Esther and History -- By: William H. Shea
BSP 12:3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1983) p. 90
Esther and History
A number of debates have swirled around the book of Esther in the centuries since it was written.
Both Jewish rabbis and the fathers of the early Christian Church debated whether it should even belong in the canon of Scripture. (One reason that the Christians questioned its canonicity was that New Testament writers neither quoted nor alluded to it.) The Essenes of Qumran apparently had a rather negative view of Esther as well; it is the only book of the Hebrew Bible that is not attested among the Dead Sea Scrolls—the fragments that have survived from their library.
The striking absence of the name of God from its pages, in spite of the fact that it mentions the King of Persia 190 times, raised questions in the minds of some. Certain early Christian writers found Esther nationalistic and anti Gentile in tone, as well as describing the origin of a Jewish festival that had no relevance for the Christian calendar and that may even have had connection with a pagan prototype. Esther herself has not escaped unscathed. Although she finally emerges as the heroine of the book, her status as wife and queen of a pagan king and the way she obtained that position have come in for occasional criticism.
Finally is the modern historical question: Did the events described in Esther really occur? It is this question that I want to examine.
The nature of extra-Biblical sources for Persian history in the fifth century b.c. provides only an indirect answer at best. Yet I suggest that a reasonable context for some of the events Esther describes can be derived from such sources.
One of the arguments against the historicity of Esther is that its details do not fit what we know of the career of Xerxes from extra-Biblical sources. The book dates Esther’s arrival at court in the seventh year of Xerxes (see 2:16) when, according to Herodotus, the king was on the western battlefront fighting the Greeks. Esther is identified in the book as Xerxes’ queen from his seventh year until at least his twelfth year (see 3:7), but
BSP 12:3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1983) p. 91
according to one interpretation of Herodotus, Amestris is supposed to have been his queen through that five-year interval. “If Esther is this inaccurate on points in which the book purports to provide considerable detail,” say the critics, “then its historicity can reasonably be called into question.”
Before taking up some of these detailed historical matters, we should ask: Have the events of Esther been connected with the right king? Is the Ahasuerus of...
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