The Son of Man returns: Messianic expectations in the Apocalypse of Ezra

The Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra (also known as 4 Ezra) was written by an anonymous prophet in the wake of Israel’s disastrous war with Rome—a theo-political rebellion that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem’s second temple. Around the time of much of the New Testament’s composition, this Jewish seer took up the mantle and persona of the great restorer of Israelite religion, Ezra the scribe, and in so doing consoled those Jews whose hopes for national glory had once again been dashed by a pagan imperial juggernaut. This central problem—the political supremacy of the heathen peoples over Israel—prevails throughout the work.1

Somewhat surprisingly, it was later Christians in the second and third centuries who would preserve and augment this Jewish apocalypse for their own eschatological purposes as they too faced Roman fury. They would create, as a result, the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras, a collection of texts now known as 5 Ezra (2 Esdras 1-2), 4 Ezra (2 Esdras 3-14), and 6 Ezra (2 Esdras 15-16).

What readers of 4 Ezra will quickly discover is that many of the New Testament’s most recognizable apocalyptic images are not without their parallels in contemporaneous Judaism. Confronted with similar socio-political conditions, and privy to similar collections of sacred texts, apocalyptic thinkers, whether Christian or Jewish, came to similar conclusions about the impending future. It is to these similarities that we now turn.

The last beast

Much like the book of Revelation, the Olivet Discourse, the Thessalonian epistles, and even the exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac, the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra reconfigures Daniel’s Son of Man vision so as to address Israel’s ongoing crisis under Roman rule. In one vision, for instance, Daniel’s fourth beast, originally an unidentified horned monster symbolic of the Greek Seleucid empire, has in 4 Ezra become an eagle with three heads and twelve wings symbolizing the emperors (2 Esdras 11-12). This eagle, being as it were, a prominent emblem among the Roman legions, “reigned over the earth and over those who inhabit it… all things under heaven were subjected to it and no one spoke against it” (2 Esdras 11:5-6).

It is this last beast, this last pagan empire, Ezra learns, that the Lord “made to reign” so as to usher in the end times (2 Esdras 11:39-40, cf. Luke 4:6, 2 Corinthians 4:4). A lion (i.e. the Lion of Judah) is roused from his forest slumber so as to oppose the eagle by pronouncing the judgements of the Most High God (cf. Revelation 5:5). This arrogant eagle, the lion announces, will be utterly destroyed such that “the whole earth, freed from [its] violence [and injustice], may be refreshed and relieved” (2 Esdras 11:45-46, cf. Acts 3:19-20). This lion, we are told, is “the Messiah… the offspring of David” who will accomplish this stunning feat at his coming (2 Esdras 12:31-36). The Messiah, in other words, will topple Rome.

The man from the sea

In another vision the Messiah appears as “the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea” (2 Esdras 13:3-4). Birthed out of the stormy deep, this Son of Man flies “with the clouds of heaven” so as to subject all those under his gaze.2 Moving on, a time of great strife among the kingdoms of the earth (2 Esdras 13:25-32, cf. Mark 13:7-8) a battle between this man from the sea and “all the nations” will ensue. Perched atop the mount of Zion, however, the Messiah will incinerate his enemies, restore the tribes of Israel, and inaugurate his unchallenged rule over the world (2 Esdras 13:33-50).

Delivered, therefore, from the evils of the eagle and from the wrath of the “innumerable multitude of people” that oppose Israel, God’s “son the Messiah” proceeds to reign over a long-ago “hidden” Jerusalem for 400 years (2 Esdras 7:26-28, cf. Revelation 20-21). Following the natural death of this messianic king, God dissolves creation over a period of seven days after which history comes to an end with the resurrection of the dead and the final judgement (2 Esdras 7:29-44).

A Davidic son of man

Written around the same time and employing similar allegorical imagery, the Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra demonstrates that the increasingly tumultuous relationship between Israel (however defined) and pagan empire stood at the heart of early Christian theological reflection. Both 4 Ezra and its Christian counterparts in the New Testament responded to this trauma by scouring their shared sacred literature, the Jewish Bible, and Daniel 7 in particular, for clues as to what must happen next. Such disasters, they discovered, would soon give way to a golden age for God’s people and God’s city, Jerusalem—pagan hegemony at last definitively done away with, Zion supplanting Babylon and Son of Man supplanting Beast. In either conceptualization the Messiah and his kingdom resolved deep-seated political discontentment.

Beowulf by Yoann Lossel

1—See 2 Esdras 3:28-36, 5:21-30, 6:55-59, 10:38-54, 12:40-51.

2—Symbolic of the Messiah’s rule, as with the eagle.

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