Ezra is a Jewish priest and a book in the Old Testament describing his work and times. In Roman Catholic translations the name is spelled Esdras, and the book is called I Esdras. Ezra is described in the book as a leader of one of the groups of Jews who returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylonia in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.
In Jerusalem, Ezra helped the Jews rebuild their national culture by leading religious reforms that supplemented the economic and political reforms of the Jewish governor, Nehemiah. The Book of Nehemiah describes Ezra's urging the people to a fuller obedience to the law of Moses.
Ezra's teaching revitalized Judaism and encouraged the later development of rabbis, or Jewish scholars, and the Sanhedrin, or Jewish high court. Some scholars think that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which form one book in the Jewish Bible, were written by a single author, who may have been Ezra.
Originally this material, written partly in Aramaic and partly in Hebrew, may have been part of a larger history of Israel encompassing the creation of mankind and extending through the glories of the Davidic period to the Exile (587 B.C.), as detailed in I and II Chronicles, and the return from Exile (538 B.C.) and the Restoration of the Temple, as detailed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Common authorship of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah is suggested by similarities in language and emphasis. Thus the author of the Book of Ezra is thought to be the Chronicler.
Originally, Ezra and Nehemiah were a single unit and were made canonical before Chronicles, since Ezra-Nehemiah did not duplicate existing materials as Chronicles did for the already canonical books of Samuel and Kings. Because of this, the Hebrew canon, which in general preserves the order in which the works became authoritative, placed Ezra-Nehemiah anachronistically before Chronicles. In the 15th century A.D., the Hebrew canon adopted the Greek practice of separating Ezra and Nehemiah into individual books, although the two are traditionally regarded as a unit.
Internal evidence suggests that the author, perhaps the Chronicler, compiled the book considerably later than the date of the actual events. This is attested to by the fact that the author has not arranged the sections chronologically, but rather in an aesthetic or didactic treatment: he deals first with frustration and then with success. The reign of Darius of Persia, described in chapters 5 and 6 of the book, historically preceded the reign of Artaxerxes, detailed in chapter 4. This is sometimes considered evidence that the Chronicler should be dated no earlier than the 4th century B.C.
It is thought that a major purpose of the author of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah is to show that the Davidic dynasty, centered on the Temple and continued in post-Exilic Judah, is the true Israel, and that the Northern Kingdom of Israel, at this time Samaria, could not claim that distinction.
Ezra's marriage reform, decreeing that all foreign-born spouses should be divorced, was directed against the Samaritans of the North, who had opposed rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. This marriage reform was without full canonical authority, since the Pentateuch forbade marriage only with certain groups. The Samaritans insisted that the Pentateuch alone was canonical, and when the marriage reform was enacted, the break between the South and North may have become final.