Jun 18, 2014

The Historicity of Esther: The Characters, Part 1

The historical veracity of Esther has been called into question by a number of interpreters. These critics typically point to the characters in the book as proof of the book’s historical unreliability. In a two-part post, four characters from Esther will be examined. This examination will suggest that the case against Esther’s historicity is not as clear cut as some would assert.

The first character that will examined is Ahasuerus. Jewish sources link him to Artaxerxes II (403–359 B.C.).[1] However, most suggest that Ahasueras is to be identified with Xerxes, the son of Darius I Hystaspes, who ruled from 485 to 465 B.C. As Whitcomb notes, “Modern Scholarship almost unanimously identifies him with Xerxes.”[2] However, this identification has been called into question since Esther 2:5–6 seems to indicate that Mordecai was present in the Babylonian deportation of 597 B.C. The critics contend that the author of Esther must have mistakenly believed that Mordecai was present during the deportation of 597 and therefore that Xerxes was a closer successor to Nebuchadnezzar than he actually was. But this objection can be addressed adequately through a careful examination of the passage. As Young explains, “The relative pronoun “who” of v. 6 refers not to Mordecai but to Kish.”[3]

The second character to be examined is Esther. Her character poses a more daunting task. As critics of Esther often point out there are no records outside of Esther verifying her existence. Not only that, but the historian Herodotus states that Xerxes’ queen was not named Esther (nor Vashti for that matter[4]), but Amestris. Consequently, some scholars have attempted to argue that Amestris and Esther are one and the same with different spellings of their name. However Herodotus’ portrait of Amestris is quite unflattering. She is portrayed as cold and vindictive (e.g., Herodotus, 7.61).[5] Furthermore, Esther’s father is identified in Esther as Abihail (2:15) whereas Herodotus identifies Otanes (a commander in Xerxes army) as the father of Amestris (7.114, 9.109–112). Therefore, it is probably best not to identify Esther with Amestris, rather, to simply admit that Herodotus does not mention Esther. Some attribute Herodotus’ omission on the grounds that Esther was merely a “harem-queen” and not an official queen. However, as Davis states, “Esther is given Vashti’s position and wears the royal crown (2:17); she is referred to as ‘the queen’ (5:2); Haman is honored to be invited to a banquet by Esther.”[6] A more likely explanation is that both Herodotus (and another historian Ctesius) show little or no interest in the time period pertaining to Esther or that Esther died soon after the events recorded in the book.[7] In any case, caution is warranted since “on the basis of Herodotus’ omission, modern scholarship used to deny the existence of Belshazzar, until subsequent archeological discovery verified the historicity of Dan 5.”[8] One final argument might be made concerning Esther’s historical existence. That is, if Esther is a literary creation it would be strange indeed. As the heroine of the story, Esther fails to return from exile, she hides her Jewishness (at least initially), marries a Gentile, and to fails to openly acknowledge the God of her fathers. If these facts were not true then why would they have been fabricated?

[1] Edwin Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Esther,” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (April-June 1980): 103.
[2]John C. Whitcomb, Esther: The Triumph of God’s Sovereignty (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 29.
[3] Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 376.
[4] J. S. Wright has attempted to show how the names Amestris and Vashti could be correlated. (“The Historicity of the Book of Esther,” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne [Waco, TX: Word, 1970], 41–42). However, even if such a case can be made, it still does not account for Esther’s absence.
[5] It is possible that Herodotus has intentionally or unintentionally maligned Amestris. But even if this were the case, it still would not solve the problem of Esther’s absence in Herodotus.
[6] Aubrey Dale Davis, “The Historical Reliability of Esther” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1983), 55–56.
[7] Wright, “the Historicity of the Book of Esther,” 43. Concerning the early demise of Esther it must be admitted that this is pure speculation.
[8]Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1975), 419.

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