1 Esdras

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Scholars claim that 1 Esdras is, perhaps, the least read book of the Apocrypha. The reason seems to be that most of its material can be found in either 2 Chronicles, Ezra, or those parts of Nehemiah that refer to Ezra (see list below). The book covers a period of time from the seventh century to the fifth (or possibly fourth) century BCE. This was a time of major upheaval for the Jewish nation. Josiah was king of Judah. The Assyrian Empire had dominated the region for over a century, but was on the decline and would soon break apart. It would be replaced by the Babylonians, who would conquer Judah, destroy the temple at Jerusalem, and take many of its citizens into captivity. These events are known to have occurred during the years 622-587 BCE.

It wasn't long, however, before the Persians replaced the Babylonians and became the dominant power in the region. Their policy was much different from the Babylonians. Cyrus encouraged the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city and temple. Much of this work was brought to a climax by Ezra. It is unknown exactly when Ezra did this. Some scholars think a century or more might have passed between Cyrus and Ezra; others think the time was much shorter.

1 Esdras selectively reflects on some of the more important religious implications of these events. The book begins with Josiah's reforms and the re-institution of Passover and ends with the reading of the law by Ezra.

The following list indicates how these verses line up. This is not to suggest they are written word-for-word. 1 Esdras has only been found in Greek; the others were written in Hebrew, yet the gist is the same. Scholars believe that 1 Esdras was probably translated from the Septuagint, which would indicate it wasn't written until a much later date. Indeed, its vocabulary has a lot in common with documents from the second century. It clearly is more of a reflection on events, rather than a description of what is happening at the time it was written. Some scholars think it might have been written in Egypt, but that remains speculative.

Parallels between 1 Esdras, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah

2 Chronicles 35
2 Chronicles 36
Ezra 1
Ezra 4: 7-24a
No Parallel
Ezra 2 (and Nehemiah 7:6-73a)
Ezra 3
Ezra 4:1-5
Ezra 4:24b-5:17
Ezra 6:1-12
Ezra 6:13-22
Ezra 7
Ezra 8
Ezra 9
Ezra 10:1-5
Ezra 10:6-44
Nehemiah 7:73b-8:13

It is obvious from this list that only a few verses are unique to this book. Interestingly, those verses describe an event that occurred in the court of King Darius. Apparently, one night after he had gone to bed, three of his bodyguards held a contest to determine "what one thing was the strongest." The winner of the contest would be richly rewarded by the king. Each one wrote his answer, sealed it, and placed it under the king's pillow. The king and some of his wisest advisers would decide which answer was the best (3:1-12).

The first bodyguard wrote "wine," the second said "the king," and the third said, "Women are the strongest, but above all things truth is the victor." In the morning each man was given an opportunity to explain his answer (3:13-17a). The first guard claimed that wine could lead minds astray and cause all sorts of problems (3:17b-24). The second man firmly believed that the king was stronger than wine because the king not only ruled over others, but he also could take what others earned or grew. Plus, his subjects had to obey him and do whatever he wanted (4:1-12). The third guard, who happened to be named Zerubbabel, mentioned that women give birth to kings – as well as to everyone else. Men will do whatever a woman wants, often risking their own lives (4:13-27).

And even though this third answer seemed to trump the others, the fact remains that even women are subject to truth. Truth is the only thing that endures, and it will prevail forever (4:28-41b). After this explanation, Zerubbabel was declared the victor and the king promised to give him whatever he asked. It is at this point that Zerubbabel asked to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to return the holy vessels that had been stolen by the Babylonians. The king granted him this request and promised safe passage for all those who accompanied him. Additionally, those who went would not have to pay tribute and Darius would provide wages for those who helped him. He ordered Judah's neighbors to help with the costs. Needless to say, Zerubbabel praised God and thanked the Lord for giving the king such wisdom (4:42-63). The king also provided a large escort, with the priest, Jeshua, and Zerubbabel at its head. The people marched in an orderly fashion, making this a religious procession (5:1-6).

But this leads to some historical difficulties. Extra biblical sources have determined the sequence of the Persian kings as follows: Cyrus (d. in 530 BCE), followed by his son, Cambyses (530-522), followed by Darius I (522-486), followed by Xerxes (486-465), followed by Artaxerxes I (465-424). 1 Esdras begins with the mention of Cyrus and ends with Darius. Nonetheless, other events in chapter 2 refer to the reign of Artaxerxes. The author talks about Cyrus in chapter 5 even though the reign of Darius had been established in the court tale previously discussed. Zerubbabel is given authority by Cyrus even though the events described earlier with the three bodyguards occurred during the reign of Darius. Rebuilding efforts are hindered twice in Darius' reign, when most scholars believe it happened once with each Cyrus and Darius. Obviously, the author was not interested in writing an accurate history.

What, then, was the purpose of this book? Most scholars think it was to reflect on the events leading up to the restoration of the temple. More importantly, however, it was to elevate the leadership of Zerubbabel (at the expense of Nehemiah). The use of a court tale to establish the success and authority of Zerubbabel echoes the story of Nehemiah and the king. Nehemiah, as cup bearer, had a close relationship with the king; so did Zerubbabel. Notably, Zerubbabel is also of the line of David and is commended in the writings of Haggai and Zechariah. Maybe the whole point of this book is to affirm that the Davidic dynasty had not ended. Zerubbabel, in leading the restoration of the temple, was, in a sense, the restoration of David's line as well. He, then, becomes another celebrated ancestor of Jesus, which would have been very attractive to early Christians.

1 Esdras also elevates Ezra to the office of high priest, a point that is not made in the books that bear his name. In 1 Esdras, Ezra alone fulfills this function. In the canonical books, he shares this moment with Nehemiah. Ultimately, it is the author's interest in the temple that sets this book apart. From the opening lines about Passover to the reading of the Law, this book highlights the holiness aspects of the cult. In 1 Esdras, readers glimpse the way in which Israel reconstituted itself after the destruction of the temple and the loss of its kingdom. The rebuilding of the temple was the cornerstone for reinventing its identity. The genealogical lists contribute to this sense of identity by determining the boundaries for the group. It comes as no surprise, then, that Ezra would prohibit any intermarrying with non-Jews. Since the idea was that the restored Israel would be contiguous with the pre-exilic Israel, bloodlines had to be purified; pedigrees were important. In this way, the Israelites could set themselves apart from the rest of the world and reassert their unique covenant with God.

There are roughly three sections to this letter: 1:1-2:30 – History of Judah; 3:1-5:6 – Court Tale of Three Bodyguards; 5:7-9:55 – The Return to Jerusalem

I – 1:1-2:30 – History of Judah

  • 1:1-24
    • Celebration of Passover
    • Josiah institutes the celebration of Passover
    • (He reigned from 639-609 BCE)
    • This was the first celebration since the time of Samuel
    • It followed the manner prescribed by King David and Solomon
    • Levites are told to sanctify themselves so they can carry the ark
    • (Chronicles states the reason they were celebrating was because of Josiah's reforms. Without that explanation, it appears to focus on Josiah's piety.)
    • Lengthy description is given of extent of offerings – tens of thousands of sheep
    • This Passover occurred in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign
  • 1:25-33
    • Death of Josiah
    • The greatness of Josiah stands alongside the people's sins and rebellion
    • The Egyptians came north to fight against the Babylonians
    • The Egyptians claimed their fight was not with Judah, but at the Euphrates
    • The Pharaoh even claimed that God was with him, urging him on
    • The Pharaoh (Necho) asked Josiah to stand aside and not to oppose the Lord
    • The prophet Jeremiah also warned Josiah against joining in battle
    • Josiah, however, did not turn back and did not heed the words of the prophet
    • He joined battle in the plain of Megiddo, where he was wounded
    • The king was brought back to Jerusalem where he died and was buried
    • All of Judah mourned the loss of their king
  • 1:34-58
    • Destruction of Jerusalem
    • This covers a period of time from 609-587 BCE
    • Judah made Josiah's son, Joachaz, king
    • He reigned for three months before the Egyptians had him deposed
    • The Egyptians put his brother, Joakim, on the throne
    • Joakim imprisoned the leading men of Judah and did what was "wrong in the eyes of the Lord"
    • The Babylonians then marched against him and took him to Babylon
    • In addition, they took some of the sacred vessels back to Babylon
    • Joakim's successor was his son by the same name, who was 18 years old
    • He also reigned for three months before he was deported to
    • Babylon (along with more sacred vessels)
    • Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah to the throne
    • Zedekiah was only 21 at the time
    • He was to sign an oath of allegiance to the Lord, but he also "did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord"
    • This succession of evil kings was supposedly the reason Judah was delivered into the hands of the Babylonians
    • Also, the leaders of the people and the priests committed many wicked acts
    • Among them was defiling the temple
    • Ultimately, God sent the Babylonians to destroy them
    • The temple was set on fire; the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed; and the royal treasury was carried off to Babylon
    • The people were carried off to exile – for seventy years
  • 2:1-15
    • Cyrus sends Jews back to Jerusalem
    • Cyrus came to power in approximately 539 BCE
    • During his first year, he decreed that the exiles should return to
    • Jerusalem and that the temple should be rebuilt
    • This was done in accord with God's command
    • Judah's neighbors were to help with contributions of gold and horses
    • The chiefs of the clans of Judah and the priests and Levites took him up on his offer
    • Their neighbors helped with everything, including offerings (Most likely these would have been Jews who were not making the trip)
    • Cyrus also sent along the sacred vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken
    • These were delivered to Sanabassar, the governor of Judah
    • (In Ezra, his name is Sheshbazzar, without the title of governor)
    • In all, over 5400 vessels were returned – mostly of gold and silver
  • 2:15-30
    • Returnees meet Resistance
    • Story suddenly jumps to the time of Artaxerxes
    • Officials from Samaria and surrounding towns write to the king
    • They claim that the Jews are working to rebuild that "rebellious and wicked" city of Jerusalem
    • If the city gets rebuilt, these individuals know they will stop paying tribute and will rebel against the royal house
    • They beg the king to check on this matter since Jerusalem has a long history of being uncooperative since the earliest of times
    • (It's not clear who these people represented, other than they were rivals of Judah)
    • The king did some research and concurred with their concerns
    • He ordered that the men be prevented from rebuilding the city
    • They were authorized to use force, if necessary
    • The officials immediately set out for Jerusalem
    • Rebuilding was halted until the second year of Darius' reign
    • (See commentary above regarding the logistics of this timeframe. It is possible that the author of 1 Esdras thought Artaxerxes reigned between Cyrus and Darius.)

II – 3:1-5:6 – Court Tale of Three Bodyguards

  • 3:1-3
    • Introduction to Story
    • King Darius held a great feast for all those under him
    • After the feast, he went to bed
  • 3:4-12
    • Contest to determine what one thing is strongest
    • Three of his bodyguards proposed a contest to determine what "one thing is strongest"
    • They determine that the winner of the contest will be given gifts by the king
    • Each of them wrote the one thing he thought was strongest, sealed it, and placed it under the king's pillow
    • The first one wrote "wine is strongest"
    • The second wrote "the king is strongest"
    • The third wrote "women are strongest, but truth conquers all" 
  • 3:13-17
    • The contest
    • When the king woke up, he was presented with their answers
    • He summoned all the chief men from Persia and Media
    • The bodyguards were called to explain their answers
  • 3:18-24
    • The first said, "Wine is the strongest"
    • Wine relieves anxiety but can also lead to dangers from over-indulgence
    • Wine can lead men to do things they would never do without it
  • 4:1-12
    • The second said, "The king is the strongest" 
    • The king, as lord and master, commands all
    • He is an absolute ruler whose word is law
    • People and armies obey him
    • They also stand in attendance around him, meeting his every need
  • 4:13-33
    • The third said, "Women are the strongest"
    • The third bodyguard is none other than Zerubbabel
    • Women beget kings – and everyone else
    • Women raise the men that rule the land
    • Men desert their fathers and families to join with women
    • Men will do anything for the love of a woman
    • He gives an example of the king's behavior with his favorite concubine
  • 4:34-42
    • Zerubbabel continued with, "Truth is stronger than all else"
    • There is no explanation why he had two answers
    • (Most scholars think this was added material)
    • Truth abides and is strong forever
    • Zerubbabel ends with giving praise to God
    • The king was delighted and persuaded by his answer
    • He offered to give him whatever he asked
    • He was rewarded with the title of Kinsman, and told to sit next to the king
  • 4:43-46
    • Zerubbabel asks to return to Jerusalem
    • Zerubbabel reminded the king of his earlier vow to rebuild Jerusalem
    • He stated that he wanted to do that now
  • 4:47-63
    • King Darius gives his blessing
    • He wrote to all the treasurers, governors, and commanders
    • He instructed them to provide safe conduct for their journey to Jerusalem
    • He ordered the governors of Lebanon to provide cedar-wood for the city
    • Specifically, he indicated that no one should interfere with their mission
    • All the land that they would acquire would be free from taxation
    • Plus, they would be given a yearly stipend as long as construction would last
    • Provision was made for the priests and their duties
    • Zerubbabel took the letters and set off for Babylon to gather the Jews
    • There, they feasted for a week and praised God
  • 5:1-6
    • The return
    • Introduction to the list of returnees
    • Procession is headed up by the priests and Zerubbabel
    • The journey would cover approximately 600 miles
    • According to this author, it began in March of 520 BCE

III – 5:7-9:55 – The Return to Jerusalem

  • 5:7-46
    • List of Returnees
    • Names of returnees are similar to those found in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7
    • (In Ezra, this is happening during the reign of Cyrus, not Darius)
    • There are twelve leaders representing the twelve tribes of Israel
    • All told there were 42,360 men, 7,337 slaves, 245 singers and musicians, plus numerous animals
    • Upon arrival, they gave to the sacred treasury a large sum of gold and silver
    • The people settled in their villages
  • 5:47-55
    • Rebuilding of the Altar and restoration of worship
    • Celebration of Festival of Booths
    • It would appear that one of the first things the returnees did was to build an altar
    • Neighboring people came to join them
  • 5:56-63
    • Construction of Temple
    • Once again, Jeshua and Zerubbabel were leaders in this endeavor
    • This was in the second year after they returned
    • (In Ezra, this is all happening in the time of Cyrus)
    • While the builders worked, the priests sang songs and praised God
    • Those who remembered the original temple came with lamentations
    • Their weeping actually drowned out the songs of praise
  • 5:64-73
    • Construction is stopped
    • Enemies heard the sound of trumpets and came to investigate
    • First, they offered to help with the work
    • Zerubbabel and Jeshua rebuffed their efforts
    • Then the people of the land harassed them, blockaded them, and interrupted their work
    • (The author states this happened during the reign of Cyrus, notwithstanding the fact that he's been describing events during the reign of Darius.)
    • Construction was halted for two years while they figured things out
  • 6:1-6
    • Zerubbabel begins to work on temple again
    • In the second year of Darius, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied
    • Zerubbabel once again began to build on the temple
    • The enemies from Syria and Phoenicia came again to investigate
  • 6:7-22
    • Letter sent to Darius
    • The enemies sent a letter to Darius complaining about the building project The enemies asked who had authorized them to do this
    • They dutifully wrote down all the leaders' names
    • The Israelites identified themselves as servants of the Lord
    • According to this author, the work continued while they sorted things out
    • The local officials were diligent about getting proper authorization
  • 6:23-34
    • King Darius searches the archives
    • The search turned up a scroll going back to the first year of Cyrus
    • King Cyrus had indeed ordered that the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt
    • In fact, building expenses were to be paid out of the royal treasury
    • Darius then told the governors not to interfere with any of the building
    • He instructed them to contribute to the expenses incurred
    • If people didn't obey the king's decree, they were to be hanged
    • His orders were to be obeyed to the letter
  • 7:1-14
    • The temple is rebuilt; Passover is celebrated
    • Because of the king's decree, the governors supervised and cooperated with the work
    • The prophets continued to encourage the work
    • It progressed nicely and was finished, probably in 515 BCE
    • A huge dedication ceremony ensued
    • Then they prepared themselves for the Passover
    • All purification rites were followed
    • They kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days
  • 8:1-7
    • Introduction of Ezra
    • The time sequence is simply adjusted for his appearance
    • (Most scholars think there was a long gap between Zerubbabel and Ezra. But exactly how long is unknown. 1 Esdras shortens it up considerably.)
    • Ezra was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest
    • He was a scholar of the Mosaic Law and held in high stature by the king
    • He joined the Israelites in the seventh year of Artaxerxes' reign
    • (Again, the dates don't line up with what is known about Persian royalty. It should have been at least 58 years later.)
  • 8:8-27
    • A mandate from the king
    • Ezra is identified as "the priest, doctor of the Law of the Lord"
    • Once again, the king decreed that Ezra should go to Jerusalem
    • He was to be accompanied by a royal escort to ensure his safety
    • They should take with them all the gold and silver belonging to Judah
    • They should also take any remaining sacred vessels
    • Any travel expenses would be paid out of the royal treasury
    • Neighboring nations would be assessed a tax to help with expenses
    • Ezra was to have whatever he needed in order to fulfil the requirements of God's law
    • Under God's guidance he was to appoint judges and magistrates to administer justice
    • Any who transgress the Law of the Lord would be put to death
    • Ezra gave praise to the Lord
  • 8:28-49
    • More people come to Jerusalem
    • Leaders are identified by name and ancestry
    • 220 more people accompanied Ezra
  • 8:50-67
    • The procession
    • People prepare for the journey by fasting and prayer
    • The king sent an escort
    • The need for this embarrassed Ezra who claimed God would keep them safe
    • Nonetheless, they pressed onward
    • Ezra personally weighed out the gold and silver for the temple
    • The priests carried the gold and vessels safely to Jerusalem
    • Upon arrival, the gold was weighed again and it was handed over to the priest in Jerusalem
    • Many animals were killed for sacrifice
    • The king's orders were delivered to the royal treasury
  • 8:68-96
    • Ezra's prayer
    • Afterwards, Ezra was approached by leaders of Israel
    • They complained that the nation, including the priests, had not kept themselves apart from alien pollution
    • There had been much inter-marrying from the top on down
    • This initiative came from the community, not from Ezra
    • Ezra tore his clothes upon hearing this
    • All day he sat in penitence
    • At the end of the day, he arose and praised God's mercy
    • Their offenses could have wiped them out again, but now they have a place and a temple
    • God is, indeed, merciful
    • While he was weeping, a great crowd gathered
    • The people acknowledge their sins
    • They wanted to take an oath to expel all foreign wives and their children
    • The whole point was to establish what it meant to be a people of God
  • 9:1-36
    • The Expulsion of foreign wives
    • Ezra continued to fast and pray
    • A proclamation went out asking all the returnees to assemble in
    • Jerusalem in 2-3 days
    • Those who refused to come would forfeit their cattle for temple use
    • They would also be excluded from the group
    • When the people had gathered, Ezra proclaimed they had sinned with foreign wives
    • He also said they needed to separate themselves from the heathens
    • The men all agreed to do it
    • Several of them offered to evaluate each marriage
    • The process took three months
    • The names of all the offenders were listed
  • 9:37-55
    • Ezra reads Torah
    • Six months later, the people assembled again
    • Ezra stood before the people from dawn till noon reading the Torah
    • And the whole body listened intently
    • They all gave praise to God
    • The book ends with the celebration of another feast


Coggins, R. J. and M.A. Knibb. "The First and Second Books of Esdras." The Cambridge Bible Commentary. London, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. 1979.

deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Jones, Ivor. "The Apocrypha." Epworth Commentaries. London, Great Britain: Epworth Press. 2003.

Kee, Howard Clark. Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. 1989.

Kohlenberger, John, III. The Parallel Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

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