Ezra and Nehemiah

These two reformers charted a course for the future of Judaism.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The State of Judaism in Persian Judea

Monotheistic worship was certainly the norm in Judea. The [biblical] books of Malachi and Nehemiah, however, speak of such problems as violations of sacrificial law, neglect of the Sabbath, and nonpayment of tithes. There was a breakdown of morality and a rise in divorce. Cheating of employees and preying on the weak became commonplace, and many of the poor were reduced to servitude. Intermarriage with the surrounding nations threatened the continuity of the Jewish community.

The Appearance of Ezra and Nehemiah

It was at this crucial juncture that the great reformers Ezra and Nehemiah made their appearance. Fortuitously, this was also a period of great instability in the Persian Empire. In an effort to shore up his lines of communication with Egypt, Artaxerxes wanted to regularize the situation in Palestine, and this provided Ezra and Nehemiah with the opportunity to make substantial progress.

The chronological relationship of the careers of these two great leaders poses serious difficulties. Nehemiah's career ex­tended from 445 until sometime after 433 B.C.E. Ezra's dating is more difficult. The plain sense of the biblical text suggests that he arrived in Judea in 458 B.C.E. (thirteen years before Nehemiah) and completed his work shortly after Nehemiah's arrival. Some scholars take the view that he arrived long after Nehemiah's work had ended. A final approach, following the Greek text of the apocryphal 1 Esdras, suggests that Ezra arrived shortly before the end of Nehemiah's career in about 428 B.C. E.

Ezra: Returning from Babylon

According to the biblical account, which we see no compelling reason to set aside, Ezra left Babylon in 458 B.C.E. at the head of a considerable company of returnees. After a four‑month journey, unaccompanied by a military escort, the caravan ar­rived in Jerusalem. Ezra came armed with a copy of the Torah and a document from the king authorizing him to enforce it. He was to teach the law and to set up the necessary administrative apparatus to see that it was followed. He had also obtained permission to collect contributions from the Jews of Babylonia to support the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ezra is described by the Bible as "a scribe of the law of the God of Heaven." He was of priestly lineage and was probably appointed at the request of influential Jews at the Persian court. Those who see Ezra as coming after Nehemiah maintain that Nehemiah was responsible for his appointment. While it might seem unlikely that the monarchs of Persia would be concerned with the religious observances of the Jews of Judea, Ezra's mission can be understood from the standpoint of purely Persian interests.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.