"Behold, the days of tribulation are at hand, and I will deliver you from them. The Book of Second Esdras
The traditional epistle for All Saints' Day is from the Revelation to John [7: 2- 12] with the vision of the sealing of the 144,000 and the multitude of heaven:
and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11 And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, Revelation 7: 9- 11 RSV
Revelation is also referred to as The Apocalypse and forms a triumphant finish to the New Testament, a revelation of what is to come. Yet there are other scriptural apocalypses with visions of the end of times.
The book called 2 Esdras is found in the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals and forms part of the inter-testament scriptural works which has divided Western Christianity since the 16thC where at best the books are accepted as fully canonical [Trent 1546], to tolerated by Anglicans and Lutherans as ' books [ ] not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.', to being tossed altogether by the Reformed.
Uniquely unlike the rest of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books, 2 Esdras is allocated in the Clement VIII's Vulgate 1592 to an appendix to the New Testament along with the Prayer of Manasses and 1 Esdras with the notation 'lest they perish entirely'.
Second Esdras is further unique in both the complexity of the name as well as the contents with it at times referred to as 4 Esdras [1 and 2 being the books of Ezra and Nehemiah] and 1 Esdras of the deuterocanonicals alternately number three.
The core of 2 Esdras is chapters 3:1 to 14:48 with seven episodes of the Prophet Ezra's dialogs and visions culminating in God's command to publish what he had heard and seen in preparation for the end of time.
For the age is divided into twelve parts, and nine of its parts have already passed, 12 as well as half of the tenth part; so two of its parts remain, besides half of the tenth part. 13 Now therefore, set your house in order, and reprove your people; comfort the lowly among them, and instruct those that are wise."
2 Esdras 14: 11- 13 RSV
The Jewish apocryphal work was very influential on developing Christianity, so much so that two more sections were added, one as an introduction [chapters 1:1- 2:48] and the other as a conclusion [15:1- 16: 78] To add to the complexity of the name, the introduction is called 5 Esdras and the final chapters as sixth. They contain two early Christian apocalypses.
42 I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude, which I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. 43 In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. 44 Then I asked an angel, "Who are these, my lord?" 45 He answered and said to me, "These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and they have confessed the name of God; now they are being crowned, and receive palms." 2 Esdras 2: 42- 45 RSV
18 The beginning of sorrows, when there shall be much lamentation; the beginning of famine, when many shall perish; the beginning of wars, when the powers shall be terrified; the beginning of calamities, when all shall tremble. What shall they do in these circumstances, when the calamities come? 2 Esdras 16: 18 RSV
74 "Hear, my elect," says the Lord. "Behold, the days of tribulation are at hand, and I will deliver you from them. 75 Do not fear or doubt, for God is your guide 2 Esdras 16: 74- 75 RSV
On reading 2 Esdras one may note the parallels in visions and themes found in the more familiar Revelation to John.
The sources of the standard English translation [RSV] cover the whole of the early Christian world with the basis from the pre-Vulgate Old Latin version supplemented by reference to Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian and Arabic translations, besides verses recovered from fragments of chapter 15 in Greek from excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.
The dating of 2 Esdras puts it in the late 1st century with some scholars as late as 218 CE for '6 Esdras'.
34 Therefore I say to you, O nations that hear and understand, "Await your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. 35 Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because the eternal light will shine upon you for evermore. 2 Esdras 2: 34- 35 RSV forms the basis of the familiar requiem antiphon "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them"
Perhaps the most unforeseen influence of the book is that had it not been for Christopher Columbus using 2 Esdras as a proof text to persuade the Catholic Monarchs to finance his voyage 1492, the history of the Americas might have been much different referring to the Man of the Seas vision in 2 Esdras 13 and more crucially the supposed size of the Atlantic Ocean in 2 Esdras 6:
42 "On the third day thou didst command the waters to be gathered together in the seventh part of the earth; six parts thou didst dry up and keep so that some of them might be planted and cultivated and be of service before thee. RSV
Second Esdras remains an almost forgotten scriptural gem out of which we are fortunate throughout the Church year but to see even snippets. As we contemplate our journey through November to Advent, this book gives us a fresh vision of what is to come.
Fr R Sorfleet
All Saints' Day
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