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The Historicity of Megillat Esther

Recently, the historicity of the biblical book of Esther - whether the book is historically true - has been called into question an a most bold and audacious manner. Because the challenger writes with such overstated confidence in this matter, I have been easily convinced to take up my pen once again and demonstrate how thinly substantiated his claim is. What I intend to show here is that there is ample basis to support the claim that the book of Esther is historical and accurate. No, not all historians accept this. But many prominent historians do, so the challenge that the book of Esther is ahistorical lacks force. The believing Jew (and Christian) can easily respond that there is insufficient evidence to disprove the historicity of Esther. Because there is so much scholarly literature on the subject, this essay will consist mostly of quotations from mainstream historians who have written on the subject.

But first I need to point out that the issue under question is the historical accuracy of the book of Esther, not the related midrashim. We certainly know that many, perhaps most, midrashim were intended to relay allegorical religious messages and not to decsribe historical facts, as commentators such as Maharal and Maharsha demonstrate at length. Distinguishing between literal and allegorical midrashim is frequently a difficult task. However, if science or history conclusively demonstrates that a midrash cannot be literally true then we have been assisted in our understanding of this midrash. It has been proven to be allegorical, not untrue (if the proof is truly as strong as its proponent claims). Therefore, we are here only concerned with the actual biblical text and not assorted midrashim.

When and where was Megillat Esther written?

In view of Esther's setting in Susa [Shushan], its Persian background, its Aramaisms, and its lack of reference to Palestine, there is widespread agreement that Esther was composed in the eastern Diaspora, quite probably at Susa [Shushan] itself.

(E. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, p. 226)

Carey Moore prefers to date Esther in the late Persian Period, that is, in the early fourth century [BCE]. Robert Gordis favors a similar date... Shemaryahu Talmon argues for a still earlier date... he concludes: "The traditional setting of the book in the days of Xerxes [Achashverosh] (485-465 BC[E]) cannot be wide of the mark." I would agree with his position.

(Yamauchi, pp. 227-228)

Is the portrayal of Achashverosh believable?

A study of Persian records indicates that Xerxes [Achashverosh] was a far more successful ruler than Herodotus would suggest... Xerxes [Achashverosh] used the fabulous wealth of his empire to build the most magnificent structure of Achaemonian times, the palace of Persepolis... He did, of course, also build at Susa [Shushan], but that site is not well preserved today... Xerxes' [Achashverosh's] empire did extend from India to Ethiopia, and Xerxes [Achashverosh] did have a winter palace at Susa [Shushan], which had features not incompatible with the architectural detail given in [the book of Esther]. Famous for his lavish drinking parties and his extravagant promises and gifts, Xerxes [Achashverosh] also had, on occasion, a nast, irrational temper.

(C. Moore, Anchor Bible: Esther, pp. XXVIII-XLI)

Does the book of Esther portray the Persian government properly?

[T]he author of Esther shows awareness of certain features of Persian government, such as the seven princely advisers and the very efficient postal system; he is also familiar with certain practices of Persian court life, including obeisance to the king's high officials and the reading and rewarding of the king's "benefactors." The author is also aware of various details and Persian customs, among them hanging as a form of capital punishment... And, finally, the author uses a number of Persian nouns...

(Moore, p. XLI)

Is Vashti an historical figure?

One of the most serious discrepancies cited by scholars to discredit the historicity of Esther is the fact that Herodotus indicates that Xerxes' [Achashverosh's] queen was Amestris, rather than the biblical Esther... J. Stafford Wright has suggested that by assuming certain phonetic modifications, an identification of Vashti with Amestris can be made - a conclusion accepted also by William Shea.

(Yamauchi, pp. 230-231)

Were there really 127 provinces in Achashverosh's kingdom?

[O. Leuze] points out that the [twenty-three] satrapies cover lesser divisions of up to seventy-one peoples and districts, which is an incomplete figure, lacking (e.g.) such constituent districts or (sub) provinces for the fifth, twelfth, and thirteenth satrapies (if not others also). The final total would not be far off the "127 provinces" ascribed to Xerxes [Achashverosh] in Esther 1:1, using the same term (medina) that was applied to Judaea (in Persian Aramaic, Yehud) as a local district, as in Ezra 5:8 and Neh. 1:3.

(K. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 516 n. 20)

Is Mordechai an historical figure?

The case for the historical identification of Mordecai with Marduka, attested as a Royal Persian official, has been complicated by the publication of the Elamite tablets from Persepolis. We now have more than thirty texts dated between 505 and 499 [BCE], with the name Marduka or Marduku, which may refer to up to four individuals. Although we cannot be certain, it is possible that one of these may have been the biblical Mordecai.

(Yamauchi, p. 235)

In conclusion:

Gordis summarizes the various lines in favor of the historicity of Esther by concluding, "all in all, the case for the historical basis for the book is impressive." Moore admits, "on the face of it, the story seems to be true... Nothing in the book seems improbable, let alone unbelievable." If this is the case, and if the alleged historical problems are not insoluble, then it would seem preferable to take the book at face value as a historical narrative rather than to resort to subjective and highly speculative reconstructions. Scholars such as Wright, Shea, and Claus Schedl have indeed argues for such a view.

(Yamauchi, p. 239)

Regarding the issue of the inclusion of Esther in the Bible, see here.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 4/16/04
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