Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Ahistorical Nature of Megillat Esther

My previous post "10,000 Talents" made the claim that the author of Megillat Esther used hyperbole in claiming that Hamen offered 10,000 talents of silver to Ahashuerus as advance payment for destroying the Jewish people of Persia. Subsequently I came across Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther by Michael V. Fox originally written back in 1991 (a 2nd edition was published in 2001). Fox is a professor of Hebrew Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this critical literary analysis of Megillat Esther is both insightful and very readable.

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!]
These are only a few of the pieces of evidence arguing for ahistoricity. And what about the arguments on the other side? Very few - mostly that the author of the Megillah had a knowledge of some Persian words and names (most of which cannot be verified). Fox covers these arguments and mostly demolishes them.

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.


Holy Hyrax said...

Great post.

I don't know if I will be able to get the book in time, but I would love if you had some sources for the first three points you make.

Yes yes, I guess I can search around. I'm just really lazy right now :)

Holy Hyrax said...

I would like to add just a thought.

The megilla at the end mentions that Jews already accepted this holiday in remembrance and passed down. And that letters of what happened were spread out. The megilla itself was written much later (even my tradition). Hamam is called the Aggagite, but, IIRC, Tanach says that the aggagites were destroyed. If anything, the editors called him that on purpose, as such, they probably edited many other things to teach their people something.

So in the end, perhaps there is some historical backing to it, but the megillah is not mean't to express a historic picture, but of a lesson of redemption.

Anonymous said...

-suitepotato- said...

While the lack of extra-Persian recollections of thousands of Jewish and Persian deaths at each others' hands does give pause, what does come to bind is the bit about irreversible decrees. Practically, decrees are irreversible from a realpolitik standpoint as reversing oneself in too short a time frame makes one appear indecisive and dubious. If he had tried passing it off as a trick of Haman, he'd have appeared feeble and easily misled.

Many things in politics unfortunately go that way, hence the eternal warning, act in haste, repent at leisure.

Frum Heretic said...

Tanach says that the aggagites were destroyed. Yes, 1 Samuel 15:8 does seem to imply this. But Amalek continued to be a nuisance in King David's day - see 1 Samuel 30:1! Finally, note in 1 Chronicles 4:43 that Amalek was also around during the time of Hezekiah.

The account in 1 Samuel is sometimes pointed to by Bible critics as indicating errancy.

Frum Heretic said...

Sources: not 127 provinces. See e-kvetcher's comment in the 10,000 talents thread. He provides a link that describes the tribute from the 20 satraps. (His intention was to dispute my claim of an exaggerated number of talents but I think that he not only supported my claim but also shows how the provinces are likewise exaggerated!)

Queen of Persia has to marry a noble: see III:84 here
(Fox mentions that this is embedded in a legendary account but it accords with what we know of the background of Persian queens.)

Deaths - see also my addendum in the post body.

Please note that I have only mentioned a few of the problems with the story. There are many more listed in the book, which BTW, can be found for the bargain price of $3 used (on Amazon.) Well worth it!

Frum Heretic said...

If he had tried passing it off as a trick of Haman, he'd have appeared feeble and easily misled.

True. While the claim of irrevocability of the law is strongly suggested in the Megillah, one could also debate the nuances of the text and lessen the force of that particular argument against historicity.

e-kvetcher said...

just to be precise, i previously quoted herodotus which describes the original 20 satrapies, but the number of satrapies grew by the time of Achashverosh, though nowhere near 127. I don't know how to say satrapy in Biblical Hebrew, but the word for satrap is אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפָּן. The megillah uses the word medinah. Now we know that satrapies were often subdivided. For example Armenia was split into four sub-satrapies. It is conceivable that if the megillah is describing provinces, and not actual satrapies as defined by the persian government, that number could be as high.

Daniel said...

Great Post and Happy Purim.
I think it is clear from the composition of a story that reads more as a screenplay, complete with soliloquies and stage direction, than as a chronological historical account. It is meant to be entertaining and didactic. Its not divrey haYamim.
However, on the otherside, the Megilla does say that the story herein is true, :Divrey Shalom V'Emet" Doth Marduk/ Mordechai protest too much?

Daganev said...

So I just noticed this, this morning.

verse 9:3 of Ester "And all the princes of the provinces and the satraps and the governors and those that conduct the king's affairs elevated the Jews"

You will notice that Provinces and Satraps are two different words. So saying that Persia only had 23 provinces instead of 127 is false.

The Hebrew uses two different words, Medinot and Hashepahsetas to describe provinces and satraps.

Rabban Gamliel said...

“The megilla itself was written much later (even my tradition). Hamam is called the Aggagite, but, IIRC, Tanach says that the aggagites were destroyed.”

No the Agagites were descendents of King Agag of Amalek. Not only did Amalek not get destroyed but their king was spared.

Rabban Gamliel said...

Untill Agag was executed by Shmuel.

Holy Hyrax said...


The text says that the Aggagites were destroyed by the sword, before Agag was executed.

Frum Heretic said...

You will notice that Provinces and Satraps are two different words. So saying that Persia only had 23 provinces instead of 127 is false.

I'm not saying that Persia had only 23 provinces (my post - quoting Fox - said 20-31). The contention is that there is absolutely no evidence for a number like 127.