The book today termed 1 Esdras is not in the Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic canon. But it was included in the Septuagint, in the Eastern Orthodox canon, in an appendix to the Vulgate, and among the Apocrypha in the King James Version and Revised Standard Version. There is some confusion over nomenclature. James King West has a helpful chart of the various names used (Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 469):
|"The Greek Ezra"||I Ezra||III Esdras||I Esdras|
|Canonical Ezra||II Ezra (early texts include Nehemiah)||I Esdras||Ezra|
|Canonical Nehemiah||III Ezra (in later texts)||II Esdras||Nehemiah|
|IV Esdras||II Esdras|
J. Alberto Soggin writes: "This [III Ezra] is the title given to the work in the Vulgate, in which, as we have seen, Ezra and Nehemiah are called respectively I and II Ezra; it is more often called I Esdras (sometimes also the Greek Ezra), following the LXX, in which Ezra and Nehemiah together make up II Esdras. In the Vulgate it appears after the New Testament and is not canonical in the Catholic Church. It sets out to give the history of Israel from the passover celebrated under Josiah in 622-21 to the proclamation of the law under Ezra, and in fact runs parallel to Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, with some differences of order and of detail. Ezra 4.7-24 precedes 2.1; Ezra 4.6 and Neh. 1.1-7.5 and 8.1-13.31 are missing; instead, it has the story of the three young men at the court of Darius. A contest is won by Zerubbabel who, as a reward, receives permission to rebuild the temple (III Ezra 3.1-5.6, cf. Josephus, Antt. XI, 3.2ff. = §§33ff.). The Greek of the texts which are parallel to the work of the Chronicler has remarkable style, whether as a translation or as an original. It always keeps its independence from the LXX and is much closer to the Hebrew text; sometimes the translation is very free, but at other times it offers readings which are superior to the Massoretic text. In other words, it is an extremely useful work for textual criticism." (Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 471-472)
James King West writes: "With the exception of one section, this book appears to be nothing more than a parallel version of the history which begins with the Passover of Josiah (622 B.C.) described in II Chronicles 35:1 and continues through Ezra (except 4:6), including Nehemiah 7:73-8:12a and stopping abruptly with the story of Ezra's reading of the Law (c. 400 B.C.). Differences in detail as well as order, however, shows that it is not a reedited version of this material in the LXX, but a translation of a Hebrew text, of whose relationship to these books in the Hebrew Canon we cannot be certain. In some respects both the order and the styles are superior to the parallel history contained in the LXX version of the canonical books." (Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 469)
Ralph W. Klein writes: "Others, therefore, treat 1 Esdras as a more or less complete document that has been drawn from the materials now in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. They represent the integrity of the present book and seek to understand what its author or editor might have wanted to say by the present arrangement of materials. Tamara Eskenazi, for example, believes that the author of 1 Esdras wanted to conform the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to the ideology of the books of Chronicles by giving special emphasis to the centrality of David, the inclusive characteristics of Israel, the doctrine of retribution and the need to obey the prophets, and the Temple and its practices. Anne E. Gardner attempts to relate 1 Esdras as a complete book to the events and people of the Maccabean crisis. The reinterpretation of the death of Josiah in 1:23-24 shows that this disaster too was the result of sin and not divine caprice. The insertion of the story of the three bodyguards was to show that all the riches and power in the world are of no interest compared to rebuilding the Temple. The Temple's central importance is also emphasized by setting the beginning and ending of the book in the Temple, or at least in its vicinity." (Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 769)
Raymond E. Brown writes: "It appears that I Esdras enjoyed more popularity than Esdras B [Ezra-Nehemiah] among those who cited the Gk bible. Josephus used it, and the early Church Fathers seem to have thought of it as Scripture. It was really Jerome with his love for the Hebr bible who set the precedent for rejecting I Esdras because it did not conform to Hebr Ezr/Neh. It contains little that is not in canonical Ezr/Neh except the story in 3:1-5:6, which tells of a contest among three Jewish pages at the Persian court of Darius (520 BC). Zerubbabel won: His prize was the permission to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem. The story in its present form (from ca. 100 BC?) may have been adapted from a pagan narrative." (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 2, p. 542)
Marjorie L. Kimbrough writes (Stories Between the Testaments, pp. 101-102):
The information found only in First Esdras begins in chapter 3. King Darius gives a banquet for all in his kingdom, and after he has gone to bed, three young men of the bodyguard hold a contest to determine what one thing is the strongest. The person giving the wisest answer is to be richly rewarded by the king. Each contestant writes a statement, seals it, and places it under the pillow of the king, who along with the three nobles of Persia will judge which is the wisest statement (3:1-9).
The first answer is wine; the second is the king; and the third answer is "Women are the strongest, but above all things truth is victor" (3:12). When the king awakes, he reads the statements and summons a company of judges and calls the three young men in to explain their answers (3:13-17a).
The first young man explains that wine leads minds astray, causes changes in behavior neutralizes intelligence, diminishes capacity, and causes loss of memory (3:17b-24). The second man tells how he believes the king is stronger, for he rules over others, sends them to war and to work, and takes what they win or earn. They watch over him while he sleeps and they obey him in all matters (4:1-12). The third man, Zerubbabel, tells how women give birth to kings and to those who plant the vineyards that produce the wine. Men cannot exist without women, and they are willing to give all they possess to be with a beautiful woman. They will risk their lives for love of a woman, and they leave their parents and hold to the wives with whom they wish to spend the remainder of their days on earth (4:13-25). "Many men have lost their minds because of women, and have become slaves because of them. Many have perished, or stumbled, or sinned because of women" (4:26-27).
He explains further how women can take the crowns from the heads of kings, but as strong as they are they cannot compete with truth (4:28-35a). "Truth is great, and stronger than all things. The whole earth calls upon truth, and heaven blesses her. All God's works quake and tremble, and with him there is nothing unrighteous. Wine is unrighteous, the king is unrighteous, women are unrighteous, and all such things. There is no turth in them and their unrighteousness they will perish. But truth endures and is strong forever, and lives and prevails forever and ever" (4:35b-38). When he has finished speaking, everyone says, "Great is truth, and strongest of all" (4:41b).
Zerubbabel is declared the winner and is promised whatever he asks of the king. Zerubbabel asks that the king honor his vow to build Jerusalem, return the holy vessels, and rebuild the temple. King Darius grants him and all who would go to build Jerusalem safe passage and assistance in building. They will not have to pay tribute, and offerings will be given to the temple. He provides land and wages for those who guard the city, and he sends back the holy vessels. Zerubbabel leaves praising God and thanking the Lord for providing the wisdom, and they got to build the city, feasting and rejoicing for seven days (4:42-63).
Daniel J. Harrington writes: "The history of the composition of 1 Esdras is complicated and uncertain. Most of the contest of the three bodyguards in chapters 3-4 probably existed separately in Aramaic (or Hebrew), which in turn may reflect an oral or written Persian original. Little or nothing in the account is distinctively Jewish until 4:41. The question ('What one thing is the strongest?') and the first three responses (wine, the king, and women) sound like pagan court wisdom. Even the addition about truth (4:33-41) to the third answer is not particularly Jewish or religious until the affirmation 'Blessed be the God of truth' (4:40). The story only becomes Jewish with the obviously parenthetical identification of the third bodyguard as Zerubbabel (4:13) and most clearly by Zerubbabel's request in 4:42-63 that as his reward for winning the contest King Darius should remember his vow to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. These links to Zerubbabel and thus to Judaism may have been made before the story's incorporation into 1 Esdras, and thus inspired the author/editor to include it in his narrative. Or the author/editor may have made the link on his own." (Invitation to the Apocrypha, pp. 153-154)
David A. deSilva writes: "Determining the date of 1 Esdras is difficult, since it is primarily interested in reflecting on past history rather than providing windows into the situation of the author. Determination of date has therefore rested on an examination of the vocabulary of the book, which appears to have much in common with the vocabulary of other second-century-B.C.E. Jewish texts (Goodman 1992: 610; Cook 1913: 5). This has tended to set the composition of the book sometime in the two centuries before the turn of the era. It was used by Josephus as the basis of Jewish Antiquities 11.1-158 in preference to the Septuagint translation of Ezra and Nehemiah, though not exclusively, and not without some correction of its historical inaccuracies (Bissell 1899: 70; Schürer 1986: 3.2.714; Cook 1913: 5). It must therefore have been composed prior to the late first century C.E. Egypt has been suggested as a provenance, given the allusions to unveiled women (4:18), sea travel, and piracy (4:15, 23) (Cook 1913: 5; Bissell 1899: 64) but certainty in this matter lies beyond our meager evidence." (Introducing the Apocrypha, p. 284)
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