Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lester L. Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah (pdf)

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have not been the most popular of the books in the Hebrew Bible. Yet they have had great influence on how the Jewish religion is assumed to have developed. They describe the reconstruction of the Jewish temple and state after their destruction by the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE and set the theme for the concerns and even the basis of Early Judaism which is usually seen as the Torah. The figure of Ezra has been profoundly associated with the origin or promulgation or interpretation of that Torah. The consequence is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are in many ways the foundation of much scholarship, not only about the development of the Jewish religion but even of how the Old Testament (OT) literature emerged.

The aim of this book is to make a contribution to a better understanding of these two books which, in my opinion, are crucial writings in the Hebrew Bible. My study has implications for the history of Israel and Judah, the religion of Israelites and Judeans, the literary development of the OT, and OT theology. This is inevitable because of the importance of Ezra and Nehemiah for all these areas. All the various implications are not drawn here because of my focus purely on Ezra and Nehemiah. Some of the consequences were drawn in chapter 2 of my Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (1992a) and will be dealt with in more detail in my forthcoming Yehud: The Persian Province of Judah (in preparation).

As a part of the series ‘Readings’ the heart of this study is a close reading of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Part I focuses purely on the literary aspects of the two books; it is primarily a close reading of the Hebrew books of Ezra and Nehemiah plus 1 Esdras and other Ezra and Nehemiah traditions. The aim is to read the texts as they exist in their final form. This does not reject the concept of authorial intent—indeed, authorial intent will be frequently discussed in Part II—but the emphasis in  Part I is asking what the text actually says and what its structure implies. Questions of literary growth and source criticism come only as secondary questions: they are not the concern of chapters 2 to 4; however, occasional references may be given in anticipation of the later discussion, for questions of literary growth and sources and, especially, the historical questions will eventually be addressed. Chapter 5 asks about the relationship between the various traditions and goes on to discuss not only how the Hebrew books of Ezra and Nehemiah are put together but also what their structure and content imply about the growth of the traditions. It is necessary for these matters of sources and literary growth to be dealt with before historical questions can be asked in Part II. Therefore, the analysis in chapters 2 to 4 goes beyond a conventional literary analysis; it also looks at the implications of content as well as structure to consider what these imply about the development and redaction of the traditions.

In my view, it is a mistake to assume that a close reading or a structural analysis will clarify all aspects of the text. In some cases they will but often, especially with traditional literature, they show the imperfections and the disjunctures in the text as well as the literary skill of the compiler/author/redactor. Part of a holistic reading is not just to see how the text is structured and the parts fit the whole but also to recognize that sometimes a purely literary reading of the final form of the text does not do justice to what lies before us. A full analysis of the text may require one to ask how it came about—about its history, evolution, redaction, compilation. The emphasis in some of the literary approaches has been on how the work is structured and how the various elements within the narrative contribute to the message of the book; that is, they emphasize unity and integrity of the narrative. Such analyses have often been very helpful in appreciating the literature, have brought previously unrecognized meanings to the surface, and have corrected an earlier over-emphasis on tradition-historical criticism. However, a close reading does not always show literary skill; on the contrary, it may well disclose textual disharmony, bad writing, and clumsy editing. It may raise questions about the use of earlier traditions (which is, of course, a form of intertextuality), and it may well call into question the matter of authorial competence. Such points are noted in chapters 2 and 3 wherever they arise. Discussion of sources is also essential to chapter 4 because the other Ezra and Nehemiah traditions cannot be discussed without reference to the Hebrew books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The analysis in Part I was done as independently as possible. Although the standard commentaries were consulted at various points when the need was felt, the aim was to try to put previous interpretations out of mind—as far as that was possible to do— and to approach the texts afresh, trying to eliminate preconceived ideas. Most of the secondary literature was read or reviewed only after the texts had been analysed. This is why few references to secondary literature are found in Part I, especially in chapters 2–4.

The various Ezra and Nehemiah traditions occur in a variety of text types and languages, each of which can be analysed in its own right. However, the core of the study is the Hebrew texts of Ezra and Nehemiah (using the text in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia). We know these mainly from the Masoretic tradition (MT) which is the basis of the analysis. The Greek versions of Ezra and Nehemiah (often called Esdras β or Esdras B or occasionally even 2 Esdras—but not to be confused with 4 Ezra which is also often called 2 Esdras) are fairly literal translations of a Hebrew text which was very close to our present Masoretic text. Therefore, these Greek translations were not investigated further (except as they might be used for purposes of textual criticism). 1 Esdras was different, however. Although for much of its length it is parallel to sections of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, it represents a different textual tradition. The contents are in a different order from anything in the Hebrew Bible and, as far as one can tell from a translation, often represent a slightly divergent Hebrew original. The Göttingen edition (Hanhart 1974) was used for this text.

Part II relies heavily on the close reading of Part I, but it asks about history: What is the relationship between the Hebrew Ezra and Nehemiah and the other Ezra and Nehemiah traditions and the historical events of the time? Granted that the Hebrew books are a part of our historical sources, how trustworthy are they and can we ultimately accept them as historical or, to put it another way, to what extent are they historical? What quality of sources are they? To answer these questions we need to look at other sources and also to bring in our knowledge of history in the Persian period generally.

These sources for Persian history and especially for the Persian province of Yehud are surveyed in my Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (1992a: ch. 2). Although some of the points made in the earlier work are also included here, this is because they still seem to be valid in the light of subsequent study. I have attempted to rethink the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and also to go beyond what was included in my study of 1992. My thinking on the two books continues to develop, and a number of further studies relating to this investigation here have been done since then as well.

You can read and download full text of this book here: 
Lester L. Grabbe "Ezra-Nehemiah" (pdf)

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