Reading Irenaeus, I came across the following gem in Against Heresies 3:21.2–
[D]uring the captivity of the people under Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures had been corrupted, and when, after seventy years, the Jews had returned to their own land, then, in the times of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, inspired Esdras the priest, of the tribe of Levi, to recast all the words of the former prophets, and to re-establish with the people the Mosaic legislation.
Many Christian fundamentalists today will criticize “liberal” scholars for positing that there were several sources making up the Books of the Torah (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly) and that they were compiled and edited into a single composition after the exile. “Jesus said Moses wrote ’em,” they’ll correctly yell! However, we run into problems such as Moses recording his own death, calling himself the most humble man in the world, and etcetera. How do we make sense of this?
“Well,” they say, “Maybe Joshua added those parts in.”
Why Joshua? Why not someone like, say, Ezra hundreds of years later?
What makes this theory credible is that the Bible itself teaches that the Law was found during Josiah (2 Chron 34:14) and that it was not until his reign that the Passover was held properly (2 Chron 35:18). Further, both Chronicles and Kings were obviously finished after the exile. At the very least the author of Ezra was likely the writer of Chronicles, as 2 Chronicles ends identical to how Ezra begins. We also have the fact that the books of the prophets appeared to have been edited and compiled. Isaiah 36-39 was obviously lifted right out of 2 Kings.
Plus, the 12 minor prophets were probably compiled in one book very early on, as we have a mention in the third century BC from Jesus of Sirach (Sir 49:1-9) that they were likely one book. This accords to how the same books were accounted by the Jews and early Christians in their count as a singular book.
While we have no historical evidence of Irenaeus’ theory, the evidence does not contradict the myth that Ezra reconstituted the whole Bible. The basis for the legend appears to be Neh 8:9 where it is recorded that after the Law was read publicly, “all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” Why? Likely they did not know they were breaking so many of its ordinances, as they had no familiarity with the teachings of the Law.
This got spun into a legend relayed in the apocryphal 2 Esdras, where in 14:45-46 it states:
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; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people.
From this Irenaeus, or whomever he borrowed the theory from, extrapolated that the Law must have been lost and only reconstituted by Ezra.
However, as we have discussed before, we have some textual reasons for this. We know for a fact that much of the Bible was not completed until the exile began, and these same Scriptures preserve for us historical mentions of the Law being lost. So, Irenaeus’ theory has merit, and it preserves the God-breathed authority of the Scripture as Ezra was a prophet.
You might not buy it, and that’s fine. But do you have a better theory? I’d be interested to hear it!
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.