The two ages in 4 Ezra.

Five principles of the ages.


The names of the many books called Ezra (or Esdras) are confusing, to say the least. The following chart is meant to alleviate some of the confusion.

Hebrew Masoretic. Greek Septuagint. Latin Vulgate. English Authorized.
Ezra Esdras B I Esdras Ezra
II Esdras Nehemiah
- Esdras A III Esdras I Esdras
- - IV Esdras II Esdras

Further complicating matters is the fact that modern scholars regard IV Esdras, boldfaced above, as three distinct works combined into one. Thus we have, from this one work, 4 Ezra, 5 Ezra, and 6 Ezra, as follows:

  • IV Esdras, chapters 1-2: 5 Ezra.
  • IV Esdras, chapters 3-14: 4 Ezra.
  • IV Esdras, chapters 15-16: 6 Ezra.

On that middle section, chapters 3-14, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary notes on page 542:

This is the Apocalypse of Ezra, sometimes called 4 Ezra. By far the most important part of 2 Esdras, it is a Jewish work of about AD 100-120. The original Hebr or Aram texts have been lost, and so has the Gk version, which was presumably the basis for all the extant ancient translations. The Latin is the most important....

The passages that I intend to present here are from that middle section, chapters 3-14, which scholars usually refer to as 4 Ezra. The topic is the two great ages of ancient Jewish apocalypticism and rabbinicism, and indeed of early Christianity.

N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pages 299-300:

One of the central ways of expressing this hope was the division of time into two eras: the present age and the age to come. The present age was a time when the creator god seemed to be hiding his face; the age to come would see the renewal of the created world. The present age was the time of Israel's misery; in the age to come she would be restored. In the present age wicked men seemed to be flourishing; in the age to come they would receive their just reward. In the present age even Israel was not really keeping the Torah perfectly, was not really being YHWH's true humanity; in the age to come all Israel would keep Torah from the heart.

That word age is often translated world, with the result that we sometimes read of this world and the world to come, instead of this age and the age to come, so it is necessary that we keep our terminology straight. The word in question is the Hebrew עולמ, the Greek αιων, and the Latin saeculum. The Greek αιων is cognate with the English eon. The Latin saeculum gives us the English adjective secular to designate anything pertaining or belonging to this present evil age instead of that to come.

As I proceed through the various passages I will be drawing out and listing the exact Jewish expectations, at least according to the book of 4 Ezra. These expectations I call the principles of the two ages, and there are five of them (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

1.

Let us begin with 4 Ezra 7.50:

Propter hoc non fecit altissimus unum saeculum sed duo.

On account of this the most high has made not one age but two.

This verse gives us our first principle of the ages:

1. There are two great ages, both of which are made by God.

(Altissimus, or most high one, is the usual title for the Jewish God in this book.)

2.

On to 4 Ezra 4.26-27:

Et respondit ad me et dixit: si fueris videbis, et si vixeris, frequenter miraberis, quoniam festinans festinat saeculum pertransire. non capiet portare quae in temporibus iustis repromissa sunt, quoniam plenum maestitia est saeculum hoc et infirmitatibus.

And he responded to me and said: If you exist, you will see, and if you are living, you will frequently marvel, since the age hastening hastens to pass away. It cannot bring the things that have been promised to the just in their times, since this age is full of sorrow and infirmities.

The phrase festinans festinat (hastening hastens) would have translated an original Hebrew infinitive absolute, idiomatically designed to intensify the verb hasten. A good translation might be truly hastening, or even hurrying quickly.

The first verse of the next selection, 4 Ezra 9.1-4, gives us another example of this same Hebraism in the phrase metiens metire (measuring measure), which could be translated as measure carefully or the like. But my point in presenting these passages is their perspective on the end of this present age:

Et respondit ad me et dixit: metiens metire in temet ipso, et erit cum videris quoniam transivit pars quaedam signorum quae praedicta sunt, tunc intelleges quoniam ipsud est tempus in quo incipiet altissimus visitare saeculum qui ab eo factus est. et quando videbitur in saeculo motio locorum, populorum turbatio, gentium cogitationes, ducum inconstantia, principum turbatio, et tunc intelleges quoniam de his erat altissimus locutus a diebus qui fuerunt ante ab initio.

And he responded to me and said: Measuring measure this, and it shall be that, when you see that a certain part of the signs that have been predicted have passed, then you will understand that this is the time in which the most high is beginning to visit the age which was made by him. And when in the age there are seen earthquakes, tumult of peoples, cogitations of nations, inconstancy of leaders, and confusion of princes, even then you will know that it was of these things that the most high spoke from the days that were from before the beginning.

4 Ezra 6.20:

Et cum supersignabitur saeculum quod incipiet pertransire, haec signa faciam: libri aperientur ante faciem firmamenti et omnes videbunt simul.

And when the age which is beginning to consummate is sealed over, I will make these signs: The books shall be opened before the face of the firmament and all shall see simultaneously.

4 Ezra 6.25:

Et erit, omnis qui derelictus fuerit ex omnibus istis quibus praedixi tibi, ipse salvabitur et videbit salutare meum et finem saeculi mei.

And it shall be that, everyone who will remain after all these things that I have predicted to you, he shall be saved and shall see my saving and the end of my age.

4 Ezra 8.50:

Propter quod miseriae multae miserabiles efficientur qui inhabitant saeculum in novissimis, quia in multa superbia ambulaverunt.

On account of which many miseries will affect those miserable ones who inhabit the age in the last times, because they walked in great pride.

What can we say about the concept of the two ages in these passages? First, of course, the present age will pass away. Second, though God is the maker of this age, it is an age of sorrow and infirmity. Third, there are certain troubling signs that are to lead up to the passing away of the age. I combine all of these elements into one statement that will serve as our second principle of the ages according to Jewish expectations:

2. This present age will pass away amidst troublesome signs that point to its passing.

3.

For our next principle we may need to understand something about the terminology of the book. 4 Ezra 14.10:

Quoniam saeculum perdidit iuventutem suam et tempora adpropinquant senescere.

For the age has lost its youth, and the times have begun to grow old.

I noted already that 4 Ezra, though transmitted to us in Latin, was originally written in Hebrew. The sentence in 14.10 is a clear example of the Hebraic parallelismus membrorum, a poetic device whereby the two halves of a line correspond intimately with one another. Two of the most common relationships are the synonymous and the antithetical. In the former, the two lines express much the same thought. In the latter, they express opposite thoughts. Our example here is manifestly the former. The two halves are synonymous.

The age in the first half, therefore, is synonymous with the times in the second. But this is not the only passage in which the age is matched up with the times. We also have 4 Ezra 7.112-113:

Et respondit ad me et dixit: praesens saeculum non est finis, gloria in eo non frequens manet. propter hoc oraverunt qui potuerunt pro invalidis. dies enim iudicii erit finis temporis huius et initium futuri inmortalis temporis, in quo pertransivit corruptela.

He responded to me and said: The present age is not the end; the glory does not fully remain in it. On account of this those who were strong prayed for the weak. For the day of judgment shall be the end of this time and the beginning of the future immortal time, in which corruption has passed away.

Dividing the span of creation into two times, then, is the same as dividing it into two ages. This present age equals this time, and the age to come equals the future time.

We learn from 7.112-113, then, that the future time, the age to come, is immortal. It will never die, never end, never pass away. We confirm this observation in 4 Ezra 6.7-10:

Et respondi et dixi: quae erit separatio temporum, aut quando prioris finis aut sequentis initium? et dixit ad me: ab Abraham usque ad Abraham, quoniam ab eo natus est Iacob et Esau, manus enim Iacob tenebat ab initio calcaneum Esau. finis enim huius saeculi Esau, et principium sequentis Iacob. finis enim hominis calcaneum et principium hominis manus. inter calcaneum et manum aliud noli quaerere, Ezra.

And I responded and said: What will be the separation of times, or when will be the end of the first or the beginning of the subsequent? And he said to me: From Abraham through to Abraham, since from him was born Jacob and Esau, for the hand of Jacob held onto the beginning of the heel of Esau. For the end of this age is Esau, and the start of the subsequent is Jacob. For the end of a man is the heel, and the start of a man is the hand. Between the heel and the hand seek nothing else, Ezra.

(In that phrase ab Abraham usque ad Abraham, from Abraham through to Abraham, the second Abraham is surely a mistake for Isaac, who begat Jacob. The translations generally clear this discrepancy up. The Syriac or Ethiopic texts may have the correct reading; I know neither language, and do not yet know whether they do or do not.)

Note that once again the times are equivalent to the ages. Ezra asks what the dividing line between the times will be. What will be the end of the first, or prior, time and the beginning of the second, or subsequent, time? These two times are the two ages, as the answer shows: The end of this age is Esau, while the beginning of the age to come is Jacob, hanging on to the heel of his older brother.

All of which brings us to our third principle of the ages:

3. The age to come will never pass away, but is rather the time when corruption itself will have passed away.

4.

For our fourth principle we return to 4 Ezra 7.112-113, already cited once, but this time with a different emphasis:

Et respondit ad me et dixit: praesens saeculum non est finis, gloria in eo non frequens manet. propter hoc oraverunt qui potuerunt pro invalidis. dies enim iudicii erit finis temporis huius et initium futuri inmortalis temporis, in quo pertransivit corruptela.

He responded to me and said: The present age is not the end; the glory does not fully remain in it. On account of this those who were strong prayed for the weak. For the day of judgment shall be the end of this time and the beginning of the future immortal time, in which corruption has passed away.

There is to be, therefore, a great day of judgment that marks the transition from this age to the next. Consider what else is supposed to occur on that day. 4 Ezra 7.32-34a, 35, 38b:

Et terra reddet qui in eam dormiunt, et pulvis qui in eo silentio habitant, et promptuaria reddent quae eis commendatae sunt animae. et revelabitur altissimus super sedem iudicii, et pertransibunt misericordiae, et longanimitas congregabitur, iudicium autem solum remanebit.... haec autem loquetur ad eos in die iudicii.... et iustitiae vigilabunt et iniustitiae non dormibunt.

And the earth will give back those that sleep in it, and the dust those that inhabit it in silence, and the chambers will give back the souls that were commended to it. And the most high shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and mercy shall pass away, and longsuffering shall be taken away, but only judgment will remain.... But these things he speaks to them in the day of judgment.... And justices shall awaken, and injustices shall not sleep.

The inspiration for all such talk of those sleeping in the dust of the earth is Daniel 12.2 (Masoretic and LXX)...:

ורבים מישני אדמת־עפר יקיצו אלה לחיי עולם ואלה לחרפות לדראון עולם׃

Και πολλοι των καθευδοντων εν γης χωματι εξεγερθησονται, ουτοι εις ζωην αιωνιον και ουτοι εις ονειδισμον και εις αισχυνην αιωνιον.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, some to eternal life and others to disgrace and eternal contempt.

...the locus classicus of bodily resurrection. Add to this picture both 4 Ezra 7.47...:

Et nunc video, quoniam ad paucos pertinebit futurum saeculum iucunditatem facere, multis autem tormenta.

And now I see that the future age will bring about delight for few, but torments for many.

...and 4 Ezra 8.1...:

Et respondit ad me et dixit: hoc saeculum fecit altissimus propter multos, futurum autem propter paucos.

And he responded to me and said: The most high made this age on behalf of many, but the future age on behalf of few.

...and the picture is complete. The great judgment, immediately preceded by the bodily resurrection of both wicked and righteous, is the inauguration of eternal rewards, both delights for the righteous few and torments for the wicked many.

Note that this time of reckoning at the turn of the ages is also called the last times. 4 Ezra 7.73, 77:

Et quid habebunt dicere in iudicio, vel quomodo respondebunt in novissimis temporibus?

And what will they have to say in the judgment, or how will they respond in the last times?

Etenim est tibi thesaurus operum repositus apud altissimum, sed non tibi demonstrabitur usque in novissimis temporibus.

For there is for you a treasure of works stored up with the most high, but it will not be demonstrated to you until in the last times.

Our fourth principle of the ages, then, runs as follows:

4. The day of judgment, immediately preceded by the resurrection of both the just and the unjust, is simultaneously the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come.

5.

An odd thing happens toward the end of this present age on its way to the future age: The messiah is revealed. This event is described in 4 Ezra 7.26-35:

Ecce enim tempus veniet et erit quando venient signa quae praedixi tibi, et apparebit sponsa et apparescens civitas, et ostendetur quae nunc subducitur terra. et omnis qui liberatus est de praedictis malis, ipse videbit mirabilia mea. revelabitur enim filius meus Iesus cum his qui cum eo, et iucundabit qui relicti sunt annis quadringentis. et erit post annos hos, et morietur filius meus Christus et omnes qui spiramentum habent hominis. et convertetur saeculum in antiquum silentium diebus septem sicut in prioribus initiis, ita ut nemo derelinquatur. et erit post dies septem, et excitabitur qui nondum vigilat saeculum et morietur corruptum. et terra reddet qui in eam dormiunt, et pulvis qui in eo silentio habitant, et promptuaria reddent quae eis commendatae sunt animae. et revelabitur altissimus super sedem iudicii, et pertransibunt misericordiae, et longanimitas congregabitur, iudicium autem solum remanebit. et veritas stabit et fides convalescet, et opus subsequetur et merces ostendetur. et iustitiae vigilabunt et iniustitiae non dormibunt.

For behold, the time comes and will be when the signs which I have predicted to you come, that the betrothed and appearing city shall appear, and the land which now is hidden shall be shown. And every one who has been liberated from the predicted evils, he shall see my marvels. For my son Jesus will be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain will delight for four hundred years. And it will be that after those years, even my son Christ shall die, and all who have the breath of man. And the age will be changed into the ancient silence for seven days, just as in the first beginnings, so that no one will be left. And it will be that after seven days the age, which is not yet awake, will be roused up, and the corruptible will die. And the earth will give back those that sleep in it, and the dust those that inhabit it in silence, and the chambers will give back the souls that were commended to it. And the most high shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and mercy shall pass away, and longsuffering shall be taken away, but only judgment will remain. And the truth shall stand, and faith will strengthen, and work shall be subsequent, and reward will be shown. And justices shall awaken, and injustices shall not sleep.

Note that the Latin Vulgate specifically gives the son of God the name Jesus in 7.28. This is regarded as a Christianization of an originally Jewish text. The Syriac and Ethiopic versions call this son the Christ, or messiah, at 7.28, just as in 7.29.

Some manuscripts are missing 7.36-105, so I offer the continuation of the preceding passage, 4 Ezra 7.36-43, here separately:

Et apparebit lacus tormenti et contra illum erit locus requietionis, et clibanus gehennae ostendetur et contra eam iucunditatis paradisus. et dicet tunc altissimus ad excitatas gentes: videte et intellegite quem negastis vel cui non servistis vel cuius diligentias sprevistis. videte contra et in contra. hic iucunditas et requies et ibi ignis et tormenta. haec autem loquetur ad eos in die iudicii. haec talis quae neque solem habet neque lunam neque stellas, neque nubem neque tonitruum neque coruscationem, neque ventum neque aquam neque aerem, neque tenebras neque sero neque mane, neque aestatem neque ver neque aestum, neque hiemem neque gelum neque frigus, neque grandinem neque pluviam neque ros, neque meridiem neque noctem neque ante lucem, neque nitorem neque claritatem neque lucem, nisi solummodo splendorem claritatis altissimi, unde omnes incipiant videre quae anteposita sunt. spatium enim habebit sicut ebdomada annorum.

Then shall appear the lake of torment, and against it shall be the place of rest, and the furnace of gehenna is shown and against it the paradise of delight. And then the most high says to the raised nations: Look and understand whom you have denied, or whom you have not served, or whose directives you despised. Look back and forth. Here are delight and rest, and there fire and torments. But these things he speaks to them in the day of judgment, such a day as has no sun, nor moon, nor stars, nor cloud, nor thunder, nor lightning, nor wind, nor water, nor air, nor darkness, nor eve, nor morn, nor summer, nor spring, nor heat, nor winter, nor frost, nor cold, nor hail, nor rain, nor dew, nor noon, nor night, nor early light, nor shining, nor brightness, nor light, but only the splendor of the brightness of the most high, by which all shall begin to see what has been set for them beforehand. For it will last a span of a seven of years.

We saw part of this passage in our discussion of the day of judgment. The scene is now complete. After the terrible signs of the times, the messiah, or Christ, will be revealed, and that revelation will inaugurate a messianic era of 400 years, after which everybody dies, including the messiah, and the world returns to the primeval silence for seven days. Then comes the resurrection and the day of judgment.

That messianic period cannot be its own age. As we have seen, there are only two of those, and the one called the next age is that which is inaugurated in the day of judgment. The messianic years come before the day of judgment. The messianic era is, in other words, the last part of this present age.

Even more to the point, the signs of the times and the messianic era together comprise the last times of this present age. Recall 4 Ezra 8.50, which we have already seen in another context:

Propter quod miseriae multae miserabiles efficientur qui inhabitant saeculum in novissimis, quia in multa superbia ambulaverunt.

On account of which many miseries will affect those miserable ones who inhabit the age in the last times, because they walked in great pride.

Clearly the troubled times before the days of the messiah are meant here, not the messianic days themselves. But, if the trials before the revelation of the Christ are called the last times, what are the messianic years? They too must be part (indeed the last part) of the last times. All of which leads us to enunciate our fifth principle of the ages:

5. The messianic years are not an age unto themselves, but are rather the last episode in the last days of this present age.

The last days, or last times, indeed appear to simply mean a nebulous future period in which all prophecy will be fulfilled at last.

Allow me at this point to relist our five principles of the ages derived from our reading of 4 Ezra:

  1. There are two great ages, both of which are made by God.
  2. This present age will pass away amidst troublesome signs that point to its passing.
  3. The age to come will never pass away, but is rather the time when corruption itself will have passed away.
  4. The day of judgment, immediately preceded by the resurrection of both the just and the unjust, is simultaneously the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come.
  5. The messianic years are not an age unto themselves, but are rather the last episode in the last days of this present age.

These are the eschatological expectations of at least one (I daresay mainstream) Jew of the late first century.