begun decades earlier.
Once Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was troubled to find that many of the returned exiles, including members of the priesthood, had taken foreign wives, and thus he enacted a series of decrees meant to purify the people from unlawful marriages. After this initial episode, we hear little else about Ezra until the days of his contemporary, Nehemiah, when Ezra read passages from the books of the law at the dedication of the new city walls.
As a priestly scribe known to be a scholar of the law, Ezra would later be viewed as one of the fathers of rabbinic Judaism. He was also lauded in apocalyptic circles as a prophet and visionary, with the work known as 4 Ezra being attributed to him. Written sometime shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., this book sees Ezra guided by the archangel Uriel and eventually taken into heaven like his predecessors Enoch and Elijah.
While Ezra seems to have been an important person in the post-Exilic period, much about him remains a mystery. As Charlotte Hempel discusses in her article, “Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls” in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the Qumran community had little awareness of Ezra, as only small fragments of the biblical book that bears his name have been discovered among the scrolls.
The mystery of Ezra’s identify is further magnified by other accounts written during the Second Temple period, such as the writings of the sage Ben Sira, who celebrated the lives of many faithful Israelites, including Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, but makes no mention of Ezra. On the other hand, contemporary works, such as the biblical book known as 1 Esdras (the Greek form of Ezra), raises up Ezra to a place of prominence, where he actually overshadows (and even gets credit for) the deeds attributed to Nehemiah.
To further explore the mystery of Ezra and his somewhat surprising absence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, read “Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Charlotte Hempel, published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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