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Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg





Did Ezra Reconstruct the Torah or Just Change the Script?





APA e-journal

Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg





Did Ezra Reconstruct the Torah or Just Change the Script?








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Did Ezra Reconstruct the Torah or Just Change the Script?

In the second century C.E., 4 Ezra and Irenaeus tell a story of how the Torah was burned by Nebuchadnezzar and reconstructed by Ezra through divine inspiration. Rabbinic texts know of this tradition, but in their version, Ezra’s contribution is changing the Torah into Aramaic writing, or even Aramaic language.


Did Ezra Reconstruct the Torah or Just Change the Script?

Ezra the scribe, Folio 5r, Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1.

Porphyry: An Ancient Bible Critic

In the 3rd century C.E., Porphyry of Tyre, a Greco-Roman philosopher, wrote a scathing critique of the Jewish biblical corpus in his (now lost) work Against the Christians. [1] He claimed that the Mosaic Pentateuch had been lost to the ravages of war when Nebuchadnezzar II razed Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.), and the loss had been covered up with a pseudepigraphic forgery:

Nothing Moses wrote has been preserved for all his writings are said to have been burnt with the temple. All those written under his name afterwards were composed anew one thousand one hundred and eighty years after Moses’ death by Ezra and his followers.[2]

Porphyry accuses Ezra the Scribe and his followers among the Israelite elite of fabricating the Pentateuch now circulating in the name of Moses to cover up the irretrievable loss of the original Torah.

It would be easy to dismiss Porphyry’s claim as the invention of a well-known pagan polemicist, except that pious Jewish and Christian authorities of the period circulated a strikingly similar story about the Torah’s loss. But they believed that Ezra reconstructed the Torah faithfully through divine inspiration.

Ezra Dictates the Bible from Scratch: 4 Ezra

4 Ezra is an apocalyptic Jewish text dating to anywhere between the generation after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. to somewhere in the second century C.E.[3] The text is believed to have been written in Hebrew—though we have no textual evidence of this—and then translated into Greek. The full text, however, survives only in Latin and Syriac translations.

The book is written as a first-person account of Ezra the Scribe, who receives several visions from God.[4] It opens with Ezra lamenting the sad state of the Jews in the exilic period, including the loss of the written Torah. Ezra asks God:

4 Ezra 4:23 …why Israel has been given over to the Gentiles in disgrace; why the people whom you loved has been given over to godless tribes, and the law of our ancestors has been brought to destruction and the written covenants no longer exist.[5]

This theme is continued in the seventh and final vision of the book, whose literary framing makes the parallel to Moses patently obvious:

4 Ezra 14:1 On the third day, while I was sitting under an oak, suddenly a voice came out of a bush opposite me and said, “Ezra, Ezra!” 14:2 And I answered, “Here I am, LORD,” and I rose to my feet.

God tells Ezra that Moses received secret revelations at Mount Sinai, which Ezra will now receive as well, but with permission to make them public. Ezra agrees to communicate all this to the people, and to admonish them to keep God’s laws, but he notes the problem that they no longer have a written Torah, since all copies of it were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar:

4 Ezra 4:19 …For the world lies in darkness, and its inhabitants are without light. 4:21 For your law has been burned, and so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done by you.

4:22 If then I have found favor with you, send the holy spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things that were written in your law, so that people may be able to find the path, and that those who want to live in the last days may do so.[6]

God agrees to this proposal and tells Ezra to take a 40-day break from the people, the number of days Moses spends on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:18, 34:28).[7] Ezra should also bring along five scribes who write quickly, plus many tablets, and Ezra does so. To be able to receive this revelation, Ezra must undergo a mystical/physical transformation, similar to what Ezekiel undergoes (Ezek 3:1–3), when he is told to eat a scroll:

4 Ezra 14:38 And on the next day a voice called me, saying, “Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink.” 14:39 So I opened my mouth, and a full cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. 14:40 I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory, 14:41 and my mouth was opened and was no longer closed.

With this power, Ezra begins to recite the revelation and the men write it down:

4 Ezra 14:42 Moreover, the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, using characters that they did not know. They sat forty days; they wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. 14:43 But as for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. 14:44 So during the forty days, ninety-four books were written.

The number 94 includes the 24 canonical books of the Bible plus 70—a symbolic number—secret books that Moses was apparently taught but never published.

4 Ezra 14:45 And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; 14:46 but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. 14:47 For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.” 14:48 And I did so.

Not only was the Mosaic Pentateuch lost, but all twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible were lost as well,[8] until they were recreated by a divinely inspired Ezra dictating to five scribes decades after the originals were destroyed. Thus, Porphyry did not invent the claim that the Bible was lost and only later reconstructed by Ezra. He inherited this idea from the Jews (and Christians), but instead of marveling at Ezra’s mystical prowess as they do, he used the story as an attack on the Bible’s validity, claiming that the Torah was a forgery and the original Mosaic revelation lost to history.

A Christian Version of the Ezra Story: Irenaeus

Christian authorities also had the tradition of Ezra recreating scripture through revelation.[9] In the 2nd century C.E., the bishop Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, discusses the debate amongst early Christian interpreters of Isaiah 7:14, which declares a sign for the birth of the promised redeemer: הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן “behold the ʿalmah will become pregnant and give birth to a son.” Some interpreters in the 2nd century C.E. understood the term ʿalmah as “young woman,” but the Greek LXX (Septuagint) translates it as parthenos (παρθένος) “virgin.”

Iraneaus claims that the LXX—an early Jewish translation into Greek—must be trusted because God performed a miracle during the translation process, and all seventy translators, working separately, came up with the same translation for all of scripture.[10] If so, it is certain the LXX is correct, and those who revert to the Hebrew are just being polemical in denying that almah can mean virgin.

Irenaeus continues that it should not be surprising that God would miraculously ensure that all translations of the Bible come out the same, since God did an even greater miracle earlier in history: During the Babylonian exile, he writes, scripture had become totally corrupted, or “maculated” to use David Weiss Halivni’s preferred term, until Ezra, through a divine inspiration, restored the lost Mosaic Pentateuch:

Iraneaus, Against Heresies, 3.21.2 During the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar the Scriptures had been destroyed by corruption… But when seventy years later[11] the Jews had returned to their own land in the times of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, Ezra the priest of the tribe of Levi was inspired to order in his mind all the words of the former prophets and to reestablish the Mosaic legislation for the people.[12]

While maculation of the text is a different claim than 4 Ezra’s physical destruction, both sources assume that the pristine Mosaic revelation was lost until Ezra the scribe.

Classical rabbinic sources also claim that Ezra the Scribe repaired, replaced, or changed the Pentateuch after the destruction of the First Temple. However, some rabbinic sources soften the story from recreating a whole lost or corrupted text to simply changing an existing text’s script or language.

Ezra Is Like Moses

Like 4 Ezra, the Tosefta has Rabbi Jose [ben Halafta] (2nd cent. C.E.)[13] describing Ezra as a second Moses:

תוספתא סנהדרין [וינה] ד:ה(*ז) ר' יוסה אומ[ר]: "ראוי היה עזרא שתנתן תורה על ידו אילמלא קידמו משה...."[14]
t. Sanhedrin 4:5(*7) Rabbi Jose says: “Ezra was worthy that the Torah should have been given at his hand, if it hadn’t been that Moses preceded him…”[15]

Taken on its own, Rabbi Jose could merely be communicating Ezra’s great piety, but the Tosefta continues by claiming that Ezra did, in fact, write the Torah, its script and even its language:

תוספתא סנהדרין [וינה] ד:ה(*ח) ואף הוא ניתן על ידיו כתב ולשון.
t. Sanhedrin 4:5(*8) Indeed the writing and language was given at [Ezra’s] hand.

The Talmud backs up this bold statement with glosses on three verses, all based on word play (the bolded words, translated in the English), with loose attention to the original context, but the effect is only clear when we look at all three together.[16] The verses are translated according to the midrashic understanding, not according to the peshat/simple meaning in context):

שנאמר (עזרא ד:ז) "וּכְתָב הַנִּשְׁתְּוָן כָּתוּב אֲרָמִית וּמְתֻרְגָּם אֲרָמִית "—מה תרגומו ארמית אף כתבו ארמית.
As it is said (Ezra 4:7): “The writing changed (nishtavan) into Aramaic and translated into Aramaic.”[17] Just as the translation (=language) was Aramaic, so too was the writing (=script) in Aramaic.
ואומ[ר]: (דניאל ד:ח) ולא כהלין כתבא למקרי[18] וגו', מלמד שבאותו היום נוּתן.
And it says (Dan 5:8), “They could not [read] the writing of scripture (miqrei)”[19]—which teaches that it (=the new version) was only given on that very day.
ואומ[ר]: (דברים יז:יג) "וכתב לו את משנה התורה הזאת," תורה[20] העתידה לשתנות.
And it says (Deut 17:18): “He shall write for himself this changed form (mishneh) of the Torah”[21]—a Torah that is destined to change (lishtanot).

Starting at the end and working backwards, we learn that the Torah was destined to be changed by translating mishneh “copy” as lishtanot “changing.” When this change happened is clarified in the middle verse, which describes how scripture (miqra)—originally a reference to reading (miqre) the writing on the wall in Daniel—was unreadable. From the first verse we learn why scripture suddenly became unreadable: because it changed nishtavan—playing off an obscure Persian loanword that means “decree” or “letter.” In short, the midrash claims that in the time of Ezra the Scribe, the Torah was suddenly written in Aramaic, language and script. This was a new development, and thus, Ezra did, in fact, write the Torah—or at least a Torah.

This means that Ezra’s Torah is not the same as the original Torah of Moses, which was written in Hebrew and in Paleo-Hebrew script[22]—the Iron Age writing found on ancient ostraca and preserved in a derivative form by the Samaritans.[23] But Ezra cannot be blamed for introducing changes into the text of the Torah, since the Torah itself already predicted it; Ezra simply fulfills Moses’ charge to change the form of the Torah.[24] This version of the midrash does not explain how, if Ezra’s Torah is in Aramaic, rabbinic Jews use a Hebrew Torah, albeit in Aramaic script—a problem the Babylonian Talmud will take up.

Ezra Returns to Torah to the Original Aramaic Script

The Tosefta continues with a second version of the Ezra tradition, quoted in the name of R. Judah HaNasi, according to which the Torah we have today—written in Hebrew but in square Aramaic script—is the same as what was given to Moses on Sinai, and that it changed (somehow) into Paleo-Hebrew as a consequence of sin, but that eventually Ezra the scribe recreated the original:

תוספתא סנהדרין [וינה] ד:ה(*ח) ר[בי] אומר: "בכתב אשורי נתנה תורה לישראל וכשחטאו נהפכה להן לדחץ[25] וכשזכו בימי עזרא חזרה להן אשורית, שנ[אמר] (זכריה ט:יב) 'שׁוּבוּ לְבִצָּרוֹן [אֲסִירֵי הַתִּקְוָה גַּם הַיּוֹם מַגִּיד מִשְׁנֶה אָשִׁיב לָךְ].'"
t. Sanhedrin 4:5(*8) Rabbi (Judah HaNasi) says: “The Torah was [originally] given to Israel in Assyrian (=Aramaic) script but when they sinned it changed for them into Paleo-Hebrew. Then when they merited it in the days of Ezra, it returned for them into Aramaic writing. As it is said (Zech 9:12): ‘Return to the stronghold, [prisoners of hope, lo today I tell you I will restore to you the [original] copy (mishneh)].’”

The rabbinic exposition is again on the word mishneh, which appears in both Deuteronomy and Zechariah. In this case, understanding Zechariah to say that when the Judeans return to their land, God will restore the original copy of Moses’ Torah, which is what Ezra does. This version is more conservative than the previous one, since it presents Ezra’s Torah as identical to that of Moses, and only discusses change in script as opposed to language. At the same time, the midrash grants Ezra powers akin to what we saw in 4 Ezra, since he is restoring a lost version.[26]

Aramaic Writing Is Prettier: Jerusalem Talmud

Mishnah Megillah (1:8) states that while Torah scrolls can be written in any language, mezuzot and tefillin must be written only in Ashurit (Aramaic script). In its discussion of the Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud notes that Hebrew is beautiful to speak and Ashurit is an especially nice script, and follows this up with:

ירושלמי מגילה א:ט אֲשׁוּרִי יֵשׁ לוֹ כְתָב וְאֵין לוֹ לָשׁוֹן. עִבְרִי יֵשׁ לוֹ לָשׁוֹן וְאֵין לוֹ כְתָב. בָּחֲרוּ לָהֶם כְּתָב אֲשׁוּרִי וְלָשׁוֹן עִבְרִי.
j. Megillah 1:9 Assyrian has a written script but does not have a spoken form (i.e., a single spoken form, since it is used for multiple languages).[27] Hebrew has a spoken form (i.e., it was still spoken) but does not have a written script (anymore, since everyone wrote in Aramaic). [So] they (the Jews) chose [to render the Torah in] Assyrian writing (=Aramaic square script) but Hebrew language.[28]

Here the hybrid nature of the Torah’s writing is dealt with in a prosaic manner, based on aesthetic and cultural concerns: Hebrew no longer has its own script, so the Jews chose to write in imperial Aramaic script, a professional scribal script that was pleasant to write, easy to transcribe, and attractive in its final form.

This explanation for why the Torah is written in Aramaic script does not even mention Ezra. No miraculous intervention or midrashic proof is necessary; Aramaic script is simply prettier. Only after this prosaic explanation does the Jerusalem Talmud quote a version of the same Ezra midrash found in the Tosefta,[29] thus presenting his intervention as less significant, it is merely one possible way the Torah’s writing became what it did.

Ezra’s Torah Is Not Our Torah: Babylonian Talmud

A version of the Jerusalem Talmud’s “the people chose the language and script” explanation appears in the Babylonian Talmud, which presents the shift in how the Torah was written as having gone through three “historical” phases. In this version, Ezra’s Torah is actually written in the Aramaic language, like the first opinion in the Tosefta, but this is only the middle stage:

בבלי סנהדרין [קרלסרוהה רוכלין 2] כא: אמ[ר] רב חסדא[30] אמ[ר] מר עוקבא: "בתחילה ניתנה תורה לישר[אל] בכתב עבר[י] ולשון הקודש, חזרה ונתנה לה[ם] בימי עזרא בכתב אשורי ולשון ארמי, וביררו להן כתב אשורי ולשון הקוד[ש], והניחו להדיוטות כתב עברי ולשון ארמי."
b. Sanhedrin 21b Rav Hisda said that Mar Ukva said: “Originally, the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew writing and Hebrew language. Then it was given to them again in the days of Ezra in Assyrian script and Aramaic language. [In the end,] Israel chose for themselves the Aramaic script and Hebrew language, and they left the layfolks with Hebrew writing and Aramaic language.”

Mar Ukva claims that Ezra did produce a version of the Torah, but not the one we use. Eventually, the Jews—on their own—chose to keep Ezra’s preferred script but went back to the Hebrew language original, while the layfolks kept Ezra’s preferred language but the original Paleo-Hebrew script. The Talmud understands the term “layfolks” (hedyotot) as a reference to Samaritans:

בבלי סנהדרין [קרלסרוהה רוכלין 2] כא: מאן הדיוטות? אמ[ר] רב חסדא: "כותאי." ומא[י] כתב עברי? אמ[ר] רב חסד[א]: "כתבה ליבונאה."
b. Sanhedrin 21b Who are the layfolks [who kept the Hebrew script]? Rav Hisda said: they are the Samaritans. What is Hebrew script? Rav Hisda said it is brick writing [the writing of the ostraca].

Ancient Paleo-Hebrew was still visible throughout the land of Israel in the ostraca and other ancient archeological remains that survived into late antiquity, so the rabbis knew that the Samaritans didn’t just invent it and needed to account for how it was that they made use of the more ancient script.[31]

In short, the Babylonian Talmud here repurposed the story of Ezra’s recreating the Torah as way of explaining why Jews and Samaritans have different Torah texts. In this version, Ezra represents a middle phase in the Torah’s transformation—an entirely Aramaic text lost to history![32]

The Disappearance of the Ezra Tradition

While Jewish and Christian religious authorities would never entirely cease to claim that human hands had influenced the final form of the Pentateuch,[33] the story of an Ezran edition of the Pentateuch would not remain popular in Jewish or Christian circles beyond late antiquity. An important reason for this is the rise of Islam.

Islamic scholars brought with them the claim of tahrif (corruption or falsification), i.e., accusations that Jewish and Christian scriptures were falsified versions of an ancient pristine revelation that was finally fixed in the Quran. Many of these polemics mentioned stories about Ezra as proof for the corruption of the Hebrew Bible.[34]

In such an environment, late antique tales of an Ezran edition of the Bible became an embarrassment that Jewish and Christian authors would rather deny,[35] and the story largely disappeared from circulation.


February 2, 2024


Last Updated

February 25, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg is Assistant Professor in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from the University of Chicago and is the author of The Closed Book: How the Rabbis Taught the Jews (Not) to Read the Bible (Princeton University Press: 2023).