Because it was written about the same time as the book of Revelation, 4 Ezra is one of the more important apocalyptic books. The Jewish apocalypse (chapters 3-14) was probably written about A.D. 100 based on the opening verse which states the book was written thirty years after Jerusalem was destroyed. This verse claims to be the words of the main character in the story, Ezra, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Since the book discusses the problem of the fall of Jerusalem it is applicable to either A.D. 70 or 135.
Metzger finds it unlikely a Jewish book would find popularity in the post-Bar Kokhba world, so probably the central section was not written after even A.D. 120 (OTP 1:520. Charles 2:552 concurs with this date, although he tries to separate various sources in the text in order to date them earlier. Michael Stone dates the book to the last decade of the first century, see “Esdras, Second Book of,” in ABD 2:611-614).
The Christian framework was added in the second half of the third century. Collins states there is a “consensus” the Jewish apocalypse was written in Palestine at the end of the first century while Metzger takes the reference to Babylon in 3:1 as Rome; the book is therefore the product of Diaspora Jews (Apocalyptic Imagination, 196).
Chapters 1-2 of 4 Ezra are a Christian composition known as either 2 Esdras or 5 Ezra. After a brief genealogical introduction (1:1-3) Ezra is called to prophetic ministry (1:4-11). Ezra is to declare to the people of Israel their sins. To do this, Ezra describes the Exodus (1:12-14), the wilderness journeys (1:15-20) and the conquest (1:21-23) and shows that God did great things for the people, but they responded by breaking the covenant.
God addresses the people through Ezra, wondering what he will do with his rebellious people (1:24-32). God declares that he will reject his people and no longer listen to their pleas (1:25) and drive them away like straw in the wind (1:22-37). God did send them leaders such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then the 12 Minor Prophets (listed in the order of the LXX). Israel is to be scattered and God has become as a widow (2:1-7).
After a short “woe” against Assyria which seems out of place, God says the Kingdom of Jerusalem will be taken away from Israel and given to “my people,” presumably Christians. God has rejected the nation of Israel as his people, and according to this text, he has turned to the gentiles. In 2:33-41 Ezra calls to the nations because Israel has rejected God: “O nations, await your true shepherd” (The editor of OTP inserts “Ezra turns to the Gentiles” as a section heading for 2:33-41, which seems a bit more than the text says).
Chapter 2:15-32 is an ethical section inserted between the sections on Israel’s rejection. Beginning in verse 20 there is a list of actions which are expected from the people of God. Isaiah and Jeremiah are described as the servants of God sent to help Ezra as he reminds his readers of the ethical demands required of them. Some of the ethical statements which following in verse 20 are in fact drawn from Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 7: guard the rights of the widow and the orphan, clothe the naked, care for the injured and weak, protect the lame and the blind, protect the old and properly bury the dead. Burial of the dead is not a factor in Isaiah and Jeremiah, but it is an important issue to first century Judaism. That Second Temple Judaism considered proper burial important is seen in the apocryphal book of Tobit. One of the “good deeds” of Tobit is the burial of the dead, see 1:18-20, 2:3-8, 4:3-4; 6:15; 14:10-13.
There is a hint of resurrection in 2:16: “I will raise up the dead from their places and bring them out from their tombs.” Since it is followed by ethical commands, it is possible that some sort of spiritual resurrection is in mind here (the passing from death to life at the salvation, etc.) Coupled with the reference to the shepherd in 2:34, it is possible the writer has Ezekiel 34 and 37 in mind. There is a resurrection in 37:1-14 (the valley of dry bones) and the true shepherd in 34:1-19.
The Christian section draws to a close with a vision of a great multitude in Zion (2:42-48). This crowd received crowns and are given palm branches by the Son of God because they have confessed him in the world (2:47). This Son of God is described briefly as a young man of great stature, taller than the rest and more exalted as well.