Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Fried, Lisbeth S., Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition (Studies on Personalities in the Old Testament; Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014). Pp. xii + 258. US$59.95. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-61117-313-0.

Fried's book is a volume in James L. Crenshaw's series, “Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament.” In his preface, Crenshaw indicates that the series seeks to reach the general public while not ignoring the scholarly issues involved in studying biblical individuals. Fried admirably achieves these goals. She begins by distinguishing actual Ezra, assuming he existed, from the biblical depiction of Ezra. For those who are not specialists in the field, Fried discusses each text of the “Ezra corpus” individually—Ezra, the Greek Esdras, (1 Esdras), 4 Ezra, 5 Ezra (chapters 1 and 2 of 4 Ezra), and 6 Ezra (chapters 15–16 of 4 Ezra). Finally, she clearly identifies 4, 5 and 6 Ezra with 2 Esdras. She offers a summary of each “text,” especially 4 Ezra, and sets each document as closely as she can in a particular time and place. She further explicates the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, the Latin Vision of the Blessed Ezra, the Syrian and Ethiopic Apocalypses of Ezra, and the Revelation of Ezra. In brief, the book includes useful summaries of the important Ezra texts, compares the texts to one another, and offers interesting observations on why the authors of these various texts constructed them with Ezra as their main character. Fried also offers a summary of the ways in which Ezra was described in Christian, Samaritan, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The book includes an appendix of the chronologies of Persia and Egypt, as well as an appendix that summarizes and compares the various translations and versions of 4 Ezra. Fried has also compiled a fine bibliography, and her notes refer the readers to the scholarly debates on the important arguments and interpretations she offers throughout the book.

Fried argues that the biblical book of Ezra was composed no earlier than the reign of Alexander the Great (d. 323 b.c.e.) and no later than the Ptolemaic period (3rd century b.c.e.). Fried, following a number of contemporary scholars, places the creation of the Tanakh in the Hellenistic period. In countering Wellhausen's evolutionary theory of “documents,” she argues that P is the earliest, reflecting Canaanite institutions and rituals, E may not exist, and J reflects Hellenistic religious practice. While P clearly reflects Canaanite practice and, to my mind, an economically developed society, J's discussion of the altars in Genesis need not be Hellenistic. The stories of the patriarchs' setting up altars serve as etiological stories for ritual sites that did not exist in the Hellenistic period. One can accept the normal placement of P as later than J without accepting Wellhausen's evolutionary theory or conclusions.

While I think she has placed the biblical book of Ezra too late in the Hellenistic period, Fried's argument that the biblical Ezra is much different from “the real Ezra” is important. Her study of the actual Ezra rests on her analysis of Ezra 7:14: “Therefore you have been sent from before the King and his 70 advisors to examine Yehud and Jerusalem in line with the dātā of your god which is in your hand.” Basing herself on Xenophon and other Greek practices and texts, Fried concludes that the Persian ruler sent Ezra to appoint ethnic Persian judges and to serve as Episkopos, “the King's Eyes and Ears.”

More intriguing, however, is her detailed examination of dātā in a variety of Persian contexts. “[T]he dātā of the king refers to the king's word, his orders and decrees, not to a law code, written or unwritten, neither of which existed in the Persian Empire” (p. 17). She further claims that the Persian ruler would have assumed that the dātā of Ezra's deity, like the dātā of Ahura Mazda, would have agreed with the Persian ruler's decrees concerning justice and fairness. Fried argues that the real Ezra did not bring the Torah of Moses from Persia to Jerusalem and was not sent to make sure that the Judeans followed the Torah. The author of the biblical book of Ezra created the story of the Persian king's sending Ezra with the Torah to ensure that the Judeans followed Jewish law and custom. By claiming that the biblical writer wrote his book during the Ptolemaic or Seleucid period, Fried argues that the story “was likely written in an attempt to provide its readers with the proof that the very norms for which they were being persecuted had received the imprimatur and authorization of the Persian Empire and so were legitimate, valid, and vital” (p. 170). Again, one may disagree with Fried's late dating of the biblical book and still accept her idea that we should not equate dātā in Ezra 7:14 with the Torah.

In her discussion of the problem of marriage to foreign wives, Fried draws attention to Athens and its definition of citizenship and problems of inheritance. She suggests that the Persians would also have been concerned about mixed marriages; however, her discussions of the concerns of royal marriages or that aliens would have been created across territorial boundaries is interesting, though not convincing. She also ignores the uncertainty of exactly who these foreign wives may have been, for some may have been non-Israelites, but some may have been Israelites who had not gone to Babylonia.

Fried offers an interesting analysis of Neh 8–11. She notes, as many before her, that Ezra's reading of the law, reported in Nehemiah, is odd because Ezra itself does not mention the event. Fried concludes that Neh 8–11 are not a unity, for nothing in chapter 8 would lead one to anticipate the sackcloth and ashes with which Neh 9 opens. Fried suggests that Ezra's reading of the law is a creation of the biblical writer. She further contends that the confession and prayer in Neh 9 is too general to be a response to Ezra's reading of the law. Even more curious is that the concern with marrying foreign wives is omitted. She concludes that the biblical writer took the contents of chapter 9 from another context and added it here. She finally argues that Neh 10 was not originally a covenant renewal ritual. Rather, it “may have been the foundation document for a temple cult guild or association” (p. 44). She finds parallels to her suggestion in Solon's Law and in Ptolemaic Egypt. She further notes that the Egyptian documents are close to craft guilds. Again, Fried's evidence depends, at least to an extent, on her placing Ezra in the Ptolemaic period. She claims that the author of Nehemiah used the foundation document to create his covenant renewal ceremony. Her conclusion, based on parallels—some more interesting than others—between the biblical book of Exodus and books of Ezra and Nehemiah, is that the biblical author created the story of Ezra to parallel the biblical account of Moses.

I have focused on the early chapters of the book because those chapters contain much of Fried's own work and suggestions. The book's other chapters are interesting, but Fried's conclusions in those chapters rely more on the work of others and do not significantly challenge much that we already know.

Overall, this is an important book for specialist and non-specialist alike. For the specialist, Fried challenges a number of assumptions concerning the real Ezra, the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, and Ezra's reading of the law in Nehemiah. Still, she writes in a way that informs the non-specialist. In addition, the other chapters of the book provide easily accessible information without being bogged down in detailed scholarly arguments. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Gary G. Porton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign