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Ezra

[ez-ruh]
Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who led about 5,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon to their home city of Jerusalem in 459 BCE or 428 BCE or 397 BCE. Ezra reconstituted the dispersed Jewish community on the basis of the Torah and with an emphasis on the law. According to the Hebrew Bible, Ezra resolved the identity threat which arose by the intermarriage between Jews and foreigners and provided a definite reading of the Torah. Ezra is highly respected in the Jewish tradition. His knowledge of the Torah is considered to have been equal with Moses. Like Moses, Enoch, and David, Ezra is given the honorific title of "scribe" and is referred to as עזרא הסופר, or "Ezra the scribe" in the Jewish tradition.

Although not explicitly mentioned in the Quran among the prophets, he is considered as one of the prophets by some Muslim scholars, based on Islamic traditions. On the other hand, Muslim scholars such as Mutahhar al-Maqdisi and Djuwayni and notably Ibn Hazm and al-Samaw'al accused Ezra (or one of his disciples) of falsification of the Scriptures.

Our knowledge of Ezra comes from the Book of Ezra, Book of Nehemiah and Apocryphal Book of I Esdras.

Etymology and meaning

The Hebrew term עֶזְרָא (Ezra) is probably an abbreviation of "Azaryahu" meaning "God helps".. Other be sources claim that Ezra is "the one who dominates all". Also, in many other languages, Ezra, or Uzair comes from a word that means the source of all greatness.

Sources

Our knowledge of Ezra comes from the Book of Ezra, the Book of Nehemiah, and the apocryphal Book of I Esdras.

Hebrew Bible

According to the genealogy in Ezra 7:1-5, Ezra was the son of Seraiah, the high priest taken captive by Babylonians (see 2 Kings 25:18 and compare 1 Chron. 6:14), a lineal descendant of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron.

In the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes I Longimanus, Ezra obtained leave to go to Jerusalem and to take with him a company of Israelites. Artaxerxes showed great interest in Ezra's undertaking, granting him his requests, and giving him gifts for the house of God. Ezra assembled a band of approximately 5,000 exiles to go to Jerusalem. They rested on the banks of the Ahava for three days and organized their four-month march across the desert. After observing a day of public fasting and prayer, they left the banks of the river Ahava for Jerusalem. Having rich gifts and treasures in their keeping and being without military escort, they made the due precaution for the safeguarding of the treasures.

After his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra notices that contrary to the Jewish law, even the Jews of high standing and priests, had intermarried with pagan non-Hebrew women. Ezra took strenuous measures against such marriages and insisted upon the dismissal of such wives. No record exists of Ezra until we find him at the reading of the Law which took place after the rebuilding of the wall of the city by Nehemiah. Ezra then brought the "book of the law of Moses" for the assembly. On the first day of the seventh month (Tishri), Ezra and his assistants read the Torah aloud to the whole population from the morning until midday. According to the text, a great religious awakening occurred. Ezra read the entire scroll of the Torah to the people, and he and other scholars and Levites explained the meaning of what is being read so that the people could understand them. These festivities culminated in an enthusiastic and joyous seven-day celebration of the Festival of Sukkot, concluding on the eighth day with the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. On the 24th day, immediately following the holidays, they held a solemn assembly, fasting and confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. Afterwards, they renewed their national covenant to follow the Torah and to observe and fulfill all of the Lord's commandments, laws and decrees.

Esdras

Besides the books of Ezra and Nehemiah accepted as a canonical part of the Hebrew Bible by all churches, the book of Esdras also preserves the Greek text of Ezra and a part of Nehemiah. There are disagreements among Christians over the authenticity of the book of Esdras.

The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, preferred I Esdras over the canonical Ezra–Nehemiah and placed Ezra as a contemporary of Xerxes son of Darius, rather than of Artaxerxes.

The apocalyptic fourth book of Ezra (also called the second book of Esdras) is thought by Western scholars to have been written AD 100 probably in Hebrew-Aramaic. It was one of the most important sources for Jewish theology at the end of the first century. In this book, Ezra has a seven part prophetic revelation, converses with an angel or God three times and has four visions. Ezra, while in the Babylonian Exile, prophecies the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The central theological themes are "the question of theodicy, God's justness in the face of the triumph of the heathens over the pious, the course of world history in terms of the teaching of the four kingdoms (12,11 Daniel), the function of the law, the eschatological judgment, the appearance on Earth of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Messianic Period, at the end of which the Messiah will die (7:29), the end of this world and the coming of the next, and the Last Judgment." Ezra restores the law that was destroyed with the burning of the temple. He dictates 24 books for the public (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and other 70 for the wise alone (70 unnamed revelatory works). At the end, he is taken up to heaven like Enoch and Elijah. Ezra is seen as a new Moses in this book. There is also another work, thought to be influenced by this one, known as the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra.

Role in Judaism

Traditionally Judaism credits Ezra with establishing the Great Assembly of scholars and prophets, the forerunner of the Sanhedrin, as the authority on matters of religious law. The Great Assembly is credited with establishing numerous features of contemporary traditional Judaism in something like their present form, including Torah reading, the Amidah, and establishing the feast of Purim.

In Rabbinic traditions, Ezra is metaphorically referred to as the "flowers that appear on the earth" signifying the springtime in the national history of Judaism. Even if the law had not been given to Moses before, Ezra was worthy of being its vehicle. A disciple of Baruch ben Neriah, he favored study of the Law over the reconstruction of the Temple and thus because of his studies, he did not join the first party returning to Jerusalem in the reign of Cyrus. According to another opinion, he did not join the first party so as not to compete, even involuntarily, with Jeshua ben Jozadak for the office of chief priest. Ezra reestablished the Torah and apparently as a polemical measure against the Samaritans, he introduced Assyrian or square characters in it. Ezra was also doubtful of the correctness of some words in Torah and said that "Should Elijah, said he, approve the text, the points will be disregarded; should he disapprove, the doubtful words will be removed from the text".

According to the tradition, Ezra was the writer of the Book of Chronicles.

Islam

Although not explicitly mentioned in Quran among the prophets, Ezra is considered as one of the prophets by most Muslim scholars, based on Islamic traditions. On the other hand, Muslim scholars such as Mutahhar al-Maqdisi and Djuwayni and notably Ibn Hazm and al-Samaw'al accused Ezra (or one of his disciples) of falsification of the Scriptures. Ezra lived between the times of King Solomon and the time of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. .

One Qur'anic verse refers to a certain Uzayr (Arabic: عزير) worshiped by Jews as "the son of God". Uzayr is usually identified by Muslim commentators with the biblical Ezra, or sometimes with a man who slept for three hundred years. Modern scholars have also suggested the Biblical Enoch, Azazel and Osiris.

Academic view

Historicity and genealogy

Mary Joan Winn Leith in the The Oxford History of the Biblical World believes that the historical Ezra's life was enhanced in the scripture and was given a theological buildup, but this does not imply that Ezra did not exist. Gosta W. Ahlstrom, argues the inconsistencies of the biblical tradition are insufficient to say that Ezra, with his central position as the 'father of Judaism' in the Jewish tradition, has been a later literary invention. Those who argue against the historicity of Ezra argue that the presentation style of Ezra as a leader and lawgiver resembles that of Moses. There are also similarities between Ezra the priest-scribe (but not high priest) and Nehemiah the secular governor on the one hand and Joshua and Zerubbabel on the other hand. The early second century BCE Jewish author Jesus ben Sirach praises Nehemiah, but makes no mention of Ezra.

According to the biblical genealogy of Ezra in , he is the son of Seraiah, the high priest taken captive by Babylonians.

Activities

Modern islamic scholarship considers Ezra "as a lettered man with spiritual tendencies who was a functionary of the Persian state which sent him to Israel around the fourth century BCE in order to promote the political authority of Persian rule.

Time line

Scholars are divided over the chronological sequence of the activities of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra came to Jerusalem "in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the King". The text does not specify whether the king in the passage refers to Artaxerxes I (465-424) or to Artaxerxes II (404-359). A group of scholars hold that Ezra lived during the rule of Artaxerxes I, though serious difficulties arises from this assumption: Nehemiah and Ezra "seem to have no knowledge of each other; their mission do not overlap; and no reflection of Ezra's activity appears in Jerusalem of Nehemiah." These difficulties has led many scholars to assume that Ezra arrived in the seventh year of the rule of Artaxerxes II , i.e. some 50 years after Nehemiah. This assumption would imply that the biblical account is not chronological. The last group of scholars regard "the seventh year" as a scribal error and hold that the two men were contemporaries.

References

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