Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Fried, Lisbeth S., Ezra: A Commentary (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Pp. xviii + 468. Hardback. US$95.00. ISBN 978-1-909697-75-1.

Sheffield Phoenix Press begins their new series of Critical Commentaries with Fried's commentary on Ezra. The first in a two-volume commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah, it utilises a range of critical methodologies to investigate the book of Ezra and the history of Judah in the Persian and Hellenistic periods behind it.

Fried's approach is decidedly historical-critical, with a focus on the history of the text and the history behind the text. She prefaces the commentary with the claim that Ezra-Nehemiah was written by several authors, over a long period of time, who disagreed with each other. While she acknowledges that the final product must be read as one book (p. 3), she states her aim as trying “to make all these various points of view, and the historical context in which they were embedded, clear and transparent to the reader” (p. xvii). Using source, form, and redaction-critical methods, this is exactly what Fried then proceeds to do.

The commentary begins with a brief introduction, before spending the majority of time on the text of Ezra. Fried divides her commentary into two main parts, Ezra 1–6 and Ezra 7–10. She treats Ezra 1–6 as a later, distinct temple-building story constructed according to, on the one hand, the typology of ANE temple-building inscriptions, and on the other, Hellenistic rules of tragedy plot construction. Ezra 7–10 is understood as a part of the larger section of Ezra 7–Neh 13, the earliest core of the book, authored using Artaxerxes' original letter commissioning Ezra, an Ezra story, and Nehemiah's memoir.

In each part, she breaks the text into smaller pericopes, providing a translation, textual notes, closer exegetical comments, and finally concluding comments for each. The translations are literal translations based mostly on the MT, while the textual notes mostly focus on showing alternative readings in 1 and 2 Esdras and the Syriac Peshitta, while making emendations to the MT along the way. The most detailed of these is a forty-page examination of Ezra 2, where she compares each name to the list in Nehemiah 7 and 1 Esdras.

A regular feature of Fried's exegesis is her comparison of the events and attitudes portrayed in Ezra with its ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic backgrounds in order to determine the real history of post-exilic Judah. Examples of this include: using ancient Near Eastern temple ideology to determine the actual chronology of Ezra 1–6; understanding the current shaping of Ezra 1–6 by reading it as a piece of carefully constructed Hellenistic rhetoric; determining the identity of the historical Ezra in Ezra 7–8 by appealing to Persian administrative structures; asserting a Persian-enforced mass divorce in Ezra 9–10 by appealing to Athenian official aversion to intermarriage as a historical precedent. Many of Fried's theories are unique and are based on her previous work. All of this provides stimulating reading and deserves careful evaluation by scholars in the future.

At times, Fried seems to critically dismiss the testimony of the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah by appealing to a generalised or flimsy historical reconstruction. For example, Fried argues that the historical Ezra followed Nehemiah, coming to Judah under Artaxerxes II (p. 303–5). She bases this on Ezra 7:24, where Ezra is said to have introduced exemptions from tax and corvée labour for the Levites. Fried also asserts that when Nehemiah built the walls, this would have been corvée labour since “work on city walls is always corvée labor” (p. 304; emphasis mine) and the Levites joined in. This, she claims, would have been unlikely if they had been exempted from corvée labour thirteen years earlier, and so Ezra must have come after Nehemiah. However, she dismisses Nehemiah's account that he secured the willing cooperation of the Levites (Neh 3:17; 7:1; p. 305). By claiming that “the reader is not obligated to trust Nehemiah's version as an unbiased portrayal of reality” (p. 305) she is quite right, since no portrayal of reality will be unbiased, but that does not mean it is untruthful. One would expect more substantial evidence and reasoning for such a confident dismissal.

Another feature of the exegesis is painstaking redaction criticism. By this, Fried attempts to untangle the “completely intertwined” writings of the books' “several independent authors and editors” (p. 3). She thoroughly identifies various strands of thought and assigns them generally to the original (usually Persian) sources, the author of Ezra 7–Neh 13, or the later Priestly author of Ezra 1–6 (who also edited Ezra 7–10). Of particular note are her “originals” of the heavily redacted Artaxerxes letter of Ezra 7 (p. 331), and the Ezra story of the mass divorces in Ezra 9–10 (p. 412–3).

In relation to this redaction critical work, Fried explains what the final form of parts of the text are attempting to do and say, but often does not explore why the final redactor might have shaped the text as he did. An exploration into the sociological and religious background of the final text would strengthen Fried's compositional theories, and indeed help readers to “understand their words within the historical context that elicited them” (p. 17). For example, what historical and sociological contexts and perhaps theological views compelled the fourth-century Judean author to invent a twenty-two-year stoppage to the temple work? Was it simply to satisfy Hellenistic rules of rhetoric? Why not satisfy the need for drama by building on what Fried suggests really happened, that is, extreme poverty of the community? As another example, why did the biblical author reappropriate reports from Persian officials regarding Persia-enforced mass divorce to make them say that it was all internally motivated? On this issue, Fried simply suggests, “if the mass divorce is not historical but had been written much later, during the persecutions of Antiochus IV, for example, it may have been written to provide encouragement to the people to maintain their ancestral traditions in the face of any hardship and to keep away from foreign ways.” This may be the case, but given Fried's historical rigor elsewhere, it is surprising that she does not explore these questions in any more depth than this.

The concluding comments to each pericope often make for the clearest, most interesting reading of the commentary. Here, Fried draws clear conclusions to her main historical theses, making for concise and straightforward reading. These sections summarise where the commentary makes its own contributions to the field. In this respect, this highlights the strength of the commentary: that it provides a series of systematically argued, fresh points of view about the history of Ezra-Nehemiah, rather than retreading old ground.

Occasionally, and only in the first part of the commentary, Fried finishes a chapter with some reflections on the text. These begin to sketch out canonical and theological connections. Their brevity, however, often makes them appear superficial and incomplete. Given the aim and tone of the rest of the commentary, one wonders why they were there at all. This lack of reflection within these broader contexts highlights the need for further work in the areas of narrative, rhetorical, canonical, and theological criticism for Ezra-Nehemiah scholarship. While much of this is outside Fried's scope, more attention to the purpose and function of the book as a whole would have also strengthened the commentary.

Fried's commentary builds on previous work with extensive attention to new developments, providing a fresh and stimulating examination of Ezra, its authors and their historical contexts. It deserves careful evaluation, while providing fodder for further narrative, rhetorical, and canonical, and theological methodologies.

Timothy R. Escott, University of Durham