At the very core of the Jewish holiday of Purim lies the Book of Esther, which tells they story of how two Jews, Mordechai and Esther, who ascended in the ancient Persian court of Ahasuerus, saved the Jews from genocide by the evil prime minister Haman.
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Jews have been ritualistically reading the book every Purim as long as the holiday has existed, which is over 2,000 years. But who wrote it? And could it be based on fact?
Tradition has it that the core of the book was written by Mordechai, its main character and the cousin of Esther, and that the text was later redacted by the Great Assembly (a Jewish council of sages in antiquity).
It could well be true. Certainly the author exhibits impressive knowledge of the royal palace in the Achaemenid capital of Shushan, and of the customs and traditions of this court. The writer most probably lived in Shushanand was privy to court life.
Places where the text contravenes, or does not support, known history as we understand it today could be the result of this much-later redactment of the core text.
But while the writer gets the general characteristics of the court right, we cannot be sure whose reign he is describing.
Who was Ahasuerus exactly?
Ahasuerus is the Aramaic form of Xerxes, who reigned in 485-465 B.C.E., but Xerxes' queen is known to have been named Amestris, not Vashti, or Esther.
So it seems either Xerxes had more than the one wife, or Ahasuerus wasn’t Xerxes. Some even think "Ahasuerus" might have been Artaxerxes I or even Artaxerxes II, though their names in Aramaic were "Artahashta."
In any case, none of these kings were documented, outside the Book of Esther, as having wives named either Vashti or Esther. Again, this could be an artifact of belated redactment by people not cognizant of the specifics.
The timing of King Jeconiah
There is a problem with the timing, too, which could also be an artifact of the book having been redacted long years after the event.
The Book of Esther says Mordechai was exiled from Judah with King Jeconiah: "Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordechai Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away" (Esther 2:5-6).
But King Jeconiah was expelled from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar 130 years before Xerxes ascended the throne. Surely a contemporary writer like Mordechai would have known that.
And then there’s the language of the book. On the one hand, the fact that no Greek influence made it into Esther is strong evidence that the book was written before the Achaemenid Dynasty was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.E., marking the start of the Hellenistic period.
On the other hand, the form of the Hebrew of the book, and, even more so, the form of the many Persian loanwords embedded in it, both indicate that the book was likely written toward the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty.
Taken together, the evidence of the vagueness about the king and the timeline problems, and the language, indicate that the redaction was by a Jewish scribe writing in Shushan in the middle of the 4th century B.C.E., about events that apparently happened more than a century before.
The Babylonian legend theory
One theory holds that the elaborate story is based on a Babylonian legend that lay at the center of a Babylonian holiday commemorating the victory of the Babylonian gods over the Elamite gods.
Advocates argue that the names of the characters in Esther – Mordechai, Esther, Haman, and Vashti – are Marduk, patron deity of the city of Babylon, Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of fertility, Khumban, the Elamite god of the sky, and Mashti, an Elamite goddess.
But the theory has a fatal flaw: there is no known Babylonian myth or holiday describing the victory of the Babylonian gods over the Elamite gods.
Another flaw in the "Babylonian legend" theory is that a pious Jew, fiercely protective of his identity in exile, would be unlikely to have borrowed a foreign myth from the neighbors. So let's look inside Judaism to seek a source for the story.
The Jewish source theory
A Jewish scribe, living in exile in Shushan, would have known at least parts of the Jewish canon that would later become the Bible. It is at least possible that the inspiration for the Esther story is the story of Joseph in the court of Pharaoh.
Joseph’s story begins with him being taken in captivity to Egypt. Mordechai’s story begins with him being taken into captivity to Babylonia.
Joseph refuses to lay with his master’s wife and Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman – they both get in trouble.
Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers, and Mordechai saves Ahasuerus from an assassination attempt – yet both go unrewarded.
Pharaoh can’t interpret his dreams and is told of Joseph, Ahasuerus can’t sleep and is told of Mordechai; both provide the needed service and get the king’s ring; both are paraded on the street; and both become close advisers to the crown.
Once again the language can be brought in as evidence. The writer of Esther seems to have known the story of Joseph and Pharaoh: he uses many of the same words. A great example of this is the word it-a-PAK – “he held back” – which, in the Bible, only appears in these two stories.
Enter King Saul
But while the story of Esther could be based on the story of Joseph, it also bears a close relationship to the story of King Saul. It might even be seen as a kind of sequel, a theory supported by the way the author introduces the characters.
Mordechai is introduced as a descendant of Saul, while Haman is introduced as a descendant of Agag the Amalekite king. This parentage is no trivial fact. In 1 Samuel, Saul loses his kingship to David because he defied the will of God and did not kill Agag. In Esther, Mordechai, a descendant of Saul, kills Haman, a descendant of Agag, and his children.
Why would a Jewish scribe writing in Shushan in the 4th century B.C.E. write about events that settled the score between Saul and God in the preceding century? Jona Schellekens, a sociologist at the Hebrew University, came up with a theory for this, which he published in a paper in 2009.
The Jewish propaganda theory
According to Schellekens’ interpretation, the Book of Esther is a fanciful family history of a rich and powerful Jewish family in 4th century B.C.E. Shushan, a legendary account of how the family’s ancestor Mordechai gained power in court, and of the source of the family’s wealth and authority.
But beyond being family folklore, it’s also propaganda, says Schellekens. It’s as if the Book of Esther is saying that Mordechai’s family should be kings in place of the House of David. Not only did they once a long time ago save all the Jews (you weren’t there, it was awesome, just trust us on this!), they also descended from Saul, the first king of Israel.
If this theory is true, the attempt was unsuccessful, as we don’t hear of this family again in Jewish history. This is also the main weakness of this theory. How do we know they ever existed?
We don't know, but Schellekens points to the very last verse of Esther, indeed to the very last word: “He [Mordechai] was great among the Jews and popular with many of his countrymen, for he sought favor for his people, and spoke of peace and prosperity for all of his posterity.”
That one word “posterity” is the only reference to his family. It could be that the family did exist, but that its fortunes changed soon after Esther was written. Alexander the Great deposed the Achaemenid Dynasty in 330 B.C.E., which could have pushed the family off the stage of history.