The origins of most traditional religions are lost in the mists of ancient history, leaving only myths behind. Despite what biblical literalists might argue, Judaism is no exception to this. Modern scholars can’t be totally sure Moses even existed, let alone taught exactly what we now know as the Torah. Also, there is ample evidence that the ancient Israelites were not strict monotheists, even as a matter of official policy. The movement to worship Yahweh only gained strength in the period after the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah had pretty much gained a monopoly on the religion. Kings like Hezekiah and Josiah aided the priests and prophets who supported a policy of one god worshipped at one temple. This development was disrupted by the conquest of the Babylonians, who brought members of the Jewish elite to Babylon, and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Belief in Yahweh did not die out, however, but in some ways became stronger, with the deity’s influence being seen even in the conquest and exile. Eventually, the Persian King Cyrus took over Babylon and its vassal states, and instituted what could be seen as a kinder, gentler empire.
His policies were often intended to keep the imperial subjects satisfied, and religious tolerance was among these. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus permitted the exiled Jews to return to their old homeland and rebuild the city of Jerusalem, including its temple. It was a minority of Jews who took advantage of this at first, but more would eventually follow. And that brings us to the scribe Ezra, a Levite and descendant of Aaronid priests, who came to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes.
Ezra’s main claim to fame was as a lawgiver, as he is said to have revived the laws of Moses. Indeed, his actions basically created modern Judaism, although of course there were other significant changes to follow. It seems that Ezra had a certain degree of freedom in deciding how to organize the religion, as the Jews of the time were more or less ignorant of the practices of their forefathers. Or maybe, considering how many inhabitants of Israel and Judah back in the day preferred to worship Baal or Asherah, they were TOO familiar with those practices. Whether the Torah already existed in its present form in Ezra’s time isn’t really clear, and it’s certainly possible that he was the one who combined various writings together into the five books of Moses that we know today.
In accordance with the law as recorded in the Torah, Ezra forbade interfaith marriages, castigating the Jews who had taken non-Jewish wives. I gather that he accepted converts to the faith, but not marriages to gentiles who held on to their old religious beliefs. After all, didn’t he have the examples of Solomon and other pious Jews being led into polytheistic idol worship by their foreign wives?
Some traditions hold Ezra responsible for not only producing the complete form of the Torah, but essentially the Tanakh as a whole. Obviously it didn’t include everything that it does today, as some of the books hadn’t been written yet, but his influence in this area was significant. According to the apocalyptic tradition adopted by some later Jews and early Christians, Ezra wrote both the known books of the Bible and some additional volumes of secret material. Even more commonly, the books of Chronicles are credited to the famed reformer. Although he established rules for a Jewish community with a rebuilt temple, his work was significant in making Judaism a religion of the law and the book, rather than one centered on the temple priesthood and the practice of animal sacrifice.
For as much influence as Ezra had, it appears that we don’t know a whole lot about his life. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (originally considered a single book) take place over a period of many years, and tradition describes Ezra as dying at the ripe old age of 120. Scholars suspect that there might have been some chronological confusion at work here, with Ezra being described as participating in events that actually occurred before or after his lifetime. While parts of the Book of Ezra are thought to come from the scribe’s personal memoirs, it’s quite likely that later scribes put it all together into its finished form, and they might have fudged some of the details.
This site in present-day Iraq is considered by legend to be Ezra’s burial place.