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Feelings ran high about the second book of Esdras between the
Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The French mystic
Antoinette Bourignon regarded it as the finest book in the Bible.1
For the physician Sir John Floyer it was ‘the best Key to all the Old
and New Prophecies’.2 The learned Francis Lee admitted ‘that
there is no ancient Book I have ever met with, at which I have been
so much startled at as this: While on the one hand I find in it such
a multitude of Things to shock me, so that it was hard for me not
to throw it presently away with the utmost Contempt and
Indignation; and on the other hand, I think I find here so many
beautiful Passages, which seem not inferior to any Parts of the
undoubted Canonical Scriptures.’3 And a far more hostile inter-
preter, Richard Arnald, also conceded that ‘there are in it lofty
Sentiments, beautiful Similes, ancient traditions, the Appearance
at least of a prophetic Spirit.’4
The representatives of the visible Churches—the reformers
themselves and the spokesmen of the Church of Rome—repeat-
ed the view of Jerome who had included the book in his Latin
version of the Bible but who pronounced it apocryphal. It was
‘full of dreams’, ‘stuffed full of vayne fables, fitter to feede curi-
ous eares, then tending to edification’, as an English divine put it,

1 La Vie continuée de Dam.lle Antoinette Bourignon (Amsterdam, 1683)

2 John Floyer, The Prophecies of the Second Book of Esdras Amongst the
Apocrypha, Explained and Vindicated From the Objections made against them
(London, 1721), p. x.
3 Francis Lee, An Epistolary Discourse, Concerning the Books of Ezra,
Genuine and Spurious: But more particularly the Second Apocryphal Book under
that Name, and the Variations of the Arabick Copy from the Latin (London,
1722), 2.
4 Richard Arnald, A Critical Commentary On such Books of the Apocrypha as
are Appointed to be Read in Churches, 3 parts (London, 1748–60), iii. 123.

paraphrasing Jerome.5 Humphrey Prideaux considered it ‘a Book

too absurd for the Romanists themselves to receive into their
Canon’.6 It contained far too many ideas in conflict with ortho-
dox belief to be taken at all seriously and, according to many,
should be excluded from editions of the Bible altogether.7
But what is the second book of Esdras, and what was so spe-
cial about it?8 First, its name. Throughout this study I shall use
the name 2 Esdras for the second apocryphal and pseudepi-
graphic book attributed to Ezra, the scribe who played such an
important part in Jewish history in the fourth century BC. In this
I follow the convention, based on the Greek, adopted in English
Bibles. At the time about which I write, however, there was no
consistency in the terminology. In the standard Latin translation
of the Bible, the Vulgate, and in the Catholic Bibles based on it,
the same book is known as the fourth book of Ezra, the first being
the canonical book of Ezra, the second the book of Nehemiah,
and the third the first apocryphal book of Esdras. Yet even here
there was little consistency. We thus find references to 4 Esdras
just as we find them to 2 Ezra. The second book of Esdras as it
stands in the Vulgate, moreover, has later additions, notably the
first two chapters and the last two. Both in the Middle Ages and
more recently, it has consequently been divided into three sepa-
rate books, 4 Ezra, 5 Ezra (the first chapters) and 6 Ezra (the last
By whatever name we choose to call it 2 Esdras was one of the

5 Andrew Willet, Synopsis Papismi, That is a Generall View of Papistrie

(London, 1594), 8.
6 Humphrey Prideaux, The Old and New Testament Connected in the History
of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations, 2 vols. (London 1716–18), i. 329–30.
7 Alastair Hamilton, ‘The Book of “Vaine Fables”: The Reception of 2
Esdras from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century’, in C. Augustijn et al.
(eds.), Kerkhistorische opstellen aangeboden aan Prof. dr. J. van den Berg (Kampen,
1987), 45–62.
8 Although I have quoted consistently from the text of 2 Esdras in the
Authorized Version of the Bible, a more complete text in English, showing vari-
ants in other recensions which have come to light, is in the Revised Standard
Version of 1957. The translation is by B. M. Metzger. A slightly different version
of the same translation, accompanied by a useful introduction, is included in
James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1.
Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (New York, 1983), 517–59.

apocrypha of the Old Testament, that group of books which have

usually formed part of the western Bible but which were exclud-
ed from the Jewish canon.9 The process by which the apocrypha
were included at all in the Bible remains mysterious. Although
they were not in the Hebrew canon, many of them—the Wisdom
of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Judith, Tobit, Baruch and
1 Esdras—appeared, translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic ori-
ginal, in certain versions of the Septuagint, the Greek Bible made
for the benefit of the Jews of Alexandria between the third and
the first century BC. The Septuagint, in its turn, became the basis
of much of the first Latin translation of the Bible, the Vetus
Latina or Old Latin version, and it was through this channel that
the Old Testament apocrypha reached the early Fathers of the
Church. While the Greek Fathers tended to ignore them from
the fourth century onwards, the first Fathers of the Latin
Church made little distinction between apocryphal and canon-
ical. It was not until the beginning of the fifth century that
Jerome, with an exceptional knowledge of Hebrew, turned to
Jewish sources to clarify the status of the apocrypha for the
Christian Church. He did so in the new Latin version of the
Bible which he was preparing and which, under the name of the
Vulgate, would very gradually be adopted as the standard text in
the West.
The term ‘apocrypha’ was derived from the Greek apocryphon
meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘concealed’. This was already ambiguous,
since it could either mean that the books were hidden because they
contained doctrines too mysterious to be publicized—such was the
meaning frequently given to the numerous apocrypha of the New
Testament—or that they were hidden because they were spurious.
With Jerome a further significance was added: ‘apocryphal’ came
to indicate books excluded from the Hebrew canon, and an impor-
tant criterion for judging them was the absence of a Hebrew or
Aramaic original. In fact most of the Old Testament apocrypha, we

9 For a useful survey of the term and its significance see Bruce M. Metzger,
An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York, 1977), 3–10, 175–80. On the canon
see J. C. H. Lebram, ‘Aspekte der alttestamentlichen Kanonbildung’, Vetus
Testamentum, 18 (1968), 173–89.

now know, did once exist in Hebrew or Aramaic, but the only ver-
sions known to Jerome were in Greek.
The age, and indeed the content, of the apocrypha of the Old
Testament varied. Some—1 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus
(or Sirach)—were almost certainly composed in the second cen-
tury BC, the earliest probably being the books of Tobit and
Ecclesiasticus. The additions to the book of Esther, the three sup-
plements to the book of Daniel (Azaraiah and the Three Young
Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), together with the Prayer
of Manasseh, were later. The first book of Maccabees seems to
date from about 100 BC, while the second may have been compiled
at any time between 120 BC and AD 50. The book of Baruch and
the Wisdom of Solomon have also been ascribed to the same
The status of the apocrypha as a whole was not always clear. In
Catholic Bibles most of the apocrypha were usually presented as
part of the canon. By the early sixteenth century, however, there
was a tendency to distinguish at least some of the apocrypha, while
the Protestants would endeavour to make a more general distinc-
tion between canonical and extra-canonical. This could be done by
specifying the canon in a preface, by attaching a special heading to
apocryphal books, or by grouping them together in a separate sec-
tion usually preceded by a warning. It was generally agreed that the
apocrypha could serve as edifying reading matter but should never
be used to establish doctrinal or dogmatic points. But even this rule
had been infringed. Not only had passages from the apocrypha
crept into the liturgy, but certain teachings of the Church of
Rome, such as the doctrine of purgatory, had also been derived
from them.
Above all the apocrypha, however they might be presented or
used, were included in that most sacred of texts, the Bible. This
gave each of them an authority which, if anything, increased as the
Reformation focused attention on the Scriptures and diminished
the importance of much of the secular religious literature which
had proliferated in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The second book of Esdras was a particular beneficiary of this
tendency. It was an apocalypse, a narrative containing revelations
transmitted to a man by a being from another world and disclosing

a transcendent reality.10 It was thus consulted primarily as a book

of prophecy. In the Middle Ages it had been somewhat neglected,
but it offered a rich repertory of apocalyptic and prophetic images
which could be found attractive at a time of strong eschatological
anxiety. It was harmonized accordingly with the other books of the
two Testaments which could be put to the same use, Daniel and
Revelation; it was linked with the more popular (and spurious)
prophecies of late antiquity such as the Sibylline Oracles; and it
was exploited on its own with all the excitement attending a recent
In the variegated collection of the Old Testament apocrypha, 2
Esdras occupies a special place. It is by far the latest, dating from
about AD 90. The Vulgate version, as we saw, contains still later
additions and interpolations, from the second and third century.
Because it was so late 2 Esdras was never included in the
Septuagint, but Jerome did have access to a Greek version of what
was probably the main part of the book, Chapters 3 to 14. The
Greek text, however, disappeared, and, of all the apocrypha, indeed
of all the books in the Bible, 2 Esdras alone was known in western
Europe until the eighteenth century almost exclusively in Latin or
in translations from the Latin. As biblical studies advanced and
polyglot editions of the Bible came into fashion, as more and more
scholars could retranslate the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek
or compare them with other early versions in an effort to correct the
rendering in the Vulgate, only 2 Esdras resisted. And then there
were the later Christian interpolations. One, in particular, stands
out: 2 Esdras 7:28–9, in which God assures Esdras: ‘For my son
Jesus shall be revealed with those that be with him, and they that
remain shall rejoice within four hundred years. After these years
shall my son Christ die, and all men that have life.’ With these vers-
es 2 Esdras was the only book in the Old Testament to name Jesus
Christ. For many this was an obvious indication of a late date, but
for some it enhanced the book’s qualities, making it both truly
prophetic and an ideal link between the two Testaments.

10 For a discussion of the term, see Bernard McGinn, ‘Early Apocalypticism:

The Ongoing Debate’ in C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (eds.), The Apocalypse
in English Renaissance Thought and Literature (Manchester, 1984), 2–39, esp. 2–5.

In this study I deal with two aspects of 2 Esdras. One is its status,
the debate about its date, its authorship and its authenticity. The
other, which is often linked to the first, is the use to which it was
put from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.
The conflicting reactions to the second book of Esdras which I
examine raise a question which was central to the Reformation:
the question of authority. Which human or ecclesiastical authori-
ty should decide what was sacred and what not? Should Jerome be
given greater credence than the Fathers who had preceded him
and who had treated 2 Esdras as if it were canonical? What
authority, moreover, should be attributed to the Bible? Was it the
authority of the letter, as Luther claimed, or was it the authority
of the Spirit, which had inspired the authors of the sacred books
and which was evidently present in 2 Esdras and other apocrypha?
We shall see again and again that 2 Esdras had a particular appeal
for those individuals and movements that dissented from the
established Churches—for the Anabaptists, for the spiritualists
who believed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be more impor-
tant than the letter, for the disaffected Lutherans and for eirenic
Calvinists. And we shall see how those Roman Catholics who sup-
ported it managed to justify their enthusiasm in the face of the
decrees of the Council of Trent and the strictures of Cardinal
The question of authority could also be connected with the
question of authenticity. The admiration for 2 Esdras which start-
ed in the fifteenth century brings out one of the more paradoxical
aspects of the Renaissance. The humanists, with their knowledge
of classical antiquity, had developed a new sensitivity to the
authenticity of texts. Lorenzo Valla, perhaps the greatest practi-
tioner of the novel methods of philological analysis, had shown
that the Donation of Constantine, allegedly dating from the fourth
century and used to justify the temporal power of the papacy, was
in fact a late forgery concocted in the eighth or ninth century. He
did so on the basis of linguistic and historical inconsistencies.
Partly because of this interest in classical antiquity there developed
a veneration for the figure of Jerome, revered as a scholar, a stylist
and a theologian. For Desiderius Erasmus, who defined him as ‘the
only scholar in the church universal who had a perfect command

of all learning both sacred and heathen’,11 he was a model, and

Erasmus duly had his own identification with Jerome emphasized
in his portraits.12 The immense authority attributed to Jerome dur-
ing the Renaissance was one of the reasons why the majority of
theologians regarded 2 Esdras as apocryphal and treated it with
such contempt.
Yet at the same time it is possible to detect a very different ten-
dency. Besides devoting themselves to editing classical texts, cer-
tain humanists had started to submit the Scriptures to the same
treatment and were discovering errors in the great achievement
with which Jerome was associated, the Vulgate. Here again the
main protagonist was Lorenzo Valla who expressed his misgivings
about Jerome’s translation of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus
too, for all his love of Jerome, was critical of the Vulgate, but he
excused Jerome as the victim of later scribal mistakes and the
faulty transmission of the text. With the Reformation, however,
the early and implicit criticism of Jerome became explicit. Luther
was outspoken in his condemnation of him both as a distorter of
the Bible and as a poor theologian, and other reformers were only
slightly less severe.13 While Luther deplored Jerome and extolled
Augustine, those Protestants who preferred an essentially spiritual
interpretation of the Bible and who reached radical conclusions
about the point at which the original message of Christ had been
distorted, might dismiss the Church Fathers in general and entire-
ly ignore the statements of Jerome.
In view of the progressive erosion of Jerome’s authority, it is lit-
tle wonder that a case should have been put for the antiquity and
canonicity of 2 Esdras by some of the most distinguished scholars
of the time, by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and later Hebraists
such as Konrad Pellikan and Theodor Bibliander. With their
knowledge of Hebrew they applied to the Latin Old Testament the
criticism which Valla and Erasmus had applied to the New. Since 2

11 The Correspondence of Erasmus, vol. ii, trans. R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S.

Thomson, ed. Wallace K. Ferguson (Toronto, 1975), 27 (Letter 149).
12 Lisa Jardine, Erasmus, Man of Letters. The Construction of Charisma in
Print (Princeton, NJ, 1993), 73–82.
13 The reception of Jerome is treated by Eugene F. Rice, Jr., Saint Jerome in
the Renaissance (Baltimore, Md., 1985), 49–199.

Esdras only existed in Latin, however, it defied the sort of philo-

logical analysis which had enabled Valla to demolish the Donation
of Constantine. In such circumstances Pico della Mirandola, with
his high reputation as a scholar, could place the composition of 2
Esdras at the source of the Jewish mystical tradition known as
Kabbalah, in the days of Ezra the scribe, and thus furnish the book
with a cultural background which seemed convincing.
Nor should we forget, when studying the reception of 2 Esdras,
that although the humanists were perceptive where a great many
forgeries and spurious texts were concerned, they were less so
about others. For most of the fifteenth century the apocryphal
Epistle of Lentulus was held to contain a reliable eye-witness
account of the appearance of Jesus Christ.14 As the case of Annius
of Viterbo shows, moreover, scholars were by no means averse to
making forgeries themselves.15 The reception of 2 Esdras, espe-
cially from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, helps to illus-
trate the many-sided attitude to antiquity and to ancient texts at
the time. But it also illustrates another aspect of early scholarship.
Although the defenders of the book’s canonicity were mistaken, as
they argued in its favour they often reached certain conclusions
which have since been proved to be correct. Of course, we might
say, these insights were the result of an inspired guess rather than
of any valid philological research, but this is a somewhat anachro-
nistic suggestion. One characteristic of the treatment of 2 Esdras
which I endeavour to bring out is the interaction between those
who mistakenly defended the book’s antiquity and those who, quite
rightly, believed it to be late and apocryphal. The supporters of 2
Esdras helped to sustain an interest in the book and to encourage
scholarly scrutiny of it. In order to strengthen their own position
they contributed to the investigation by identifying passages which
2 Esdras had in common with other books in the Bible or with early
Christian writers. On occasion they also proved philologically inge-
nious in distinguishing between different figures named Ezra, in

14 Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. A

Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1991), 56–7.
15 Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics. Creativity and Duplicity in Western
Scholarship (London, 1990), 6, 99–123.

separating the apocryphal books from the canonical ones but nev-
ertheless defending their antiquity. The more traditional scholars
who found themselves justifying the apocryphal status of 2 Esdras,
on the other hand, sometimes used arguments which, by modern
standards, seem just as unconvincing as the wildest hypotheses
advanced by the book’s supporters.
The second aspect of 2 Esdras which I shall examine is the use
that was made of it. In an age of keen biblical interpretation, when
predictions about the future were eagerly sought in the Scriptures,
2 Esdras was employed for the prophecy and explanation of a
number of significant political events. One of the most constant
was the advance of the Turks. The vision of the three-headed eagle
in Chapters 11 and 12 was applied to the Roman empire. The
Turks, the conquerors of Byzantium, were regarded as the succes-
sors of the Romans in the eastern and southern Mediterranean,
and their advent was seen as a sign of the approaching end of the
world. Despite Augustine’s disapproval of attempts to date such an
event, the chronological statements in 2 Esdras were added to those
in the books of Daniel and Revelation in order to serve that very
From the fifteenth to the late seventeenth century the vision of
the eagle was also applied to the fate of the Habsburgs. In this case
it was mainly, though not exclusively, Protestants who analysed the
vision to compute the eagle’s life-expectancy and the moment
when it would be annihilated by the lion representing the true
Church. Because of the extensive description of the fate of the ten
lost tribes of Israel, moreover, 2 Esdras was consulted in connec-
tion with the origins of the American Indians, the future of the
Jews, and the role which the European powers were to play both in
the treatment of the inhabitants of the New World and in the prov-
idential return of the Jews to Jerusalem.
The second book of Esdras, therefore, was used above all as a
collection of reliable predictions of events to come. But there was
another dimension to this use. A number of the admirers of the
book identified themselves with the figure of Esdras himself. We
see this in the case of Hendrik Niclaes, the founder of the Family
of Love, and certain Paracelsians of the early seventeenth century.
Others, such as some of the New Prophets in the Thirty Years War,

found passages in 2 Esdras which they took to foretell their own

role or, as in the case of Pierre Poiret and Antoinette Bourignon,
that of their spiritual leader.
But who were the admirers of 2 Esdras? Was there a particular
type of thinker liable to be drawn to the book? At the beginning of
our period we see the emergence of two groups which, although
distinct, often merge. First we have the Hebraists, scholars who
were interested in Kabbalah, and who acknowledged Pico della
Mirandola as their master. With the common purpose of reconcil-
ing Judaism with Christianity, the Old Testament with the New,
and of showing that the Christian message could in fact be found
in early Jewish texts, these scholars argued for the canonicity of 2
Esdras. At the same time there emerged a series of prophets deter-
mined to reform the Church and convinced of the imminent end
of the world, chiliasts who held that Jesus Christ was about to
return and reign with his saints for a thousand years. These
prophets, ready to identify themselves with the prophets of antiq-
uity and to see their own role prefigured in the Bible, often showed
a considerable interest in the apocryphal book. While the prophets
might have an interest in Hebrew studies and Kabbalah, Hebraists
like Bibliander also consulted 2 Esdras as a book of prophecy.
With Luther’s Reformation the groups attracted by 2 Esdras
multiply. Although individual Catholics provided commentaries on
some of the more prophetic passages, the vision of the eagle lent
itself better to anti-Catholic interpretations. Luther, however, con-
demned the book, refusing to include it in his German translation
of the Bible, and other reformers also disapproved of it. The result
was that 2 Esdras developed a special appeal to radical and dis-
senting Protestants, to the Anabaptists and to various movements
and individuals who were within the Protestant camp but critical of
Luther and the direction the Reformation had taken. Many of
them combined a prophetic use of 2 Esdras with an appeal to
Protestant unity and a belief in a further reformation which would
achieve what the first had left undone. These included followers of
Schwenckfeld, Weigel and Boehme, Paracelsians and Rosicrucians,
the New Prophets of the Thirty Years War, radical Pietists of the
late seventeenth century and radical Protestants of the eighteenth.
Finally we have a heterogeneous group of Englishmen in the early

eighteenth century. They stood in a millenarian tradition which

made them receptive to 2 Esdras; wishing to combat deism or the
denial of revelation, they delighted in the spirit of revelation which
pervaded the book; but they were also affected by a new atmos-
phere, by the growing interest in the literary production of the first
centuries AD and in its historical importance, which led more and
more scholars to pay serious attention to books held to be apoc-
ryphal quite independently of their ecclesiastical status.
In this study I have adopted a chronological approach in so far
as that is possible and, also in so far as possible, I have divided the
groups that emerge after the Reformation by confession. After
examining the world of Pico della Mirandola and the early
Hebraists and prophets, I discuss the official approaches to the
book, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and the reactions to these
approaches by Catholics, Anabaptists and dissident Protestants. I
have devoted a separate chapter to issues, such as the origins of the
American Indians, to which both Catholics and Protestants applied
2 Esdras and came to more or less similar conclusions. Finally, I
study the history of scholarly approaches to 2 Esdras, the discov-
ery and publication of the Arabic version in England in the early
eighteenth century, and its effect on the subsequent treatment of
the book.
Some aspects of the fortunes of 2 Esdras have been studied in
the past. Certain scholars responsible for discovering and editing
early versions from the mid-nineteenth century onwards have said
something about the reception and previous scholarly treatment of
the book. Of these R. L. Bensly stands out. His introduction to
The Missing Fragment of the Latin Translation of the Fourth Book of
Ezra, which appeared in 1875, remains a formidable contribution
to the subject. Far more recently the connection of 2 Esdras with
the legend of the lost tribes has been studied by Francis Schmidt16
and its use by physicians explaining monstrous birth by Ottavia

16 Francis Schmidt, ‘Arzareth en Amérique: l’autorité du quatrième livre

d’Esdras dans la discussion sur la parenté des Juifs et des Indiens d’Amérique
(1530–1729)’, in Alain Desreumaux and Francis Schmidt (eds.), Moïse
Géographe. Recherches sur les représentations juives et chrétiennes de l’espace (Paris,
1988), 155–201.

Niccoli.17 I do not know of any more general study of the fortunes

of the book in the period I have chosen.
The most foolhardy thing one could do in a study of this sort is
to make any claim to its being complete. I am aware of the number
of texts I have been unable to find, and I only hope that they will
one day come to light and serve the purposes of other scholars. I
should also stress that my study is limited to the reception of 2
Esdras in western Christendom. Not only have I avoided the his-
tory of its reception in the eastern Churches, but, with greater
regret, I have no more than touched upon the far less studied field
of its treatment in Jewish circles. This too is a subject for others.

17 Ottavia Niccoli, ‘“Menstruum quasi monstruum”: parti mostruosi e tabù

mestruale nel ’500’, Quaderni Storici, 44 (1980), 402–28.