Back to: Justification and Variegated Nomism


Introduction to 4 Ezra


John W. Taylor

February 11, 2002



Justification and Variegated Nomism


Cambridge Seminar for NT PhD students

Drs. M.N.A. Bockmuehl & P.M. Head



            The book now known as 4 Ezra is best known as chapters 3-14 of 2 Esdras,[1][1] the apocryphal book which appears in an appendix to the New Testament of the Vulgate, and among the apocrypha of several subsequent European versions of the Bible.  Chapters 1-2 and chapters 15-16 of 2 Esdras, later Christian additions, are now usually referred to as Fifth and Sixth Ezra respectively.  They are not found in non-Latin versions of the book.[2][2]


            The most prominent version of 4 Ezra is the Latin text.  The Vulgate version is based on a text of 822AD known as Codex Sangermanensis.  It is missing a leaf, the content of which has been established both by versions other than Latin, and by the discovery of other Latin manuscripts which include the missing section (7:36-105).  The insertion of this material accounts for the dual numbering found in chapter 7 in English editions.[3][3]  From the Latin text other secondary versions were translated, including Armenian, Georgia, Slavonic and Hebrew, and quotes from the Latin text appear in the church fathers starting in the third century.[4][4]

            The consensus of most commentators is that the Latin text was translated from a Greek version.  Variations in the versions are best explained by an underlying Greek text, and the Latin occasionally reflects Greek grammar and gender.[5][5]  No Greek text exists, but there are early Greek quotes or allusions in the Apostolic Constitutions, Clement of Alexandria, and possibly Barnabas 12:1.  Other versions, probably translated from one of two or three Greek variant texts, exist in  Arabic, Armenian, Coptic (a fragment) Ethiopic, Georgian, Syriac.

            Again, most commentators adduce, since Wellhausen,  that behind these putative Greek versions was a Hebrew original.  The evidence for this is an array of Hebraisms.[6][6]

Date and Place

            Although the book purports to be written by Ezra in Babylon thirty years after the destruction of Jerusalem (3:1), it is clearly written much later than that, around 90-100 AD, in response to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Though ‘Babylon’ may correspond to Rome, the book could have been written in Palestine.  In this case, the Babylon reference is not the location of the author but a fiction supporting the use of the name Ezra.  There are similarities with other apocalyptic works, and especially strong links with 2 Baruch, which may have used 4 Ezra.

Interpretative schemes have focused on 12:10-30.  Here Ezra’s eagle vision is interpreted.  The end will come after four earthly kingdoms (as in Daniel).  In this fourth kingdom, usually identified with Rome by the symbol of the eagle, 20 ‘wings’ are rulers who rise and fall.  The second ruler, who reigned twice as long as the others, is likely to represent Augustus, with Julius Caesar counted as an emperor. Then three heads are three further kings:

“As for your seeing three heads at rest, this is the interpretation: In its last days the Most High will raise up three kings, and they shall renew many things in it, and shall rule the earth and its inhabitants more oppressively than all who were before them; therefore they are called the heads of the eagle. For it is they who shall sum up his wickedness and perform his last actions. As for your seeing that the large head disappeared, one of the kings shall die in his bed, but in agonies. But as for the two who remained, the sword shall devour them. For the sword of one shall devour him who was with him; but he also shall fall by the sword in the last days.” (4 Ezra 12:25-28)

            The details of these reigns seem to best fit the reigns of the Flavians Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, the last of whom reigned 81-96.[7][7]  Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army under Vespasian and his son Titus.  Vespasian died of natural causes, the first emperor to do so, but of a bowel illness or fever.  Titus was reputed, though erroneously, to have been poisoned by Domitian (Suetonius, Vespasian, 24, Dio Cassius 66.17).  The end, involving the coming of the Messiah, was expected to occur shortly, in the reign of the third ‘head’.  Assuming the common apocalyptic practice of recounting known history as visionary prophecy, the writing of 4 Ezra can be best located towards the latter part of the reign of Domitian.

Genre and Authorship

            The author initially names himself as “Salathiel, who is also called Ezra” (3:1, cf. Dan 4:5), but is thereafter known only as Ezra (6:10, 7:1, 8:2, 19, 14:1).  Ezra’s history, as one who restored the teaching of the law to Israel, perhaps inspired this choice of name, and in 14:37-48 Ezra is depicted as dictating under inspiration the books of the Hebrew bible, numbering 24 in the traditional way of figuring.[8][8]  The name Salathiel is the Greek version of the biblical Shealtiel, the son of Jehoiachin and father of Zerubbabel.  Four reasons for the use of this name have been suggested: (1) it is the writer’s real name; (2) the name should only really be attached to the first three episodes of the apocalypse, a so-called ‘Salathiel Apocalypse’, which source critics have suggested comes from a different hand to later parts of the book; (3) it is a complete misreading of an original Hebrew; and (4) the Hebrew name Shealtiel, pointed differently, could mean “I asked God,”[9][9] reflecting Ezra’s questioning in the book.

            4 Ezra has a number of similarities with other apocalyptic works.  The situation of the author reflects distress at the state of the world, and the situation of Israel.  There are a series of revelatory experiences or visions.  Ezra encounters an angelic messenger.  The visionary prediction of historical events culminates in promises of divine intervention, messianic rule and the final judgment, with vindication for the righteous.  Particularly strong links can be seen with 2 Apocalypse of Baruch which has a similar seven-fold structure, and may have drawn from 4 Ezra.


            Ezra writes for “the wise” among the people (12:38, 14:46), who will be able to comprehend the revelations.  Bauckham thinks that this implied readership does not include the ordinary Jew.  Rather, Ezra is writing for the theological elite, those “who understood themselves as the religious leaders of all Israel.”[10][10]  However,  it seems more likely that addressing the work to ‘the wise’ is a rhetorical strategy, encouraging the readers to respond to the message of the book, counting themselves as wise. This strategy is found in other apocalyptic literature: “Those who are wise will understand” (Dan 12:10), “I have given wisdom to you, to your children …. In order that they may pass it (in turn) to…the generations that are discerning (1 Enoch 82:2); “Deliver these books to your children… and all your generations who have the wisdom and who will fear the Lord, and they will accept them” (2 Enoch 48:6-7); “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Rev 2:7 and similar).  In 14:27 Ezra gathers all the people together to instruct them, and it is likely that this is the group intended to hear the message of the apocalypse.  It is a message for all the people.


            The book consists of seven visions or episodes, in which Ezra has a revelatory encounter.  The seven episodes have been seen as a 3-1-3 structure, where episodes 1-3 are complaints, episode 4 is the change or conversion, and episodes 5-7 are consolation.  A 3-3-1 pattern seems more likely.  Episodes 1-3 are complaints or laments.  Ezra questions in turn what he sees as the failure of God’s purposes in history, in the election of Israel, and in creation.  After each lament he encounters the angel Uriel, the messenger of the Most High, who comes to rebuke, comfort and instruct. Episodes 4-6 are consoling visions, where Ezra is shown in turn the restoration of Zion, the destruction of the Roman Empire, and the coming of the Messiah and the final judgment.  Episode 7 is a concluding commission, similar to a call narrative, which shows Ezra reproducing the Jewish scriptures, as well as receiving other revelations.  Between each of the episodes Ezra has a period of several days in solitude, fasting, prayer or rest.  A summary of each episode follows:

Episode 1: 3:1-5:20

Ezra, distressed over the destruction of Zion, recounts briefly the history of the world and Israel up to the disobedience of the nation under the kings. He complains to the Lord that it is wicked ‘Babylon’, who prospers, despite the fact that Israel are more obedient to God than any other nation.  When will the promises be fulfilled and Israel’s reward come?  The angel Uriel is sent, and explains that Ezra cannot understand these things, which only God knows (4:21).  This age will know only an increase in evil and sorrow (5:2), and the reward will come in the next age, when the number of the righteous is complete (4:36).

Episode 2: 5:21-6:34

            Once again Ezra laments, and this time he reminds the Most High of his choice of Israel.  How could the chosen people be oppressed by those who oppose God? (5:29).  The angel again shows Ezra that God’s judgments are beyond understanding (5:40).  God’s plan in creation cannot be brought to fruition prematurely, but it will come to pass soon, because the earth is growing old (5:55).  God himself will visit his creation (6:6, 18), once “the humiliation of Zion is complete” (6:20).  Then “evil will be blotted out” (6:28).

Episode 3: 6:35-9:26

            In Ezra’s third complaint he recounts the story of creation, and asks “If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess the world for our inheritance” (6:59)?  The angel affirms that the world was made for Israel, but it is under judgment for sin, and only the righteous will inherit it, in the new age, and this through much difficulty (7:9).  It is better that many should perish than the law of God be disregarded (7:20).  The restoration of Zion will come with the coming of the Messiah (7:28-29), followed by the final judgment according to deeds, with its rewards and punishments (7:35-37). 

            Ezra returns to the issue of the evil heart in all humanity.  If the judgment will be so strict, surely only a few will survive it?  The Lord tells him that the few are counted precious to God because they are rare (7:57), but this does not satisfy Ezra.  If this is the outcome, then creation has lost its purpose (7:63, 116).  It would be better for humans not to have been born, never to have known of the possibility of paradise. The answer comes that the judgment is just, because people have knowingly and freely disobeyed God’s commandments (7:72, 8:56).  Each man is in a contest which is won by those who choose life (7:127-30).  Once death occurs, even before the resurrection to final judgment, the unrighteous enter immediate and irreversible (7:102-115) torment, while the spirits of the righteous shall see their reward (7:75-101).

            Ezra appeals to God’s mercy (7:132), especially for Israel (8:16, 26), but he is again reminded that God’s judgment is just.  God did not intend to destroy human beings (8:59), but they have been lost through corruption, and the final reckoning will come with signs.  Only with difficulty have a few been saved (9:21).  Ezra is not to be concerned for the multitude of the ungodly who are rightly punished, but to set his mind on the salvation of the righteous (9:13).

Episode 4: 9:27- 10:59

It seems that yet again Ezra is to complain about the justice of God.  He recalls the giving of the law, and laments the disobedience of Israel (9:26-37).  There is though a sense of acceptance, an admission of Israel’s responsibility: they deserve to die.[11][11]  Ezra sees a woman weeping for her son.  He tells her to weep instead for Zion (10:7).  But she disappears and Ezra sees a huge city. Overwhelmed, Ezra calls for the angel Uriel, who explains that the woman represents the city of Zion, which is shown the city established (10:27), but not built by human hands (10:54).  It is a consoling vision of the restoration of Jerusalem in the new age.

Episode 5: 11:1-12:51

            Ezra dreams of an eagle coming from the sea.  Although Ezra identifies it with the fourth kingdom described in Daniel (4 Ezra 12:11, cf. Dan 7:7), probably the Greek Empire, it almost certainly represents the Roman Empire.  Twelve wings and three heads represent various emperors.  The eagle rules over the earth, and oppresses its inhabitants (12:32, 40), but a lion, representing the Messiah, comes from the forest and pronounces judgment.  Finally the eagle is destroyed, but the righteous remnant of God’s people are saved through the mercy of God (12:34).  Ezra is comforted concerning Israel, and sees the destruction of their oppressors, and he in turn comforts the people that God has not forgotten them.

Episode 6: 13:1-13:58

            In the next vision Ezra sees a man coming from the sea.  He comes with the clouds of heaven (13:3, cf. Daniel 7:13), and multitudes make war against him. He destroys the multitude with flaming breath, and then gathers to himself another, peaceable multitude.  The vision is interpreted as concerning the son of the Most High (cf. 7:28, ‘my son the Messiah’), who has been kept for this time (13:26).  After a period of wars, the son will be revealed on Mount Zion, and gather the nations, who though they resist, will be destroyed.  The son will then gather the lost ten tribes of the northern kingdom, who, it is revealed, have been living by themselves in a new land, Arzareth, where they have kept the law (13:39-45).  Along with them, a remnant in Israel shall be saved.  At this point Ezra, satisfied, gives glory and praise to God.

Episode 7: 14:1-14:48

Ezra, like Moses, hears God speaking from a bush.  Because the times are short, he is commanded to lay aside thoughts of this world, to recall everything that has been revealed to him, and to instruct others, to prepare for the age to come.  Because the law has been burned (4:24, 14:21), Ezra exhorts Israel to “rule over your minds and discipline your hearts” (14:33), so that they might receive mercy after death.  Then, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he dictates the Jewish scriptures again, along with 70 secret books, in line with the tradition that Moses had a secret revelation in addition to the Torah.[12][12]

The Theology of 4 Ezra

            Of particular interest to this seminar is 4 Ezra’s account of the way of salvation, and its approach to the justice and mercy of God..  In the first three episodes Ezra, distraught over the destruction of Jerusalem, looks for understanding.  With a tone similar to the laments of Israel’s psalmists, and the groans of prophets like Jeremiah and Habbakuk, he complains that God’s promises to Israel are not being fulfilled, and seeks the mercy of God upon the nation and upon the world.  When the angel insists that only those who obey the law can live (7:20), Ezra thinks this cannot be so, because since Adam everyone has an evil heart, and thus few, or no one would qualify for the resurrection.  How would this fulfill God’s intention in creation and covenant?  How would this uphold the name of God (4:25)?  He is told that the answers lie in the coming of the next age, which is only made for a few (8:1).  The consolation offered by episodes 4-6 offer hope, and Ezra changes to accept the angel’s position, but Such a gap lies between Ezra and the angel, and such a change is experienced by Ezra in the fourth episode, that questions arise as to which character is expressing the authorial voice.  It has been suggested that the voice of Ezra reflects an incipient universalism that must sadly accept the merciless logic of the regnant legalistic position, represented by the angel.[13][13] 

Some scholars solve the dilemma by positing a complex compilation of contradictory sources.  Sanders accepts that the voice of the angel is the authorial voice, but considers episodes 6 and 7 as probable additions, a “saving appendix”.  He sees this shortened 4 Ezra as “the closest approach to legalistic works-righteousness which can be found in the Jewish literature of the period.” [14][14]  More recently, however, the unity of the text has been widely accepted.[15][15]  The conflict and changes which Ezra experiences could represent the author’s psychological or spiritual journey, or more likely are a rhetorical strategy intending to move the readers from the position of ‘Ezra’, to the position of the angel.  That the angel represents the voice of God cannot be doubted.  In the second and third episodes the angel Uriel appears as before, but his voice soon disappears.  It is the sovereign Lord who speaks (5:38-6:29, 7:26-9:25).

We may ask what people 4 Ezra envisages will be granted entry to the new age.  They are, as is traditional, called the righteous (5:35, 8:39), who through much difficulty inherit the promises (7:14, 9:21).  They are required to observe God’s commandments, statutes and law perfectly (7:72, 90, 95; 13:42), and to serve the Lord faithfully (7:89).  Their righteous deeds are stored up as treasure, and revealed at the judgment for a reward (7:35, 77), just recompense for faithfulness.

This straightforward focus on obedience as the condition of salvation is ameliorated somewhat.  Ezra’s early appeals to God’s mercy are not answered immediately, but in 12:34 we read that the Messiah delivers the remnant of God’s people “in mercy”.  There is a strong emphasis on human freedom and responsibility.  Those who perish “also received freedom, but they despised the Most High, and were contemptuous of his law” (8:56).  But the angel Uriel does not substantially reply to Ezra’s argument that since Adam evil has been in the human heart (3:21), but he does briefly acknowledge it (4:30), and promises that for the righteous the root of evil will be removed in the new age (8:53), and “the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit” (6:26).  Repentance unto life is possible before the day of judgment (7:82, 9:12, 13:54, 14:34).  Faith is important along with obedience. The righteous will be saved “on account of [their] works, or on account of the faith by which they have believed.”  They have “works and have faith in the Almighty” (13:23).  They have stored up “treasures of faith” (6:5), and “trusted the covenants of the Most High” (7:83).


4 Ezra ought to be seen as an encouragement to late first-century Jews that the promises of God will be fulfilled after all, but not in this age but the next, after the coming of the Messiah.  It is also an exhortation to obey the law, because only the faithfully obedient will be saved. 





Richard Bauckham, ‘Apocalypses’, in Carson, D.A., O’Brien, Peter T., and Seifrid, Mark A. (eds.), Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 1, The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, pp. 135-187,

Bensley, Robert L., The Missing Fragment of the Latin Translation of the Fourth Book of Ezra, Cambridge: The University Press, 1875

Box, G. H., The Ezra-Apocalypse, London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, Ltd., 1912

Longenecker, Bruce W., 2 Esdras, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995

Metzger,  B. M., ‘The Fourth Book of Ezra: A New Translation and Introduction’, in James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983, pp. 516-559

Montefiore, C. G., IV Ezra, : A Study in the Development of Universalism, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1929

Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977,

Schürer, Emil, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.--A.D. 135), III.1,  Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986

Stone, Michael E., Fourth Ezra, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990

Thompson, Alan Lloyd, Responsibility for Evil in the Theodicy of 4 Ezra, SBL Diss. 29, Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977

Violet, Bruno, Die Esra-Apokalypse, Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1910


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[1][1]For a table listing the various literature with which the name of Ezra is associated, see Metzger, ‘The Fourth Book of Ezra’, 516.

[2][2] 4 Ezra 15:57-59 has been found on a fourth-century papyrus, POxy. 1010.

[3][3]See the account of Bensley, Missing Fragment, 1-8.

[4][4]For a description of texts and early quotes of 4 Era see Violet, IV Esra, xiii-lx.

[5][5]See Box, The Ezra-Apocalypse, xi.

[6][6]Box, xii-xix.

[7][7] The case for this majority view is outlined by Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 299-300. 

[8][8] b. Ta‛an. 8a, Num. R. 13:15-16.  Josephus knew 22 books (Against Apion 1.38).  See also Metzger, p. 555 note n., and Stone, Fourth Ezra, 441.  Stone’s is the most comprehensive of Ezra commentaries.

[9][9]Stone, p. 55-56.

[10][10] Richard Bauckham, ‘Apocalypses’, p.163.

[11][11] The changes in Ezra’s speech patterns in 9:26-37 are detailed by Bruce Longenecker, 2 Esdras, 62-3.  Longenecker’s book is an up-to-date and useful guide to 4 Ezra.

[12][12] Stone, p. 418.

[13][13] C. G. Montefiore, IV Ezra, 13.

[14][14] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 418.

[15][15] See Thompson, Responsibility, 107.