Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 5: 2 Esdras

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Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 5: 2 Esdras

In this article, the fifth of our Early Adventism and the Apocrypha series, a saga exploring various books contained in early Adventist Bibles (and still retained in most Bibles around the world), we will discuss and discover the work known as 2 Esdras (or as scholars today refer to it, 4 Ezra). This work will be introduced, explored, and reflected on with regard to the role that it had within early Adventism. This was, single-handedly, the apocryphal book that carried the most weight spiritually in certain Adventist communities, having been studied, commented on, and even preached about the most by early Adventist pioneers. Its contributions to Adventism are likely larger than currently realized and certainly deserve attention.


Given that past studies have focused on the Apocrypha as a collected whole, a need has been perceived to produce a closer study of these individual works and the role that they both held in early Adventism, as well as the role that they can potentially still have for modern Adventists who wish to read these ancient works as Mrs. White once admonished that the church should do.


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The Book of 2 Esdras


The book of 2 Esdras was written after the close of the Second Temple period of Judaism’s history. It is “a Jewish apocalypse dating from the very end of the first century a.d.”[1][2] Although believed to have originally been written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. whereas other works of the Apocrypha are preserved in Greek, the book of 2 Esdras is preserved only in Latin, a translation from Greek. In other words, the work is three times removed in language from its original. It is the only absolute case of pseudepigraphy found in the Apocrypha, as the author claims to be Ezra, recording a series of visions he was given which complement and continue Daniel’s own (cf. 2 Esdras 12:11). It is also not a single work in and of itself, but three separate works which scholars identify as 4 Ezra (ch. 3-14), 5 Ezra (ch. 1-2), and 6 Ezra (ch. 15-16). The latter two were Christian additions added to the original book up to hundreds of years after its initial creation.


The book (including the original composition, plus additions) consists of a series of visions that Ezra is said to have experienced. Amongst these visions is also a narrative that recounts a legend of how supposedly all the books of Scripture had been destroyed in the Babylonian captivity. In reaction to this, God tells Ezra to begin re-writing out the books word for word as God dictates them. In the end, 2 Esdras 14 relates that God commands him to allow some books to be shared publicly (the canonical), while other books are kept secret only for the wise to ever see (the apocryphal).


Because the original core of the composition was written around the time that the book of Revelation was, it was not, nor ever had the chance, to be cited by any New Testament writers. Likewise, the parallels that do get noticed between the book and the New Testament are either the result of 5 and 6 Ezra, which were both Christian additions that were quoting the Gospels and Revelation to make the work more theologically friendly or are the result of Christian redactors who edited the manuscript. In the KJV translation which Adventists used at the time, for example, “Jesus” was named as the identity of the Son of God, whereas modern translations now recognize this as a later Christian scribal addition (2 Esdras 7:28, KJV).


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The debate over this work was not a lengthy one, as it was largely ignored by all Christian councils and universally deemed non-canonical. It was never included in the Septuagint. The book was repudiated by Jerome who refused to consider it for inclusion in the Latin Vulgate, but it was eventually added in many copies as an appendix by monks who enjoyed the work. Martin Luther is often, quite incorrectly, remembered or imagined for having rejected the Apocrypha due to his decision to move the works to their own section within his German translation of the Bible. The truth, however, is that he accepted several of the works as already or potentially canonical.[3] Luther, however, did not believe that the book of 2 Esdras was canonical and believed it to be a horrible work. Luther himself did not include 2 Esdras as part of his Bible’s Apocrypha, considering it unworthy of consideration for the canon.


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2 Esdras in Adventism


For Early Adventism, 2 Esdras was and remained the most popular apocryphal work to cite in discussions of prophecy. Previously published studies have explored the history of how 2 Esdras became part of the Millerite movement and influenced the early Sabbatarian Adventists who came to form what would become the Seventh-day Adventist church.[4] Readers who wish to explore this background are encouraged to look at those resources for further background. 2 Esdras was the first of only three apocryphal works that received the unanimous endorsement of the Review and Herald’s editors, which included James White and Uriah Smith.


In 1858, they publicly endorsed the Apocrypha as “containing much light and instruction,” and furthermore listed 2 Esdras as the first most recommended work to be read by Adventists. Moreover, they did not feel the need to provide a rationale for recommending it, as it was assumed that the book needed no introduction.[5] They concluded their editorial by remarking that at the time they were not prepared to either uphold or deny the inspiration of the book. This position would be echoed by different editors of the Review much later in 1910 when they noted that “It is possible… that some parts of The Apocrypha may be true Scripture, but The Apocrypha as a whole is not considered… as inspired Scripture…”[6]


These debates about inspiration amongst Adventists repeatedly show themselves. Some of the most direct statements about its inspiration stem from the beginning of the 20th century. In 1904, Esdras was still being referred to as a “Biblical writer.”[7] And the editors of the Signs of the Times could say as in 1906 that “2 Esdras by some is considered to be an inspired book,”[8] in 1911 that “some have believed that 2 Esdras was of greater authority… a prophecy,”[9] and as late as 1913 that “some have thought that 2 Esdras was inspired.”[10] On one occasion, a writer quotes from 2 Esdras and notes that: “Whether this is the word of God or not, it is true.”[11] Yet others would quote the work and simply add: “As to the inspiration of the foregoing we of course can not say.”[12]


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In 1869, D. M. Canright wrote an article examining the view of 2 Esdras on the immortality of the soul. He noted that “Although the books of the Apocrypha are not commonly regarded as being inspired, yet their testimony is important as showing the belief of the Jews at the time they were written.”[13] In areas of science and geology, the book was invoked to support presumptions about the past, such as one time when Clarke argued that the world was originally one large land continent with only a little water due to the description in 2 Esdras 6:42-52.


The earth, once probably a vast continent, with only a seventh part of its surface given to the waters, which no doubt were equally distributed through all its parts (see 2 Esdras 6:42-52), was rocked by tempests, and upheaved by earthquakes, until the crust of the earth fell in, and the water which had been confined to its center came to the surface; and now, instead of six parts land, we have only one part land and three parts water.[14]


Likewise, in the case of A. Smith, an attempt was made to use the same passage of 2 Esdras to prove that the core of the earth was not molten. In an article titled “Human Science Disproved,” he wrote in 1906 that the earth was made up of water inside it (something Clarke had also claimed but not emphasized): “Thus the popular theory that the interior of the earth is a molten mass intensely heated, is disproved by the Word of God.” [15] On the other hand, a few years later Godsmark tried in 1908 to use 2 Esdras 3:17-19 to prove that the Orion was a gate of Heaven and that the “Bible” supported Mrs. White’s visions.[16] Earlier, he had tried to invoke the book to determine the state of geology before the flood.[17]


At other times, 2 Esdras was invoked as a prophecy coming to be fulfilled in the events of the world seen by missionaries. D. T. Bordeau, while in Switzerland trying to gain access to Italy, noted that there was an outbreak of cholera which he asked the Review: “Is it not one of the ‘retributive judgments’ with which God is visiting the earth? We believe it is. (See 2 Esdras 16:19, 20; also recent testimonies.).”[18] On other occasions, Esdras was used to determine the location of the Garden of Eden, such as was attempted in an article by Arthur L. Manous in 1907.[19]


RELATED ARTICLE: Is the Bible “Inspired” or “Inspiring”?


On occasion, sermons or exegetical expositions were given on the book, just as had been done with the books of Tobit, Wisdom, and Sirach (covered in previous articles). Given the background of the Millerite movement’s interest in the prophecy of 2 Esdras 11 in relation to America’s involvement in prophecy, it is not surprising that this prophecy continued to attract interest. J. H. Waggoner, for example, wrote an article offering his own interpretation of the prophecy as the Civil War began in 1861.


Some have imbibed the idea that the eagle of 2 Esdras xi (Apocrypha), is a symbol of the United States, and especially since the Southern rebellion, thinking that the two heads that remained [verse 34] indicate the dissolution of the Union. Having been several times asked for my opinion on the subject, I would reply in this manner. There is no evidence in favor of such a view, but positive evidence against it. The lion [verse 37] that talked to the eagle said thus… (2 Esdras 11:39-43 quoted) … This shows that it refers to Rome, especially to Papal Rome. If any doubt remains, it is removed in the explanation given in chap. xii, 11: ‘The eagle whom thou sawest come up from the sea, is the kingdom which was seen in the vision of thy brother Daniel.’ A correct understanding of this matter is most important at this time, as the view above referred to serves to sustain another error, namely, that the dissolution of the Union will be the development of the horns of the two-horned beast.[20]


In 1871, D. M. Canright also published a study of 2 Esdras 2 in the Review. His reflections mirrored J. N. Andrews who a couple of years prior, had written an article on the chapter and expressed his belief that it was true and in harmony with Revelation[21] Canright’s much lengthier commentary noted the following:


This is a most interesting chapter. It seems to me to give good evidence of inspiration. To the believer in present truth it is of especial interest. I will notice a few points. To the righteous, he says, ‘I will give thee the first place in my resurrection.’ Verse 23. This is equivalent to the first resurrection in Rev. 20. Again he says, ‘Remember thy children that sleep, for I shall bring them out of the sides of the earth, and show mercy unto them.’ Verse 31. This teaches that the saints sleep in the earth, the same as in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. There are many things in this chapter that seem clearly to refer to the work of the third message.[22]


On other occasions, typical pastoral exhortations were offered, utilizing the book. In 1878, Joseph Clark gave a short homily on overcoming:


‘For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world.’ 1 John 5:4. In the same connection, the apostle gives us the clue as to the way the world is to be overcome, in these words: ‘And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’ He continues thus: ‘Who is he that overcometh the world, but that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?’ Esdras says: ‘Be not afraid, neither doubt; for God is your guide; and the God of them who keep my commandments and precepts, saith the Lord God. Let not your sins weigh you down, and let not your iniquities lift up themselves. Wo be unto them that are bound with their sins, and covered with their iniquities, like as a field is covered over with bushes, and the path thereof covered with thorns, that no man may travel through! It is left undressed, and is cast into the fire to be consumed therewith.’ 2 Esdras 16:75-78.

To overcome, we need all the aid of the Holy Spirit’s influence. Some sins become like a fever, intermittent; and we are as incapable of overcoming them as of avoiding bodily disease, in and of ourselves; hence the indispensable quality, or grace, of faith; hence, too, the necessity of prayer, and continued watchfulness, a faith that will not relax its hold upon God, and a spirit of prayer and watchfulness as habitual as the beating of the pulse. All is at stake. Shall we overcome? In our own strength we cannot, but in God we may overcome.[23]


Mrs. White made a number of references to 2 Esdras throughout her lifetime. To name a few, one could mention of course the notorious Word to the Little Flock pamphlet originally released in 1847, in which the young Ellen White alludes to or quotes from the book of 2 Esdras seven or more times in her first visions. Most of these quotations are provided by James White himself at the bottom of the document and cited as “scripture.”


Others have been identified by Ron Graybill and myself. Likewise, she continued to draw on these texts in another vision from 1847.[24] In 1850, she had a vision that also drew upon the work.[25] And in 1862, she referred to Ezra as a prophet,[26] a fact she later alludes to again in 1899.[27] In her later age, she would write accounts of Ezra’s attempts to preserve scripture from destruction, still echoing the narrative derived from 2 Esdras.[28]


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Even without these few examples of her usage, her early endorsements of the entire apocryphal collection stand as an implicit affirmation of the need for Adventists to read and study these works. Likewise, James White felt that it was vitally important that all Adventists have available to them the entire collection of the Apocrypha, including the books of Maccabees. He compared the need for having an Adventist printing of the Apocrypha to the same importance as publishing a second edition of one of Mrs. White’s writings.[29]




In conclusion, several things can be noted regarding the use of the book of 2 Esdras by early Adventists:


  1. The book was widely accepted in the first sixty or so years of Adventism as inspired.
  2. No criticism of the book is known from any Adventist writer, making it the unique exception amongst the collection discussed in these articles.
  3. It was primarily valued for its potential as a partner in prophetic interpretation with the book of Daniel.


Regardless of whether Adventists today are willing to share James White’s enthusiasm or affirm Mrs. White’s younger affirmation that the Apocrypha, and the books of Maccabees, are part of the Word of God, as she repeatedly claimed in her 1849 vision, surely many Adventists can begin today to once again agree with her that these works are worth our time and study for both historical and spiritual edification. The Apocrypha, and specifically the book of 2 Esdras, are truly part of our Adventist background in many unforeseen and important ways. It’s time we paid attention again.

Click here to read the rest of this series on early Adventism and the Apocrypha



[1] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 278.

[2] Daniel Harrington, “Maccabees, First and Second Books of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 838.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vols. 1-55 (Philadelphia, PA; Saint

Louis, MI: Fortress Press and Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986): 35:353.

[4] See Matthew Korpman, “Adventism’s Hidden Book: A Brief History of the Apocrypha,” Spectrum 46:1 (2018): 56-65.

[5] Editors, “To Correspondents: Old Style and New,” Review and Herald 12:12 (1858): 96.

[6] Editors, “Question Corner,” Review and Herald 37:23 (1910): 2.

[7] Editors, “The First Verse in the Bible,” Bible Training School 3:7 (1904): 107.

[8] Editors, “Question Corner,” Signs of the Times 32:16 (1906): 5.

[9] Editors, “Question Corner,” Signs of the Times 38:37 (1911): 2.

[10] Editors, “Question Corner,” Signs of the Times 40:26 (1913): 2.

[11] O. C. Godsmark, “I Will Remember Their Sin No More,” Review and Herald 73:10 (1896): 146.

[12] O. C. Gosmark, “Easy Lessons in Bible Astronomy. Chapter V. Our Earth before the Flood,” The Youth’s Instructor 49: 39 (1901): 306.

[13] D. M. Canright, “The Nature of Man and Punishment of the Wicked, As Taught in the Apocrypha,” Review and Herald 34:5 (1869): 34.

[14] Joseph Clarke, “The Second Death,” Review and Herald 57:6 (1881): 85.

[15] A. Smith, “Human Science Disproved,” The West Michigan Herald 4:15 (1906): 4.

[16] O. C. Godsmark, “Astronomical Study – No. V: The Gap in the Sky,” The Youth’s Instructor 48:17 (1900): 131.

[17] Gosmark, “Easy Lessons in Bible Astronomy. Chapter V. Our Earth before the Flood,” 306.

[18] D. T. Bordeau, “Switzerland. Notes By The Way.” Review and Herald 61:40 (1884): 635.

[19] Arthur L. Manous, “The Original Home of Man,” Signs of the Times 33:39 (1907): 9.

[20] J. H. Waggoner, “The Eagle of 2 Esdras XI,” Review and Herald 18:23 (1861): 183.

[21] J. N. Andrews, “Worthy of Notice,” Review and Herald 34:19 (1869): 148.

[22] D. M. Canright, “2 Esdras 2,” Review and Herald 38:8 (1871): 58.

[23] Joseph Clark, “Overcoming,” Review and Herald 52:22 (1878): 170.

[24] Ellen White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald, 1882), 33 (cf. 2 Esdras 15:4 and


[25] Compare 2 Esdras 13 with Early Writings, 52-54.

[26] Ellen White, “Power of Example,” Review and Herald 18.5 (1862): 37-38.

[27] Ellen White, “An Example of Faithfulness – No. 1,” Review and Herald 76.18 (1899): 273.

[28] Ellen White, “The Return of the Exiles – No. 12 (concluded),” Review and Herald 85.6 (1908): 8.

[29] James White, Review and Herald 33:6 (1869): 48.

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About the author

Matthew Korpman

Matthew J. Korpman is a student at Yale Divinity School, pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion. He is a graduate of La Sierra University, where he worked at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School as a Teaching Assistant. He is the upcoming author of the book “Saying No to God,” due to be released in December 2019.