Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Ezra, Columbus, Milton & Mormons

I've been reading 4 Ezra.

To be honest, it wasn't easy to track down. In some bibles it's called 2 Esdras, but in most bibles it's missing altogether. Even Catholic bibles, which contain ripsnorting potboilers like the first two books of Maccabees and Tobit. But be warned, the 2 Esdras in the LXX isn't the 2 Esdras we're talking about... just the book of Nehemiah in drag.

Actually it's more complicated than that. 4 Ezra is the major part of 2 Esdras, which is a composite work. Chapters 1 & 2 – a Christian addition – were taped on later, as were the nightmare-like chapters 15 and 16. 4 Ezra is, properly speaking, the big chunk in the middle.

A comprehensive edition of the NRSV will however include 2 Esdras (the HarperCollins Study Bible, for instance) along with the much underrated Revised English Bible (with apocrypha.)

Is everybody clear so far? There will be a test at the end.

I went searching for 4 Ezra because it's a component in a paper I'm taking this semester on theodicy in the Hebrew Bible. Theodicy (sounds like theoddity, only different) is the difficult art of explaining God's goodness in a less than perfect world. Apart from theodicy it's also full of what many people call “prophecy.” In fact at times it seems to echo the Little Apocalypse of Matthew 24, at others Daniel. Trivia item: 4 Ezra is widely quoted in Mormon circles as evidence for their beliefs on the Ten Lost Tribes (the relevant passage is 13:39-47 – nobody tell Craig White or Dankenbring!) James White, husband of Seventh-day Adventism's Ellen G. White, also mined it for prophetic proof texts, but that's a digression.

But let's set aside the apocalyptic stuff and return to the oddity of theodicy. Here's Ezra. Not the real Ezra of course, but a literary Ezra cut from whole cloth, who after pouring out a troubled prayer is provided with the personal ministrations of an angel called Uriel to clear things up. Ezra is a sensitive, compassionate guy, deeply disturbed by the suffering of his nation and the apparent harshness of God in consigning the vast bulk of humankind to a terrible fate after death. The angel Uriel is, in contrast, a priggish unbending toad – and you get the impression that he's also as thick as a plank – who is quite content to see the vast majority of humanity consigned to the eternal concentration camps of the damned.

Uriel basically says, don't worry your silly little head about this Ezra, one of the joys of the saved is to look across on to the torment of the wicked. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the screams.

Slight license there, but it's not too far off. Quote: “Their second joy is to see the souls of the wicked wandering ceaselessly, and the punishment in store for them.” (7:93)

Here's the thing: Ezra doesn't give any ground at all. He politely agrees with the snooty know-all Uriel, then comes back again (and again) for another crack at challenging Uriel's Hitlerian idea of justice.

Think of Abraham bargaining with Yahweh over the fate of Sodom, or Job protesting his fate as Satan's (and Yahweh's) plaything. Like these canonical kin, 2 Esdras can be considered subversive literature.

If you feel like a little bit of a change from the usual biblical fare, you could do worse than dip into 4 Ezra, which is interesting on the level of literature, even if you're skeptical about the scripture part. Sure, it didn't make it into either the Hebrew or Septuagint canons, and it is believed to date from the same time period as Revelation, but among those who drew particular inspiration from it were such luminaries as Christopher Columbus (who quoted 6:42 to Ferdinand and Isabella in campaigning for financial support for his New World expeditions) and Paradise Lost's John Milton. You can read it (in the RSV) here.


redfox712 said...

ahh...2 Esdras. I remember reading that book. It was in this Catholic version of the Good News Bible that happened to include the Apocrypha, and included 2 Esdras under some additional books.

My favorite part was the vision about the eagle. Very dramatic. That Empire of the Eagle would make a great storyline for a book...or something.

Anonymous said...

"[21] For as the land is assigned to the forest and the sea to its waves, so also those who dwell upon earth can understand only what is on the earth, and he who is above the heavens can understand what is above the height of the heavens."

I like this "chunk in the middle", 4 Ezra. I like it a lot.

Thumbs up on combining Otagosh and AW!

Anonymous said...

38. Then I answered and said, "But, O sovereign Lord, all of us also are full of ungodliness.

39. It is perhaps on account of us that the time of threshing is delayed for the righteous-- on account of the sins of those who inhabit the earth."

40. He answered me and said, "Go and ask a pregnant woman whether, when her nine months have been completed, her womb can keep the fetus within her any longer."

41. And I said, "No, lord, it cannot." He said to me, "In Hades the chambers of the souls are like the womb.

42. For just as a woman who is in labor makes haste to escape the pangs of birth, so also do these places hasten to give back those things that were committed to them from the beginning.

Very strong echoes of On the Exegesis of the Soul. (Or is it just me?)

What time-period is this text placed in roughly, Gavin? It reads in some places like Hellenized Judaica, and others like straight-up Valentinism.

FWIW, I get my NRSV courtesy The Unbound Bible. And the NRSV is the only translation I find that I have the highest tolerance levels for, when it comes to the canonicals and sort-of-canonicals.

Gavin said...

Circa 100 CE for ch. 3-14, much later (maybe 300 CE) for 15-16, and the first 2 sometime after 100 CE. At least that's what the textbooks say.

GL said...

Armstrongite scatologists all love to claim that HWA did not copy anything from Mormonism, yet, the Pasadena college library was filled with Mormon books. The college subscribed to Ensign, New Era and other periodicals. They had an extensive collection of LP's of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It had various books by LDS authors, including some on British Israelism.

Anonymous said...

"Circa 100 CE for ch. 3-14,"

So maybe parts of Exegesis of the Soul was cribbed from Ezra 4? (I don't much like the EG's translation, but it's the most complete one I can find online; I much prefer Barnstone and Meyer's.)