One of the options for the reconstruction of the original version of the Eagle Vision of 4 Ezra 11-12 is that of paring away all mention of the three heads and eight small
wings. Surprisingly, this is rather easily accomplished, as all the small wing and three head passages can be easily isolated, since they appear mostly in two large blocks, with some other small additions elsewhere. This list describes all such perceived additions:
11.1: “and three heads”
11.45: “and your most evil little wings, and your malicious heads”
12.2: [all except for the first words of the sentence: "and behold" which belongs with the "And I looked" in verse 1, completing a stereotyped phrase]
12.3a: “And I looked, and behold, they also disappeared, and”
Removing the above list of elements yields a coherent vision and interpretation, and involves no complicated theories involving different numbers of large wings, small wings, or heads. It also fits perfectly with the otherwise agreed date of composition being in the reign of Domitian. He is depicted as the last wing/king before the appearance of the lion/Messiah.
[NOTE: This idea is similar to that of Leon Vaganay, as described in Le problème eschatologique dans le IVe livre d'Esdras (Paris: Picard, 1906): 20-23. His idea was that the original version of the Eagle Vision dated to the reign of Domitian, and did not include the small wings materials. He suggested that the following verses were added in 218 AD: 11.3, 10-11, 22-30; 12.1-3, 17-21, 29-31a, and that 12.14, 27-28 were altered. This would present the Eagle Vision as consisting of twelve wings and three heads. This would, however, still involve some imperial gymnastics in fitting twelve emperors into the twelve wings and three heads. My approach avoids such.]
One telling indicator that my approach may be the correct one is found in 4 Ezra 12.14: “And twelve kings shall reign in it, one after another.” Had the editor been more intrusive, the number “twelve” in this verse might have been altered to indicate the actual number of kings out of the twenty wings and three heads to actually rule. As it is, instead we find, in the material which I consider to be added in the Severan period, the further notice in 12.20: “Eight kings shall arise in it….”
Another thing to consider is that the addition of the eight little wings to the twelve large wings was not well thought out. If they are actually attached to the twelve, as stated in 11.3 and 12.19, then once the twelve disappeared, they would also be gone!
Below is the text of the Eagle Vision of 4 Ezra 11.1-12.36, with the elements I listed above removed. This makes it easier to appreciate the possibility, which I’m close to considering a certainty. The translation (with my deletions) is that of Michael Stone (Fourth Ezra. Hermeneia Commentaries. Fortress Press, 1990), which is certainly the most reliable version of 4 Ezra currently known. I have removed the chapter and verse numbering to aid in reading.
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And it came to pass on the second night I had a dream, and behold, there came up from the sea an eagle that had twelve wings.
And I looked, and behold, he spread his wings over all the earth, and all the winds of heaven blew upon him, and the clouds were gathered about him.
And I looked, and behold, the eagle flew with his wings, to reign over the earth and over those who dwell in it. And I saw how all things under heaven were subjected to him, and no one spoke against him, not even one of the creatures that was on the earth.
And I looked, and behold, the eagle rose upon his talons, and uttered a cry to his wings, saying, “Do not all watch at the same time; let each sleep in his own place and watch in his turn.”
And I looked, and behold, on the right side one wing arose, and it reigned over all the earth. And while it was reigning, its end came to it and it disappeared, so that its place was not seen. Then the next wing arose and reigned, and it continued to reign a long time. And while it was reigning, its end came also, so that it disappeared like the first. And behold, a voice sounded, saying to it, “Hear me, you who have ruled the earth all this time; I announce this to you before you disappear. After you no one shall rule as long as you, or even half as long.” Then the third wing raised itself up, and held the rule like the former ones, and it also disappeared. And so it went with all the wings; they wielded power one after another and then were never seen again.
Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Look before you and consider what you see.” And I looked, and behold, a creature like a lion was aroused out of the forest, roaring; and I heard how he uttered a man’s voice to the eagle, and spoke, saying,
“Listen and I will speak to you. The Most High says to you, ‘Are you not the one that remains of the four beasts which I had made to reign in my world, so that the end of the times might come through them? You, the fourth that has come, have conquered all the beasts that have gone before;
and you have held sway over the world with much terror,
and over all the earth with grievous oppression;
and for so long you have dwelt on the earth with deceit.
And you have judged the earth, but not with truth;
for you have afflicted the meek
and injured the peacable;
you have hated those who tell the truth,
and have loved liars;
you have destroyed the fortifications of those who brought forth fruit,
and have laid low the walls of those who did you no harm.
And so your insolence has come up before the Most High,
and your pride to the Mighty One.
And the Most High has looked upon his times, and behold, they are ended and his ages are completed!
“‘Therefore you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings, and your most evil talons, and your whole unjust body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgment and mercy of him who made it.'”
While the lion was saying these words to the eagle, I looked, and behold, the whole body of the eagle was burned, and the earth was exceedingly terrified.
Then I awoke in great perplexity of mind and great fear, and I said to my spirit, “Behold, you have brought this upon me, because you search out the ways of the Most High. Behold, I am still weary in mind and am very weak in my spirit, and not even a little strength is left in me, because of the great fear with which I have been terrified this night. Therefore I will now beseech the Most High that he may strengthen me to the end.”
And I said, “O sovereign Lord, if I have found favor in thy sight and if I have been favored before thee beyond many others, and if my preyer has indeed come up before thy face, strengthen me and show thy servant the interpretation and meaning of this terrifying vision, that thou mayest fully comfort my soul. For thou hast judged me worthy to be shown the end of the times and the last events of the times.”
He said to me, “This is the interpretation of this vision which you have seen: The eagle which you saw coming up from the sea is the fourth kingdom which appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel. But it was not explained to him as I now explain it to you. Behold, the days are coming when a kingdom shall arise on earth, and it shall be more terriying that all the kingdoms that have been before it. And twelve kings shall reign in it, one after another. But the second that is to reign shall hold sway for a longer time than any other of the twelve. This is the interpretation of the twelve wings that you saw.
“And as for the lion whom you say rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings. For first he will set them living in judgment, and when he has reproved them, then he will destroy them. But he will deliver in mercy a remnant of my people, those who have been saved throughout my borders, and he will make them joyful until the end comes, the day of judgment, of which I spoke to you at the beginning. This is the dream that you saw, and this is the interpretation. And you alone were worthy to learn this secret of the Most High.”