Fox includes a chapter on the historicity and dating of Esther. And his conclusion is that there is no doubt that the book is "certainly a fictional creation with strongly legendary features." He provides a number of strong arguments against the books accurate portrayal of events including:
- "There was no principle forbidding the Persians to change their laws; that notion is found nowhere but in Esther and Daniel. It would be impossible to run a government by such a principle." Refer, for example, to 1:15 and 8:8 which suggest that even the king may not reverse his own decree.
- We know that the queen of Persia had to come from one of seven noble families (the practice is reported by Herodotus). But the Megillah has Xerxes marrying an obscure maiden of unknown ancestry.
- There were only 20 to 31 satraps (provinces) in the Persian empire, not 127.
- The deaths of thousands throughout the empire (500 were supposedly killed in Shushan alone - 9:6) would have left an imprint in the historical record. Fox mentions in a footnote that an argument from silence is valid when an event of such magnitude would be expected to leave an impression on other sources and that Greek fascination with Oriental culture would certainly have mentioned such an upheaval. [Addendum to post: chapter 8 mentions approximately 80000 people being killed. The estimated world population in 400 BCE was about 162 Million. Proportional to today's population, that's the equivalent of 3.2 Million deaths!]
Now some folks will argue with the historical record and claim that the critics are giving credence to one source (e.g., Herodotus) while distrusting another (Megillat Esther). "Hey, it's Herodotus against our mesorah and I'll go with the mesorah any time!" There is a major flaw with such an argument. Megillat Esther is the only source for the story therein, while there are numerous historical records (Greek, Babylonian, Persian) that testify to the legendary nature of the Megillah. A similar argument can be made regarding the Book of Daniel, Seder Olam, etc., concerning - for example - the succession of Persian kings. There are thousands of contemporaneous documents that not only agree with each other but can also be also correlated astronomical phenomena (lunar and solar eclipses, conjunctions, etc.). And that demands one logical conclusion - traditional Jewish history is not an accurate one.
So where does that leave us with Megillat Esther and Purim? What are we really celebrating here? Once again, I'll quote Fox who writes more cogently than I can at this late hour: "Although I doubt the historicity of the Esther story, and as a critical reader I must make that clear, every year at Purim when I hear the Scroll read in the synagogue, I know that it is true, whatever the historical accuracy of its details. Almost without an effort of imagination, I feel something of the anxiety that seized the Jews of Persia upon learing of Haman's threat to their lives, and I join in their exhilaration at their deliverance. Except that I do not think 'their', by 'my'". [a description of the anti-semitic horrors of the 20th century follows].
Megillah Esther is ahistorical, but it is nonetheless our story.