The Apocryphal Apocalypse. The Reception of the Second Book of Esdras (4 Ezra) from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.
THIS ERUDITE TOUR DE FORCE is something more than a simple bibliographical examination of 2 Esdras, it is also an important contribution to the intellectual history of the period. 2 Esdras, sometimes referred to by different names, was reputed to have been written by Ezra the Scribe who is included among the "minor Prophets" of the Old Testament. The content of 2 Esdras and its alleged relationship to the Book of Ezra is summarized (15-21) as an introduction to Chapter 2 which sketches the medieval treatment of 2 Esdras. 2 Esdras is a short apocalypse that was probably written at the end of the first century CE. It is thus approximately contemporaneous with the canonical Book of Revelation. Parallels exist between the two books: the revelations are given by a supranatural person to the author and in both a large number of saints dressed in white appear. In 2 Esdras the meaning of the visions are immediately explained and it lacks Revelations's complexity and phantastic imagery. Its prophesies lent themselves to fit historical events and thus to have been fulfilled so that 2 Esdras became a handy instrument to argue the imminent end of the world. Its warnings and exhortations could be used in times of upheaval as well as in interdenominational polemics. Part of its appeal lay in the fact that phrases in its texts recalled phrases in the canonical gospels or the Book of Daniel. 2 Esdras was commonly treated as apocryphal and when it was ranked still lower, it was nevertheless thought worthy of attention. St. Jerome did not include it in his Bible (the Vulgate) because he knew of no Hebrew original. St. Ambrose on the other hand quoted from it freely even going so far as to accept its early composition--before Plato!--so that St. Paul actually followed Esdras rather than the Greek philosopher (24).
Hamilton's purpose is to examine the apparent popularity of 2 Esdras after the Middle Ages. It was quoted by authors on the margins of the established Churches, whether Catholic, Calvinist or Lutheran; by authors of such visionary movements as Paracelsians and Rosicrucians as well as by English millenarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His study, consequently, also fills in some of the gaps left by mainstream histories of ideas that tend to focus on dominant thinkers and their contributions to the development of civilisation. And even in the discussions of such luminaries as Isaac Newton or John Locke the histories highlight the great works of these thinkers but neglect other interests, for example their studies of the first centuries of the Christian Church and its uses of the apocrypha, in their search for a purer faith.
Hamilton sets out to examine the reception and use of 2 Esdras chronologically; he does so more or less by century. Within these periods the study of intellectual developments sometimes override chronology, but too often he interrupts his narrative by a "to whom we shall return later" that seems to serve little useful purpose. Perhaps the fault, if fault it is, lies with Hamilton's insistence on treating as many writers as possible. There are--to paraphrase a wellknown anecdotal evaluation of Mozart--too many names. Not unfamiliar with Dutch Reformation studies, I still learned some facts about some marginal figures that were active in the very villages of my youth.
Although the concern for the canonicity of holy scripture was not lacking in the Middle Ages, Hamilton does well to focus on the era of his choice. Renaissance scholars developed a wider and more precise knowledge of the three languages of the early church, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As a result of their studies, Renaissance humanists also developed tools for a linguistic analysis of texts. This development received great impetus from the Reformation whose proponents stressed not only the exclusive authority of the Bible but who also borrowed the argument from the Renaissance humanists that numerous textual errors had crept into the sacred texts as a result of poor language instruction, the use of incorrect models for copying, etc. Thus the late date for the composition of 2 Esdras by an anonymous author was accepted.
The humanists often learned their Hebrew from Jewish physicians and/or converted Jewish scholars. Inspired by the interest in Kabbalism of their teachers, the Christian scholars hoped for a conversion of the Jews which was generally accepted as a precondition for the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Jeruzalem of Revelation 21.2 Esdras served from time to time to focus interest on the Jews in a contemporary context. Some writers argued for their readmission to England--from which they had been excluded since the High Middle Ages--as a prelude to their conversion and their subsequent return--in Dutch and English ships --to Israel. Others referred to 2 Esdras in their discussion of the legendary lost tribes of Israel that sometimes were thought to be the ancestors of the American Indians and at other times the ancestors of the Tartars.
Interestingly enough the evaluation of the place of 2 Esdras among the sacred books remained as controversial as it had been. Martin Luther excluded it from "his" Bible although some later editions included it, and the Reformed churches meeting in the Synod of Dordt (1618) decided to include all the apocrypha but separated from the canonical books by means of a different typeface and pagination and placed at the very end of the bible. The Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent (1544-1563) decided to name the canonical books in a preface and pass over the noncanonical books in silence although they were all published together. 2 Esdras was among the books not mentioned. In his defense of this decision by the Council of Trent, Cardinal Bellarmine shows that the decree was mostly the acceptance of tradition but that the silence on 2 Esdras was in part based on its popularity among such radical movements as the Anabaptists who were also considered heretical by established Protestant denominations. Anglican bibles tended to follow the medieval tradition of including apocrypha but several leading Anglican churchmen opposed this. Joseph Hall, Bishop of Exeter and Norwich--and author of an misanthropic parody on Utopia called Mundus alter et idem (1605)--was among the more outspoken opponents of the Apocrypha.
Readers of Utopian Studies may have their appetite whetted by Hamilton's reference to Hall and the fact that Tommaso Campanella and Johann Valentin Andreae used 2 Esdras in some of their writings. Yet he glosses over the fact that each also wrote a utopia, namely the Citta del sole (1602) by the former and Christianopolis (1619) by the latter. Strictly speaking, as the secular utopias are not of this world, and prophesies announcing the end of the world are not important to their utopian designs, Hamilton's choice could be justified. Nevertheless--as I see it--in the case of Campanella perhaps and certainly in that of Andreae--the alleged founder of the Rosicrucians--the impetus for their utopias derived from an expectation that a better world--for which they drew up a plan--was imminent and each was clearly interested in the fulfillment of prophesies that heralded this end. And some millenarians also advocated the organisation of a perfect community on earth as preparatory to the new millennium. One of Hamilton's sources, an article about early Mennonite communities, is entitled "The Colony of Heaven: The Anabaptist Aspiration to be a Church without Spot or Wrinkle." (360). The reference to spotlessness could be Apocalyptic, for example to 2 Esdras 2 or Rev. 14, but it is more clearly a reference to Isaiah 64 whose spotted cloth was often used as a figure of speech for the sinner's soul in many mystic writers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Theirs was to be a preparatory Sion on this earth, made by human believers: a good place that was isolated from and juxtaposed to the imperfections of this world.
A translation of 2 Esdras, from the Authorized Version of the Bible, follows the Conclusion (303-36). There is also a useful bibliography (338-63).
Derk Visser (emeritus) Ursinus College
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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