Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition.

Author:Watts, James W.
Position:Book review

Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition. By LISBETH S. FRIED. Columbia, S.C.: UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS, 2014. Pp. xii + 258, illus. $59.95.

This book is published in South Carolina's series, "Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament," which portrays the histories of biblical figures' reception in religious tradition as well as their depiction in biblical texts. Fried approaches this task systematically by writing a chapter on each stage of Ezra's portrayal, from reconstructing the historical Ezra and contrasting him with the biblical Ezra (chapters 2-3) to summarizing and contesting modern critics' assessments of Ezra and of the Torah (chapter 9). The chapters in between chart this character's development and transformation in Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and Muslim traditions. The result is a fascinating case study of religious imagination in the service of apologetics and polemics.

Fried has published extensively on the history of the Persian period, and her reconstruction of the historical Ezra (chapter 2) recaps her previous work. She thinks there is an authentic source behind the letter of the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes, authorizing Ezra's mission (Ezra 7:12-16). Fried draws many conclusions about Ezra from this letter. The most interesting is that Ezra's commission to appoint judges refers only to ethnic Persians, so his commission involves the imperial administration, not the internal affairs of Judea and Judean law. Fried does think that Ezra may have impacted the Jerusalem community through the tax exemption for the temple and cultic personnel (7:24). This exemption would have meant release from corvee labor of the kind that Nehemiah imposed to build Jerusalem's walls (Neh. 3). She also thinks that the complaint about mixed marriages in Ezra 9:1a may derive from an authentic Ezra memoir. Fried draws on well-documented Athenian marriage laws of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE as well as the scanty evidence from the Persian Empire to argue that mixed marriages were severely discouraged in both empires because of fear of foreign alliances through marriage (pp. 22-27). She therefore concludes that the story of mass divorce is historically plausible.

Otherwise, the depiction of Ezra in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah was entirely fabricated by the biblical writers working in the early Hellenistic period at the end of the fourth century BCE. After untangling the chronology to place Ezra after the time of Nehemiah...

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