BMCR 1998.11.03

Sixth Ezra: The Text and its Origin


The short prophetic discourse known as Sixth Ezra occupies the last section of “2 Esdras” in the biblical Apocrypha. The core of 2 Esdras is the Jewish apocalypse Fourth Ezra, and its preface is another prophetic discourse, Fifth Ezra. The contents of Sixth Ezra range between moral exhortation and prophecies of war, social discord, and persecution. Its historical importance lies in the glimpse it offers of a type of early Christian community in Asia Minor, and it is useful to introduce Bergren’s definitive monograph in that context.

The religious diversity of early Roman Asia Minor has long posed a problem to historians (church and social), for each type of evidence at our disposal seems to reveal an entirely different religious sub-culture: Jewish inscriptions, Christian inscriptions, writings of Paul, writings of Paul’s successors, and a host of extra-canonical Christian texts that bear clear regional imprints. One tries to organize these materials into a patchwork of types of religious communities — established and assimilated Jews, devout and sectarian Jews, urbane and successful Christians, millennialist Jewish-Christians, utopian “new prophets” of Montanism, and countless others. Yet the precise contours of these communities and the differences among them — and even the fault-lines between “traditional” Jews and believers in Jesus — seem altogether lost. As magisterial a religious overview of the period as Stephen Mitchell’s Anatolia: Land, Men, and Gods in Asia Minor, vol. 2 (Oxford 1993) fails precisely in not sufficiently gauging the diversity of Christianity’s origins in the region. (A far better survey can be found in Sherman Johnson’s “Asia Minor and Early Christianity,” Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults [Leiden 1975], vol. 2, 77-145).

In situating a text like Sixth Ezra, one ought perhaps to turn to the Book of Revelation, not Paul’s letters, as the cornerstone of the religion of Jesus Christ as it influenced Asia Minor’s Jews in the mid-first century and exploded in the second century with the prophetic movement known as Montanism. For in Revelation one finds a culture altogether absent from the epigraphical record and from the bourgeois movement that the apostle Paul was promoting: to wit, a tradition of shamanistic figures who mediated between the heavenly world and the community of “saints,” who consciously imitated the speech of the prophets of the Bible, who preached the imminence of fantastic geopolitical wars, who cleaved to Jewish purity much more devoutly than Paul’s followers, and for whom the persecution of the elect represented an ultimate and desired sign of the end. This culture, so important for rounding out the history of religions of Asia Minor, is reflected in other early Christian texts as well: the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the documents of the Montanist movement (as we can reconstruct them from its opponents), the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, and Fifth and Sixth Ezra.

Bergren is most of all a textual critic, and like his previous book on Fifth Ezra (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990) Sixth Ezra focuses on textual and manuscript history more than on the text’s place in the history of early Christianity. Oxford Press once regularly produced such careful text-studies of extra-canonical literature with the works of R.H. Charles and others; and while now out of print, these volumes provided the foundation for the last decades’ spate of scholarship on apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts. Bergren’s work stands in this tradition, providing initial (and extraordinarily responsible) spadework on a text that now really can be integrated into the historical record. Historical discussions and text-analysis occupy only the first 159 pages, followed by Appendices that lay out the two Latin recensions, an eclectic text, translation, and correspondences to Fourth and Fifth Ezra. Chapters Six and Seven discuss historical aspects of Sixth Ezra, while Chapter One functions as an overview of the book’s textual and historical hypotheses.

It was once customary in explaining these ancient apocalyptic works to offer imaginative historical scenarios or links with known religious sects (Essenes, Carpocratians, Bogomils, etc.). Bergren eschews this kind of tendentious history, choosing rather sensibly to nuance older scholarship. A Christian document of mid-third-century Asia Minor, he concludes, Sixth Ezra originated in Greek (a fourth-century fragment exists in Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1010) and was then translated into Latin. When some scribe took license to change the vocabulary throughout the text, a second recension developed, the “Spanish,” which is now attested more commonly than the original, “French” recension. Like the Book of Revelation (which the author seems to have known), Bergren suggests, Sixth Ezra comes out of a situation of anti-Christian persecution (therefore before 313 C.E.), moralizing prophetic leaders, influence from the Book of Revelation (hence after 95 C.E.), and an oral culture that demanded that texts imitate oral prophecy as much as possible.

The history of the manuscripts and the two recensions that lie behind them is covered meticulously in Chapters Two through Five. Then Bergren turns to the “Religious Affiliation of the Author” (Chapter Six) and the date of the original composition (Chapter Seven). Given that Sixth Ezra contains no explicit references to Christ and is appended to an important Jewish apocalypse (Fourth Ezra), the question arises whether the author himself was Jewish or Christian (misogynist imagery suggests male authorship). Bergren’s argument for Christian origins considers, first, Sixth Ezra’s use of the Book of Revelation, and then the text’s detailed persecution imagery, which he compares to the varying evidence for persecution of Jews and Christians in Asia Minor. Images of mob violence and of the elect forced to eat idols’ food seem to correspond to the various edicts and pogroms against second- and third-century Christians rather than to less-well-attested civil actions against Jews.

One can agree with Bergren’s ultimate conclusion here while being troubled by his reasoning. Depending on a clear demarcation between “Jews” and “Christians” in second- and third-century Asia Minor seems ill-advised, given the multiple struggles within the region’s Christian groups over precisely these issues. It seems that a good portion of the more apocalyptic “Christians” — among whom the author of Sixth Ezra should probably be included — considered themselves to be Jews first. In the end, it is unclear what is gained historically or sociologically by applying “Christian” in such a distinct sense to a text of this period.

As for Sixth Ezra’s alleged vaticinium ex eventu about being fed “what was killed for idols” (16:68), there is little evidence that imperial “sacrifice-tasting” edicts affected more than a few individuals in those towns in which they were enforced (see Ewa Wipszycka, “Considérations sur les persécutions contre les chrétiens: qui frappaient-elles?” Poikilia: Études offertes à Jean-Pierre Vernant [Paris 1987], 397-405). Indeed, it is hard to imagine the religious edicts of Decius and Valerian having any kind of widespread enforcement, given the facts of imperial governance. At the same time, an abhorrence of idol-meat characterized Torah-observant Jews (including those of Christian conviction) from the time of Paul (1 Corinthians 8; Revelation 2:14, 26). Furthermore, in seeking to tie Sixth Ezra’s prophecies to historical events, Bergren neglects the early Christian fascination with martyrdom imagery, so evident in the Book of Revelation, the Letters of Saint Ignatius, and numerous other texts of the period — a fascination which could construct scenarios of persecution and execution even when little can be verified on the outside. Thus it is quite possible that Sixth Ezra’s persecution imagery, like its other geo-political and cosmic prophecies, represents a typical tableau of chaos and threat.

Chapter Seven, on Sixth Ezra’s date of composition, takes as its starting point the theory of one A. von Gutschmid, who sought in 1860 to connect the text’s veiled prophecies of battle between “nations of the Arabian dragons” and “Carmonians” (15:28-33) to the wars of Odenathus and Shapur in 260-67 C.E. Indeed, von Gutschmid came down to a specific year of composition, 263, on the basis of subsequent verses. Bergren also sees merit in attributing Sixth Ezra to the period of the Palmyrene wars, and he offers a revised time-span of 262-67. He stresses quite appropriately that this time-span depends entirely on the assumption that the verses (15:28-33) were ” intended to describe a concrete situation that can be located in history” (author’s emphasis). That is, the notion of vaticinia ex eventus itself, so often used to date apocalyptic texts, is really a quite problematic basis for interpretation, especially when one is dealing with a genre saturated with traditional motifs and symbols and preoccupied with meaning rather than chronology. “It is entirely conceivable,” Bergren continues, that the “historical” verses that Von Gutschmid scrutinized were “an imaginative scenario of eschatological prophecy arising from the mind of an author.” And in this vein Bergren proceeds to discuss the literary traditions that might have informed the “historical” prophecies. The reader is thus allowed to form her or his own conclusions about the meaning of the prophetic discourse according to her or his assumptions about how such discourses function.

Bergren goes out on no limbs; but then he does not lay waste previous scholarship to elevate his own. If anything, his is a model of the respectful adjustment of earlier theories. Each question he raises, from Jewish authorship to Latin word-use, receives a full airing. If Sixth Ezra: The Text and Its Origin resists a synthetic history of Asia Minor Christianities or a survey of the many tantalizing prophecies and apocalypses with which it bears affinity, it offers an altogether solid textual study (and the definitive Latin text) of an important early Christian document, useful to scholars of extracanonical literature, church history, Roman social history, and Latin literature.