Some of the most complicated problems in Hebrew history as well as in the literary criticism of the Old Testament gather about the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Apart from these books, all that we know of the origin and early history of Judaism is inferential. They are our only historical sources for that period; and if in them we have, as we seem to have, authentic memoirs, fragmentary though they be, written by the two men who, more than any other, gave permanent shape and direction to Judaism, then the importance and interest of these books is without parallel in the Old Testament, for nowhere else have we history written by a contemporary who shaped it.

It is just and practically necessary to treat the books of Ezra and Nehemiah together. Their contents overlap, much that was done by Ezra being recorded in the book of Nehemiah (viii.-x.). The books are regarded as one in the Jewish canon; the customary notes appended to each book, stating the number of verses, etc., are appended only to Nehemiah and cover both books; the Septuagint also regards them as one. There are serious gaps in the narrative, but the period they cover is at least a century (538-432 B.C.). A brief sketch of the books as they stand will suggest their great historical interest and also the historical problems they involve.

In accordance with a decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C. the exiled Jews return to Jerusalem to build the temple (Ezra i.). Then follows a list of those who returned, numbering 42,360 (ii.). An altar was erected, the feast of booths was celebrated, and the regular sacrificial system was resumed. Next year, amid joy and tears, the foundation of the temple was laid (iii.). The request of the Samaritans for permission to assist in the building of the temple was refused, with the result that they hampered the activity of the Jews continuously till 520 B.C. (iv, 1-5, 24). Similar opposition was also offered during the reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes, when the governor of Samaria formally accused the Jews before the Persian government of aiming at independence in their efforts to rebuild the city walls, and in consequence the king ordered the suspension of the building until further notice, iv.6-23. Under the stimulus of the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, the real work of building the temple was begun in 520 B.C. The enterprise roused the suspicion of the Persian governor, who promptly communicated with Darius. The Jews had appealed to the decree of Cyrus granting them permission to build, and this decree was found, after a search, at Ecbatana. Whereupon Darius gave the Jews substantial support, the buildings were finished and dedicated in 516 B.C., and a great passover feast was held (v., vi.).

The scene now shifts to a period at any rate fifty-eight years later (458 B.C.) Armed with a commission from Artaxerxes, Ezra the scribe, of priestly lineage, arrived, with a company of laity and clergy, at Jerusalem from Babylon, with the object of investigating the religious condition of Judah and of teaching the law (vii.). Before leaving Babylon he had proclaimed a fast with public humiliation and prayer, and taken scrupulous precautions to have the offerings for the temple safely delivered at Jerusalem. When they reached the city, they offered a sumptuous burnt-offering and sin-offering (viii.). Soon complaints are lodged with Ezra that leading men have been guilty of intermarriage with heathen women, and he pours out his soul in a passionate prayer of confession (ix.). A penitent mood seizes the people; Ezra summons a general assembly, and establishes a commission of investigation, which, in about three months, convicted 113 men of intermarriage with foreign women (x.).

The history now moves forward about fourteen years (444 B.C.). Nehemiah, a royal cup-bearer in the Persian palace, hears with sorrow of the distress of his countrymen in Judea, and of the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. i.). With the king's permission, and armed with his support, he visited Jerusalem, and kindled in the whole community there the desire to rebuild the walls (ii.). The work was prosecuted with vigour, and, with one exception, participated in by all (iii.). The foreign neighbours of Jerusalem, provoked by their success, meditated an attack -- a plan which was, however, frustrated by the preparations of Nehemiah (iv.). Nehemiah, being interested in the social as well as the political condition of the community, unflinchingly rebuked the unbrotherly treatment of the poor by the rich, appealing to his own very different conduct, and finally induced the nobles to restore to the poor their mortgaged property (v.). By cunning plots, the enemy repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought to secure the person of Nehemiah; and in fifty-two days the walls were finished (vi.). He then placed the city in charge of two officials, taking precautions to have it strongly guarded and more thickly peopled (vii.).

At a national assembly, Ezra read to the people from the book of the law, and they were moved to tears. They celebrated the feast of booths, and throughout the festival week the law was read daily (viii.). The people, led by the Levites (under Ezra, ix.6, lxx.), made a humble confession of sin (ix.), and the prayer issued in a covenant to abstain from intermarriage with the heathen and trade on the Sabbath day, and to support the temple service (x.).

The population of the city was increased by a special draft, selected by lot from those resident outside, and also by a body of volunteers (xi.). After a series of lists of priestly and Levitical houses, one of which[1] is carried down to the time of Alexander the Great, xii.1-26, the walls were formally dedicated, and steps were taken to secure the maintenance of the temple service and officers, xii.27-47. On his return to Jerusalem in 432 B.C. Nehemiah enforced the sanctity of the temple, and instituted various reforms, affecting especially the Levitical dues, the sanctity of the Sabbath, and intermarriage with foreigners, xiii.
[Footnote 1: According to Josephus, Jaddua (Neh. xii.22) was high priest in the time of Alexander (about 330 B.C.?).]

The difficulties involved in this presentation of the history are of two kinds -- inconsistencies with assured historical facts, and improbabilities. Perhaps the most important illustration of the former is to be found in Ezra iii. There not only is an altar immediately built by the returned exiles -- a statement not in itself improbable -- but the foundation of the temple is laid soon after, iii.10, and the ceremony is elaborately described (536 B.C.). The foundation is also presupposed for this period elsewhere in the book (cf. v.16, in an Aramaic document). Now this statement is at least formally contradicted by v.2, where it is expressly said that, under the stimulus of the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, who did not prophesy till 520 B.C., Zerubbabel and Joshua began to build the house of God. This is confirmed by the very explicit statements of these two prophets themselves, whose evidence, being contemporary, is unchallengeable. Haggai gives the very day of the foundation, ii.18, and Zechariah iv.9 says, "The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house." It is not impossible to surmount the difficulty by assuming that the laying of the foundation in 536 B.C. was a purely formal ceremony while the real work was not begun till 520; still, it is awkward for this view that the language of two contemporary prophets is so explicit. And in any case, the statement in Ezra v.16 that "since that time (i.e.536) even until now (520) hath the temple been in building" is not easy to reconcile with what we know from contemporary sources; the whole brunt of Haggai's indictment is that the people have been attending to their own houses and neglecting Jehovah's house, which is in consequence desolate (Hag. i.4, 9).

The most signal illustration of the improbabilities that arise from the traditional order of the book lies in the priority of Ezra to Nehemiah. On the common view, Ezra arrives in Jerusalem in 458 B.C. (Ezra vii.7, 8), Nehemiah in 444 (Neh. ii.1). But the situation which Ezra finds on his arrival appears to presuppose a settled and orderly life, which was hardly possible until the city was fortified and the walls built by Nehemiah; indeed, Ezra, in his prayer, mentions the erection of the walls as a special exhibition of the divine love (Ezra ix.9). Further, Nehemiah's memoirs make no allusion to the alleged measures of Ezra; and, if Ezra really preceded Nehemiah, it is difficult to see why none of the reformers who came with him from Babylon should be mentioned as supporting Nehemiah. Again, the measures of Nehemiah are mild in comparison with the radical measures of Ezra. Ezra, e.g. demands the divorce of the wives (Ezra x.11ff.), whereas Nehemiah only forbids intermarriage between the children (Neh. xiii.25). In short, the work of Nehemiah has all the appearance of being tentative and preliminary to the drastic reforms of Ezra. The history certainly gains in intelligibility if we assume the priority of Nehemiah, and the text does not absolutely bind us. Ezra's departure took place "in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king" (Ezra vii.7). Even if we allow that the number is correct, it is just possible that the king referred to is not Artaxerxes I (465-424), but Artaxerxes II (404-359). In that case, the date of Ezra's arrival would be 397 B.C.; in any case, the number of the year may be incorrect.

Any doubt which might arise as to the possibility of so serious a transformation is at once met by an indubitable case of misplacement in Ezra iv.6-23. The writer is dealing with the alleged attempts of the Samaritans to frustrate the building of the temple between 536 and 520 B.C. (Ezra iv.1-5), and he diverges without warning into an account of a similar opposition during the reigns of Xerxes (485-465) and Artaxerxes (465-424) (Ezra iv.6-23), resuming his interrupted story of the building of the temple in ch. v. The account in iv.6-23 is altogether irrelevant, as it has to do, not with the temple, but with the building of the city walls, iv.12.

Such peculiarities and dislocations are strange in a historical writing, and they are to be explained by the fact that the book of Ezra-Nehemiah is not so much a connected history as a compilation. The sources and spirit of this compilation we shall now consider. First and of surpassing importance are (a, b) what are known as the I-sections -- verbal extracts in the first person, from the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah: --

(a) Ezra vii.27-ix., except viii.35, 36.

(b) Neh. i.-vii.5, xii.27-43, xiii.4-31.

(c) Other sections, though they are not actually extracts from the memoirs, appear to rest directly on them: cf. Ezra vii.1-10, x., Neh. viii.-x. In these sections Ezra is spoken of in the third person.

(d) Of great interest and importance are the Aramaic sections, Ezra iv. 7b-vi.18 and vii.12-26, involving correspondence with the Persian court or royal rescripts.

(e) Finally, there are occasional lists, such as Neh. xii.1-26a, or Neh. vii.6-69, a list of the returning exiles, incorporated in the memoirs of Nehemiah from some earlier list and borrowed in Ezra ii.

These are the chief sources, but there can be no doubt that they were compiled -- that is put together and in certain cases worked over -- by the Chronicler. That suspicion is at once raised by the fact that Ezra-Nehemiah is a strict continuation of the book of Chronicles,[1] though in the Hebrew Bible Chronicles appears last, because, having to compete with Samuel and Kings, it won its canonical position later than Ezra-Nehemiah. But apart from this, the phraseology, style and point of view of the Chronicler are very conspicuous. There is the same love of the law, the same interest in Leviticalism, the same joy in worship, the same fondness for lists and numbers. He must have lived a century or more after Ezra and Nehemiah; he looks back in Neh. xii.47 to "the days of Nehemiah," and he must himself have belonged to the Greek period. One of his lists mentions a Jaddua, a high priest in the time of Alexander the Great. He speaks of the king of Persia (Ezra i.1), and of Darius the Persian[2] (Neh. xii.22), as one to whom the Persian empire was a thing of the past; contemporaries simply spoke of "the king," Ezra iv.8.
[Footnote 1: Note that the opening verses of Ezra are repeated at the end of Chronicles to secure a favourable ending to the book -- the more so as that was the last book of the Hebrew Bible.] [Footnote 2: In Ezra vi.22 Darius is even called the king of Assyria.]

Many of the peculiarities of the book are explained the moment it is seen to be a late compilation. The compiler selected from his available material whatever suited his purpose; he makes no attempt to give a continuous account of the period. He leaves without scruple a gap of sixty years or more[1] between Ezra vi. and vii. He interpolates a comment of his own in the middle of the original memoirs of Nehemiah.[2] He transcribes the same list twice (Ezra ii., Neh. vii.), which looks as if he had found it in two different documents. He gives passages irrelevant settings (cf. Ezra iv.6-23). He passes without warning from the first person in Ezra ix. to the third person in Ezra x., showing that he does not regard himself as the slave, but as the master, of his material. Whatever may be thought of the view that he has reversed the chronological order of Ezra and Nehemiah, the book undoubtedly contains misplaced passages. Ezra x. is a very unsatisfactory conclusion to the account of Ezra, whereas Neh. viii.-x., which deal with the work of Ezra and its issue in a covenant, form an admirable sequel to Ezra x., and have almost certainly been misplaced.
[Footnote 1: Unless we take into account the brief misplaced section in iv.6-23.]
[Footnote 2: Cf. especially xii.47 with its reference to "the days of Nehemiah," whereas in xii.40, xiii.6, etc., Nehemiah speaks in the first person. Ch. xii.44-47 at least belongs to the Chronicler.]

We cannot be too grateful to him for giving intact the vivid and extremely important account of the activity of Nehemiah the layman in Nehemiah's own words (i.-vii.5); at the same time, his own interests are almost entirely ecclesiastical. Unlike Ezra (viii.15ff.), he says little of the homeward journey of the exiles in 537, but much of the temple vessels (Ezra i.) and of the arrangements for the sacrificial system, iii.4-6. He dwells at length on the laying of the foundation stone of the temple, iii.8-13, on the Samaritan opposition to the building, iv.1-5, on the passover festival at the dedication of the temple when it was finished, vi.19-22. He amplifies the Nehemiah narratives at the point where the services and officers of the temple are concerned.

The influence of the Chronicler is unmistakable even in the Aramaic documents, whose authenticity one would on first thoughts expect to be guaranteed by their language. Aramaic would be the natural language of correspondence between the Persian court and the western provinces of the empire, and these official documents in Aramaic one might assume to be originals; but an examination reveals some of the editorial terms that characterize the Hebrew. A decree of Darius is represented as ending with the prayer that "the God that hath caused His name to dwell there (i.e. at Jerusalem) may overthrow all kings and peoples that shall put forth their hand to destroy this house of God which is at Jerusalem" (Ezra vi.13). To say nothing of the first clause, which has a suspicious resemblance to the language of Deuteronomy, such a wish addressed to the God of the Jews is anything but natural on the lips of a Persian. Again, there are several distinctively Jewish terms of expression in the rescript given by Artaxerxes to Ezra, e.g. the detailed allusion to sacrifices in Ezra vii.17. This, however, might easily be explained by assuming that Ezra himself had had a hand in drafting the rescript, which is not impossible.

The question, however, is for the historian a very serious one: how great were the liberties which the Chronicler allowed himself in the manipulation of his material? It is interesting in this connexion to compare his account of the decree of Cyrus on behalf of the Jewish exiles in Ezra i.2-4 with the Aramaic version in vi.3-5, which has all the appearance of being original. The difference is striking. Cyrus speaks in ch. i. as an ardent Jehovah worshipper; but the substance of the edict is approximately correct, though its form is altogether unhistorical and indeed impossible. The Chronicler's idealizing tendency is here very apparent; and it is not impossible that this has elsewhere affected his presentation of the facts as well as the form of his narrative. In the light of the very plain statements of the contemporary prophets Haggai and Zechariah, we are justified in doubting whether, in Ezra iii., the Chronicler has not antedated the foundation of the temple. To him it may well have seemed inconceivable that the returned exiles should -- whatever their excuse -- have waited for sixteen years before beginning the work which to him was of transcendent importance.

It is possible, too, that prophecy may have influenced his presentation of the history. He throws into the very forefront a prophecy of Jeremiah (xxv.12), and regards the decree of Cyrus as its fulfilment (Ezra i.1). He may also have had in mind the words of the great exilic prophet who had represented Cyrus as issuing the command to lay the foundation of the temple (Isa. xliv.28); and he may in this way have thrown into the period immediately after the return activities which properly belong to the period sixteen years later. But it is perfectly gratuitous, on the strength of this, to doubt, as has recently been done, the whole story of the return in 537 B.C. Those who do so point out that the audience addressed by Haggai, i.12, 14, ii.2, and Zechariah viii.6, is described as the remnant of the people of the land -- that is, it is alleged, of those who had been left behind at the time of the captivity. No doubt the better-minded among these would lend their support to the efforts of Haggai and Zechariah to re-establish the worship, but this community as a whole must have been too dispirited and indifferent to have taken such a step without the impulse supplied by the returned exiles. The devotion of the native population to Jehovah, not great to begin with -- for it was the worst of the people who were left behind -- must have deteriorated through intermarriage with heathen neighbours (Neh. xiii., Ezra ix. x.); and without a return in 537 on the strength of the edict of Cyrus, the whole situation and sequel are unintelligible. The Chronicler's version of the decree of Cyrus throws a flood of light upon his method. It cannot be fairly said that he invents facts; he may modify, amplify and transpose, but always on the basis of fact. His fidelity in transcribing the memoirs of Nehemiah is proof that he was not unscrupulous in the treatment of his sources.

It remains to consider briefly the value of these sources. The authenticity of the memoirs of Nehemiah is universally admitted. Similar phrases are continually recurring, e.g. "the good hand of my God upon me," ii.8, 18, and the whole narrative is stamped with the impress of a brave, devout, patriotic and resourceful personality. The authenticity of the memoirs of Ezra has been disputed with perhaps a shadow of plausibility. The language of the memoirs distinctly approximates to the language of the Chronicler himself, though this can be fairly accounted for, either by supposing that the spirit and interests of Ezra the priest were largely identical with those of the Chronicler, or that the Chronicler, recognizing his general affinity with Ezra, hesitated less than in the case of Nehemiah to conform the language of the memoirs to his own. But more serious charges have been made. It has been alleged that the account of the career of Ezra has been largely modelled on that of Nehemiah, as that of Elisha on Elijah, and that legendary elements are traceable, e.g. in the immense wealth brought by Ezra's company from Babylon (Ezra viii.24-27). These reasons do not seem altogether convincing. The Chronicler stood relatively near to Ezra. Records and lists were kept in that period, and he was no doubt in possession of more first-hand documentary information than appears in his book. There is no obvious motive for the writer who so faithfully transcribed the memoirs of Nehemiah, inventing so vivid, coherent and circumstantial a narrative for Ezra in the first person singular (Ezra vii.27-ix.).

The question of the Ezra memoirs raises the further question of the Aramaic documents. The memoirs are immediately preceded by the Aramaic rescript of Artaxerxes permitting Ezra to visit Jerusalem for the purpose of reorganizing the Jewish community (Ezra vii.12-26). Doubt has been cast upon the authenticity of this document on the strength of its undeniably Jewish colouring; but this, as we have seen, is probably to be explained by the not unnatural assumption that Ezra himself had a hand in its preparation. Its substantial authenticity seems fully guaranteed by the spontaneous and warm-hearted outburst of gratitude to God with which Ezra immediately follows it (Ezra vii.27ff): "Blessed be Jehovah, the God of our fathers, who hath put such a thing as this in the king's heart," etc. A similar criticism may be made in general on the Aramaic document, Ezra iv. 7b-vi.18. It is certain, as we have seen, that the document has been retouched by the Chronicler; but the whole passage and especially the royal decrees are substantially authentic. Attention has been called to the Persian words which they contain, though this alone is not decisive, as they might conceivably be due to a later author; but the authenticity of the decree of Cyrus is practically guaranteed by the story that it was discovered at Ecbatana (Ezra vi.2). Had it been a fiction, the scene of the discovery would no doubt have been Babylon or Susa.

After making allowance, then, for the Chronicler's occasionally cavalier treatment of his sources, we have to admit that the sources themselves are of the highest historical value, though in order to secure a coherent view of the period, they have, in all probability, to be rearranged. No rearrangement can be considered as absolutely certain, but the following, which is adopted by several scholars, has internal probability: --

Ezra i.-iv.5, iv.24-vi., followed by about seventy years of silence (516-444 B.C.). Neh. i.-vi., Ezra iv.6-23, Neh. vii.1-69 (= Ezra ii.), Neh. xi., xii., xiii.4-31, Ezra vii., viii., Neh. vii.70-viii., Ezra ix.-x.9, Neh. xiii.1-3, Ezra x.10-44, Neh. ix., x.

Despite their enormous difficulties, Ezra-Nehemiah are a source of the highest importance for the political and religious history of early Judaism. The human interest of the story is also great -- the problems for religion created by intermarriage (Neh. xiii.23ff., Ezra ix., x.), and the growth of the commercial spirit (Neh. xiii.15-22). The figure of Ezra, though not without a certain devout energy, is somewhat stiff and formal; but the personality revealed by the memoirs of Nehemiah is gracious almost to the point of romance. Seldom did the Hebrew people produce so attractive and versatile a figure -- at once a man of prayer and of action, of clear swift purpose, daring initiative, and resistless energy, and endowed with a singular power of inspiring others with his own enthusiasm. He forms an admirable foil to Ezra the ecclesiastic; and it is a matter of supreme satisfaction that we have the epoch-making events in his career told in his own direct and vigorous words.

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