The Books of Ezra & Nehemiah (1/2 Esdras)

There is considerable dispute as to whether the traditional order of the Bible, placing Ezra (1 Esdras) chronologically before Nehemiah (2 Esdras) is correct, the former implying a time span of 460-440 BCE, the latter 460-390 BCE. Both deal with the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon, freed by the overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty by the Persians.

Some time after the first Jews had returned to Jerusalem, their plight was recognised by Ezra, scribe and Priest in the line of Aaron, who gained permission of the Emperor to visit the Holy City. The first problem which confronted him was mixed marriage but his narrative breaks off before this issue is resolved. He appears again at the great reading of the law in Nehemiah 8. There is a strong Jewish tradition that Ezra organised the synagogue system and was largely responsible for determining the Scriptural canon.

Nehemiah was cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, Emperor of Persia,, commissioned, at his own request, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He meets opposition from long-resident Samaritans but is supported by the Emperor. He causes Ezra to read the whole Law in a public ceremony.

These first two canonical books of Esdras (there are later books of this name in the Apocrypha), describe some of the most joyful, yet melancholy events in Jewish Old Testament history but they are marred by editing and re-compilation so that, although the main events are described, there is a lack of literary depth and continuity.

The books explain a great deal about: the Jewish relations with Samaritans; the purification of the Law; the establishment of a Scriptural Canon; the establishment of Temple worship up until the destruction in 70 AD. In spite of their style, therefore, the content is vitally important if we are to make a link between the end of the Davidic monarchic line and the contemporary world of Jesus.