What's in the Apocrypha? - 2 Esdras
Apocryphal Series Introduction
When speaking of the historical development of the Bible, one often hears about the Apocrypha. Yet, very few people really know what the Apocrypha is, much less what it contains. The word itself means “things that are hidden/secret.” But this designation does not lend much help to the curious reader. Essentially, these are books written in a similar style to Biblical Old Testament books but whose authorship, in the majority of cases, is uncertain. What is known is that these books were never understood to be authoritative by the Jewish people but were regarded as generally reliable in areas such as history (i.e. the book of Maccabees).
The Roman Catholic Apocrypha consists of Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch (also called 1 Baruch), the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. The Greek Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees, with 4 Maccabees in an appendix. The Russian Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Roman Catholic canon places the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras, and 2 Esdras in an appendix without implying canonicity.
From an Evangelical perspective, these books are certainly not recognized as authoritative nor inspired by God. But for the Evangelical scholar or curious Christian, there is much that can be learned from these books. Several of them give helpful histories of the Intertestamental Period (the more than 400 years between the ending of the Old Testament writings and the beginning of the New Testament events), and others give helpful background understanding for certain theological themes and understandings by the Jewish people during the time of their writing. Many Biblical themes are touched on in these Apocryphal writings as well. Perhaps the most significant theme is the expectation of a Messiah who was to come: who he was and what he would accomplish. Because of the helpful background these books afford as well as the limited exposure most Christians have had to these books, I thought I would write a few book reviews on some of these Apocryphal books. My hope is that it will help inform those who are unaware and that it might pique the interest of some curious souls to read for themselves. Enjoy!
The book of 2 Esdras, purported to be written by Ezra, is a part of the Apocrypha. The primary theme of the book is the ageless problem of justice. Although not an authentic book of the Bible, this book gives helpful themes for background study in the Jewish mindset of the time. In this book, the author questions God’s justice in allowing Rome to destroy the people of God and force them out of Jerusalem. In a more general fashion, the author is again raising the seeming contradiction of God’s promises to Israel and the circumstances he is experiencing. This paradox causes him to question what God is doing, similar to Habakkuk’s questioning, and the answer is essentially the same as that of other canonical books. The question of God’s justice in destroying His people is the main concern of 2 Esdras. As the reader will quickly learn, the answer lies in an eschatological righting of all wrongs and true justice being rendered on all parties. The author and reader are both expected to remain faithful regardless of the circumstances. Such a lesson is reminiscent of Job’s ordeal in the Patriarchal times.
It appears the author exhibits a major disagreement with God’s justice in the first three dialogues. The reader might recall the book of Job which in many ways parallels, on a personal scale, these corporate circumstances Israel is enduring. One notices immediately the eschatological implications of God’s ultimate justice when God says: “Therefore I say to you, O nations that hear and understand, Await your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because the eternal light will shine upon you for evermore.” (2:34,35) Although the author is struggling to accept such statements as a legitimate answer, he continues to hear the word of the Lord. Following his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem, he recounts the covenant passages in chapter 3. He asks if the sin of Jerusalem is that much worse than Babylon or any of the destroyer’s of God’s people. Clearly, the injustice of using sinful nations to destroy the sinful nation of Israel is confusing in Ezra’s mind. He asks: "Then I said in my heart, are the deeds of those who inhabit Babylon any better? Is that why she has gained dominion over Zion?” (3:28).
Such thinking is quickly rebuffed by an angel who tells Ezra "Your understanding has utterly failed regarding this world, and do you think you can comprehend the way of the Most High?" (4:2). The angel points out that while Ezra has only himself and his people to think about, God has many to be concerned for and it is this big picture perspective that Ezra is unable to comprehend (4:34). Although at times he seems to catch glimmers of hope and looks ahead to God helping Israel yet again (10:24), still his hope is often shadowed by his failing to understand the way in which God is working.
After seeing a vision in which the Messiah is the prominent figure, Ezra seems to take hope and tells the people, “Take courage, O Israel; and do not be sorrowful, O house of Jacob; for the Most High has you in remembrance, and the Mighty One has not forgotten you in your struggle.” (12:46,47) Ezra also encourages the people to not expect justice in their current state, but to look for it in the future afterlife (14:31-36).
God then goes on to denounce the other nations He has used to inflict judgment on Israel. It seems that the justice Ezra has been searching for is about to take place in these nations. In the final chapter, encouragement is given to the people to stay faithful, even when they do not understand, and God will make it right in the end. Ezra reluctantly acquiesces to God’s plan. Even though he does not understand, he is going to trust.
In many ways, 2 Esdras does not offer anything new to the reader. The themes have been heard before: (1) justice, (2) God using wicked nations to judge Israel, and (3) hope that God will one day make everything right again. If one is familiar with the Old Testament as a whole, reading 2 Esdras comes across as a condensed knock-off of sorts. Having said that, it still contains helpful background themes, terms and ideas that would have been prevalent in the mind of many Jewish people at this time (Most scholars would place it in the 1st century AD or later). In this sense, the book provides helpful background for 2nd Temple Jewish scholars and also for any curious reader who would like further background to the Jewish mindset at this tumultuous time in Israel’s history.
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