Religious Innovation and Sacred Scriptures in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch

How did ancient Judaism resolve the conflict between the notion of divinely authored scriptures that are fixed in writing, on the one hand, and the inevitable need to adapt to new circumstances of the community, on the other? A good case study of religious revision in ancient Israel is afforded by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch were written as the Jewish response to a national and religious crisis. Using pseudonyms of Israel’s past heroes from the destruction of the First Temple, both authors promulgated an eschatological vision as the solution, yet called for a return to the Mosaic Torah. In both apocalypses, religious innovation is carried out covertly rather than explicitly. The “new” is presented as a discovery of and return to the “old.. There are, however, also differences: whereas in 2 Baruch innovation is through eschatological exegesis of the Deuteronomic tradition, in 4 Ezra it has to be through an expansion of divinely revealed scriptures.

See also: When Judaism Lost the Temple: Crisis and Response in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Studia Antiqua Australiensia 10 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020).

By Lydia Gore-Jones
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Sydney College of Divinity, Australia
November 2020

Bernard Levinson once commented that the idea of a scriptural canon was an ingenious achievement of religions, such as Judaism (2008, 12). It provided the religion with stability and self-sufficiency, by having its foundation sourced to divine words now fixed in a corpus of sacred writing. However, the idea of unchangeable scriptures would also create a dilemma when a faith community was challenged with changed conditions and new circumstances (2008, 14). How, then, was innovation and adaptation achieved without adding to or subtracting from God’s revelation that had already been fixed in the sacred writings attributed to divine authority?

The crisis of 70 CE affords a good case study of religious revision in ancient Israel. On the ninth day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, which was in late July, and after months of siege, the Roman army finally penetrated the northern wall protecting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Jewish rebels held up their last resistance. The Jewish Temple was torched to the ground, city-wide massacre and looting ensued, and the first Jewish rebellion against Roman imperial power, which began three and a half years earlier, came to a catastrophic end. Both Josephus (Jewish War 6.250) and the rabbis (m. Ta‘an 4:6) hold that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same date the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE (Ben Shahar 2015). 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch stood in common ground with Josephus and the rabbis in that both authors see the event of 70 CE through the lens of the destruction of the First Temple; this is reflected in their choice of the fictional setting.

4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, sometimes called “sister texts” for their shared congruencies (Henze 2011, 247), were composed around the end of the first century in Palestine by Jewish authors in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Both works were written in the apocalyptic genre with a narrative setting placed after the destruction of the First Temple. Both used a biblical figure associated with that setting: the scribe Ezra in Ezra-Nehemiah in the case of 4 Ezra (Stone 1990, 37-8), and Baruch son of Neriah, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 32, 36, 43, and 45) in the case of 2 Baruch. It is also believed that both texts were originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek, and subsequently into other languages (Stone and Henze 2013, 4-6; 16-7). While 4 Ezra has been preserved in Latin as chapters 3–14 of 2 Esdras of the Apocrypha (Knibb 1982; Longenecker 1995) and is attested in numerous versions in other languages, 2 Baruch remained in obscurity over centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1860s in a single Syriac manuscript in Milan. While the complete version is only extant in Syriac, a single fragment of it is also preserved in the Greek Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 403; an incomplete version also exists in Arabic (Henze 2011; Gurtner 2009).

Why were 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch written, and what is their message? Fundamentally speaking, they were books written to deal with a crisis in the understanding of Israel’s covenant identity now under threat because of the destruction of Zion (Gore-Jones 2020). The intentional connection with the destruction of the First Temple which is reflected in their pseudepigraphic setting and choice of protagonistalso demonstrates that both authors had to re-evaluate the previous biblical traditions which provided cause and solution associated with the destruction of the First Temple. These traditions had been enshrined as holy revelation fixed in writing, especially the Mosaic Torah tradition, and the Deuteronomic view in particular, which held “sin and punishment” as the cause and propagated “repentance and renewal” as the solution to the crisisBut the Deuteronomic scheme must now undergo a major revision,; or in Najman’s words, the exilic past must be “reimagined” in order that the covenantal life might receive a “reboot” (2014). Both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch offer an explanation and a solution that is an eschatological innovation, yet this innovation is carried out covertly rather than explicitly. Revisions and adaptations are presented as discoveries of ancient traditions: the “new” is a return to the “old”; meanwhile, scriptural tradition is reinterpreted through an eschatological lens.

4 Ezra

The Ezra in 4 Ezra is no doubt meant to be the biblical Ezra, “the Scribe of the knowledge of the Most High” (4 Ezra 14:49), the second Lawgiver,; but the differences are also quite distinctive. The biblical Ezra is “too ashamed and embarrassed” to lift his face to God because of the “evil deeds” and “great guilt” of his people, and calls God, who has punished Israel “less than our iniquities deserved,”just” (Ezra 9:6-15; also Neh 9). The Ezra in 4 Ezra, however, who is also called Salatiel (which literally means “I have questioned God”), is portrayed as a Job-like figure who demands to know from the Most High himself the reason for the desolation of Zion. Of course, he does not at all challenge the Deuteronomic notion that the catastrophe is punishment for Israel’s transgressions. Still, he questions the Most High: why has the Creator not taken away human’s “evil heart” from the time Adam was created, thereby hindering the human ability to keep God’s commandments (4 Ezra 3:20-22)? Having sinned, Israel deserves chastisement,, but “are the deeds of Babylon better than those of Zion? Or has another nation known thee besides Israel? Or what tribe has so believed thy covenant as Jacob?” (3:31–2).

The traditional Deuteronomic answer suddenly appears to be inadequate to deal with Ezra’s crisis; thus, the angel Uriel is sent to enlighten him. Uriel uses quizzes and parables to show Ezra that the human mind cannot comprehend divine things. But when Ezra insists on seeking to know why Israel has been given over to the godless Gentiles and why the Torah and covenant made of no effect (4:23-5), Uriel’s answer is (surprisingly): “… because the world is hastening swiftly to its end” (4:26). Ezra is mistaken, Uriel says, because he is troubled by “what is now present” but has not considered “what is to come” (7:16).

It turns out that Uriel is sent precisely to teach Ezra what is to happen at the end time according to the wisdom of the Most High. Hence, it is the author’s intention to propose an eschatological response to the covenant crisis. The eschatological solution to the problem of theodicy may be summed up by the words of Uriel that “the Most High has made not one world but two” (7:50). While this world is full of sorrow and death, in the World to Come 


corruption has passed away, sinful indulgence has come to an end, unbelief has been cut off, and righteousness has increased, and truth has appeared (7:113–4).

[P]aradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the world to come is prepared, delight is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established, and wisdom perfected beforehand. The root [of evil] is sealed up from you, illness is banished from you, and death is hidden; hell has fled, and corruption has been forgotten; sorrows have passed away, and in the end, the treasure of immortality is made manifest (8:52–4).


Therefore, it is only the World to Come marked by transcendence and immortality and not this world that is the one promised by God to his inheritance, the people of Israel. Future hope lies in the knowledge of the “last things.”

To enter the World to Come, however, one must pass through this world:, “narrow,” “sorrowful,” “toilsome,” “full of dangers,” and “great hardships” (7:12). Because of the severity of the trials, “the Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of few” (8:1). The World to Come is foreordained, always in existence, but belongs to a different realm. Its reality is simply veiled from human senses and knowledge, and can only be understood by divine revelation. It is imminent since this present world is hastening swiftly to its end (4:26), yet one must wait patiently for the consummation of time and the fulfilment of the number of human souls passing this world. Here, Uriel tells the parable of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau:


For Jacob’s hand held Esau’s heel from the beginning. For Esau is the end of this age, and Jacob is the beginning of the age that follows. For the end of a man is his heel, and the beginning of a man is his hand; between the heel and the hand seek for nothing else, Ezra! (6:8–10).


Although the World to Come (symbolizsed by Jacob) is yet invisible, it was created from the very beginning (at the same time this world, symbolizsed by Esau, was made); its coming is imminent, and it will surpass the present world to become Israel’s inheritance.

Having been enlightened by Uriel about the knowledge of the World to Come, Ezra then receives three dream visions. First, he sees a woman lamenting the death of her only son just as Ezra is troubled by the loss of Zion. However, as he tries to console the woman, he witnesses her transfigure into the heavenly city of Jerusalem. This vision also marks Ezra’s own transition from despair to hope, from dejection to optimism. Subsequently, Ezra is granted two more apocalyptic visions. In one vision, he sees a lion, a messianic figure, coming from the forest and rebuking an eagle from the sea. Uriel interprets for Ezra that the eagle is the last of the four kingdoms previously in the vision of Daniel, whose identity is now revealed to be Rome. In the other vision, Ezra sees a “son of man” figure from the sea defeating hostile nations and gathering around him the remnant of people from the exile.

Eschatological expectations, of course, were a common feature of Second Temple Judaism; however, the knowledge of the World to Come is not clearly described in the scriptures. What does the author of 4 Ezra do to give his solution validity and authority, and not as overt innovation? First, he does so through biblical exegesis. The vision of the Lion and the Eagle and the vision of the Man from the Sea, for example, are not at all random, bizarre imageries, but a reinterpretation of the Four Kingdoms and the Son of Man materials in the Book of Daniel (Hayman 1998; Hogan 2008). Even the choice of the biblical Ezra from the exilic past is an act of reinterpretation of the biblical tradition associated with him.

However, mere biblical exegesis is not enough for the author of 4 Ezra; the knowledge about the End and the World to Come must also become part of the Mosaic Sinai tradition as well as part of the Holy Scriptures. He does this by presenting Ezra as a type of Moses, on the one hand, and by making the secret revelation Ezra has received part of rewritten scriptures, on the other. In the Epilogue (ch 14), the Most High summons Ezra from behind a bush by a double calling, “Ezra, Ezra,” just the way God called Moses at Sinai. The Most High then recalls how for forty days he revealed to Moses the Torah and the same secret he now has revealed to Ezra. Now at Ezra’s request, the Most High grants him the Holy Spirit in the form of a fiery cup to drink. Ezra’s heart “poured forth understanding and wisdom increased” in his breast, and his spirit “retained its memory” (14:40). It is by divine inspiration that Ezra dictates ninety-four books to five chosen scribes, who are also inspired. What is significant is that the ninety-four books from the mouth of Ezra include not only the twenty-four to be published for both “the worthy” and the “unworthy”commonly recognized as referring to the number of books in the Hebrew Scripture  – but also seventy others that are for the eyes of the wise only (14:45–6). The author makes God declare that in the seventy books “are the springs of understanding, the fountains of wisdom, and the river of knowledge” (14:47). Seventy, of course, is a symbolic number to represent the totality of divine revelation. Thus, Ezra becomes the second Moses, and the revelation he receives is not a new change to the Mosaic tradition but a recovery of the old Sinai tradition, having now also attained authoritative status to become inspired scriptures.

2 Baruch

There are good reasons why 2 Baruch has been read mostly in light of 4 Ezra. Apart from the resemblance in genre and narrative setting, like 4 Ezra, it also offers a double-pronged solution: eschatology and Torah. However, there are also subtle, yet significant, differences in the response offered by 2 Baruch.

Firstly, 2 Baruch presents much clearer explanations for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple than 4 Ezra. The apocalypse begins with a narrative of Baruch’s encounter in Jerusalem with “the word of the Lord,” announcing to him God’s intention of “bringing evil upon this city and upon its inhabitants” because “the evils which these two tribes that remained have done are more than [those of] the ten tribes that were led away captive” (2 Bar 1:1-5). Like Moses, Baruch intercedes for his people but to no avail. On the next day, the grieving Baruch is raised up by a strong spirit and carried over the wall of Jerusalem, where he sees angels of the Most High descend into the holy of holies, remove the holy things and committ them to the earth, and then demolish the walls to let in the Chaldean army (6-8).

This destruction narrative, which is not found in 4 Ezra, projects a clear Deuteronomic view that the grave sins of the people are the reason for the calamity. However, in no way does Zion’s demise compromise the divine name and glory, for it is by God’s own will and by the hand of his heavenly hosts that the city and temple are delivered to the enemy. Further, God’s people are chastised only “for a time” (this expression is repeated multiple times in the destruction narrative, chs 1-8); they are scattered among the nations “so that it will do good to the nations” (1:4). As for the city and the building Baruch saw destroyed, it is “not the one revealed” with God; the true Zion “inscribed” on the palms of God’s hands (Isa 49:14-16) is “preserved” with God, “as is also Paradise” (4:2-7). Now Jerusalem is handed over “because the time has come,” but this is only “for a time” until “it will again be established forever” (6:9). These explanations, given to soften the impact of the destruction, both espouse the traditional Deuteronomic view and promulgate an eschatological hope.

Although 2 Baruch’s eschatological programme is not dissimilar to that of 4 Ezra, it shows distinctive differences by accentuating the single crucial factor of having the Mosaic Torah in Israel’s post-destruction covenantal identity. Whereas Ezra (in 4 Ezra) laments that the Torah was burned in the destruction “so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done” (14:21; cf. Lam 2:9 “Torah is no more”), 2 Baruch proclaims affirmatively, “See, your Torah is with us” (48:22-24). Unlike 4 Ezra, it denies any esoteric revelation which is only accessible to the wise; instead, “the Most High … has not hidden from us what will befall in the end” (85:8). Unlike Ezra, who must rewrite the Torah to include all the esoteric knowledge, Baruch is portrayed as a Second Moses, not in the sense of the Lawgiver, but as the Great Teacher of the Torah. Each time after receiving divine revelation in a dialogue with God, like Moses taught the Israelites, Baruch teaches the truth to the people publicly –, first to the elders (chs 31-34),, then to a larger circle including his own son and friends (chs 44-47), then to all the people of the land “from the greatest to the least” (77:1-17), and finally in two letters to all Judah exiled to Babylon and the nine and a half lost tribes (77:18-86:3).

It can be said that 2 Baruch shows a more conservative outlook than 4 Ezra when it comes to the Deuteronomic tradition. The destruction no doubt has severed many ties with the old establishment. As Baruch says in his epistle to the diaspora,


[i]n former times and in generations of old our fathers had righteous helpers and prophets and holy men. But we were in our land, and they helped us when we sinned, and they interceded on our behalf with him who made us, because they trusted in their works. And the Mighty One heard them and forgave us. But now the righteous have been gathered, and the prophets have fallen asleep. We, too, have left our land, and Zion has been taken from us … (85:1-3).


But the only connection that remains must be upheld with utmost certainty. What Baruch says next is most poignant: “We have nothing now except for the Mighty One and his Torah(85:3). Divine revelation will be found in the Torah, mediated through teachers and interpreters of scriptures like Baruch himself and his successors. Whereas 4 Ezra foresees future leaders to be “the wise” who alone have access to secret knowledge, for 2 Baruch, the sages are the “sons of Torah” who “come from the Torah. The light of Torah “abides” even though people pass on, so Israel will never lack lamps and shepherds to help distinguish between light and darkness, life and death (46:2-5; 77:14-15).

2 Baruch also answers positively to the question about the human ability to keep God’s commandments. Whereas 4 Ezra laments how Adam’s sin has become permanent and the “evil heart” has overpowered humanity in keeping the divine law (4 Ezra 3:21-2, 26; 4:30; 7:48, 68; 7:118-9), 2 Baruch proclaims with clarity that “Adam is … not the cause, except only for himself, but each of us has become our own Adam” (54:19); each one “has prepared for himself the torment to come” or “chosen for himself the praises to come” (54:15), “because we are still in the spirit and the power of our free will” (85:7).

Nevertheless, 2 Baruch is also covertly innovative in order to make its eschatological worldview compatible with the traditional Deuteronomic scheme. To start with, the Deuteronomic promise of long life and prosperity on the land must be modified so that the Deuteronomic horizon may be expanded into the Age to Come. Firstly, the value of longevity is reinterpreted in light of the benefits it brings upon humanity. Baruch contrasts Adam and Moses, asking,


[w]hat benefits did Adam have that he lived 930 years and transgressed what he was commanded? The long time he lived, therefore, did not benefit him. Rather it brought death and cut off the years of those who were born of him. Or what did it harm Moses that he lived only 120 years? And because he subjected himself to him who created him, he brought the Torah to the seed of Jacob and lit a lamp for the nation of Israel (17:1–4).


Secondly, life is reinterpreted to be eternal life since those who have died in the Torah will be raised to inherit immortality in the Age to Come. Baruch argues that, as a matter of fact, if there is no consummation of all that is earthly, life in this world alone is not reward at all,, but bitterness and misery (21:13-17). The real reward for Torah obedience is life in the Age to Come, when “we will receive everything we have lost, many times over, for what we have lost was subject to corruption, and what we will receive is not corruptible (85:4-5).

The grand finale of Baruch’s vision of the twelve waters (chs 53-74) best illustrates the author’s eschatological innovation upon the traditional Deuteronomic scheme. Baruch sees a cloud coming from the great sea with lightning at its top, covering the whole earth and raining black and white waters alternately for twelve times. The last black waters are darker than all those previous ones and wrought more desolation and destruction. But after the last black waters, the lightning at the top of the cloud illuminates the whole earth, covers it, and rules over it. Twelve rivers ascend to the lightning and subject themselves to it.

Through the interpretation of the angel Remiel, it is revealed that the vision represents a review of the entire biblical history presented in the typical Deuteronomic outlook. Cycles of evil periods symbolizsed by dark waters alternate with good periods symbolizsed by bright waters; the sole criterion used is whether the Mosaic Torah is judged to be upheld. The dark periods are represented by Adam and the following generations, Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, the Amorites and the days of the Judges, Jeroboam, Manasseh, and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. On the other hand, the good periods are the Abrahamic patriarchs, Moses, David and Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah and the return from exile, and the construction of the Second Temple. This is entirely the same view as that of the Deuteronomic historians. Yet the genius of 2 Baruch lies in placing his immediate audience in the period of the last dark waters, at the stage of repentance, anticipating divine mercy and deliverance according to the Deuteronomic scheme. What comes next, however, is the consummation of all human history with the coming of the Messiah, symbolizsed by the lightning, and the Age to Come. There will no longer be another cycle of sin and punishment, only the eternal rewards for Torah obedience after repentance; in other words, 2 Baruch has offered an eschatological solution to the dilemma of the vicious cycle of sin in the traditional Deuteronomic scheme.


When challenged with a covenant crisis brought about by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch proposed an eschatological solution in addition to Torah adherence. Thus, they offer excellent examples that demonstrate how religious innovation was carried out without presenting itself as departing from traditions that had been established in scriptures attributed to divine origin. In 2 Baruch, old traditions are interpreted anew, whereas 4 Ezra proposes an expansion of what is defined as divinely inspired scriptures.



Ben Shahar, Meir. 2015. “When Was the Second Temple Destroyed? Chronology and Ideology in Josephus and in Rabbinic Literature.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 46 (2015): 547–73.

Henze, Matthias. 2011. Jewish Apocalypticism in Late First Century Israel: Reading Second Baruch in Context. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

Gore-Jones, Lydia. 2020. When Judaism Lost the Temple: Crisis and Response in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020).

Gurtner, Daniel. 2009. Second Baruch: A Critical Edition of the Syriac Text. With Greek and Latin Fragments, English Translation, Introduction, and Concordances. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009).

Hayman, A. Peter. 1998. “The ‘Man from the Sea’ in 4 Ezra 13.” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998): 1–16.

Hogan, Katrina Martin. 2008. Theologies in Conflict in 4 Ezra: Wisdom Debate and Apocalyptic Solution. (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

Knibb, Michael. 1979. Commentary on 2 Esdras.” The First and Second Books of Esdras. R. J. Coggins and M. A. Knibb. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Levinson, Bernard M. 2008. Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Longenecker, Bruce W. 1995. 2 Esdras. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995).

Najman, Hindy. 2014. Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future: An Analysis of 4 Ezra. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Stone, Michael E. 1990. Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of the Fourth Ezra. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).

———, and Mattias Henze. 2013. 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch: Translations, Introductions, and Notes. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).





Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.