Esther and history—1

Jewish rabbis and early Church Fathers debated whether the book of Esther should be included in the canon of Scripture. Today we are faced with a historical question: Did the events described in Esther really occur?

William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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 modem 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 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 Esther really the Persian king more commonly known as Xerxes?

Linguistic relations between these two names leave no doubt about their equivalence. Besides the Hebrew Bible, Xerxes' name is attested in texts written in five ancient Near Eastern languages: Old Per sian, Elamite, Aramaic, Egyptian, and the Babylonia dialect of Akkadian. All of these written forms of Xerxes' name can be equated through a few well-known phonetic shifts, and they can also be related directly to the Biblical Ahasuerus. For example, the transliterated form of the name in Hebrew,' Achashwerosh, compares favorably with the Old Persian form, Khashayarsha, and the Babylonian, Ahshiyarshu. (See SDA Bible Dictionary, p. 22). Whether or not the historical details fit, therefore, it is evident that by using this king's name, the author of Esther clearly intended to locate its events during Xerxes' reign.

While cuneiform sources do help some what in determining events during Xerxes' reign, they are not nearly so helpful as the Greek sources, especially the account of Herodotus, who traveled through the Near East less than a quarter century after Xerxes' death. These Greek sources have been the subject of recent major studies by A. R. Burn, C. Hignett, and P. Green. 1 Combined with sources from the ancient Near East, these authors provide us with a rather full picture of important events during the reign of Xerxes.

The first known event of significance in Xerxes' reign is his suppression of the Egyptian revolt. Darius, his predecessor, died late in 486 B.C. before he was able to attend to the matter, leaving it for Xerxes to deal with. Since inscriptions dated to Xerxes' reign appear in Egypt early in 484 B.C., his suppression of that revolt can be safely assigned to 485 B.C.

With Egypt under control again, Xerxes was free to direct his attention to the campaign against Greece. On this basis, it has been suggested that the 180-day "banquet" in Xerxes' third year (see Esther 1:1-4) be put within the setting of the planning session for his Greek campaign. The presence of the "army" (1:3, Masoretic Text) or the "officers of the army" (Septuagint) in Susa at that time lends some support to this suggestion.

The capital, Susa or Shushan, was located just east of the Mesopotamian plain, and the heat was so intense during the summer months that the Persian kings resided at higher altitudes on the Iranian plateau during that time. Thus it seems reasonable to estimate that these six months referred to in Esther probably began in the fall and ended in the spring. If so, the seven-day celebration immediately following (see verse 5) could coincide with the spring New Year's festival which signaled the start of Xerxes' fourth regnal year. Such a celebration would have been a likely occasion for the participation of the entire populace of Susa as described in Esther 1:5: "And when these days were expired, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the palace, both unto great and small, seven days." Xerxes should have started on his campaign to Greece shortly thereafter, but he was delayed for another year by a revolt in Babylonia. The reason for this revolt is not known, but possibly it was connected with a refusal by the Babylonians to contribute troops to Xerxes' army.

With both Egypt and Babylonia now well in hand, Xerxes departed from Persia with his army in the spring or summer of his fifth year, 481 B.C. He arrived at Sardis in western Anatolia in the fall and spent the winter there. His first campaign carried him into Greece in his sixth year, or 480 B.C. The major land battle of that campaign was fought at Thermopylae in August, and the major sea battle was fought at Salarnis in September. Xerxes then left Athens for Anatolia by the first of October, crossed the Hellespont by mid- November, and reached his winter quarters at Sardis by the end of that same month.

These chronological data bear some relation to the references regarding Xerxes' search for a new queen as related in Esther if we work backwards from the time that Esther went in to Xerxes (his seventh year). Esther 2:12 states that the preparation period prior to that time was twelve months. The text does not say what day of the month Esther went in to the king, but according to the table on Babylonian chronology prepared by R. A. Parker and W. H. Dubberstein, it could not have been later than the last day of the month which corresponded to January 20, 478 B.C. Esther should have commenced her preparation, then, twelve lunar months earlier at the end of January, 479 B.C. Minor chronological variables could alter this date by a month or so.

The chronology reconstructed here indicates that Xerxes sent out his edict ordering the beauties of the kingdom to be collected at Susa in preparation for his return while he was still at his headquarters in Sardis during the winter of 480/479 B.C. Does this conflict with any information from the book of Esther?

Involved here are two questions, one geographical, the other chronological. As far as geography is concerned, the text of Esther does not indicate that Xerxes was away from Susa when he issued his order, but neither does it state that he was in Susa. Thus it permits either reconstruction. The chronological references in Esther allow sufficient time for Xerxes' edict to have reached Susa before Esther commenced her period of preparation, especially in view of the speed with which the Persian courier service is credited. Herodotus' familiar tribute to the Persian courier is inscribed today on the New York City Post Office building: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

While Esther does not necessarily require Xerxes to be in Susa when he issued his order for candidates to be prepared in anticipation of selecting a new queen, it obviously does require that he had to be back in Persia by the time those candidates appeared before him a year later (see Esther 2:8-20). Did he make it back in time? Xerxes did not return to Greece with his troops when he sent his army off on the even more disastrous campaign of 479 B.C.., but neither did he leave Sardis for Persia until a few days after some of the Persian survivors from the battle of Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor arrived there late in August of that year. We may thus estimate that Xerxes left for Susa around the first of September, which was the beginning of the seventh Babylonian-Persian month of his seventh year.

Because Xerxes probably returned to Persia from his Greek debacle in the autumn of the year, he must have gone to his winter residence at Susa, as Herodotus indicates. This also accords remarkably well with the Biblical narrative, since Esther was in Susa/Shushan when she went in to him (see 2:8, 16). From the chronological factors involved, Xerxes must have had at least three months (or five months, if one adopts the Septuagint's figures) to return to Susa from Sardis before Esther went in to him sometime in the tenth month (or twelfth month according to the Septuagint) of that seventh year.

This comparison of the geographical and chronological data given in Esther with information from extra-Biblical sources does not prove that the events described in Esther are historical, but it does demonstrate that they can be placed in a framework of space and time that is compatible with what we know from secular historians. We can conclude that Esther does not contradict Herodotus on these matters by putting Xerxes at some place on a particular date that is incompatible with that historian.

The identity of the queen who preceded Esther and some other points of contention will be examined in a concluding article. 2

Notes:

1 Burn, A.R., Persia and the Greeks, (Arnold: London, 1962); Hignett, C., Xerxes' Invasion of Greece, (Oxford: London, 1963); Green, P., Xerxes at Salamis, (Praegen New York, 1970). In addition, see G. B. Brundy's 1901 classic, The Great Persian War, reprinted by AMS in New York, 1969.

2 For a further discussion of this subject the interested reader is referred to my more detailed treatment in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 14 (1976):227-246.

 

 

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William H. Shea, Ph.D., is associate professor of Old Testament at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1982

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