2017-12-19

It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Esther before Ahasuerus: Tintoretto

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Book of Esther is: Are the events recounted in it true? In other words, is the book historically accurate? Arguing against the book’s historicity is the fact that many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable. The following points are among the most obvious.

  • We know of no Persian queen named Esther, or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not expect there to have been one. Queens came from the noble Persian families, not from ethnic minorities. Moreover, real kings don’t choose queens from beauty contests. In fact, Esther enters the story more like a concubine, and only later emerges as a dignified queen. In contrast, Vashti, who was presumably a queen of proper ancestry and clearly in a high position at court, is treated like a concubine by Ahasuerus.
  • While Ahasuerus has been equated with Xerxes, no Persian king acted or would act the way Ahasuerus did. He is a king who cannot make the smallest decision without legal consultation, and leaves the big decisions to others altogether. Any resemblance to a real Persian king is purely coincidental.
  • To govern a country in which a law could never be changed would make governing impossible.1
  • A decree to annihilate the Jews is least at home in ancient Persia, an empire that is thought to have been relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups within it, and is portrayed positively elsewhere in the Bible.
  • This is the empire that permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, of which there is not a word in Esther.
  • The plot hangs on at least one particular hook that goes against all logic but which is crucial to the story: that Esther could keep her Jewish identity hidden while all the world knew that she was related to Mordecai and all the world knew that Mordecai was a Jew.

In contrast, those who defend the book’s historicity point to the authentic information about the Persian court and its many customs and institutions, and the use of a number of Persian terms. But it is not simply a matter of weighing one side’s proofs against the other side’s, for, when we look carefully at the points for and against historicity, it turns out that the historically authentic material is in the background and setting, while the main characters and the important elements in the plot are much farther removed from reality. If this were a modern work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction. While those terms may not be appropriate for the Bible, we can certainly recognize Esther as a form of imaginative storytelling, not unlike Jonah and Daniel, or Judith and Tobit in the Apocrypha. In fact, such storytelling was common in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and even Greek historians such as Herodotus, whose writings are given more credibility as history, include imaginative tales in their works. The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value; The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.

Berlin, Adele. n.d. Esther = [Ester]: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. pp. xvi-xvii

Of course in the gospels some of the “too fantastic to be believable” points have been written out and replaced by scholarly inventions. The most obvious example is that Jesus in the gospels was crucified for no good reason (except for being very good and being the messiah); so the gospel truth is replaced by the more plausible notion that Jesus must have been crucified for as a political rebel.

Pilate acts as unhistorically as does Ahasuerus.

But then again …. you never know. I mean, how else can you explain the existence of the Jews today if Esther was not historical? Why would anyone make it up? How else do you explain Purim? Maybe it was historical after all…. ?? (tongue is wedged deep into cheek)

 

 

12 Comments

  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2017-12-19 21:52:48 UTC - 21:52 | Permalink

    Furthermore, we know that there were four different versions of Esther in antiquity. The Masoretic text, the LXX, the Greek Alpha text und the Vorlage of Josephus. Perhaps there were some oral traditions. The additions to the Masoretic text are mainly sayings, a kind of Q 😉 Greetings, Kunigunde

    • David Fitzgerald
      2017-12-20 21:30:14 UTC - 21:30 | Permalink

      Interesting! Any other differences to the storyline in the other versions?

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-12-20 23:14:25 UTC - 23:14 | Permalink

        The differences (or rather addition of “explanatory” and colourful details to the original story) that I am following up are in the rabbinic traditions. Roger Aus in Water Into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist argues that both the miracle in the Gospel of John and the episode in the Gospel of Mark are based on Jewish traditions or retellings of the story of Esther. For example, on pages 62-63 he writes

        The LXX of Est 2:1 already notes that the king had “condemned” (katakrino) Vashti (to death). His having her “executed” is related in a large number of rabbinic sources.137 The Hebrew verb employed is הרג , “to kill,” which in legal contexts means decapitation by the sword, as in m. Sanh. 7:3.138 The most important rabbinic passages for the Marcan narrative are Est. Rab. 4/9 on Est 1:19, and 4/11 on Est 1:21.139 The first relates the offer of Memucan before the king in regard to Est. 1:19, “If it please the king, let there go forth a royal order”: “He said to him (the king), ‘My lord the king, say but a word and I will bring in her head on a platter.'”

        Unfortunately I have not been able to find the relevant section of Esther Rabbah online and in English. (If anyone can help I would greatly appreciate it.)

        (The footnotes, for anyone interested, are:

        137 Many are listed in The Legends 6.456, n. 42. Add to these Midr. Ps. 22/24 on Ps 22:12 (Buber 193; Braude 1.319), and 22/26 on Ps 22:17 (Buber 194; Braude 1.320). The latter passage is a statement by the early Tanna R. Nehemiah. See also the first targum to Esther on 2:1 and 5:1 (Grossfeld 44 and 58), and the second targum on Est 1:12 and 16 (Cassel English 295 and 296). In b. Meg. 12b the reading of the Munich MS is: “Therefore it was decreed that she should be killed naked on Sabbath” (Soncino 71, n. 2).

        138 Danby’s translation in The Mishnah 391 is: “The ordinance of them that are to be beheaded [is this]: they used to cut off his head with a sword as the government does. R. Judah says: This is shameful for him; but, rather, they lay his head on a block and cut if off with an axe. They said to him: There is no death more shameful than this.” Billerbeck called attention to this passage in Str- B 1.683 and 270; see also Grossfeld 181, n. 10. The second targum on Est 1:16 (Cassel Aramaic 34, English 296-97) has Memucan, the youngest minister, give his advice regarding execution first. This reflects Jewish legal procedure in a capital case, as prescribed by m. Sanh. 4:2 (Danby 387). On this, see y. Sanh. 4:8(2), 22b, where Est 1:16 is cited (English in J. Neusner, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, 31: Sanhedrin and Makkot [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984] 142), and Est. Rab. 4/6 on Est 1:16 (Soncino 9.60-61).

        139 Their relevance was already pointed out by Wettstein in 1752. See his Novum Testamentum Graecum, Tomus I, p. 413 on Matt 14:11.

      • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
        2017-12-21 18:00:56 UTC - 18:00 | Permalink

        The main differences between MT and LXX are

        A – an opening prologue that describes a dream had by Mordecai (not mentioned by Josephus)
        B – the contents of the decree against the Jews
        C – prayers for God’s intervention offered by Mordecai and by Esther
        D – an expansion of the scene in which Esther appears before the king
        E – a copy of the decree in favor of the Jews
        F – a passage in which Mordecai interprets his dream (from A – not mentioned by Josephus)

  • John MacDonald
    2017-12-19 21:59:51 UTC - 21:59 | Permalink

    “If this were a modem work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction.”

    – I think you meant a “modern” work, not a “modem” work, lol

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-12-21 21:54:01 UTC - 21:54 | Permalink

      A baud-y notion, to be sure.

  • Blood
    2017-12-20 00:07:12 UTC - 00:07 | Permalink

    The fictional (“mythical” if you like) literary character of certain people and stories in late Old Testament books are easily and casually admitted by Bible scholars. Neil could do a whole series on this.

    Daniel:
    “According to the consensus of modern critical scholarship, the stories about Daniel and his friends are legendary in character, and the hero himself most probably never existed.” — John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible, 1994)

    Ruth:
    “The story of Ruth … is seen to be a folk-tale, or better a short story which has been woven out of a folk-tale, which undoubtedly in its locality and period — Bethlehem, Moab, the time of the judges — is linked with historical events, but is otherwise pure fiction. The persons who appear in it are hardly likely to be historical.” — Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (1965)

    Job:
    “A good deal of the considerable discussion of the literary form of the Book of Job has been unprofitable. The naive view that it represents sober history need not be taken seriously, but it may very well be that there was a historical personage behind the story. Rabbi Simeon ben-Laqish opined that Job never existed and that the story is simply a poetic composition or parable.” — Marvin H. Pope, Job: The Anchor Bible Commentary (1965, 1973)

    Judith:
    “The book purports to be a historical account. Moreover, it has all the outward trappings of one, including various kinds of dates, numerous names of well-known persons and places, a most of all, a quite believable plot. Typical of genuine historical accounts, Judith includes a number of quite specific dates, and exact periods of time … (but) since Martin Luther, who viewed Judith as a poem and an allegorical passion play, scholars have noted the book’s shocking carelessness with well-established historical and geographical facts … Recently (and rightly) there has been a gradual shift toward a greater appreciation of chaps 1-7, especially as scholars view Judith more as a literary tale rather than a historical novel … most scholars of the last one hundred years have agreed that the author of Judith was concerned more with theology than with history and that he did not intend that his account be taken as describing actual events …” — Carey A. Moore, Judith: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible Series 40, 1985)

    Like Jesus, Judith, through skillful literary motifs, is made to appear “larger than life,” but unlike Jesus, such a powerful portrayal cannot be used to establish historicity. In fact, the portrayal betrays its literary artificiality. You will note that the exact opposite case is typically made for Jesus: because his character is portrayed so vividly, the most natural inference to be drawn is that he was a real person. 

    • David Fitzgerald
      2017-12-20 21:32:10 UTC - 21:32 | Permalink

      Nice! And good idea!

    • Tim Widowfield
      2017-12-21 21:57:01 UTC - 21:57 | Permalink

      As noted above, we can add Jonah, which a number of scholars happily admit is one long parable.

  • Vinny
    2017-12-20 12:08:27 UTC - 12:08 | Permalink

    If only we had a letter from someone who had encountered Esther’s biological brother, that would settle things.

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