(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Ezra is mentioned in the Bible in Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8. According to Ezra 7-8, he led a group of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem under the authority of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes, probably Artaxerxes I (r. 464-424 b.c.e.), in the seventh year of his reign or 458 b.c.e. Ezra’s two recorded activities were to read the “law” to an assembly of Jewish people in Jerusalem and to require Jewish men, particularly priests and Levites, who had married “foreign wives” to divorce them. The law read by Ezra appears to have been the law of Moses, that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy, or the legal texts included within those books, though Nehemiah 8:15 refers to a law not actually found in those books. It may have been an inference from Leviticus 23:40-42, which reflected later practice. The issue of divorce in Ezra 9-10 (and Nehemiah 10 and 13) perhaps arose from the perceived need of Jews who came from Babylon to keep themselves separate from others in Palestine to ensure purity in worship and theology.


Rabbinic Judaism viewed Ezra as a second Moses, who passed on the law to later scribes. By the first century c.e., he was seen as the one entrusted by God with preserving seventy secret books.

Further Reading:

Bossman, D. “Ezra’s Marriage Reform: Israel Redefined.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 9 (1979): 32-38. The focus of this article is the intermarriage problem addressed by...

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Ezra Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Hebrew spiritual leader{$I[g]Israel;Ezra}{$I[g]Mesopotamia;Ezra} As a “scribe skilled in the law of Moses,” Ezra led a religious reform movement that transformed the identity of the Jewish community that had returned from exile to Jerusalem. This new identity of the Jewish people was premised on a return to observance of the law (Torah).

Early Life

Nothing of substance is known about the early years of Ezra (EHZ-ruh), though his genealogy is given in Ezra 7:1-5. There he is called the son of Seraiah, and he is presented in the priestly heritage, with his ancestral line traced all the way back to Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses. While in the Bible Ezra is never specifically called the high priest or chief priest, he is so referred to in Flavius Josephus’s Antiquitates Judaicae (93 c.e.; The Antiquities of the Jews, 1773).

Ezra was born in captivity, under the yoke of the great Persian Empire. It actually had been about a century earlier, under the imperialistic policies of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the early sixth century, that the stage had been set for several generations of Jews to be born in exile. Beginning in 597, when Jerusalem fell under the onslaught of Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king, a series of deportations was initiated in which large numbers of people within the kingdom of Judah were physically transported to Babylon and other tightly controlled sectors in southern Mesopotamia.

For almost six decades after 597, the exiles lived and worked under Babylonian control. Although sources describing the daily life of the exiles are meager, there is evidence that suggests that some were put to forced labor for various building projects; perhaps the greatest numbers were relocated to agricultural communities with a relative amount of freedom. Remarkably, the once-powerful Babylonian Empire was overthrown with ease. To the east of the empire, the Persians had been a growing threat for many years. By 539, the great city of Babylon was taken, virtually without a fight. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, embarked on a series of military campaigns with the goal of securing the bulk of territory once controlled by the Babylonians. Within a year, much of the Near East was under Persian influence.

Cyrus determined to control his new empire via a novel approach: as liberator. Thus, the Assyrians and Babylonians’ traditional methods of terror and deportations were cast aside in favor of very tolerant policies. It is within this framework that Ezra 1:1-4 relates how Cyrus, in 538, issued a decree that allowed and even encouraged the exiled Jews to return to their homeland. Indeed, they did return. Under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, and later his nephew Zerubbabel, those who returned resettled and even commenced rebuilding the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Construction began in 520, and by 515 the work had been completed. Chapter 6 of the Book of Ezra relates the events of completing and dedicating the new Temple and the observance of Passover in the spring of 515. With this accomplishment, the stage was set for the return of even more exiles and the coming of Ezra to Jerusalem. Ultimately, Ezra would provide the leadership and spiritual direction needed by the Jewish community of Jerusalem in order to restore and invigorate its once-rich religious heritage.

Life’s Work

Between the close of the biblical narrative in Ezra 6 and the introduction of Ezra himself at the start of chapter 7, a substantial number of years passed. It was probably early during this period, sometime after 515, that Ezra was born. With virtually no information concerning his early years, the real story of Ezra begins with his return to Jerusalem along with groups of other Israelites, as mentioned in Ezra 7:7. It is at this point that one of the more vexing problems in biblical studies arises: the dating of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. Artaxerxes I ruled the Persian Empire from 464 to 423. The text of Ezra 7:8 states that Ezra and his retinue arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign; by this reckoning, Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458. This straightforward calculation would place him in Jerusalem before Nehemiah. There is, however, some confusion surrounding the chronological relationship between Ezra and Nehemiah. For this reason, two other theories concerning the date of Ezra’s return have been articulated. Some believe that a scribal error marred the biblical text and that “the seventh year” should read “the thirty-seventh year” of Artaxerxes. This would place the return of Ezra to Jerusalem in 428. Although supported by some, this position has not met with widespread acceptance. There is a third possibility: “The seventh year of Artaxerxes” does not refer to Artaxerxes I but rather to Artaxerxes II, who ruled from 404 to 359. Accordingly, the seventh year would be 398. The thorny problem of dating Ezra’s return has by no means been resolved. To deal pragmatically with the events of Ezra’s life, however, the traditional date of 458 for his return to Jerusalem has been adopted here.

As a “scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), Ezra received a special royal commission from the Persian king Artaxerxes. The document, which was written in Aramaic, is preserved in Ezra 7:12-26. This document presented Ezra with far-reaching powers to teach and enforce measures of the law among the members of the Jewish community residing in the Persian satraphy of Abar-nahara—thus including not only those in Palestine proper but also the Jews in the trans-Euphrates area. The idea that the Persian king would so empower a man to impose the law of Moses on Jewish subjects within the Persian Empire might seem on the surface to be unreasonable. However, many attested Persian documents clearly demonstrate that, indeed, most of the...

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