AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | The Historical Background as presented in Ezra‑Nehemiah. | Sources used in compiling Ezra‑Nehemiah. | The Compiler of Ezra‑Nehemiah. | Nehemiah and Ezra. | The Septuagint Versions.

It has already been pointed out (See pp.110 ff.) that i ii Chronicles formed originally with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah a single work; both on this account, and also because Ezra-Nehemiah is regarded as one book in the Jewish Canon as well as in the Septuagint. [Under the title ii Esdras. This must not be confused with the book often referred to as the "Greek Ezra," called in the Septuagint i Esdras or Esdras A, which consists of our book of Ezra, ii Chron.xxxv, xxxvi and most of Neh.viii (in the Vulgate it is called iii Esdras). It will be noticed that our book of Ezra occurs twice in the Septuagint.]

We shall treat it as such here. It will, moreover, be seen that a good deal of the book of Nehemiah is concerned with the person of Ezra, so that the two books, as they are represented in the Revised Version, should not be separated. [This is due to the Vulgate, where i Esdras = Ezra, and ii Esdras = Nehemiah.]


Although as will be seen later, the history as given in Ezra-Nehemiah is at fault in some vital particulars, it is necessary to detail this as it stands in order that one may realize clearly in what respects the history has been erroneously presented.

The book opens with a brief account of the decree of Cyrus permitting the return (in 538 BC) of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the Temple (i.1-4). It is then implied, though not actually stated, that the Jewish leaders, with Sheshbazzar (the governor, v.14) at their head had returned to their own land. But far more stress is laid upon the fact that the holy vessels, belonging to the Temple, which Nebuchadrezzar had carried away in 586, were given back by Cyrus (i.5-11). The whole of ch.ii is taken up with a list of the returned exiles, 42,360 in number. The feast of Tabernacles is then celebrated, an altar having been set up under the direction of Jeshua and Zerubbabel (there is no mention of Sheshbazzar); the full quota of sacrifices is offered. The foundation of the Temple, however, is not yet laid, though this is said (ii.2-4) to have been the prime pirpose of the return (iii.1-7). It is not until the next year that this is done, Jeshua and Zerubbabel being again the moving spirits (iii.8-13). The "adversaries" (doubtless the Samaritans are meant) ask that they should be permitted to help in the building of the Temple, but this is refused, whereupon they hamper the work during the whole of Cyrus's reign until the second year of Darius, in 520 (iv.1-5, 24). In the meantime, so it is recorded, the adversaries wrote an accusation against the Jews to Xerxes on his coming to the throne (485). They also sent a letter to Artaxerxes (464 was the year in which he came to the throne; presumably the first king of this name is meant), warning him of the danger involved in building the walls of Jerusalem - no previous reference to this has been made. As a result, the builders of the wall are forced to desist from their work (iv.6-23).

With ch.v Haggai and Zechariah appear upon the scene; they persuade the people to begin building the Temple; but this is viewed with suspicion by Tattenai, "the governor beyond the river" (i.e. the Persian satrap of Syria), who addresses a letter to Darius asking for directions. The Jews, in the meantime, also address themselves to the king, referring him to Cyrus's decree permitting the building. Darius thereupon makes inquiries, and the decree is found; so he gives permission for the building to be continued. It is completed and dedicated in 516, and a great Passover feast is celebrated (v, vi). The narrative continues:

"Now after these things",

and then goes on to tell how Ezra went up from Babylon to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes. If the first king of this name is meant the date will be 458, so that we have a gap in the history of fifty-eight years during which nothing is recorded (vii.1-9). Ezra's object in coming to Jerusalem is to teach the law to Israel (vii.10; cp. verses 25, 26). The letter which the king wrote to Ezra and his companions permitting them to return is then quoted (vii.11-26) ; a blessing on the Lord, purported to have been uttered by Ezra, is appended (vii.27, 28). There follows a list of those who accompanied him (viii.1-14). Before starting on his journey Ezra proclaims a fast, with humiliation and prayer (viii.15-23). Much stress is laid on the weight of gold and silver, and the vessels, which were an

"offering for the house of our God" (viii.24-30).

On the arrival of the exiles in Jerusalem an immense burnt offering is sacrificed, consisting of twelve bullocks and an inordinate number of rams, lambs, and goats (viii.31-36). The "princes" then bring a complaint before Ezra regarding intermarriages between the Jews and the women of the surrounding peoples. Ezra is overwhelmed with shame and sorrow, and offers a long prayer of confession (ix). The people are moved to penitence, and, on the matter being investigated,

"they make an end with all the men that had married strange women" (x.1-17).

A list is then given of those who had contracted these marriages (x.18-44). Nehemiah's arrival in Jerusalem is then dealt with; the reason for his journey being, that the returned exiles were in evil plight, and "the wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and the gates thereof burned with fire". The date of Nehemiah's arrival in Jerusalem is given as the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, the same king as the one previously mentioned. The date is, therefore, 444. The people are persuaded by Nehemiah to rebuild the wall; but Sanballat, the governor of Samaria looks upon the enterprise with disfavour (Neh.i.10). A description is then given of the building of the wall (iii.1-32; iv.19). A further, and fuller, account of Sanballat's annoyance at the work of rebuilding the walls follows, and of his attempt, which does not succeed, to frustrate this work (iv, Hebr.iii.33-38, iv). At this point there is an insertion giving a long account of the overbearing behaviour of the wealthier Jews towards their poorer neighhours. Nehemiah rectifies this (v). The course of the narrative is then taken up again. In spite of repeated plots against Nehemiah, which are, however, unsuccessful, the building of the wall is continued, and the work is completed in fifty-two days (vi). Thereupon Nehemiah appoints two officials over the city. He also takes measures for increasing the population of the city (vii.1-5). A long genealogical list is here inserted giving the names of the sons of the exiles who had been deported by Nebuchadrezzar (vii.6-73a). The narrative is taken up again at vii.73b (cp. Ezr.iii.1), and the great gathering of the people is described at which Ezra, who now appears again, reads from the book of the law. After this the feast of Tabernacles is celebrated (cp.Ezr.iii.4), during each day of which the law is read (viii). A fast and more reading of the law follow this, also a long prayer containing an historical retrospect (ix). Then a covenant is made to abstain from marriage with foreign women, to observe the Sabbath, and to support the service of the house of God (x). In ch.xi.1-2 mention is again made of the increase of the population of Jerusalem - at Nehemiah's instigation since this is from his memoirs (see below); a list is given of those that "willingly offered themselves to dwell in Jerusalem". Another list, which gives the names of the priests and Levites who had come from exile with Zerubbabel (. 1-26) follow this. Then there is an account of the dedication of the wall (.27-47), after which the law is again read (i.1-3). At some time, which is not stated, Nehemiah had returned to the Persian court. But in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (i.e. 432) he returned to Jerusalem, when his first care was to rectify some irregularities in regard to the Temple, which had occurred during his absence (i.4-14). He also took measures to have the Sabbath properly observed (i.15-22), and dealt with the question of mixed marriages (i.23-31).

It has been already stated that this presentation of the history is at fault in some important respects; these must now be pointed out.

One of the first things which must strike one is the way in which the Persian kings are mentioned; first of all there is Cyrus, the year in question being 538 (Ezr.i.1); then Darius, with the year 520 (iv.5, 24); then Xerxes, the year being 485 (iv.6), followed by Artaxerxes i, who came to the throne in 464 (iv.7); we then get back to Darius, with the date of the completion of the Temple, 516 (vi.15); then to the seventh year of Artaxerxes, 458 (vii.7), and finally, to the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, 444 (Neh. ii.1). This indicates some confusion in chronological sequence.

Then, one cannot fail to notice that there is some inconsistency as to who really took the lead in urging the rebuilding of the Temple, the prime purpose of the Return (Ezr.i.2); at one time this is said to have been Sheshbazzar (Ezr.v.16); at another, Jeshua and Zerubbabel (; and at another, Haggai and Zechariah, who stimulated Jeshua and Zerubbabel (v.1, 2).

But more serious are the self-contradictory statements made with regard to the date of the laying of the foundation of the Temple; according to Ezr.iii.8, v.16 this took place in the year after the Return, i.e. 537-6; but according to Ezr.v.1, 2 the foundation was laid in 520. In Ezr.iv.24 it is said that the building of the Temple ceased until the second year of Darius, but in v.5 this is contradicted:

"they did not make them cease till the matter should come to Darius",

and soon after the building is continued (vi.7, 14). There is also a manifest confusion between the building of the wall and the building of the Temple. For in iv.6-23 reference is made to the building of the wall in the reign of Artaxerxes, and the narrative continues in v.2ff, about the building both of the Temple and the wall in the reign of Darius (v.3).

One other point of considerable importance is that Ezra is represented as having arrived in Jerusalem in 458 (Ezr.vii.6, 9, 10), and that he was followed fourteen years later by Nehemiah, in 444 (Neh.ii.1); they are also represented as contemporaries (Neh.viii.2, 9, .26); this last point is, of course, not impossible so far as the dates are concerned. But evidence will be given below to show that Nehemiah came first to Jerusalem in 444, and that Ezra followed him nearly half a century later, in 397; they were, therefore, not contemporaries, reasons for which, apart from dates, will be given.

It will thus be seen that the history of a considerable part of Ezra-Nehemiah is unreliable. This is to be accounted for:

  1. by the fact that our book is a compilation, and the sources used have been unskilfully put together;
  2. because the compiler's knowledge of the period of history dealt with was inadequate owing to the want of data; and
  3. because the compiler had some preconceived ideas with which he coloured the history.

Our next task must be to indicate the sources utilized by the compiler.


A close examination of our book shows that the compiler utilized the following sources:-

  1. Ezra Memoirs. Ezr.vii.27, 28, viii.1-34, all written in the first person, are clearly extracts from some record which Ezra kept of his work; and they appear to be verbatim extracts. There are other passages in which Ezra is spoken of in the third person; these may well offer the gist of extracts from the same source, viz. Ezr.vii.1-10, ix.1-x.44; Neh.vii.73b-viii.12, 13-18, ix, and, in the main, x.
  2. Nehemiah Memoirs. These extracts are more numerous: Neh.i.1-vii.73a, xi.1-2, i.4-31; in addition, .27-47, i.1-3 are no doubt based on the same source; but they have been somewhat worked over by the compiler.
  3. Lists. These are all of persons, and for the most part they must have been taken from official records. Uninteresting as they appear, when scrutinized they contain numerous points of importance.
  4. The Aramaic Sections. These are Ezr.iv.7b-vi.18, vii.12-26. They are official documents, but include some narrative matter. e.g. v.1-5; iv.8-23 contains the correspondence with Artaxerxes concerning the building of the wall; v.6-vi.12 contains the correspondence with Darius, and a copy of his decree, in which Cyrus's decree is quoted, about the building of the Temple; and vii.12-26 is a decree of Artaxerxes giving permission to Ezra and his company to go to Jerusalem. These documents do not cover the whole of the Aramaic sections; the remainder, being written by the compiler, show that his knowledge of Aramaic was more than what would suffice to copy out documents; and this is what one would expect.

This leads us to the subject of the compiler and the nature of his work; for there is a considerable quantity of our book, after the subject matter of the sources has been deducted, which must be put down to the hand of the compiler. top


We have already seen that Ezra-Nehemiah formed originally the concluding portion of i ii Chronicles; this suggests at once that the compiler of our book was the same as the compiler of i ii Chronicles; and all the indications go to support this supposition. This is not the place to go into details, but a brief reference may be made to some of the outstanding characteristics of i ii Chronicles, the presence of all of which may be observed in Ezra-Nehemiah. The few references given could be greatly multiplied: The doctrine of divine retribution (Ezr.ix.7, 13; Neh.i.8, ix.26, 27); the constant stress laid on the Temple and its worship (Ezr.i.2-4, iii.7, vii.27, viii.35); the importance of the Levites (Ezr.i.5, vi.20; Neh.viii.11, .1, 8); and of observing the Law of Moses (Ezr.iii.2, x.3; Neh.viii.1, ix.13); the fondness for lists (Ezr.ii.2ff, x.18 ff; Neh.vii.6ff.). And finally there is the style and phraseology that show many affinities.

When these points are examined there can be no shadow of doubt that the Chronicler compiled our book. This gives also the approximate date of the compilation, i.e. about 300. (See pp.110 ff.)

The compiler wrote, therefore, more than a century after the period with which he was dealing, and he had not a great deal of material at his disposal for setting forth the history. During the intervening century, although we may not be able to follow the steps, we know from the sequel that new ideas had developed in a theocratic direction. Moreover the growth and development of the Law and the elaboration of the Temple worship had revolutionized the whole point of view of early Orthodox Judaism. It is hardly to be wondered at that the Chronicler should have interpreted the history that he wrote in the light of the developments of his own day. With his veneration for the Temple and its worship he naturally enough imputed to the homecoming exiles the rebuilding of the Temple as their prime desire. The fact that worship had for long been offered in a somewhat dilapidated Temple did not appeal to him. Probably he did not realize that those who were left in the land during the Exile had perforce to be content to worship in the ruins of a Temple, which they had not the means to renovate. It must also be remembered that by the time at which the Chronicler lived the rift between the Samaritans and the Jews had developed into permanent antagonism. This he assumed had already taken place in the early days of the Return, and he constructed his history accordingly. And finally, with his exalted ideas about the priesthood it is not surprising that the Chronicler should have assumed that Ezra the priest took the initiative in all reforming movements rather than Nehemiah the layman. With his rather vague knowledge of Persian history, with the exiguous material at his disposal, and with his not very discriminating use of this, he would easily have fallen into the error of supposing that Ezra preceded Nehemiah in returning to Palestine. This involved some difficulties and inconsistencies in his presentation of the history, which he made some unsuccessful attempts to straighten out; but in any case they were, to him, minor matters in comparison with what he believed to be the true course of events.

But inasmuch as we have been so used to assume that Ezra preceded Nehemiah it will be well to present the evidence to show that Nehemiah came and worked in Palestine about half a century before Ezra.


The reasons that justify the statement that Nehemiah preceded Ezra are as follows:

First, there is a general consideration that has been shortly, but clearly, stated by McFadyen:

"The situation which Ezra finds on his arrival appears to presuppose a settled and orderly life, which was hardly possible until the city was fortified and the walls built by Nehemiah. Indeed, Ezra, in his prayer, mentions the erection of the walls as a special exhibition of the divine love (Ezr.ix.9)".

The more the details of the narrative are scrutinized the more convincing does this general consideration become.

Then, to come to particulars; twice in the Nehemiah memoirs mention is made of the need of increasing the population of Jerusalem (vii.4; xi.1, 2). This was an important matter, for it would not have been much use for Nehemiah to have built the city walls if there had been insufficient men to defend them in case of attack. But in Ezra's time there was clearly a large settled population in the city. In Ezr.x.1 it says that there was a "very great congregation of men and women and children", and in x.13 similarly: "the people are many". This can be readily understood if Nehemiah came a generation before Ezra; whereas if Ezra came first it would mean that the population was dwindling; but there are various facts, which could be mentioned to show that this was not the case.

A subsidiary point, not conclusive, it is true, but worth a passing word, is the question of the mixed marriages. Nehemiah hoped that by inducing those of his own people who had married non-Jewish women to promise that their children should not marry outside the Jewish race, the evil of these mixed marriages would cease. This was not the case, however; for when Ezra came things were as bad as ever, so that he took the much, more drastic step of making every man who had married a foreign wife put her away: that finally settled the matter. Now, if Ezra preceded Nehemiah this sequence would be inconsequent; worse, it would be against the well-known fact that Judaism became stricter, not slacker, in its exclusiveness as time went on. It was not a question of the priest and scribe taking naturally a stricter line than the layman. But rather the ever-increasing realization of the need of Jews cutting themselves off from the outside world - engendered and fostered first through the Exile - if they were to be loyal to their principles, their beliefs, and their God.

While this is not without weight, there is the further overwhelming argument that while, from Nehemiah's memoirs, he is a contemporary of the High Priest Eliashib (Neh.iii.1), Ezra, according to his memoirs, was a contemporary of the High Priest Jehohanan, the son of Eliashib (Ezr.x.6). But more, in the Old Testament "son" is sometimes used in a loose way for "grandson" (see, e.g., Gen.xxix.5, xxxi.28, 43; Ruth iv.17); and that Jehohanan (the shortened form is Johanan = Jonathan, see Neh..22) was thus the grandson of Eliashib is seen from Neh..11; i.e. Jehohanan is the son of Jehoiada the son of Eliashib; thus, Nehemiah lived under the High-priesthood of Eliashib, Ezra under that of his grandson Jehohanan. And this is corroborated by one of the Elephantine papyri, which tells us that Jehohanan was High Priest in 408. We know from Neh.ii.1 that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, and from Ezr.vii.1, 7 that Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes. In neither case is it indicated which Artaxerxes is meant. But from what has been said there can be no doubt that in the case of Nehemiah it was Artaxerxes i who came to the throne in 464, so that his twentieth year was 444. In that of Ezra it was Artaxerxes ii, who came to the throne in 404, so that his seventh year was 397.

[See Van Hoonacker, Nehemie et Esdras (1890); Nehemie Esdras (1892); and in the Revue Biblique, xx (1923), pp.481-494; xxi (1924), pp.33-64.]


As indicated above, there are two Greek Versions of our book; One, called in the Septuagint ii Esdras (= Ezra-Nehemiah), does not offer anything of importance; But the other, i Esdras, known as the "Greek Ezra", demands some notice.

This latter consists of the book of Ezra as we know it, ii Chron.xxxv, xxxvi, and Neh.vii.73b-viii.13a; in addition, it contains a long passage, iii.1-v.6, which has no parallel in the Hebrew, but which in its present form is "certainly unhistorical". [Swete, op. cit., p266.]

On the other hand, the obvious misplacement of Ezr.iv.7-24 does not occur in the "Greek Ezra", where the passage in question comes in ii.15-25. There are some other important variations from the Hebrew, e.g. the omission of the name "Nehemiah" in Neh.viii.9 (= ix.49); and there is much to be said for Howorth's view that it is an independent translation of an earlier Hebrew text. [In the Academy for 1893, and see Thackeray's important art. In Hastings' DB, i.pp.759 ff.]

In any case, this version is an indispensable aid to the study of our book.