For all those who are curious about the Apocrypha (Perhaps you don’t care about the apocrypha. No worries – you will live and should skip this post) I recently read the book of Enoch and 4 Ezra (often called 2 Esdras) which are not a part of the Protestant Scriptures. This was my first time reading through these books and will probably be my last. My assessment of these Apocryphal books is that they are unnecessary and ultimately dangerous. As I read, I jotted down notes and here are my conclusions.
How many Ezras are there?
There is only one Ezra and he didn’t write this book. Nevertheless, the book of 4 Ezra is an attempt to use the clout behind Ezra’s name to answer profound religious and philosophical questions. The author is portrayed as Ezra and the story is comprised of visions which answer questions posed by the inquisitive prophet. The setting of the book is during the time of Ezra despite the fact that the book was composed sometime between A.D. 70 and the third century.
While I do not address the issue of using a pseudonym (This author is using another person’s name to establish your credibility) in this post, it cannot be fully ignored in the final assessment. Given the reality that so much material is dependent upon the book of Revelation and that 4 Ezra was written after the death of the apostles, there appears to be insurmountable evidence making this book unconvincing and dubious in its message and motivation. Will the real Ezra please stand up?
Before giving a critical evaluation of 4 Ezra, it is important to point out several commendable and noteworthy aspects of the book.
1) Literary Features
4 Ezra has several passages that offer vivid imagery and memorable phrases. The book includes well written parables and intricate visions that engage the mind and cause the reader to think critically. Examples of well crafted writing include phrases such as “blood shall trickle out of the wood” (7:19) and “a wave is greater than a drop of water.” (9:16) Perhaps one of the most memorable visions is in chapter 13 which describes the powerful return of the Messiah. The Messiah effortlessly destroys his enemies and the gathers his people by his side. He consumes his foes with fire and lightning and them warmly welcomes all those who have obeyed his commands. This imagery draws the reader in and can make a lasting impression.
2) Real Questions
The book of 4 Ezra is not for shallow thinkers. The narrative is carried along by questions that Ezra asks of God and the angelic beings. Each question is intense and laden with emotion. These questions are helpful in that they relate to real inquiries posed by countless people throughout history. He is concerned about why so many people go to hell and the problem of evil appears to be heavy upon Ezra’s mind. Another one of the most pervasive questions concerns the destruction of the Jewish temple and the concern that God has forsaken his chosen people. These questions are near to the human heart and will continue to exist until the end of time. But the real question is does 4 Ezra answer them correctly?
3) Some Accuracy
4 Ezra contains a handful of theological nuggets that should be commended. In 7:98, the angel states that the highlight of heaven will be beholding the face of God. “The seventh order, which is greater than all those what have been mentioned, is that they will exult boldly, and that they will trust confidently, and rejoice fearlessly, for they hasten to see the face of him who they served in life…” This resonates accurately with the Christian experience and is confirmed by 1 Peter 1:18 and Revelation 22:4. Consequently, the worst aspect of hell will be the glory of God in wrathful judgment. This is pointed out in 7:87 which reads, “they will waste away in shame and be consumed in disgrace, and wither with fear, at seeing the glory of the Most High before whom they sinned while they lived…” 4 Ezra rightly places the emphasis on God’s presence in heaven and hell. Heaven is wonderful because God’s glorious joy is always present and hell is terrible because God’s glorious wrath never leaves.
Related to this issue is the correct teaching that God’s judgment is final. In 7:105 it says, “The Day of Judgment is final and shows to all the stamp of truth.” 4 Ezra does not teach a third afterlife destination or holding place such as purgatory. This aligns correctly with Hebrews 9:27 which teaches that judgment immediately follows death.
1) Depends on the Bible
For the avid reader of the Protestant Scriptures, it does not take long to realize that 4 Ezra borrows a lot from the Bible. Verse after verse alludes to the Torah and the book of Job (6:49; 10:33). There are multiple allusions to the Apocalypse of John and the book of Daniel. Several passages in 4 Ezra appear to be snapshots of the book of Revelation with only minute modifications. It was sort of like looking at familiar photos through a sepia filter. Phrases from Revelation such as “Sovereign Lord” and “How Long?” are used repeatedly in the book of Ezra (4:33, 38; 5:23; 6:11, 59; 7:17). Images such as multitudes sealed by God with white robes around the presence of the Lord singing songs with crowns on their heads are clearly adapted straight from Revelation chapters 4-6 (3:36-48). There are also allusions to Jesus’ words from the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24.
It is curious that 4 Ezra never directly references any of these biblical authors. Only on one occasion in 12:11 is the writer Daniel mentioned but it is not in relation to a quotation. While many biblical authors make allusions to other biblical passages, 4 Ezra is markedly different. 4 Ezra borrows but never gives back. The New Testament authors make allusions while also repeatedly referencing other biblical authors.
2) Differs from the Bible
4 Ezra differs from the Bible in several ways. For instance, the interactions between Ezra and the divine beings are unusual when compared to inspired apocalyptic literature. 4 Ezra focuses on the names of angels and limits Ezra’s interaction with God (4:36). The angels are commanding, harsh and abrasive (7:19). They rebuke Ezra and even deem him worthy or unworthy of revelation. This seems to give them more authority to angels than is appropriate (7:103). It is also concerning that the divine beings make Ezra work for special revelation. On multiple occasions throughout the narrative, the divine beings withhold information from Ezra until he fasts for a certain amount of time or until he completes a task they have requested (6:30; 9:23). These factors are not characteristic of either Old Testament or New Testament apocalyptic literature within the Protestant Scriptures. These factors lend a substantial amount of evidence showing that 4 Ezra does not align with inspired writings.
3) Distorts the Bible
The fact that 4 Ezra borrows from the Bible is not necessarily a flaw by itself. Yet problems arise when 4 Ezra goes beyond what the Bible teaches and even misrepresents historic Christian doctrines. In addition to the unusual interaction with angelic beings, the issue of salvation is very unclear in the book of Ezra.
It appears that the major focus of the book is salvation by works. There are references to the mercy of God and to fearing the Lord, but these are heavily overshadowed by commands and statements of righteousness by works. For instance, the angelic being encourages Ezra that he will be saved “for you have a treasure of works laid up with the Most High, but it will not be shown to you until the last times.” (7:77). Again in the same chapter, the angel says those will be saved who have “carefully served the Most High, though they were in danger every hour, so as to keep the Law of the Lawgiver perfectly.” (7:90) These statements are not balanced out by the saving grace of God (7:167-70; 9:8; 14:34).
An important exchange takes place between Ezra and a being (unknown entity which is either God or an angel). Ezra eventually pleads with the Lord for grace for mankind. In 8:35-36, he states, “For in truth there is no one among those who have grown up who has not sinned. For in this, Lord, your uprightness and goodness will be declared, if you have mercy on those who have no stock of good deeds.” He truly understands the truth of Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
This is part of a deep seated plea for grace and forgiveness for sin. However the response from God is calloused and cold. God responds by saying, “For indeed I will not think about the forming of those who have sinned, or their death or judgment or destruction, but I will rejoice over the fashioning of the upright, over their pilgrimage also, and their salvation and the reward they will receive.” (8:37-40). This response from the divine being in 4 Ezra is not the response of the God from the true Scriptures.
God is just but he also shows unfathomable grace to sinners. There is no salvation apart from his grace alone. 4 Ezra is markedly different than the apocalyptic literature found in the book of Revelation. Revelation 22:17 offers the water of eternal life without price. The multitudes in Revelation gather around the one who has freed them by his own blood and was slain before the foundation of the world. Those who endure to the end in the Revelation 12:11 are only those who place total confidence in the finished work of Jesus.
An astute reader will soon realize that 4 Ezra really has nothing to offer. There is nothing groundbreaking that is not found in other passages in the protestant canon. There is nothing new under the sun and there is certainly nothing new in the book of 4 Ezra. This shows the unoriginality of the author and his need to build off inspired Scripture.
The places 4 Ezra deviates from the Scriptures are in more detailed descriptions, intricate visions and distorted doctrine. While there are some positive aspects of 4 Ezra, the ultimate verdict is that it is dangerous. The theology found in this work is unclear at best and heretical at worst.
4 Ezra has some commendable passages that engage the reader to think critically but it has several significant flaws. To put it mildly, the book is unnecessary. To put it bluntly, the book is blasphemous. Renee Jarrett helpfully pointed this out and brought to my mind the passage in Revelation 22:18. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book…” Although unintentional by the mysterious author, the benefit of reading 4 Ezra is seeing its shortcomings and realizing the sufficiency of the Scripture.