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Aaron Demsky. “Who Returned First—Ezra or Nehemiah?” Bible Review 12, 2 (1996).

Ezra Illuminated ManuscriptForty-seven years after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E. and deported many of the people to exile in Babylon, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonians and ruled most of the then-known world, allowed the Jews to return to their ancient homeland. They returned in waves. Sheshbazzar, apparently the first Jewish governor of Yehud (Judea), led the first wave and laid the foundation to rebuild the Temple, that is, to construct the Second Temple (Ezra 1:7–11, 5:14–16). Not only did Cyrus permit the rebuilding, he even paid for much of it (Ezra 6:4). Then Zerubbabel, a later governor (521–516 B.C.E.; see Haggai 1:1), returned with a second wave and rebuilt it. The process took some time, continuing after Cyrus’s death. Darius confirmed the earlier monarch’s decree permitting the Temple to be rebuilt, despite Samaritan opposition (see Ezra 4–6). Darius even issued an order that anyone who “alters this decree shall have a beam removed from his house, and he shall be impaled on it and his house confiscated” (Ezra 6:11).

Sometime during the fifth century B.C.E. came the priest/scribe Ezra and the great governor/administrator Nehemiah. Or, if not together, first came Ezra and then Nehemiah. Or first came Nehemiah and then Ezra…But which was it? Were they working in Jerusalem at the same time? Or did one come after the other? If so, who came first?

Whatever the answers, together the two men, as one scholar has observed, were “the creators of the post-exilic Jewish community in Palestine” and “two of the greatest figures in Jewish history.”1

In printed Bibles, the Book of Ezra precedes the Book of Nehemiah—two separate books. But in ancient Jewish tradition, it is one book—Ezra/Nehemiah. Both books—or both sections of the book—are quite short, 10 chapters in Ezra and 13 in Nehemiah. A couple of other peculiarities: In the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezra and Nehemiah, although historical books, are in the third section of the Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim), instead of in the section with the historical books (such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). In this respect Ezra/Nehemiah is like another double historical book, Chronicles, which is also in the third section of the Hebrew Bible.

There is another peculiarity: Chronologically, the history that Ezra/Nehemiah recounts comes after the history in Chronicles; yet in the Hebrew Bible, Ezra/Nehemiah comes before Chronicles.

These peculiarities are not present in the Christian Old Testament. There the historical books are grouped together and Ezra/Nehemiah follows, rather than precedes, Chronicles.

A critical reading of these two books will show that Ezra/Nehemiah consists of three sources: (1) a historical introduction to the period, consisting of Ezra 1–6; (2) the so-called Ezra Source, consisting of Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8–10; and (3) the so-called Nehemiah Memoir, consisting of Nehemiah 1–7, 11–13.

The fact that parts of the Ezra Source appear in both books tends to confirm our treatment of the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) as one.

The historical introduction (Ezra 1–6) is the work of the fellow whom scholars call the redactor. He (very unlikely to be she) is the editor who put the two sources together, occasionally making an editorial comment2 or inserting information from scattered earlier lists and documents,3 but most importantly adding the introduction as background for what follows.

The historical introduction recounts Cyrus’s proclamation allowing the Jews to return from the Exile and rebuild their destroyed Temple, all in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Ezra 1:1–3; cf. Jeremiah 25:11–12, 29:10). Cyrus even returns the Temple vessels that the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon and placed in the temple of a pagan god (Ezra 1:7; cf. Daniel 5:1ff.). Altogether, 42,360 people returned, not counting singers (!) or servants (the Jews had apparently done quite well in Babylon; they not only had servants, but also beasts of burden, described in some detail, which could be conscripted for communal projects [Ezra 2:66–67]).

At the behest of some of the enemies of the Jews (mainly the Samaritans), the work on the Temple was stopped for a spell, but under the inspiration of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, work soon resumed. There is some confusion about when the Temple was completed. In two successive verses we are told first that the Temple was completed “under the aegis of the God of Israel and by the order of Cyrus and Darius and [Darius’s grandson] King Artaxerxes [I]” and then that the Temple was finished “in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius” (Ezra 6:14–15).

When the Temple was completed, the people observed the Passover, “for the Lord had given them cause for joy by inclining the heart of the Assyrian [i.e., Persian] king toward them” (Ezra 6:22). Thus ends the historical introduction.Chapter 7, the beginning of the Ezra Source, opens with these words: “After these events, during the reign of King Artaxerxes…Ezra came up from Babylon, a scribe expert in the Teaching of Moses.”

The Ezra Source is written in the first and third person with the priest/scribe at center stage. In contrast, Nehemiah’s Memoir is all in the first person; it presents the personal views of Nehemiah and was probably deposited by him in the Temple when he completed his term of office as governor, a votive offering in the form of an account of his good deeds, emphasized by his recurrent plea “O my God, remember it to my credit” (Nehemiah 13:31). The three sources are easily distinguishable by their different points of view, as well as by particular stylistic and linguistic factors.

While there is general agreement as to the sources, there is wide disagreement as to who came first and whether Ezra and Nehemiah worked together in Jerusalem. Some—following the traditional order of the biblical text—say Ezra came first. Others say Nehemiah came first. Most scholars maintain that they worked together while others hold that they never met at all. Problems beset each of the contentions. Even those who champion one view or another admit that their solution is no more than a working hypothesis. And each theory is opposed by a majority of the scholars who have studied the problem.That there is a problem might seem surprising at first because we are told quite specifically that Ezra arrived in Jerusalem “in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king [previously identified as Artaxerxes]” (Ezra 7:7). Assuming, as most scholars do, that this is a reference to Artaxerxes I (464–424 B.C.E.), Ezra came to Jerusalem during the year 458/457 B.C.E. Nehemiah, on the other hand, came to Jerusalem as governor of the Persian satrapy of Yehud (Judea) in the 20th year of a king of the same name and served in this capacity for 12 years (Nehemiah 1:1, 2:1, 5:14, 13:6).

This seems to place Nehemiah’s arrival 13 years after Ezra (Nehemiah came in the 20th year and Ezra in the 7th year). But on several occasions the biblical text indicates that the two men were contemporaries in Jerusalem. For example, in Nehemiah 12:26, the text speaks of “the time of Nehemiah the governor, and of Ezra the priest, the scribe.” Both were present at the festive Torah reading (Nehemiah 8:9). Ezra was also at the celebration in Jerusalem when the city wall was rebuilt (Nehemiah 12:36).

A few words about the wall. Building a city wall is different from building the Temple. The Temple, as reconstructed by Zerubbabel, could not be used for defensive purposes. Allowing the rebuilding of the city wall reflects either a great deal of benevolence on the part of the king or great confidence in the loyalty of his Jewish subjects—or both. With permission to rebuild the wall (the king even provided the timber for the wall repair [Nehemiah 2:8]), Nehemiah took his famous nighttime tour of the city three days after he arrived in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:11–16). The wall lay in ruins, the gates destroyed by fire.

The actual rebuilding of various segments of the wall was assigned to different groups. For example, one section next to the Tower of Ovens was assigned to Shallum, who performed the work with his daughters (Nehemiah 3:12). Other segments and/or gates were assigned to other families, townspeople, priests, tradesmen, merchants and, for the more difficult terrain, drafted work gangs (Nehemiah 3:1–32).4

There is a problem here, however. While we are told that Ezra participated in the celebration of the wall’s completion (the last segment was completed in the remarkably short time of 52 days [Nehemiah 6:15]), he and his people are not mentioned in connection with the work of rebuilding. Why are Ezra and those who came with him not mentioned among the builders of the wall (Nehemiah 3)? Did Ezra stay in silence for 13 years until Nehemiah completed the work? Or did Ezra go back to Babylon a failure and return to Jerusalem a second time during Nehemiah’s office?

Even more puzzling, Nehemiah found Jerusalem depopulated and in ruins, while Ezra seems to have come to a relatively secure and bustling city (the latter is usually inferred from Ezra 9:9: “[God] has disposed the king of Persia favorably toward us, to furnish us with sustenance and to raise again the House of our God, repairing its ruins and giving us a hold in Judah and Jerusalem”). This would seem to place Nehemiah before Ezra.The dilemma of modern scholars lies in their accepting the seemingly accurate date formulas, which sometimes give day, month and year of a specific event in the careers of Ezra and Nehemiah and in their putting these dates into a sequence so as to overcome textual contradictions and historical inconsistencies. Various theories for solving these problems have been suggested over the years, but none of them seems to work very well.5 Therefore a new approach to the problem may be in order.

My proposed solution first occurred to me when I noticed that the months of the year seem to be designated differently in the Ezra Source and Nehemiah’s Memoir. In the Ezra Source they are designated by ordinal numbers (cf. the old Roman calendar: September = the seventh month, etc.). In Nehemiah’s Memoir they have Babylonian names. Thus, in the Ezra Source, Ezra leaves Babylon in the first month (Ezra 7:9, 8:31) and arrives in Jerusalem in the fifth month (Ezra 7:8–9). Later in the Ezra Source, Ezra does something of extreme importance: In the seventh month, he assembles all the people and, standing on a wooden platform with a group of named notables, he reads a “scroll in the sight of all the people” (Nehemiah 8:5). What he reads is variously called the Book (or scroll) of the Teaching (or law) of Moses (Sefer Torath Moshe; Nehemiah 8:1), or the Book of the Teaching (Sefer ha-Torah; Nehemiah 8:3), or simply the Teaching (ha-Torah; Nehemiah 8:2, 9, 13, 14), or the Book (Sefer; Nehemiah 8:5), and sometimes the Book of the Teaching of God (Sefer Torath ha-Elohim; Nehemiah 8:8). Ezra reads the book to both men and women, and the people are attentive. When he opens the book (or scroll), all the people stand. Ezra blesses the Lord and the people reply, “Amen, amen.” They lift up their hands and bow their heads and worship. Some of the leaders (the Levites) explain the Torah (Teaching) to the people so that they understand. The day is declared holy, and the people weep. In essence, Ezra creates the main feature of the later synagogue service, which is the Torah reading and its explanation. The source of this innovation is the public Torah reading (Haqhel) prescribed in Deuteronomy 31:10–13 to be carried out during the holiday of Tabernacles at the conclusion of the sabbatical year.

Two points are relevant for our purposes. First, both Ezra and Nehemiah were present at this ceremony, and Nehemiah, as well as Ezra, participated in it (Nehemiah 8:9). Second, as recounted in the Ezra Source, it occurred in the seventh month (Nehemiah 8:2)—that is, in the Ezra Source, once again, the months are designated by ordinal numbers.

In Nehemiah’s Memoir, by contrast, the months are called by name: Kislev (Nehemiah 1:1); Nisan (Nehemiah 2:1); and Elul (Nehemiah 6:15).

All earlier attempts to solve the puzzle of the chronological relationship between Ezra and Nehemiah have assumed that both the Ezra Source and Nehemiah’s Memoir used the same calendrical system. I believe, however, that the key to the solution is that they used different calendrical systems.

In the Torah and the Prophets (the first two major segments of the Hebrew Bible), the months are numbered and designated as ordinals—first, fifth, seventh, etc.—just as in the Ezra Source (see Exodus 12:2, 19:1; Ezekiel 1:1–2; Zechariah 8:19). In Nehemiah’s Memoir, however, the months are listed according to their civil, Babylonian names—Nisan, Elul and Kislev—which were adopted by the Jews in the Exile and already appear in other books of the Bible that were composed in Second Temple times (Zechariah 7:1; Esther 3:7).

This overlooked detail should not come as a surprise, for it reflects the different backgrounds of the two leaders. Ezra, the priest/scribe, is steeped in the literature of the Torah. On the other hand, Nehemiah, the governor of Judea, is first of all a civil servant whose source of authority derives from his status as a high official in the Persian Empire and a confidant of the king (he had even served as the king’s cupbearer [Nehemiah 1:11]). Quite naturally, he uses the month names commonly used in that milieu.

Another telltale sign: The historical introduction to the work (Ezra 1–6) contains Hebrew and Aramaic sections. In the Hebrew part, the redactor (disclosing his priestly background) uses the traditional names, “the seventh month” (Ezra 3:1) and “the second month” (Ezra 3:8); but in the official, Aramaic section, he records the Babylonian name, “Adar” (Ezra 6:15).

In short, the Ezra Source uses the religious calendar; Nehemiah’s Memoir uses the civil calendar.

What about the designation of the years? Nehemiah’s Memoir naturally counts the years according to the reign of his monarch, Artaxerxes I (e.g., Nehemiah 1:1, 2:1, 5:14, 13:6). On the other hand, we would expect the Ezra Source to follow the traditional Torah method of seven-year sabbatical cycles (Leviticus 25:1–7). Therefore, I suggest that “the seventh year” in which Ezra came to Jerusalem was a sabbatical year.

The obvious difficulty in this proposal is that the Ezra Source says that the Jews who came to Jerusalem with Ezra set out “in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes” (Ezra 7:7; italics added). And in the next verse we are told that they arrived “in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king [referring back to Artaxerxes]” (Ezra 7:8; italics added). This seems to contradict my contention that the seventh year referred to in this text is the seventh year of the sabbatical cycle. I believe the italicized words were added by the redactor or a later copyist, either in an attempt to anchor the short-term sabbatical cycle within a longer, royal time frame or in order to coordinate the date formula with that of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:1; 2:1). Once these editorial glosses are seen as later, explanatory additions, everything fits.

It may even be possible to fix which sabbatical year is referred to by the “seventh year” when Ezra returned to Jerusalem. The earliest documented sabbatical year is the fall 164 to the summer 163 B.C.E.6 If we calculate back from 164/163 B.C.E., we find that the year 444/443 B.C.E. was also a sabbatical year [see the sidebar to this article]. If we assume that this was the sabbatical year when Ezra returned, all the chronological difficulties are resolved.

The text then tells us that Ezra came to Jerusalem at the end of the seventh year on the first day of the fifth month (Ab), that is, August 443 B.C.E., just before the beginning of the last stage in the rebuilding of the city walls by Nehemiah. The latter had arrived almost two-and-a-half years earlier, in Nisan or Iyar 445 B.C.E. (Nehemiah 2), and had overcome innumerable difficulties in administering and securing his project, as well as challenges to his authority by local and foreign adversaries.

The construction of the wall did not proceed uninterrupted, but rather in stages of unknown length: “It was continuous all around to half its height…the breached parts had begun to be filled” (Nehemiah 3:38; 4:1); “I had rebuilt the wall and not a breach remained in it—though at that time I had not yet set up doors in the gateways” (Nehemiah 6:1).

Ezra and his people came in August 443, some two years after the rebuilding of the wall had begun. They were not needed for the actual construction, which is why they are not mentioned in connection with the rebuilding. The last stage of construction ended on the 25th of Elul (the sixth month) and lasted 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15). The celebration and dedication that accompanied completion of the wall probably took place, with no delay, at that time. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were present for the occasion (Nehemiah 12:36, 38).

Thus Nehemiah did precede Ezra, but not by much, and both men worked jointly in areas of common concern.

For further details, see Aaron Demsky, “Who Came First, Ezra or Nehemiah? The Synchronistic Approach,” Hebrew Union College Annual 65, 1994.

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