Question: "What are the books of 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras?"
Answer: The books of 1/2 Esdras are part of what is considered the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical scripture and appear in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles. Except for some Episcopal or Lutheran Bibles, 1 and 2 Esdras and other books of the Apocrypha do not appear in Protestant Bibles. Authorship and dating of 1/2 Esdras are somewhat problematic, and some scholars place writing of certain portions of 2 Esdras as late as the 2nd century AD. “Esdras” is another form of the word Ezra, which means “help.”
In response to developments caused by the Reformation, the Catholic Church, after centuries of not acknowledging these writings fully, canonized the Apocrypha at the Council of Trent in 1546 in part to provide biblical justification for some doctrines not found in originally canonized works, e.g., praying for the dead, purgatory, salvation by almsgiving, etc. It was during the Reformation that doctrinal validity was judged against the principle of “Sola Scriptura” (by scripture alone). So, by accepting writings in the Apocrypha that mentioned the above practices not found in original, biblical scripture, the Catholic Church could support its theological position during this tempestuous time.
In the case of 1 Esdras, the reign of Persian King Artaxerxes incorrectly precedes in its narrative those of Cyrus the Great (c. 559-529 BC) and Darius I (Darius the Great, 521-486 BC), although some believe this may have been simply a literary device called “prolepsis” where a person/event is assigned to an earlier period or represents the future as if it had already occurred. First Esdras is essentially a Greek translation/version of the book of Ezra that is in the authorized biblical canon, but it also includes four additional chapters. It is an account of King Josiah’s reforms and history of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC and chronicles the Jews’ return from Babylonian captivity under Zerubbabel. This book was said to be known by Josephus (born AD 38). St. Jerome (c. 347-420) translated 1/2 Esdras into Latin (the Vulgate Bible), which became known more recently as Ezra and Nehemiah.
Second Esdras, however, was written too late to be included in the Septuagint and, therefore, does not appear within the more prominent canon (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox). Second Esdras is also known by many other designations which can be difficult to track and comprehend fully and clearly. For example, 2 Esdras, regarded as an apocalyptic work, contains portions known in some churches and scholarly circles as 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra, 5 Ezra, and 6 Ezra. The Ethiopian church considers 4 to be part of the canon in the Ethiopian church, whereas the Eastern Armenian church labels it as 3 Ezra. Further, some scholars believe these books were written by several authors, including possibly Christian authors as late as the second century AD.
Second Esdras is often referred to as the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra and contains seven visions of Ezra dealing with his angst over the pain and suffering inflicted upon Jews by Gentiles. Some scholars believe this was written shortly after the AD 70 destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). While there is a definite tone of sadness in this work, there is consolation regarding ultimate retribution. There are six Messiah references within 2 Esdras.
Trying to decipher the varied details and intricacies of these books is clearly beyond the scope of this article. Interested readers can quickly discern the need for further research to satisfy curiosity surrounding the history of these texts.
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