The book is divided into two principal parts:
The book thus contains memorabilia connected with the Jews, from the decree of Cyrus to the reformation by Ezra (456 B.C.), extending over a period of about eighty years.
Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel build the altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In the second year the foundations of the Temple are laid, and the dedication takes place with great rejoicing. The adversaries of the Jews, especially the Samaritans, make efforts to hinder the Jews from building the Temple. A letter is written by the Samaritans to Cambyses II to procure a prohibition of the construction of the Temple, and the work is interrupted till the second year of Darius.
Through the exhortations of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua ben Jozadak recommence the building of the Temple. Tatnai, the governor "on this side the river," sends to the king a report of their action. Darius finds the decree of Cyrus in the archives of Achmetha (Hamadan), and directs Tatnai not to disturb the Jews in their work. He also exempts them from tribute and supplies everything necessary for the offerings. The Temple is finished in the month of Adar, in the sixth year of Darius, and is dedicated with great solemnity.
Artaxerxes gives Ezra a commission to bring with him to Jerusalem all the captives that remain in Babylon. Ezra institutes a fast while on his way to Jerusalem. The princes of Israel inform Ezra that many have not repudiated their foreign wives. Those who have taken foreign wives are compelled to send them away and to bring each a sin offering.
The first section includes a document also transcribed in Nehemiah, called by Nehemiah a genealogical table of the first return. A third copy is found in the apocryphal I Esdras.
The edict of Cyrus, said to have been found at Achmetha (vi. 3-5), is the boldest of these fabrications, if they be such; but the mention of that ancient capital implies some very remarkable knowledge on the part of the author here excerpted. Some other reasons for believing these documents genuine are alleged by Levi Herzfeld. The character of the Aramaic in which they are couched agrees fairly well, both in vocabulary and in grammar, with that of early inscriptions and papyri; and there would be nothing surprising in successive compilers having assimilated the language somewhat to the dialect with which they were most familiar. It is also possible that these Aramaic texts are translations of documents in Old Persian, and were accommodated to the taste of those whom they were intended to reach.
The third part of the book appears to be a personal memoir; and the decree there given (vii. 11-26), coming from an Artaxerxes whom the author distinguishes by spelling from Artaxerxes I., cannot be regarded as spurious without seriously shaking the writer's credit. The narrative which he proceeds to give of his journey, however, contains little which might have been invented for the purpose of edification, though it might be open to any one to regard viii. 22 as written by one who had Nehemiah ii. 7 before him. The narrative of Ezra's doings at Jerusalem is also not marked by exaggeration. Chapter ix. records a lengthy prayer offered by him on receipt of the intelligence of the mixed marriages, and chapter x. the measures taken by him to separate the erring couples, with a list of the persons affected. The objection urged by some critics that so severe a measure would not have been obeyed, seems insufficient to justify the condemnation of this part of the narrative as unhistorical; since the author may well have supposed it would be more effective than it turned out to be. Nor indeed does the recurrence to the subject in Nehemiah x. 31 and xiii. 23 render it improbable that severe measures were taken years before in the same direction.
The date of Ezra's arrival in Judaea depends on the identification of the Persian King Artaxerxes. Identifying the king with Artaxerxes I would place the event in 457 B.C., whereas an identification with Artaxerxes II would place it 397 B.C..