Ezra is an important figure in the Hebrew Bible, but there are some concerns that have been raised over the historical record around him and some interesting places where he is missing in that record. In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, the Biblical scholar Charlotte Hempel discusses some of the theories and thoughts around Ezra, with a particular focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
One of the central questions in the debate is whether or not Ezra was an actual historical figure. Charlotte Hempel explained that:
This is a great question and has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ezra appears in 6 chapters of the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 and 12. He is described as a priest, a skilled scribe who has his heart set on the study of the law and its promulgation among the people, as well as a social reformer.
On the more radical end of the spectrum there are those, including C. C. Torrey, who suggest Ezra was a fictitious creation. For most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors.
There is a spectrum of thought on how accurate the records we have are in relation to Ezra’s life.
Ezra and Nehemiah are portrayed as contemporary individuals, working together the revitalize Jerusalem and worship of Jehovah during the Persian era. As such, one would expect that both would consistent be mentioned together. Yet, that is not always the case, which is a big part of the ongoing debate about Ezra’s historicity. Hempel mentioned that among the collection of ancient texts from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. that were discovered at the Qumran Caves (the Dead Sea Scrolls), Ezra is not mentioned:
Only three small fragments of the book Ezra-Nehemiah were found at Qumran. They cover material from the first six chapters of the book (Ezra 4:2–6, 9–11; 5:17–6:5) but not from the chapters that feature Ezra. …
Given shared interests in the transmission and interpretation of the Law, it is noteworthy that Ezra is never mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Given the sparsity of texts from the Second Temple period, it is striking that, alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls, the work of the second-century BCE priestly sage Ben Sira also fails to mention Ezra. Notably, he praises the achievements of Nehemiah—alongside other famous Jewish heroes, ranging from Enoch and Noah to the 3rd century BCE High Priest Simon II—in his “Praise of the Ancestors” (Sirach 44–50). …
Another second-century BCE Jewish work, 2 Maccabees, similarly credits Nehemiah alone as the one who built the Temple and the altar.
Nehemiah is also credited with instructing the descendants of exiled priestly families to retrieve the fire of the altar from a dry cistern where it is said to have been hidden after the Temple’s destruction (2 Maccabees 1:19–23).
There are some interesting places where one would expect to find Ezra in the literature of the Second Temple era, but he is not there.
On the other hand, there are some significant sources where Erza appears as one of the most significant figures in Jewish history. For example:
Over time, Ezra’s profile became amplified in a number of sources beginning with 1 Esdras—an ancient Greek composition developing the Ezra (Greek Esdras) narrative from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. 1 Esdras never mentions Nehemiah and elevates Ezra from a priest to the office of high priest (1 Esdras 9:39).
This work was very influential since it was used by Josephus, the widely read first century Jewish historian. There are some who suggest the Greek Ezra narrative, 1 Esdras, predates the biblical book.
Ezra’s profile continued to grow in later Jewish tradition. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Ezra had knowledge of the pronunciation of the divine name and was identified with the prophet Malachi. Later rabbinic commentary presents Ezra’s priestly credentials as surpassing those of Aaron.
In sum, Ezra’s importance in later Jewish tradition can barely be overstated.
Ezra is regarded by many as being the individual responsible for compiling the Torah as we have it today, which is a mark of the importance with which he has come to be regarded, in addition to the texts mentioned above.
With that being the case, why wouldn’t he be mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Hempel shared her thoughts on why that might be:
In the absence of any polemic against Ezra in the Scrolls from Qumran, this silence on Ezra, rather than being exceptional, is another ripple in the very choppy reception history of the literary footprints of Ezra and Nehemiah in our earliest preserved sources.
As we saw, Ezra is also unmentioned in Ben Sira and 2 Maccabees, whereas in 1 Esdras, by contrast, it is Nehemiah who plays no role. …
The absence of Ezra in the Dead Sea Scrolls is, crucially, shared by a larger cluster of ancient sources outside the book Ezra-Nehemiah. This silence on Ezra might point to an ambivalent assessment of Ezra’s legacy in various circles—a ‘snub,’ if you like—or suggest a more limited reach of the ancient Ezra narrative in the Second Temple period than later sources have led us to believe.
The lack of Ezra’s presence in some of the ancient texts does not necessarily mean that he did not exist – it may just mean that either his influence was limited closer to his own lifetime or that he was purposefully excluded because of misgivings about his legacy.
For more on the historical record around Ezra, including some interesting discussion about the Apocryphon of Jeremiah, head on over to From the Desk to read the interview with the Charlotte Hempel.