The last four books of the Hebrew canon are Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles, in that order. Originally, however, Ezra and Nehemiah followed the Books of Chronicles, and formed with them a unified historical work so homogeneous in spirit that one usually speaks of a single author for the four books. He is called “the Chronicler.” The treatment of Ezra-Nehemiah as a single book by the earliest chroniclers was undoubtedly due to the fact that in ancient times the two books were put under the one name-Ezra. The combined work Ezra-Nehemiah is our most important literary source for the formation of the Jewish religious community after the Babylonian exile. This is known as the period of the Restoration, and the two men most responsible for the reorganization of Jewish life at this time were Ezra and Nehemiah.
In the present state of the Ezra-Nehemiah text, there are several dislocations of large sections so that the chronological or logical sequence is disrupted. The major instances are pointed out in the footnotes. Although Ezra appears before Nehemiah in this work, it seems probable that Nehemiah’s activity preceded his.
What is known of Ezra and his work is due almost exclusively to Ezr 7-10 (the “Ezra Memoirs”) and to Neh 8-9. Strictly speaking, the term “Ezra Memoirs” should be used only of that section in which Ezra speaks in the first person, i.e., ⇒ Ezra 7:27-⇒ 9:15. Compare the “”Nehemiah Memoirs” in ⇒ Nehemiah 1:1-⇒ 7:72a; ⇒ 11:1, 2; ⇒ 12:27-43; ⇒ 13:4-31. The Chronicler combined this material with other sources at his disposal. The personality of Ezra is less known than that of Nehemiah. Ben Sirach, in his praise of the fathers, makes no mention of Ezra. The genealogy of Ezra (⇒ Ezra 7:1-5) traces his priesthood back to Aaron, brother of Moses. This was the accepted way of establishing the legality of one’s priestly office. He is also called a scribe, well-versed in the law of Moses (⇒ Ezra 7:6), indicating Ezra’s dedication to the study of the Torah, which he sought to make the basic rule of life in the restored community. It was in religious and cultic reform rather than in political affairs that Ezra made his mark as a postexilic leader. Jewish tradition holds him in great honor; the Talmud even regards him as a second Moses, claiming that the Torah would have been given to Israel through Ezra had not Moses preceded him.
Ezra is sometimes accused of having been a mere legalist who gave excessive attention to the letter of the law. His work, however, should be seen and judged within a specific historical context. He gave to his people a cohesion and spiritual unity which prevented the disintegration of the small Jewish community. Had it not been for the intransigence of Ezra and of those who adopted his ideal, it is doubtful that Judaism would have so effectively resisted Hellenism, then or in later centuries. Ezra set the tone of the postexilic community, and it was characterized by fidelity to the Torah, Judaism’s authentic way of life. It is in this light that we can judge most fairly the work of Ezra during the Restoration.
The following list of the kings of Persia, with the dates of their reigns, will be useful for dating the events mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah:
Cyrus – 538-529 B.C. Cambyses – 529-521 B.C. Darius I – 521-485 B.C. Xerxes – 485-464 B.C. Artaxerxes I – 464-423 B.C. Darius II – 423-404 B.C. Artaxerxes II – 404-358 B.C. Artaxerxes III – 358-337 B.C. End of the Persian Empire – 331 B.C. (Defeat of Darius III)