Skip navigation to content

The Book of 6 Ezra (2 Esdras 15-16)


(Online version of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 20 April, 2007)

(Once again, this lecture is largely informed by a book by Theodore Bergren, this time the one on 6 Ezra (for which, see the bibliography).  I have summarized hiss arguments and sometimes interacted with them with a few of my own thoughts and ideas. Professor Bergren will also be providing the "6 Ezra" contribution for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project.)

The book of 6 Ezra now survives as chapters 15-16 concluding the Latin work 2 Esdras.  The Latin 2 Esdras contains three separate works:  5 Ezra (chapters 1-2); 4 Ezra (chapters 3-14; and 6 Ezra.  In terms of genre and form, the book of 6 Ezra is a collection of prophetic oracles with God as the speaker.  As it stands now, it is anonymous, but there is some reason to think it may originally have circulated separately as a work ascribed to Ezra (see below).  It presents a situation of eschatological crisis, condemns the unbelievers and the sinful nations, describes the sorrows of the eschaton, and offers encouragement to "my people" and the persecuted "elect."  A creation hymn appears in 16:54-62 and the work concludes with a warning of persecution, encouragement to the elect, and woes to sinners.

6 EZRA:  TEXT AND MANUSCRIPTS:  The details of the Spanish and French recensions of the Latin 2 Esdras have already been covered in the lecture on 5 Ezra.  The same manuscripts are involved, with only eight being of any real text-critical use.  The most important additional text is a fourth-century CE Greek fragment of 15:57-59 from Oxyrhynchus.  The page numbering and codicology of this manuscript indicate that 6 Ezra stood alone in it rather than being associated with 5-4 Ezra.  In addition, 15:21-27 and 16:3-13 are quoted by the sixth-century British monk Gildas in De excidio Brittanniae.  There are some later quotations as well.

In the Syriac text of 4 Ezra 14:48 (and the versions that derive from it) there is a brief account of the ascent and apotheosis of Ezra which is missing in the Latin of 2 Esdras.  The Latin text was probably mutilated when 6 Ezra was added onto it.  (It would not have made sense to have had additional oracles from Ezra once he had ascended to heaven.)  It seems clear from the Oxyrhynchus fragment of 6 Ezra that it once circulated on its own.  It seem unlikely that its prophecies would have been anonymous, so it may well be that a reference to Ezra in the first verse was deleted as redundant when 6 Ezra was added to the end of 4 Ezra.

TWO RECENSIONS:  The same two French and Spanish recensions of 4-5 Ezra survive for 6 Ezra, but the evidence indicates that, as with 4 Ezra but not 5 Ezra, the French recension is the more original of the two.  The indications are that the development into two recensions is an inner-Latin one rather than being the result of separate Latin translations of a Greek original.  Very briefly, the arguments in favour of the superiority of the French recension over the Spanish are as follows.  The Latin style of the French is more awkward, while the style of the Spanish is more polished.  In the French, Greek words are often used in the Latin text but these are almost always replaced by good Latin words in the Spanish.  The Spanish also tends to correct biblical allusions toward the text of the Bible and it also has more longer readings that appear to be secondary expansions.  The only possible indicator of the priority of the Spanish is that, while both recensions have a vocabulary closer to the Old Latin Bible than the Latin Vulgate, the Spanish is more closely allied to the earlier African recension of the OL.  But this may mean nothing more than that the African recension was in use by the community of the Spanish reviser.  The French contains a great many rare words - mostly missing in the Spanish - but its vocabulary is not notably closer to either the African or the later European recension of the OL.

The Greek fragment favors the French (6 readings) over the Spanish (2 readings), and the text of Gildas' quotations is also closer to the French than the Spanish, confirming the results above.  Overall, neither the French nor the Spanish recension represents the original text perfectly, but the French is considerably closer than the Spanish.

ORIGINAL LANGUAGE:  Our starting point should be the earliest manuscript, the fourth-century Oxyrhynchus fragment, which is in Greek.  But the earliest manuscript of a work does not have to be in the original language, so we must look at other factors as well.  The Latin version has many Greek loan words, a number of grammatical features that appear to be translations from Greek, and a number of odd Latin expressions that also seem to be attempts to translate a Greek original.  So it seems clear that the Greek version is prior to the Latin and the Latin is dependent on it.

Is the Greek version the original?  The Latin version contains some possible "Semitisms" that might hint that the Greek was in turn translated from a Semitic original (Hebrew or Aramaic), but these Semitisms are typical of biblical Greek (the Septuagint/LXX, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and may simply mean that the writer affected a biblical Greek style.  So the Greek is the earliest version for which we have evidence.  The Greek may possibly have been translated from a Semitic original, but we have no good evidence for this.

DATE OF COMPOSITION:  Our solid end-points for a date are that 6 Ezra knows the New Testament book of Revelation (c. 100 CE) and it is quoted by Gildas, so it must have been composed between c. 100-500 CE.  Bergren argues that it was written before about 313 CE, because it appears to address a persecuted Christian community of the sort that ceased to suffer persecution around this time.  If, as some have argued, 15:28-33 refers to the Persian-Palmyrene wars, we can narrow the date further to after 262-267 CE.  Much of the eschatological content is quite generic and seems uninformative about the author's life situation (see, e.g., 15:20-27 and 16:18-34), but the very concrete reference in 15:30 to the Carmonians is striking and corresponds well to a connection with the Persian-Palmyrene wars.

ORIGIN AND BACKGROUND:  As before, our methodological approach is to start with the social context of the earliest manuscripts and quotations and to work backwards from there only as required by the evidence.  With this approach, a good case can be made that 6 Ezra is a Christian work, even though no explicitly Christian ideas appear in it.

¿         The earliest identifiable social context (in the Latin manuscripts and quotations) is a Christian one.  Still, it is difficult to weight the significance of this, since the social context of the earlier Greek fragment from Oxyrhynchus is unclear (at least to me).

¿         A key argument is that 6 Ezra contains clear allusions to the book of Revelation, implying some sort of literary relationship.  See especially 6 Ezra 15:43-16:1 and compare Rev 14:8, 20; 15:43, 46-49; and 16:19-19:3.  Both books use "Babylon" as a code name for Rome (the great whore who is to suffer downfall and destruction.  The direction of influence seems to run from Revelation to 6 Ezra (although I suppose someone might want to dispute this), in which case it is much more likely that a Christian rather than a Jewish writer would be quoting this Christian work.  There may also be allusions to 1 Cor 7:29-31 in 6 Ezra 16:41-44.

¿         The book clearly is aimed at a persecuted community (e.g., 15:21, 53, 56; 16:68-78).  Bergren argues that the references to persecution fit best in the contexts of persecutions of Christians in the early centuries CE.  Note, for example, that the issue of eating sacrifices to idols is a significant concern, as it is in Rev 2:14, 20 and 1 Cor 8.

¿         Bergren considers Asia to be the most likely geographical provenance, on the grounds that the passage on Asia (15:46-63) is longer, more specific, and more vivid than the other descriptions of geographical areas.  This seems a plausible argument, but perhaps not too much weight should be put on it.  It is interesting to note that the list of sinful nations in 6 Ezra (Egypt, Arabia, Carmonians, Asia, Assyrians, "Babylon," and Syria) has many parallels to the sinful nations in the Qumran War Scroll, which also lists (among several others) Assyria, Egypt, the Arabs (the "sons of Ishmael and Keturah") and Syria (the "sons of Aram").  In addition, the War Scroll uses the code name "Kittim" for the Romans.  The name "Kittim" appears in the Habakkuk Commentary in the place of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) in the text of Habakkuk, so the Qumran community also used the Babylonians as a code word for the Romans.  All this indicates that many references to specific nations in both works are generic end-time themes.

CONCLUSION:  6 Ezra is a short book but, apart from the exemplary work done by Bergren, it has not yet received a great deal of attention on its own terms and much work remains to be done on it.  A thorough form-critical analysis of the oracle types in it might be useful.  Also, a thorough analysis of its exegesis of scripture would be very desirable.  The commentaries list a great many scriptural allusions, but no one has yet looked in detail at how these passages have been used and what they tell us about the work and its author.

(c) 2007
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852