The Fourth Book of Ezra is an extra-biblical apocalyptic Jewish text. The biblical prophet Ezra is not the author of these words. Apparently some other Jewish writer, living towards the end of the first century CE, wrote in the name of Ezra. The text is very Jewish in thought and expression, but it survived to our day only in Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian and Arabic translations. Fourth Ezra is valuable to students of antiquity because it depicts authentic Jewish thinking and theology from in the 1st century CE. In this excerpt, the author speaks with an angel in heaven and laments over the human fate of suffering in sin and error. Compare Ezra’s exclamation that it would be better than Adam never lived with Jesus’ words about Judas in Mark 14:21 and Matthew 26:24. Ezra speaks of rewards in paradise and contrasts them with punishment for sin in the afterlife. Compare how the angel reconciles the idea of God’s abundant mercy with the judgment of sinners, strikingly similar to Jesus’ words in the Gospels (cf. Matt 7:13-14; 22:14; Mark 10:26; Luke 13:22-23). The world was made for many, but the world to come was made for few.
I (Ezra) answered and said, “This is my first and last word: It would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an eternal age has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised us, but we have miserably failed? Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly? Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it, because we have lived in unseemly places? Or that the faces of those who practiced self-control shall shine more than the stars but our faces shall be blacker than darkness? For while we lived and committed iniquity we did not consider what we should suffer after death.”
He (angel) answered and said, “This is the meaning of the contest which every man who is born on earth shall wage, that if he is defeated he shall suffer what you have said, but if he is victorious he shall receive what I have said. For this is the way of which Moses, while he was alive, spoke to the people, saying, ‘Choose for yourself life, that you may live!’ But they did not believe him, or the prophets after him, or even myself who have spoken to them. Therefore there shall not be grief at their damnation, so much as joy over those to whom salvation is assured.”
I (Ezra) answered and said, “I know, my lord, that the Most High is now called merciful, because he has mercy on those who have not yet come into the world; and gracious, because he is gracious to those who turn in repentance to his law; and patient, because he shows patience toward those who have sinned, since they are his own works; and bountiful, because he would rather give than take away; and abundant in compassion, because he makes his compassions abound more and more to those now living and to those who are gone and to those yet to come, for if he did not make them abound, the world with those who inhabit it would not have life; and he is called giver, because if he did not give out of his goodness so that those who have committed iniquities might be relieved of them, not one ten-thousandth of mankind could have life; and judge, because if he did not pardon those who were created by his word and blot out the multitude of their sins, there would probably be left only very few of the innumerable multitude.”
He (angel) answered me and said, “The Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of few. But I will tell you a parable, Ezra. Just as, when you ask the earth, it will tell you that it provides very much clay from which earthenware is made, but only a little dust from which gold comes; so is the course of the present world. Many have been created, but few will be saved.” (4 Ezra 7:115-8:3 Charlesworth translation)