Introduction to Ezra


Just to review: the first five books of the Old Testament are known as the Torah, or Pentateuch; Joshua through Esther are known as the Historical Books. As mentioned in the Introduction to Joshua, David Platt notes in his Survey of the Old Testament that these books are fairly chronological, but follow a three book pattern: two books which continue the story, punctuated by a “spotlight” book describing a particular time period occurring in one of the two previous books. Platt explains: 1) For the pre-monarchy period, Joshua and Judges continue the story followed by the book of Ruth detailing events possibly taking place around the time of Judges 10. 2) During the monarchy period, Samuel and Kings continue the story followed by Chronicles detailing events around the Davidic kingdom. 3) For the post-monarchy period, Ezra and Nehemiah continue the story followed by Esther detailing events taking place during the time of Ezra. HCSB summarizes broadly, “The book of Ezra is a history of the early days of the return of the Jewish people from their 70 years of captivity in Babylon” and “covers the period from 538 BC to around 456 BC.”

NET Bible points out that there are a couple of other books with the same name, which creates a confusing situation, “In addition to the canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, there are two deuterocanonical books that are also called ‘Ezra.’ Exactly how these books are designated varies in ancient literature. In the Septuagint (LXX) canonical Ezra is called Second Esdras, but in the Latin Vulgate it is called First Esdras. Our Nehemiah is called Third Esdras in some manuscripts of the LXX, but it is known as Second Esdras in the Latin Vulgate. (In the earliest LXX manuscripts Ezra and Nehemiah were regarded as one book, as they were in some Hebrew manuscripts.) The deuterocanonical books of Ezra are called First and Fourth Esdras in the LXX, but Third and Fourth Esdras in the Latin Vulgate. The titles for the so-called books of Ezra are thus rather confusing, a fact that one must keep in mind when consulting this material.”

NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes that “Ezra and Nehemiah are usually considered a single book written by Ezra” and that, “Some also maintain that Ezra wrote Chronicles.” However, the issue of authorship is highly debated. As we noted in the closing verses of 2 Chronicles 36, the opening verses of Ezra are almost verbatim. Acknowledging this continuity, HCSB remarks, “This literary bond casts the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as sequels to the events described in Chronicles. Together the three works form a history of Israel, from its beginning to its return from exile… Until recently, the view commonly held was that Chronicles and the two-part Ezra/Nehemiah were written by the same person. Jewish tradition credits Ezra the scribe.” The problem with this view, as NLT Illustrated Study Bible states, is that, “the linguistic and theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah far outweigh the similarities.” Therefore, HCSB offers this summary, “These differences have led to the prevailing (and probably correct) view of the majority of scholars that Chronicles and Ezra/Nehemiah were written by different people. Given the significant prominence Jewish tradition places on the importance of Ezra to the emergence of Judaism, and its attribution of authorship of Ezra and Nehemiah to him, it is possible that Ezra was responsible for the final text. However, since it appears certain that the same person did not write both Chronicles and Ezra/Nehemiah, and since there is considerable speculation that Ezra authored the Chronicles, a definitive answer to the question of the authorship of Ezra and Nehemiah cannot be given.”

The ESV Study Bible includes this chart which serves as an excellent visual of the continuity between Ezra/Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles:

Relationship of Ezra- Nehemiah to 1-2 Chronicles

1-2 Chronicles


Chronicles ends with the Cyrus Edict.

Ezra begins with the Cyrus Edict.

Chronicles emphasizes Jerusalem and the temple.

Ezra-Nehemiah emphasizes Jerusalem and the temple.

Chronicles has a priestly focus.

Ezra is more focused on the law itself.

Chronicles is more focused on Davidic leadership, suggesting composition around the time of Zerubabbel; cf Zechariah 4 (520-515 BC).

Chronicles omits Solomon’s downfall due to intermarriage.

Nehemiah appeals to Solomon as a negative example (Neh 13:26).

Ezra-Nehemiah contains unique first-person memoirs.

The dating of the text is also difficult to establish. HCSB says that suggestions range from 400 BC to 100 BC, but that “much of this speculation rests on conjectures…” The same source adds that while “certainly much of the material found in the books…predates the composition of the books…In the absence of any definitive statements resolving the question, it becomes necessary to rely on clues from the text itself. Nehemiah was still active in 433 BC, so he must have written his own memoir sometime after that. This gives an approximate date of 400 BC as a likely early date for final composition. If the Jaddua mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22 was the same person whom the first-century AD Jewish historian Josephus says was high priest when Alexander the Great invaded Persia, then it would make him the last priest mentioned in Nehemiah’s list of priests, and it would mean that the final composition of Ezra/Nehemiah would have to have been after 333 BC. This identification is not certain; it serves merely to provide the latest possible date for the final composition.”

Moving on to the historical setting, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes this information about Persia, “The Persian Empire, established by the Achaemenids, extended from India to Cush (Est 1:1) and lasted from 550 BC until Alexander’s conquests (323 BC). Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire and the greatest Achaemenid king. He reigned over the Persians from 559 to 530 BC. He established Persian dominance over the Medes in 550 BC, conquered Lydia and Ionia in 547-46 BC, and captured Babylon in 539 BC.” The same source continues, “The Jewish territory of Yehud (Judah) belonged to the Persian satrapy called Abarnahara (meaning ‘beyond [or across] the river’). The governor of Abarnahara who came to investigate the conflict between the Jews and their neighbors was Tattenai, a figure who appears in cuneiform sources as Tattanu, and he is known to have held his position between 520 and 502 BC.”

Image via ESV Study Bible p. 802

ESV Study Bible provides the following information on the dating of the events within the book of Ezra. “The events narrated in Ezra cover almost a century…In 538 BC, Cyrus issued a decree that Jewish exiles were free to return to their ancestral home. Ezra 1-6 covers the return of the first wave of exiles, who came with their leaders, Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua…in 538-535 BC (the preparations plus the journey itself would have taken many months, perhaps more than a year; cf 7:9). These chapters continue the narrative up to the time when they rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem (516 BC), where Solomon’s temple had stood until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Chapters 7-10 cover a time more than a century later, beginning with Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem in 458 BC. The book provides little information about the intervening period.” The same source includes this table for the chronology of Ezra.

Chronology of Ezra




Cyrus king of Persia captures Babylon

539 BC

Dan 5:30-31

First year of King Cyrus; issues proclamation freeing Jewish exiles to return


Ezra 1:1-4

Jewish exiles, led by Sheshbazzar, return from Babylon to Jerusalem


Ezra 1:11

Altar rebuilt


Ezra 3:1-2

Temple rebuilding begins


Ezra 3:8

Adversaries oppose the rebuilding


Ezra 4:1-5

Temple rebuilding ceases


Ezra 4:24

Temple rebuilding resumes (2nd year of Darius)


Ezra 5:2; cf Hag 1:14

Temple construction completed (6th year of Darius)


Ezra 6:15

Ezra departs from Babylon to Jerusalem (arrives in 7th year of Artaxerxes)


Ezra 7:6-9

Men of Judah and Benjamin assemble at Jerusalem


Ezra 10:9

Officials conduct three-month investigation


Ezra 10:16-17

NLT Illustrated Study Bible provides a useful section of chronological summary:

      • Ezra retraces events in Judah from 538 to about 450 BC.”

      • 538 – 536 BC: “After Cyrus’s decree (538 BC, 1:1-4), a group of about 50,000 returnees set out for Jerusalem, where they reestablished the Jewish community, built a new altar (1:5-3:6), and began rebuilding the Temple (3:7-13). These Jews refused to compromise their beliefs by joining together with local unbelievers. Local opposition soon halted all progress in their rebuilding effort (4:1-5).”

      • 520 – 515 BC: “Almost two decades later, God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to motivate his people to continue building the Temple (5:1-6:12). The Jews responded, and the Temple was completed in 515 BC without further interference (see also Hagg 1:2-6; Zech 4:9; 6:12-15; 8:9).”

      • 486 – 445 BC: “The Jews later experienced opposition during their initial attempt to rebuild the city and its walls (Ezra 4:6-23).”

      • 458 BC: “Ezra traveled to Jerusalem to administer government affairs (7:1-26). He learned that some people were not following the laws of Moses but were marrying unbelievers and defiling Israel. After Ezra interceded for God’s mercy, he led an official judicial investigation of this matter. Many Israelites repented of their sins and divorced their pagan wives (9:1-10:44).”

      • 445 BC: “Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and succeeded in rebuilding its walls amid much opposition and difficulty (Neh 1-7).”

Timeline Images via NLT Illustrated Study Bible pp. 836-837

ESV Study Bible further elaborates on issues discussed in this book, “The Jewish community was struggling to maintain its identity as the people of the Lord, as it faced internal and external pressures.” Due to their location in Jerusalem, as well as cities and villages in what had formerly been Judah, ESV commentators list two insecurities they faced:

      1. …the community was composed of those who had been away in exile for a long period- 70 years according to Jeremiah…They returned as strangers to a land that had a population consisting of Jews who had not been taken into exile, along with persons of other ethnic origins who had begun to settle there. In addition, leaders in Samaria (the old northern capital) who now held power in the Persian province Beyond the River…resented the resurgence of Jerusalem as a separate administrative and political enter.”

      2. …the Jewish community was insecure because of the severe moral and religious challenge presented by the need to remain a distinctive people faithful to the Lord…When Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, he finds the people intermarrying with non-Jews (Ezra 9-10), which poses a threat to the community because it implies a loosening of the covenantal bond between the Lord and his people…Ezra is often blamed for exclusivism in his attitude toward the mixed marriages. But the issue is essentially religious, and also a matter of survival. It has to be balanced by the openness of the community to non-Jews, who were welcome to adopt the religion of the Lord (Ezra 6:21).”

Six key themes are listed for the book of Ezra by ESV Study Bible’s introduction:

      1. The Lord is faithful to his promises, and his mercy exceeds his anger (9:13).”

      2. The Lord works providentially by all means, especially through powerful rulers, to bring about his greater purposes (e.g., 6:22).”

      3. The exiles- being the remnant of Israel, or the ‘holy race’ (9:2, 8)- are bound by covenant to guard their identity and character as the people of the Lord by obeying his law.”

      4. Belonging to the people of the Lord, however, is not essentially by membership in a ‘race’ but by willing acceptance of his covenant, and thus it is open to people of any nation (6:21).”

      5. Allegiance to the Lord is demonstrated by due attention to worship. In Ezra, this is shown especially in the building of the temple and in the proper ordering of its work, as evidenced in the institution of the priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, and other temple servants in their duties (2:36-58; 3:10-11).”

      6. The keynote of worship is joy (6:22).”

ESV Archaeological Study Bible highlights the robust archaeological contributions to the book of Ezra:

“In contrast to some books of the Bible, the archaeological context for the book of Ezra is well established. Its Persian Empire setting (559-330 BC) is secure, with each of its mentioned kings (Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes) illustrated through archaeological finds. Until the last 200 years, all that was known about this period of history was dependent on classical Greek sources- enemies of the Persians- such as historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, although we did have the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote of this period (Jewish Anitiquities 11.1-183). While the magnificent Behistun Rock of Darius the Great was known, it could not be read. The nineteenth-century-AD decipherment of cuneiform scripts used during the Persian period has opened up vast resources for understanding Biblical backgrounds. We now have contemporary archives from various parts of the Persian Empire, such as the Elephantine documents from an island in the Nile River of Upper Egypt. Seals and coins from Persian governors and local leaders have also been uncovered. Complementing such written sources, an abundance of nonliterary remains have been found by archaeologists, such as the Persian palaces of Persepolis and Susa, as well as contemporary finds in Jerusalem and its environs.”

Ezra 1-6 is concerned with the decree of Cyrus II and its execution (538-516 BC). Though this specific decree of Cyrus has not been found, other similar decrees by Cyrus authorizing the rebuilding of temples have been discovered. Since the various temples in the empire were often used as administrative clearinghouses for the collection of tribute, their functioning was important for the Persian government, as it was for the pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of Babylon. Ezra 7 through Nehemiah 13 is devoted to the work of Ezra and Nehemiah during the reign of Artaxerxes I. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, discovered since WWII, only three small fragments have been found of the book of Ezra (4:2-11 [which includes the transition from Hebrew to Aramaic in 4:7b]; 5:17; 6:1-5).”

NLT Illustrated Study Bible provides the following outline:

1:1 – 6:22: The People Return to Rebuild the Temple

7:1 – 10:44: Ezra Returns to Teach God’s Law

Click here to go to Ezra 1