For the book called 2 Esdras in the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims Bible, see Book of Nehemiah. For the book called 2 Esdras (Εσδράς Β') in the Septuagint, see the articles on Book of Ezra and Book of Nehemiah. For the book called 2 Esdras in Russian Bibles, see the article on 1 Esdras.
Among Greek Fathers of the Church, 4 Ezra is generally cited as Προφήτης Εσδρας ("The Prophet Esdras") or Αποκάλυψις Εσδρα ("Apocalypse of Ezra"). Wellhausen, Charles, and Gunkel have shown that the original composition was in Hebrew, which was translated into Greek, and then to Latin, Armenian, Ethiopia and Georgian, but the Hebrew and Greek editions have been lost.
Slightly differing Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Armenian translations have survived; the Greek version can be reconstructed (without absolute certainty, of course) from these different translations, while the Hebrew text remains a bit more elusive.
The Ethiopian Church considers 4 Ezra to be canonical, and calls it Izra Sutuel (ዕዝራ ሱቱኤል); it was also often cited by the Fathers of the Church. In the Eastern Armenian tradition it is called 3 Ezra.
4 Ezra consists of seven visions of Ezra the scribe. The first vision takes place as Ezra is still in Babylon. He asks God how Israel can be kept in misery if God is just. The archangel Uriel is sent to answer the question, responding that God's ways cannot be understood by the human mind. Soon, however, the end would come, and God's justice would be made manifest. Similarly, in the second vision, Ezra asks why Israel was delivered up to the Babylonians, and is again told that man cannot understand this and that the end is near. In the third vision Ezra asks why Israel does not possess the world. Uriel responds that the current state is a period of transition. Here follows a description of the fate of evil-doers and the righteous. Ezra attempts to intercede for the condemned, but is told that no one can escape his destiny.
The next three visions are more symbolic in nature. The fourth is of a woman mourning for her only son, who is transformed into a city when she hears of the desolation of Zion. Uriel says that the woman is a symbol of Zion. The fifth vision concerns an eagle with three heads and twenty wings (twelve large wings and eight smaller wings "over against them"). The eagle is rebuked by a lion and then burned. The explanation of this vision is that the eagle refers to the fourth kingdom of the vision of Daniel, with the wings and heads as rulers. The final scene is the triumph of the Messiah over the empire. The sixth vision is of a man, representing the Messiah, who breathes fire on a crowd that is attacking him. This man then turns to another peaceful multitude, which accepts him.
Finally, there is a vision of the restoration of scripture. God appears to Ezra in a bush and commands him to restore the Law. Ezra gathers five scribes and begins to dictate. After forty days, he has produced ninety-four books: the twenty-four books of the Tanakh and seventy secret works. (This vision is omitted in the Latin translation of the text):
The last two chapters, also called 6 Ezra by scholars, and found in the Latin, but not in the Eastern texts, predict wars and rebuke sinners. Many assume that they probably date from a much later period (perhaps late third century) and may be Christian in origin; it is possible, though not certain, that they were added at the same time as the first two chapters of the Latin version. It is possible that they are Jewish in origin; however, 15:57-59 have been found in Greek, which most scholars agree was translated from a Hebrew original.
Critics question whether even the main body of the book, not counting the chapters that exist only in the Latin version and in Greek fragments, has a single author. Kalisch, De Faye, and Charles hold that no fewer than five people worked on the text. However, Gunkel points to the unity in character and holds that the book is written by a single author; it's even possible that the so-called "Christian" chapters were originally in the work. However it has also been suggested that the author of II Esdras wrote the Apocalypse of Baruch. In any case, the two texts (we don't have the original texts of these works so we really can't say for certain) may date from about the same time, and one almost certainly depends on the other.
Critics have widely debated the origin of the book. Hidden under two layers of translation it is impossible to determine if the author was Roman, Alexandrian, or Palestinian.
The scholarly interpretation of the eagle being the Roman Empire (the eagle in the fifth vision, whose heads might be Vespasian, Titus and Domitian if such is the case) and the destruction of the temple would indicate that the probable date of composition lies toward the end of the first century, perhaps 90–96, though some suggest a date as late as 218.
The introitus of the traditional Requiem in the Catholic Church is loosely based on 2:34-35: "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." Several other liturgical prayers are taken from the book. In his Vulgate, Clement VIII placed the book in an appendix after the New Testament with the rest of the Apocrypha, "lest they perish entirely".