The Dead Sea Scrolls provide fascinating insight into Second Temple Judaism. Curiously, the scrolls include fragments from the Book of Ezra—but there’s no actual mention of the scribe. That leads to some interesting questions. For example, was Ezra a real person? And, if he was, why don’t the Dead Sea Scrolls mention him? In this interview, biblical scholar Charlotte Hempel explains the most popular theories.
Read a related article by Charlotte Hempel in Biblical Archaeology Review, “Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Table of Contents
- Do scholars think Ezra was a real person?
- What does Charlotte Hempel think?
- How did his profile grow?
- Which Dead Sea Scroll fragments refer to Ezra?
- Do they mention Ezra reinstating Jewish Law?
- Do any other texts omit Ezra?
- What ancient texts include him?
- Is Ezra the “Teacher of Righteousness” from the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- What is the Apocryphon of Jeremiah?
- Does it reference the return from Babylon?
- Who wouldn’t the Qumran community mention Ezra?
- Could future Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries reference him?
- Did scribes purposefully remove mention of Ezra?
- What’s the most likely reason he isn’t in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- What does Charlotte Hempel wish people knew?
- Where can I learn more?
Do scholars think Ezra was a real historical figure?
This is a great question and has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ezra appears in 6 chapters of the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 and 12. He is described as a priest, a skilled scribe who has his heart set on the study of the law and its promulgation among the people, as well as a social reformer.
On the more radical end of the spectrum there are those, including C. C. Torrey, who suggest Ezra was a fictitious creation.1 For most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors.
What does Charlotte Hempel think?
My own starting point is that it is clear from the biblical account that we have a circle sympathetic to Ezra’s aims who composed, finessed, and cherished the profile of Ezra. I am less certain that we can trace a historical core of the narrative associated with the biblical figure of Ezra to a single historical figure.
As far as the date of the book Ezra-Nehemiah is concerned, there is wide agreement among specialists that it was not written by the two figures who gave it its modern name, but rather developed over a period spanning up to four centuries from the 5th to the 2nd century BCE.
The final shape of the material is variously attributed by scholars to a group of priests, Levitical circles, or the author of Chronicles.
How did his profile grow in later Jewish tradition?
Over time, Ezra’s profile became amplified in a number of sources beginning with 1 Esdras—an ancient Greek composition developing the Ezra (Greek Esdras) narrative from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. 1 Esdras never mentions Nehemiah and elevates Ezra from a priest to the office of high priest (1 Esdras 9:39).
This work was very influential since it was used by Josephus, the widely read first century Jewish historian. There are some who suggest the Greek Ezra narrative, 1 Esdras, predates the biblical book.
Ezra’s profile continued to grow in later Jewish tradition. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Ezra had knowledge of the pronunciation of the divine name and was identified with the prophet Malachi. Later rabbinic commentary presents Ezra’s priestly credentials as surpassing those of Aaron.2
In sum, Ezra’s importance in later Jewish tradition can barely be overstated.3
Which Dead Sea Scrolls fragments refer to Ezra?
Only three small fragments of the book Ezra-Nehemiah were found at Qumran. They cover material from the first six chapters of the book (Ezra 4:2–6, 9–11; 5:17–6:5) but not from the chapters that feature Ezra.
Earlier reports of a fragment of the book of Nehemiah were subsequently challenged and identified as a forgery which clumsily copied a scholarly footnote in the form of the Greek letter alpha from a 1937 scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible into the supposed Dead Sea Scroll fragment.
Do the scrolls mention Ezra’s reinstatement of Jewish law after the exile?
Given shared interests in the transmission and interpretation of the Law, it is noteworthy that Ezra is never mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Are there any other texts from the time period that leave out crucial details about Ezra?
Given the sparsity of texts from the Second Temple period, it is striking that, alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls, the work of the second-century BCE priestly sage Ben Sira also fails to mention Ezra. Notably, he praises the achievements of Nehemiah—alongside other famous Jewish heroes, ranging from Enoch and Noah to the 3rd century BCE High Priest Simon II—in his “Praise of the Ancestors” (Sirach 44–50).
Zerubbabel and the restoration is described as follows in Ben Sira’s account:
How shall we magnify Zerubbabel? He was like a signet ring on the right hand, and so was Jeshua son of Jozadak; in their days they built the house and raised a temple holy to the Lord, destined for everlasting glory. The memory of Nehemiah also is lasting; he raised our fallen walls, and set up gates and bars, and rebuilt our ruined houses.Ben Sira 49:11–13
Another second-century BCE Jewish work, 2 Maccabees, similarly credits Nehemiah alone as the one who built the Temple and the altar.
Nehemiah is also credited with instructing the descendants of exiled priestly families to retrieve the fire of the altar from a dry cistern where it is said to have been hidden after the Temple’s destruction (2 Maccabees 1:19–23).
Conversely, are there texts that cover these periods from Ezra’s life?
In addition to Josephus’s source, 1 Esdras, Ezra is also prominent in the apocalyptic work known as 4 Ezra. It was composed after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.
4 Ezra presents Ezra as a seer who is shown visions and is guided by the archangel, Uriel. The book’s climax is a story about Ezra, infused by a divine magic potion, dictating nearly 100 books—most of them reserved only for the wisest among the people—to attending to scribes. Ezra the seer is then taken up to heaven like Enoch and Elijah before him.
Is Ezra the unnamed “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in the Damascus Document?
The enigmatic ciphers in the Dead Sea Scrolls are open for a variety of interpretations. For example, the suggestion to identify the Teacher of Righteousness with Ezra was put forward in 1956 by T. H. Gaster. Two years earlier, Isaac Rabinowitz had proposed identifying Ezra with the cipher Interpreter of the Law. Others have identified the Teacher with a deposed former High Priest or, somewhat anachronistically, with Hillel, James the brother of Jesus, or John the Baptist.
Recent research highlights that the title, Teacher of Righteousness, is derived from Joel 2:23 where the same Hebrew roots lie behind the reference to God’s granting “early rain for righteousness.”
Helsinki’s Professor Jutta Jokiranta has, moreover, compellingly argued that the teacher as presented in the Qumran commentaries (known as pesharim) is a figure constructed to serve as a prototype for members of the community to emulate.
What is the Apocryphon of Jeremiah?
The Apocryphon of Jeremiah is a composition preserved in several copies among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran that contains traditions associated with Jeremiah.
One copy of this document, known as Apocryphon of Jeremiah Ce (4Q390), distinctively refers to the period of the return from exile as a window of promise bookmarked at either side by disobedience. This text does not mention Ezra or Nehemiah.
Does the Apocryphon of Jeremiah reference the return from Babylon and rebuilding of the Temple?
A strikingly explicit account of the return from captivity and the rebuilding of the Temple is mentioned in Apocryphon of Jeremiah Ce (4Q390) in a positive light. This record stands in stark contrast to the account in the Damascus Document (CD 1). In that account, the emergence of a new movement in the 2nd century BCE marks the end of God’s punishment meted out by Nebuchadnezzar.
Remarkably, the return of some of the exiles and the restoration of the Temple are passed over entirely in silence in the Damascus Document.
In 4Q390, by contrast, we read:
And they also will act with wickedness in my sight, just like all the (wicked) deeds which Israel performed at the time of their former kingdom. An exception are those who will be the first to come up from the land of their captivity to (re)build the Temple. I shall speak to them and send to them commandments and they will gain understanding about everything which they and their fathers had forsaken.4Q390 1:4-7
The returnees—and their access to the law—are here portrayed as a collective effort. Furthermore, the author of this passage does not refer to Ezra and his message of repentance and instruction to return to the law.
Why wouldn’t the Qumran community have referenced Ezra or the period of return in their writings?
In the absence of any polemic against Ezra in the Scrolls from Qumran, this silence on Ezra, rather than being exceptional, is another ripple in the very choppy reception history of the literary footprints of Ezra and Nehemiah in our earliest preserved sources.
As we saw, Ezra is also unmentioned in Ben Sira and 2 Maccabees, whereas in 1 Esdras, by contrast, it is Nehemiah who plays no role.
Could there be undiscovered Dead Sea Scrolls fragments that pay closer attention to Ezra?
This is something we cannot exclude. Any such fresh evidence would provide invaluable further pieces to our literary jigsaw puzzle.
Could Jewish scribes have purposefully removed Ezra from the record?
While such a scenario is not entirely impossible, it seems unlikely to me since we have no indication of any polemic against Ezra in the Scrolls, Ben Sira or 2 Maccabees.
What is the most likely reason that Ezra doesn’t figure prominently in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The absence of Ezra in the Dead Sea Scrolls is, crucially, shared by a larger cluster of ancient sources outside the book Ezra-Nehemiah. This silence on Ezra might point to an ambivalent assessment of Ezra’s legacy in various circles—a ‘snub,’ if you like—or suggest a more limited reach of the ancient Ezra narrative in the Second Temple period than later sources have led us to believe.
What does Charlotte Hempel wish more people knew about Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls?
I am hoping to refocus the lack of attention to Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls beyond the question of whether Ezra is mentioned or known by the authors of the Scrolls. I hope to shift the narrative to an acknowledgement of a wealth of interests shared between the movement behind the Scrolls and the scribes behind the legacy of Ezra and Nehemiah.
About the author
Charlotte Hempel is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at the University of Birmingham. She also serves as the Head of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion. Hempel holds a PhD in Theology and Religion from King’s College London, and has published dozens of scholarly works associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew Bible.
Did you enjoy this interview?
- Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- What Happened at the Siege of Masada?
- Is the Book of Solomon Scripture?
- What Is Biblical Historical Analysis?
- What Is the Enoch Seminar?
Ezra and the Dead Sea Scrolls resources
- Ezra’s Legacy and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Law and Narratives of Exclusion (University of Birmingham News)
- Who Was Ezra? (Biblical Archaeology Review)
- Has Every Book of the Bible Been Found Among the Dead Sea Scrolls? (Bible Review)
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Charles Cutler Torrey, Ezra Studies, University of Chicago Press, 1910.
- See Qohelet Rabbah 1.4.4.
- For a comprehensive account of the reception of Ezra see Lisbeth Fried, Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition, 2014.