After seven days of fast, Ezra returns to the Lord in prayer (5:21-30) He reminds the Lord that out of all of the forest he has chosen a special vine which he planted in Zion, from all the cities of the world he has chosen Jerusalem. Why then has the Lord dishonored his people? Does he now hate Israel and Zion? Uriel once again is sent Ezra to respond to his complaints (5:31-40).
The first response to Ezra’s complaint is once again to ask him “imponderable” questions which God alone knows. Wait long enough, Uriel says, and you see the goal of the suffering. Ezra accepts this, but continues his complaint: what will we do while we wait (5:41-55)? The answer once again lies in the natural order of creation. Things happen because that is the way they have been planned.
Ezra then asks about the end of the age: How will the Lord visit creation (5:56)? This is answered in chapter 6. First, the plan was set before time (6:1-6). All of history has been divided by key events, for example Esau is the end of one age while Jacob is the beginning of the next (6:7-10). Oddly enough, this is proven by the fact that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel with his hand. The heel is the end of a man while the hand is the beginning of a man.
Rather than expand on this “division of ages” concept, Ezra asks for more signs of the end of the age (6:11-28). In this case Uriel describes the period after Zion’s humiliation is over. Infants will speak with a mature voice, women will give birth to premature children of three or four months and they will live and dance. Sown places will suddenly appear unsown and storehouses suddenly empty, a trumpet will sound and all will be terrified and the whole world will be stilled. At that time people who have been taken up without experiencing death will return (presumably Enoch and Elijah are in mind here). All of the earth’s inhabitants will have a changed spirit and evil will be blotted out.
Once again Ezra is physically overcome by this vision and he must wait another seven days of prayer and fasting before his third vision (6:29-34). Uriel exhorts him to believe what he has seen and not be quick to “think vain thoughts,” a commentary on the questions he has asked of the Lord so far.
Ezra’s first vision sets the stage for all that follows. He is troubled in his spirit over the fall of Jerusalem and calls out to the Lord in prayer asking about the justice of the destruction of the city (3:1-11). He reviews the history of Israel with a special emphasis on the promise of God (3:12-19) and frankly acknowledges the “evil heart” of the people and their disobedience (3:20-27). But Ezra wonders how Babylon could be allowed to survive and prosper while Israel is destroyed and her people taken captive (3:28-36). Surely Babylon is far worse that Israel? What nation in the whole world has kept the commands of God? In this complaint to the Lord, Ezra stands in the tradition of Job, who complained about his personal experience with evil, and Habakkuk, who asks very similarly about the justice of allowing Babylon to prevail over Israel.
After giving this “complaint,” the angel Uriel is sent to Ezra to discuss the problem over the next few chapters. Like Job and Habakkuk, the answers given are not exactly as expected and Ezra continues to probe and question the angel on the problem of God allowing evil to prosper in the world. Uriel begins by telling Ezra that he is arrogant to think he can understand God’s ways. He gives Ezra three “problems” which are impossible for a human to understand, not unlike God questioning Job on Job 38-41. Ezra’s response is to fall on his face. He says it would be better if humans were never born rather than to have come into the world to live in ungodliness, suffer, and not to understand why.
Uriel tells Ezra a parable (4:13-21): the sea tries to take the territory of the forest, and the forest the territory of the sea. Uriel asks Ezra which is more likely to succeed in their plan. Ezra correctly responds both have foolish plans, neither can take the other’s territory. Uriel points out that as a human Ezra might remember his place and not try to understand the things of heaven.
Ezra makes a second complaint to the angel in 4:22-25. He asks why God has allowed Israel to become a reproach before the gentiles. It is as if the covenant no longer exists! Uriel responds much as the Lord did in Habakkuk 2 – have some patience! “If you live long enough,” Uriel says, “you will see the end of the age” (4:46-32). The seeds of ungodliness have already been sown, it will not be long the threshing floor is filled. Ezra asks how long it will be until the end of the age (4:33-43). Uriel’s response is as evasive as his previous ones – go and ask a pregnant woman if after nine months she can hold the child in a bit longer. His point is simply that there is a time which has been appointed and it will surely come.
Hades is like a womb, he says, and once the birth pangs begin, there is no escaping the birth. The time of the birth is more or less fixed and there are signs which point to the soon-ness of the birth. Once started, these birth pains cannot be stopped. The imagery of the end of days as “birth pangs” seems common in the apocalyptic; Jesus makes use of this image in Matthew 24:8. Ezra attempts a second time to know how long it will be until the final days, and once again Uriel answers with imagery which suggests a time is ordained and nothing can stop it (4:44-52).
Finally in 5:1-13 Uriel gives Ezra a series of “signs” which will accompany the end of the age. Those who dwell on the earth will be seized with great terror and people will fall away from true faith. Unrighteousness will increase and the land of Israel will be a waste and trodden under. In verses 4-5 there are a few of the typical cosmological signs: the sun shines at night, the moon during the day; blood will drip from wood and stones will speak. Other natural oddities will occur – birds will fly away and the Dead Sea will give fish. Menstruating women will give birth to monsters and chaos will reign.
Ezra awakens from this vision and fasts for seven days, mourning and weeping because of what the angel had shown him (5:14-20). Some of these “signs” are found in the biblical material, but in most cases the apocalyptic in the New Testament are quite sedate in comparison. The end of the age will be chaos and is described in terms of the natural order run amok, but the writers tend to hold back on the gory details as we have them here in 4 Ezra.
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.
Since I intended to spend the summer reviewing the apocalyptic literature in the Pseudepigrapha, this would be a good time think about some of the challenges reading this material. I will be using the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited James Charlesworth (originally Doubleday, 1983; not Yale University Press). The abbreviation OTP throughout this series refers to the 1983 print edition of these two volumes. It is important to point out the obvious: there was no collection of “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” in the ancient world. Although a few were considered sacred by some elements of the early church, these books were never collected as an alternate canon nor were they suppressed by orthodox Christians. There was no grand conspiracy of women-hating priests who systematically suppressed the free-thinking writers of this material. That sort of wild-eyed story telling makes for a good Hollywood movie or a wacky conspiracy theory blog, but it is simply not the case.
There are two problems with using the Pseudepigrapha as a source for studying first century Judaism. The first is the problem of the date of the documents. Some texts come to us in translations dated centuries later than the period under investigation. For example, 2 Enoch (The Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch) may date to the late first century A.D., but there are no manuscripts which date earlier than the fourteenth century and any “supposed Greek composition need not have been produced before A.D. 1000” (F. I. Anderson, “2 Enoch” in OTP, 1:94 ). Because of this, scholars date the original composition of 2 Enoch from pre-Christian times into the late medieval period. Given this ambiguity, it is probably best not to use 2 Enoch as the centerpiece of a description of first century theology or common second Temple period Jewish theology.
A second problem is that of influence on the theology of “common Judaism” of the first century. We may confidently date a book such as the Psalms of Solomon to “about 50 B.C.” and even posit a Pharisaical context for the book, but how we know with any measure of confidence the book was read in the first century widely enough to change the way people really thought? Or to put it another way, how do we know the book reflects a broad consensus of opinion of first century thinking? The book may have been written and circulated in among a very small community and was virtually unknown to readers outside of that community. Similarly, the book may have been the work of an individual maverick thinker who was out of touch with the rest of Judaism and received virtually no recognition until Christians began to use the text in the second or third centuries.
There are some methods to gauge the date and popularity of a text in the first century. If the text appears among the Dead Sea Scrolls we can at least know the Qumran community valued the text, especially if it appears in multiple copies. For example, Aramaic portions of First Enoch were present at Qumran. These fragments are not precisely the same text as the later Ethiopic version and some are too small to translate. The Dead Sea Scrolls at least confirm the book was known well before the first century and was popular enough to appear in the library of the Qumran community.
A second possible way to measure the potential influence of a text is by way of citation. If other first century works allude to a work there is at least an implication of influence. Using 1 Enoch as an example, we can find echoes of themes in other first century writings, not the least of which is the New Testament. The Epistle of Jude clearly alludes to 1 Enoch 60:8, confirming a date for at least that line to the late first century and a certain popularity in Jewish Christian circles.
The use of 1 Enoch in the book of Revelation is also possible. This evidence is potentially dangerous, since the New Testament reflects Christian popularity, but perhaps not Jewish popularity. In addition, the two sources just mentioned date to the post-70 period. The popularity of 1 Enoch may have increased after the fall of Jerusalem and not accurately reflect the pre-70 worldview.
An additional measure of popularity is the amount of additional material created based on an earlier text. 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra seem to have sparked a whole series of books which are based on the earlier versions (i.e., 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch the various other books of Ezra). That Enoch was being read and re-created to reflect a later historical context is a witness to the influence the book may have had in the first century. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs refers to 1 Enoch several times, indicating the influence of the apocalyptic text on later Jewish writings (T.Rub. 5:6, T.Sim 5:4, T.Levi 14:1, T.Jud 18:1, T. Dan 5:6, T.Naph 4:1, T.Ben 9:1).
It is also possible a source is dated post-70 A.D. but still reflects something of Jewish expectations before the watershed event of the fall of Jerusalem. 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra are examples of books normally dated at the end of the first century because they refer to the fall of Jerusalem as a past event. Can these books be useful for constructing Jewish expectations in the pre-70 period?
Possibly, but the evidence ought to be handled especially carefully. That some sort of messianic hope is reflected in these books is certain, but to what extent that same messianic hope was present in Palestine in the late 20’s is a more difficult problem. It is possible there was a messianic hope in the 20’s but it was entirely reworked after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra may be an example of this reworking. The difficulty, then, is sorting out the early material from the re-working.
Boccaccini, Gabriele and Jason M. Zurawski, ed. Interpreting 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch: International Studies. Library of Second Temple Studies 87; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014. 240 pp. Hb, $125.00. Link to Bloomsbury
Part three of the book collections five articles which deal with exegetical details of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.Jason M. Zurawski discusses the passage in 4 Ezra the state of the present world is a consequence of Adam’s sin (“The Two Worlds and Adam’s Sin: The Problem of 4 Ezra 7:10-14”). In 4 Ezra 7:74 the author claims God is in control of all things via his initial, foreordained plan. But 7:10-14 seems to state the opposite, Adam’s sin resulted in hardship and evil in the world. Zurawski argues this “complication is more apparent than real” since it can be reconciled with the rest of the book by understanding that God made the world difficult in the first place and Adam was the first to fall into the traps of the world (105). In the book, Ezra thought the world was made only for Israel, but Uriel explains “this world was never intended as the inheritance of the righteous.” This stands in contrast to 2 Baruch, where the world was filled with toil and evil only after Adam’s sin.
Daniel M. Gurtner studies “Eschatological Rewards for the Righteous in Second Baruch.” Baruch’s readers live “between two worlds,” the present evil world where the Temple has been destroyed and the future Paradise that was created for Israel (114). The writer of 2 Baruch exhorts his readers to persevere through their present tribulation because they will receive divine blessing in the future. The specific blessings are “presented in familiar Second Temple terms” (111) such as afterlife and a world to time, a Paradise where there is no suffering, heavenly bliss and a heavenly Jerusalem, complete with a new temple.
In a related article, Jared Ludlow explores “Death and the Afterlife in 2 Baruch.” Because of the view of death in 2 Baruch, the book is an “exhortation to good works, a nondescript ethical liked which may have more in common with Jewish tradition than Christian” (116). After Adam’s sin, the realm of death was prepared (23:4) and after death a soul will face final judgment (books, scales, fire). The judgment is on the basis of the righteousness of the individual, and every secret thought will be exposed (89:3). The final state of the righteous is a crown of glory and a glorified transformation.
Basil Lourié contributes a technical article on the problem of “The Calendar Implied in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra: Two Modifications of the One Scheme.” After surveying the chronological notices in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra he concludes both books are using a 364-day calendar and both books conclude their revelation on Pentecost, the day Moses received the Law. The difference is that 2 Baruch begins his sequence on Wednesday, resulting in 31 interval days in the book (as in Jubilees), while 4 Ezra begins the year on Sunday, resulting in 33 interval days (as in 3 Baruch). Lourié suggests that if Rev 1:10 is an initial revelation on a Sunday and the series of sevens are taken as seven days, then the interval days in Revelation also work out to 31. This requires the three non-seven visions to be single days, and ignores the seven thunders in Rev 10:3. Since John is told to not write what the thunders said, Lourié’s scheme may have merit.
Finally in this section of the book, Carla Sulzbach focuses on Jerusalem in these books (“The Fate of Jerusalem in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra: From Earth to Heaven and Back?”) Sulzbach observes that Baruch is in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, while Ezra is living in Babylon some thirty years later. This difference in perspective may affect the portrayal of the city as well as the eschatology of the books. In both books “Jerusalem has become cosmicized and elevated,” but this process was already underway in the later prophets (143). The city is developed upwardly, toward Heaven, and conflated with the Land and Temple.This is especially true in 4 Ezra 10, where the prophet encounters a mourning woman who is transformed into an eschatological Zion.
The final part of the book proposes to study 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch in their Social and Historical Settings. James Charlesworth’s article “4 Ezra and 2 Baruch: Archaeology and Elusive Answers to Our Perennial Questions” has two related themes. First, he argues both authors could have written from the vicinity of Jerusalem between A.D. 70 and 135. There is evidence of a Jewish “large Jewish settlement” at Shu’afat which was occupied between the two revolts. The site has well-constructed mikvoth and five ink wells were found in the upper level of a building. At the very least this implies the site could have served as an administrative center and possibly other literary activity. His point is that Jerusalem was not depopulated nor were Jews banned from the city after A.D. 70., so it is at least possible these books were written within sight of the destruction of the city. The second point he makes in this article is perhaps more controversial. Charlesworth argues 2 Baruch knew at least the pessimistic theology of 4 Ezra, if not the book itself. To support this view, he shows that the implied author of 4 Ezra did not have answers for the destruction of the Temple and did not even think a future messiah would provide much hope. The messiah in 4 Ezra rules for 400 years and then dies; Charlesworth takes this as an implicit rejection of the messianic hopes leading to the revolt. 2 Baruch, on the other hand, provides an answer. The fall of Jerusalem was a punishment for sin; therefore the message of the book is “keep the Torah.” Charlesworth recognizes this suggestion cannot be proven, but offers it as a matter for ongoing discussion.
Stephen Pfann’s fascinating article (“The Use of Cryptographic and Esoteric Scripts in Second Temple Judaism and the Surrounding Cultures”) begins with Ezra’s instructions to five scribes in 4 Ezra 14 as he dictated 94 books: the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible and 70 secret books, kept for the “wise among your people (14:26). Pfann sees this practice as similar to the use of Cryptic A script at Qumran and elsewhere. The article offers an overview of cryptography, but concludes that this script was used at Qumran for texts esoteric documents reserved for the elite members of the community, possibly to be read alongside the Bible itself (194).
The last article in the collection seems to be outside the focus of the volume. In “Apocalyptic as Delusion: A Psychoanalytic Approach,” J. Harold Ellens offers an assessment of the psychology of apocalyptic movements in general, calling the “psychotic Jewish worldviews” (209). He moves quickly from Second Temple documents like 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch to modern “gurus” like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and even Adolf Hitler an examples of delusional and communal psychosis. Finally, he thinks Jesus’ apocalyptic thinking fits the DSM IV criteria for delusion, including megalomaniacal and narcissistic behavior, especially in his belief he would return to judge the world (208). He concludes “it is clear that a generalized delusional ideation had pervaded an entire community of people in the Jesus Movement, in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Qumran Community, the Maccabees, and the followers of Bar Kochba” (209). The collection of essays would have been just as valuable if this essay were left out.
Conclusion. The essays in this collection are an excellent contribution to the ongoing discussion of these two important Second Temple apocalypses.
NB: Thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.