Should She Stay or Should She Go? The Canonicity of Esther

The Topic Of Canonicity

There are some books in the Bible that had a hard time getting there. Esther had the hardest time of all. A book’s canonicity, whether or not it should be accepted as Holy Scripture, is an extremely important issue for each book of the Bible. The New Testament Canon is a much easier subject to discuss than the old because we know a lot more about how it was formed. There are extensive records of the development of the New Testament Canon and we can point to many different Church councils that solidified the New Testament Canon. This is not the case with the Old Testament.

 

There are simple tests that can be applied to New Testament books to help support their canonicity that are harder to apply to Old Testament works. Questions about authorship, dating, demonstrated authority, and acceptance by early readers are much easier to answer when one person wrote an entire book, signed their name, and stated their credentials. However, when a book is much older and compiled over several hundred years, such as the Psalms and the Proverbs, these questions become almost unanswerable, and the criteria for determining their canonicity becomes fuzzier. As Childs rightly asserts, “Basic to the canonical process is that those responsible for the actual editing of the text did their best to obscure their own identity. Thus the actual process by which the text was reworked lies in almost total obscurity.”[1] While Childs and I disagree on a lot of conclusions, we agree on this point. The Old Testament Canon has been touched by quite a few fingers down through the generations, so proving its authenticity and divine authority is difficult and important.

The same is true of Esther. Quite a few fingers have touched this text and obscured some important pieces of information when discussing canonicity. In essence, the problems of authorship, dating, and historical verifiability, are the big issues for the book of Esther. Throughout the centuries, the divine inspiration of Esther has been doubted here and there, and since so little is known about the Old Testament canonization process, defending her right to be in the Holy Scriptures is a tough task.

That, however, is the task which I am undertaking.

Introduction

In this paper, I plan to discuss the major arguments against the canonicity of Esther, and show that they are inconclusive in executing a guilty judgment. I will then discuss the positive arguments for why Esther should be in the Old Testament Canon and ultimately defend the position that Esther’s place in the canon is rightly deserved. The book of Esther is holy scripture, and it should be treated that way.

Against Canonicity

Introduction

Without question, the arguments against the canonicity of Esther are formidable. There are undeniable problems with the book of Esther in relation to the easiest methods of determining Old Testament canonicity. The things we can point to, such as universal acceptance, copies from the Dead Sea Scrolls, historical archeological evidence, and clear theological influence, are sorely lacking when it comes to Esther. The arguments against canonicity usually fall into one of two categories: (1) historical and (2) theological.

Arguments

Historical

The historical arguments against Esther are the most prolific. The most common are as follows: (1) The names of Xerxes’ wives don’t match. (2) There is no extra-biblical record of Esther’s rule as queen or the characters Mordecai or Haman. (3) There are improbable occurrences and customs described in the text. (4) Esther is missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Melito’s canon. (5) The author of Esther is unknown. (6) There are seeming historical inaccuracies recorded about Persia.

The Names of Xerxes’ Wives

The first argument that the names of Xerxes’ wives don’t match is worth some consideration. Historically, the name that we have from Herodotus and Ctesias for Xerxes’ only known wife in the time period described in Esther is Amestris.[2][3] The argument is obvious after that. Since the Biblical text refers to Xerxes’ first wife as Vashti and second wife as Esther and neither name matches Amestris, the Biblical text must be wrong. The errors in logic are equally obvious. There are a myriad of possible explanations for this inconsistency with extra-biblical historical texts.

First, the extra biblical histories might be wrong. Herodotus, usually regarded the most reliable history, has been known to mythologize history and mix historical fact with mythological fiction. Ctesias is even less reliable. It is suspicious if not dishonest for liberal scholars to judge the ancient Greek histories in such immutable esteem in regards to the name Amestris, but not in other contexts.

Second, some scholars suggest that Amestris is a third possible name for Esther after the two given for her in the Biblical text. While I don’t use this counter argument, I can see its appeal. Wright takes this argument as an impossibility stating, “Since the third son of Xerxes and Amestris, Artaxerxes I, was born about 483, Amestris cannot be identified with Esther who was not yet married.”[4] However, this same author goes on to make a strong case for the equation of Amestris and Vashti, making mostly linguistic points. I see this latter option as a strong possibility. Amestris and Vashti can certainly be equated and much of the details we have from Herodotus and Ctesias about Amestris fit nicely with what the biblical text tells us about Vashti. It is quite likely that these two characters are the same historical person.[5]

Third, this is clearly an argument from silence. Simply because some Greek historians name one queen and her actions, it does not mean that other queens and their actions did not occur. The events recorded in Esther could well have happened without Herodotus or Ctesias writing about them. It is completely illogical to assert that things only happened if they are written down. While no scholar will make that assertion outright, many have no problem making that assertion in cloudy and guarded language regarding the events in Esther.

Lack of Extra-biblical Evidence of Characters

Much like the last argument, opponents of Esther’s historicity hold Greek historians in high regard and see the lack of reference to officials in the Persian Empire such as Mordecai, Haman, and Esther as serious blows to the books historical accuracy.

This argument is, again, an argument from silence. Their lack of appearance in Greek historical writings does not negate their existence. A lot of people lived back then and did not make it into the Greek histories. I feel quite confident on this point, and I wonder if the liberal scholars who oppose Esther’s historicity on the grounds of such an argument from silence would share my confidence.

Also, there are very logical reasons why our records from the time period do not reflect their existence. Mordecai and Esther are clearly names derived from the Persian Gods Marduk and Ishtar. The similarities of the names are obvious. Such names would have been extremely common in the time period, much as the Biblical names James, Joshua, and John are all popular today. It is very possible that the mere prevalence of the name has cast specific people who carried it into obscurity. This likely may have occurred for the Biblical characters in question.

In addition, it is quite possible that we simply haven’t found the records yet. A similar historical question was answered in 1961 with the discovery of what is now called the Pilate Stone. The Pilate Stone is a limestone rock with ancient Greek writing on it and in the inscription, the words NTIUS PILATUS can be seen. Until this time, there was no extra-biblical evidence to support the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect involved with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. In 1961, any argument against Pontius’ Pilate’s existence based on an argument from silence appealing to a lack of extra-biblical support immediately became laughable.

Not only is this argument against Esther exactly like the one used against Pilate, it is applied to Persian history from at least 400 years earlier. There is much more existing evidence of the Roman Empire than there is of the Persian, and yet, Pilate was an obscure figure until 1961. Keeping proportion in mind, it is very reasonable to assume that a similar situation is happening with the characters in Esther. Writing from the Persians is much less prevalent, meaning that we would not likely have extra-biblical support for these characters. That by no means suggests that there isn’t evidence out there or that the characters did not exist.

To that end, it is worthwhile to point out that some evidence may have been found to support the characters found in the book of Esther. There has been the discovery of a cuneiform text that refers to a high-ranking official in the court of Xerxes I called “Marduka.” Whether or not this was the Mordecai of the bible is unclear, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. As Harrison points out, “This text goes far towards establishing the historicity of the book of Esther, and gives grounds for the expectation that further discoveries may yet throw light upon the identity of Vashti and Amestris.”[6] I would heartily agree with this conclusion and add the names of Esther and Haman to the list as well.

Improbable Events

Some scholars argue that there are a few improbable occurrences in the book of Esther. The easiest one to point to is the yearlong pampering that Esther evidently underwent prior to seeing the king. Esther records that the regulation for women in that time was to spend twelve months undergoing different cosmetic rituals to get the woman ready to see the king. It seems slightly impractical and there are no extra-biblical documents that repeat such a custom. Another event that bears the same scrutiny is the extreme height of the gallows, which Naman supposedly constructed in only a few hours. Fifty cubits (about seventy-five feet) is quite a height to reach in only an hour or two.

Both of these can be dealt with by the simple statement, “Improbable does not mean impossible.” While it seems unlikely that a woman would undergo beauty treatments for a whole year or that Haman would construct such a massive gallows in so short a time, that’s what the text says happened. When it comes to the question, “Which is right, the text or my feelings?” we must side with the text. It is concrete and objective, but our feelings have no such résumé.

Even still, dealing with these issues individually, there is room for some arguments on interpretation. Both of these occurrences may be merely exaggerative figures of speech. I myself do not hold to such an interpretation, but we need not throw Esther out of the canon to resolve such an issue. It’s acceptable, though not preferable, to believe that these are mere hyperbole and that the original author knew that his readers would interpret it as such. The woman may have only underwent twelve weeks instead of twelve moths, and Haman may have just made a “very tall” gallows. [7]

Another possible explanation of Haman’s gallows is in the definition of what a gallows was in the time period in question. Some have suggested that it was a mere spike that the victim was impaled on or that it refers simply to a tree that modifications were made to accommodate the hanging of a victim.[8] Both of these suggestions are perfectly reasonable.

Esther is Missing from Melito’s Canon and the Dead Sea Scrolls

A fourth common objection to Esther’s canonicity is her absence from Melito’s Canon and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both of these objections are, in my opinion, the strongest and most formidable against Esther’s canonicity from a historical perspective, and will be dealt with individually, but first, it should be pointed out that this is yet another argument from silence. While I do accept and use some arguments from silence in my own position, it should not be encouraged to use a multitude of them. The stronger position is always the one with the fewest logical fallacies; fewer arguments from silence in one’s position should always be preferred.

Melito’s canon is the earliest recorded Old Testament canon we have in the Christian tradition. Recorded in Eusebius’ writings, Melito’s canon gives a picture of what some considered to be the Holy Scriptures for the early church fathers, since a New Testament Canon was not yet assembled. Many argue that because Melito lists all of the books we now accept as canonical except for Esther, Esther should not be included in the Canon. The question of the formation of the Old Testament Canon will be dealt with in more detail later, but it should be pointed out here that there is no conclusive evidence pointing to when the Old Testament was solidified. The Council of Jamnia is our best guess, but it was likely stable much earlier than this. Melito’s Canon, dating to the second century, may have reflected the commonly accepted canon of the time, but it is more likely that it reflects his own personal opinion on the canon.

It should also be pointed out that Melito’s canon includes portions of text that are not considered canonical today. The book of Solomon’s Wisdom as well as Esdras, (presumably in its entirety, not just the Nehemiah and Ezra that we have today) were also included in Melito’s list. However, few arguments in liberal circles ever take place that these books should be added to our canon, using Melito’s list as a strong basis for support, only arguments that Esther should be taken out. How conveniently selective this is.

The second objection, that Esther is absent from the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a more worthwhile argument for those who oppose canonicity. The Dead Sea Scrolls is easily the most significant archaeological discovery of the past century, and possibly millennium. It is the most comprehensive collection of Old Testament manuscripts discovered to date. Probably the works of an Essene community, they prove that the Old Testament has remained virtually unchanged over the course of its existence. There were fragments from every single Old Testament book found at Qumran, the location of the discovery, except Esther.

This is quite an indictment on the book. However, two things must be pointed out in opposition to the argument. First of all, again, it is an argument from silence. Simply because no fragment of Esther was found at Qumran, it doesn’t mean there was never a fragment there, or even that there isn’t still a fragment there that has yet to be found. Second, the fact that the group at Qumran was likely a group of Essenes plays largely into the discussion.

The Essenes were, for lack of better phrase, the “religious wackos” of the day. While the Pharisees and Sadducees represented the more mainstream liberal and conservative Jewish equivalents of the first century, the Essenes were similar to the monastic orders of mid Christendom. They separated themselves from society and set up their own rules to follow in addition to those laid down in the Law of Moses. Josephus goes into great detail explaining the rituals and rules that the Essenes followed and the stringent tests that prospective members had to pass to join their order.[9]

Keeping this in mind, it is reasonable to suggest that the Essenes had a few mistakes in their theology. They emphasized works and purification and likely some mystic rituals involving angels and angel worship.[10] These near cultic practices make it improper for the true Christian to highly regard their discernment concerning canonical books. We can thank them for preserving the books that they did very well, but we cannot take their word if they claimed that the canon should be different than what was widely accepted at the time.

It should also be noted that, based on the evidence at Qumran, the Essenes followed a solar calendar different than the mainstream Jews and the feast of Purim did not appear in that calendar.[11] This suggests that they did not hold the feast or the events in Esther that established it, in high regard. Again, these were the outsiders of the Jewish community and since the majority of Jews observed the feast of Purim at the time we can disregard the Essenes view on this particular issue.

Possible reasons why the Essenes may not have accepted or liked the book of Esther have been suggested. They range from the fact that God’s name does not appear in the text, to Esther’s nearly undeniable sexual impurity. Whatever the reason, it is reasonable to assume that the Essenes may not have liked the book of Esther, but that is no reason for us not to. There are some religious sects on the outskirts of Christendom that believe in self-mutilation, but this will not cause the mainstream to adopt the practice. There are some people who don’t like the taste of mayonnaise on their hamburger, but I will not be abandoning the condiment.

All this to say, when observed closely, the two strongest arguments against Esther’s canonicity still do not merit its removal from the canon.

Unknown Author

Yet another argument from silence presents itself in the form of Esther’s anonymity. While it is true that we, in Christendom, prefer to know the name of the author of our canonical books, it is by no means a hard and fast rule. One anonymous book appears in the New Testament Canon, and as many as ten books in the traditional Old Testament have no clear author. Anonymity simply isn’t a worthwhile argument when discussing the canonicity of an Old Testament book. So many are anonymous and so widely debated that the discussions merely get tedious and tiresome. Authorship is a much more important issue with New Testament books but should not be a big part of the decision when discussing the Hebrew Bible.

Historical “Inaccuracies” about Persia

A few alleged historical inaccuracies about Persia are often presented in opposition to Esther’s canonicity. Many of these arguments and counter arguments are taken directly from J. Stafford Wright’s work in New Perspectives on the Old Testament. Wright does a fine job of enumerating and defeating these arguments, and I saw no point in trying to add to his work; it will merely be summarized here. The arguments are as follows: (1) The rule that a Persian king could not change a law once made is only found in biblical texts. (2) The amount of satrapies recorded in Esther conflicts with Herodotus. (3) A Persian king was not allowed to choose a Jew for a wife.

First, the rule that a Persian King’s law must remain unchanged by anyone, including himself, is a key point in the story of Esther. Supposedly, King Xerxes made a decree that the Jews in Persia could be legally murdered by anyone in the empire. A point of struggle becomes the fact that, even after Haman is defeated, the law must remain unchanged. We see the exact same law cause trouble for Daniel in his prophetic book which gets him thrown in the lion’s den by king Darius. In both of these biblical books, the point is made that the law in question cannot be changed, even by the emperor. The problem is that we have no extra-biblical evidence directly supporting this fact about Persian lawmaking. Opponents of the book see this as a clear indication that the account is fictitious and did not really occur.

Yet again, the argument from silence makes an appearance. Yet again, I must point out that simply because the no extra evidence has been found suggesting the law, it does not mean that the law never existed. It should also be pointed out that two independent books of the bible reference this law. This argument from silence is against two independent witnesses giving similar testimony, which makes the complaint against Esther even weaker.

On top of all of this, there actually is extra-biblical support for this law. While not conclusive, there is a suggestion of such a law in Diodorus Siculus’ writings.[12] The phrase, when translated to English, reads, “It was not possible for what was done by the royal authority to be undone.” In the context of Persia, this seems like a strong case for the biblical view of laws in Persia. Wright discusses the possible problems with this interpretation, but explains that he does not accept those problems as valid and does take this text as extra-biblical support for the finality of laws in Persia:

“One must grant that the context offers the possibility of a different translation. The comment concludes the story of how Darius III in a rage ordered the execution of a certain Charidemus. After Charidemus has been led away, we are told, ‘When the King’s anger abated, he at once repented and blamed himself for having made the greatest mistake, but…’ and then follows the above sentence. Diodorus may therefore mean that it was too late now, because Charidemus was dead, and the sentence could be differently divided: ‘But what was done could not be undone by the royal authority.’ On the whole, I think the previous translation is better.”[13]

Wright then goes on the explain the linguistic support for his belief that the first translation is better, and ultimately that there likely was a rule in Persia that a law could not be changed once made by the Emperor.[14]

Second, the inconsistency with Herodotus regarding the number of satrapies in Persia is considered a point of contention for some.  Herodotus claims that there were only 20 satrapies in Persia at the time of Esther, but twice, Esther refers to 127 satrapies. This is a category mistake. Empires were often subdivided into smaller units, while using the same word. This fact is seen in other historical literature.[15] Herodotus could easily be referring to the larger units and Esther the smaller with no linguistic gymnastics being performed.

Third, the suggestion that the Persian king was not allowed to have a Jew for a wife is a point of contention for some. Some commentators misread Herodotus and suggest that the Persian king was only allowed to choose a wife from one of seven families. This is merely a complete falsehood created from careless commentators copying each other’s commentaries. One made a mistake and they all carried it over. When one reads Herodotus more carefully, he finds countless examples of the king taking wives from other families than these seven, and no qualms are made in regards to it. Xerxes himself was the offspring of a marriage from outside those seven families and Amestris was not from the families either.[16]

Theological

The Theological arguments against Esther should not be ignored. The brunt of the assaults against Esther from liberal scholars is aimed at her historicity and not her theological content. I view this as somewhat comical, since the arguments against her theological content are stronger than those against her historical verifiability. Where historical arguments from silence come against Esther, they use the silence of history to disprove Esther’s canonicity. As has been shown above, this is weak argumentation, because history has many secrets from us in the present, and appeals to these secrets can easily be made to refute such arguments. However, arguments from silence against Esther’s theological content appeal to the lack of content in the book of Esther itself. These are much more damning arguments, since its appeal is to an established and unchanging text. We in the conservative realms can’t refute these arguments simply by pointing out that they are from silence, because the silence is concretely locked within the pages of the book. Ancient scholars saw this same difficulty and added the missing theological content because the arguments were so strong.

With this facts in view, these theological arguments should be considered much more carefully. They are as follows: (1) No New Testament author quotes from or alludes to Esther. (2) The name of God does not appear in Esther. (3) The Mosaic Law and the returns to Jerusalem are not mentioned in Esther.

No New Testament Reference

The fact that no New Testament author quotes from or alludes to the book of Esther is quite a blow to its canonicity, particularly as it relates to the Christian. Obviously, a lack of Christian reference to the book bears no weight on the book’s place in the current Hebrew Bible, except as far as it suggests that the Hebrew Bible was not officially canonized until after the writings of the New Testament. This suggestion is most likely false, which will be discussed later.

For the Christian, however, it should cause us unrest to find that no New Testament author quotes from Esther. Esther is the only book other than Song of Solomon to have this distinction. Ezra is also left out of New Testament references, but Nehemiah is not and since the two were regarded one book at the time of the New Testament writing, I did not include it. Needless to say, Esther’s absence from the New Testament authors’ pens, or quills, should provoke the question: Why?

There are various answers available. The first of which is the liberal answer because the book is not canonical, and wasn’t considered canonical by the church fathers. Obviously, I do not take this view. A second option would be simple happenstance. The authors of the New Testament were under no obligation to reference all the books of the Old Testament, and they didn’t do it. This seems incredibly reasonable, far more reasonable than the suggestion that they did not view the book of Esther as scripture. Another possible reason, and likely factor, was that the Old Testament canon was not yet solidified. As will be discussed shortly, the Canonization process for the Old Testament was not strictly official until after the time of the New Testament writings. The Canon was, however, widely accepted, which will play into my argument for Esther’s canonicity. This last argument may leave the door too far open for the opposition, and so the previous argument is the preferred one to take. Mere happenstance is the best response to this difficulty. Jesus didn’t leave any final instructions along the lines of, “And be sure to quote often from every scriptural source, so that the liberal scholars of the nineteenth century will have no reason to remove some books from the canon, thus sayth the Lord,” as he ascended into heaven. Hopefully you, the reader, are chuckling to yourself right now at the absurdity of such a fictitious quotation, but it is just such a quotation that liberals must subconsciously hold to in order to use this argument against Esther’s canonicity.

The Name of God Does Not Appear in Esther

The fact that the name of Yahweh does not appear in Esther is extremely important. This, I believe, is the strongest argument against Esther’s canonicity, bar none. However, it is still easily explained in a way that does not merit its removal from the canon. Some scholars try to argue that this is not so. In fact, there are scholarly works that claim an acrostic form of Yahweh’s name may be found in the pages of Esther.[17] I do not usually pay attention to such claims as they are a bit hard to defend. The main piece of evidence against this argument is in the actual content of the book. A few of Esther’s and Mordecai’s actions suggest a real faith in God. In chapter four, just before Esther goes in to see the king, Esther fasts and instructs Mordecai to fast for her. Apocryphal additions to Esther include prayers that Esther and Mordecai say at this period of time.

In the inspired text, Mordecai also expresses an assurance of faith that the Jews will be preserved. In 4:14, he says, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place,” which suggests he has faith in God’s promises to sustain the Jews through all circumstances.

This is not rock solid evidence, and I very much wish the name of Yahweh did appear in the inspired sections of text. This is a sentiment I obviously share with the Jews who came along later and added sections to include Yahweh’s name. However, given the fact that the characters display reliance on the sovereignty of a higher power and perform acts that were common among the God-fearing Jews, it is reasonable to say that they were acting on the will of their God and not purely out of self-preservation. More than that, we can easily identify admirable characteristics such as courage and kindness that are virtues created by God and teach us about His nature. All of this together makes it reasonable to suggest that there is systematic and practical theological material in the book of Esther which merits its preservation in the canon.

Absence of Mosaic Law and Returns to Jerusalem

The opposition argues that, because the Mosaic Law is not referenced, the book cannot be canonical; the Jews were dogmatic followers of the Mosaic Law. In addition, since the Jews were supposed to be going back to Jerusalem at this time, the characters cannot be true God-fearers because they were not doing as they should and going back to Jerusalem as well.

This argument is very much like the previous one; it relates loosely to theological content. While I agree that the Jews had taken at least one group back to Jerusalem at this time, not all of them had gone. To make the argument that all who stayed in Persia during the first return were not God-fearing Jews, you would have to say that Nehemiah and Ezra, who led the second and third returns, were also “bad” Jews. This is ludicrous to even suggest.

The truth is very likely that God kept Esther and Mordecai in Persia specifically so that they could work against Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jews. It would not be outside of God’s character at all to place a specific person in a specific situation that seems bad, only to use that person for noble purposes later. Joseph and Daniel are two examples that spring to mind.

In that sense, the argument then works against itself, actually supporting a stronger theological content than a weaker one. In essence it supports the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and what Paul says in Romans rings all the more true in our 21st century ears. “God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”

Conclusion

As has been shown above, the evidence and arguments against Esther’s canonicity are weak. Most of the arguments are historical, as opposed to theological, and most of the arguments rely on the fallacy of historical silence. The result is a weak case against Esther that is completely full of holes. If even a slightly worthwhile argument can be made in defense of Esther’s place in the canon, it should be concluded that the book is canonical and has no reason to be removed from the canon. All in all, the arguments against Esther end up being quite a bit weaker than they first appear, and few should be taken seriously; even fewer should be accepted and used.

For Canonicity

Old Testament Canonicity Process

Prior to discussing the arguments in Esther’s favor, a discussion of how the Old Testament was canonized is seriously in order. As has been stated many times previously in this paper, this topic needs to be covered. As also has been said previously in this paper, we don’t know as much about the process as we would like. However, a brief history of what we do know can be compiled.

Practically nothing about an official canonization process is known prior to approximately 400 B.C. This date is chosen because of references made in the Babylonian Talmud. In it, we read, “Our Rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachai, the holy Spirit departed from Israel.” [18] [19]What this means is that the writers of the Talmud firmly believed that the scriptural inspiration stopped with Malachi, indicating that the books commonly accepted as canonical during the intertestamental period are the books that the authors of the Babylonian Talmud considered canonical. Not only that, it suggests that these books have always been considered canonical, even from the time of the prophets in question. The question is: which books were commonly accepted as canonical?

The earliest known explicit list of canonical books can be found in Josephus’s Against Apion:

“For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from, and contradicting one another: [as the Greeks have:] but only twenty two books: which contain the records of all the past times: which are justly believed to be divine. And of them five belong to Moses: which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind, till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years. But as to the time from the death of Moses, till the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the Prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times, in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God; and precepts for the conduct of human life. ’Tis true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly; but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers; because there hath not been an exact succession of Prophets since that time. And how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation, is evident by what we do. For during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold, as either to add anything to them; to take anything from them; or to make any change in them.”[20]

 

This unfortunately necessarily lengthy quotation makes a few important points about the canon which should be addressed. First, it names the 39 books that we have today, when one makes a few reasonable assumptions. First, the double books (1&2 Kings, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Chronicles) were all considered one book each, The minor prophets were considered a unit, and Judges-Ruth, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Jeremiah-Lamentations are each considered one book.[21] These differences would be commonplace to the first century Jew, and indeed considered the correct way to number the books in question.

The second thing to note is that Josephus, like the Babylonian Talmud, confirms that Malachi is the last inspired book for the Jews “because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.” The Jews of the first century AD, the time of Josephus’ writing, held firmly to the belief that those books were the only inspired works, and that they were complete.

Thirdly, Josephus emphatically states that this is nearly common knowledge, and has been ever since the books were written. The Jews of his day knew what the scriptures were, and according to Josephus, all the Jews since the last prophet, Malachi, knew and zealously guarded the inspired books as just that, inspired.

A third major point in the canonization process that should be pointed out is the earlier Talmudic material, such as Baraitha. It also lists the same canon as Josephus, and this record of the canonical books dates to around 200 AD.[22]

Finally, many scholars point to the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD as the official canonization moment for the Old Testament. Again, the Rabbis attending this council affirmed the 39 books that we have today as the Holy Scriptures, and this affirmation includes Esther.[23]

These are some of the important points in the canonization process of the Old Testament. It should be admitted that much of the canon was merely assumed by the Jews up until the council of Jamnia, and even possibly after, but it should also be admitted that many major listings of the canon did not even question Esther’s place in it. This uneasiness about Esther did not have any real representation or support until after the Council of Jamnia. This fact alone makes its place in the canon harder to question. A general rule to follow is to trust those who lived closer to the context of the writing of the document. This fact will be taken into consideration when discussing the arguments for Esther’s canonicity.

Introduction

It should be noted up front, that historicity and canonicity are not the same thing. Many of the arguments against the canonicity of Esther, are actually arguments against its historicity. That is, the arguments merely support the idea that Esther was not an historical figure who really lived on earth during the Persian Exile. At most, these arguments can merely suggest that Esther is a book of fiction instead of non-fiction. I don’t like the idea of a book of fiction being canonical, but I would prefer it to the alternative which says we that have the wrong canon. Often, resistors to the canonicity of Esther view a lack of historicity as sufficient grounds for Esther’s dismissal from the canon.

While I don’t believe that Esther is a book of fiction, if it were, then it might still be properly cited as canonical. I grant that historicity should play a part in determining canonicity, but it is not the be-all end-all of canonicity. If, in some future world, Esther were shown to be one-hundred percent, beyond the shadow of a doubt, fiction, and not actual history, the job of proving that it is not scripture would still be unfinished. The strength of my stance is that it is immune to attacks on historicity, because historicity does not outright refute a book’s canonicity.

That being said, I will still play the game established by my opponents and argue for the book’s historical accuracy; I simply wanted to point out that I don’t have to. The following arguments for Esther’s canonicity will deal with issues of acceptance as well as historicity.

Arguments

Arguments from Acceptance

The arguments for Esther that deal with acceptance are: (1) Esther was widely considered canonical through the majority of Jewish and Christian history since its composition. (2) The canon was used and not adjusted by Jesus in the first century. (3) The Jews have always read Esther as one of the five Megillot.

Generally Wide Acceptance

The first argument is by far the most important. No major religious leader in the Jewish or Christian traditions outright condemned Esther as unreliable or non-canonical until Athanasius mentions it in a list of apocryphal books in his 39th Festal Letter. The church fathers were fairly unanimous in the acceptance of Esther into the canon, or at least if they weren’t they stayed pretty quiet about it. This particular fact of acceptance is crucial, because the question of canonicity is entirely a matter of acceptance. If those who established the church found certain books to be worthy of the status of scripture, we do not have the authority to dispute them. Our knowledge is, by necessity, more second hand and farther away. We must take their word over our suppositions if there is to be any kind of unity or progress in the church. Constantly doubting the reliability of the earliest church fathers views on essential doctrines such as “what is the word of God?” is the surest way to allow relativism in its most brutal forms to overrun the church. But I digress.

Jesus’s Lack of Disapproval

The second argument is very worthwhile to note. It is the one major argument from silence that I do use to defend my own position. The fact that Jesus did not comment on the incorrectness of the accepted canon in his day very strongly suggests that it was the right canon. Dr. Loken sums this point up well.

“Christ Himself seems to validate the Hebrew canon and subsequently the book of Esther, when He refers to the Old Testament with the phrase ‘from the blood of righteous Able to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah whom you murdered between the temple and the altar’ (Matt 23:35). This reference alludes to the book of Genesis and 2 Chronicles, the first and last books of the Hebrew canon.”[24]

If the Hebrew Canon as it stands today is the wrong one, it seems almost impossible that Christ would have let it slip by. The Son of God through whom everything was made, certainly would have ensured that any errors in the texts being used to teach God’s will would be corrected. Indeed, when the Pharisees and Sadducees quoted their extra commentaries as scripture, Jesus would routinely rebuke them and remind them of what the actual scriptures says. Surely, he would have done the same with Esther if anyone was improperly viewing it as scripture when it wasn’t.

One of the Five Megillot

The final argument from acceptance is the annual use of the book of Esther in ceremonial purposes. The five Megillot are read yearly by the Jews at different feasts. Esther is one of these five, being joined by Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. Jewish officials at the various yearly feasts read these five short books. It is highly unlikely that they would include any of these books in such a ceremony if they considered them to be less than scripture. Esther’s inclusion in the five Megillot indicates that it was very widely accepted as scripture for a very long time.

Arguments from Historicity

The arguments from historicity are equally important in establishing Esther’s canonicity. It is not enough to merely show the fallacies of the oppositions arguments. We must also show logically consistent arguments in Esther’s favor. To that end, they are as follows: (1) Esther’s portrayal of Persian court customs is very accurate. (2) Esther begins with the same historical phrases as other historical literature. (3) Esther repeatedly invites the reader to search the histories.

Accuracy of Persian Court Customs

The first argument is the strongest in terms of positive arguments from historicity. While the book has many supposed inaccuracies, as described above, liberal scholars cannot deny the book’s remarkable accuracies as well. Many scholars on both sides of the argument affirm the author’s intimate knowledge of the Persian courts as well as Xerxes character. It lines up perfectly with the Xerxes written of in Herodotus.[25] These details would not be privy to someone not involved in the court of Persia, and easily lends itself to the view that Mordecai penned the book of Esther. These details make it necessary at the very least that the author had intimate knowledge of the courts and fitted his “fictional” story into it almost impossibly well, and at the very greatest that the author merely recorded actual history. The second is more logically sound, for the following reason.

If the author intended it to be a work of fiction, then he would have had to be a Jewish official high ranking in the Persian courts. Only a Jew would have used the character choices, theme choices, and choice of purpose (an explanation of the Purim celebration) that he did. If there were such a Jew who wrote the book intentionally fictionally, there would be absolutely no chance that he would allow his fellow Jews to regard it as an historical record worthy of scripture. The Jews regarded their holy books as remarkably holy and historically accurate. This fact is plainly evident by their meticulous record-keeping and constant literal interpretation, in the early years, of all other Hebrew scriptures. Since the document was so widely regarded as scripture, likely as early as 200 years after its composition, it is highly unlikely that it would be a work of fiction.

Similar Literary Structure to Historical Literature

The second argument, that Esther uses the same phrases as the other historical literature, is simply unavoidable fact. The waw-consecutive followed by the verb “to be” was an extremely common way of beginning a work of historical literature. “This fact places the book squarely among other Old Testament historical narratives, the historicity of which is commonly accepted (e.g. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 2 Samuel). The book also contains numerous chronological references (e.g., 1:1, 3; 2:16; 3:7).”[26] Dr. Loken neatly summarizes the point. If the book is a work of fiction, it is a very shrewd work of fiction, masking itself as literal history for a Jewish audience with methods of deception that are as old and effective as the phrase, “surely you will not die.”

Appeals to Search the Histories

A final point, again made well by Dr. Loken, is that the book contains repeated pleas to search the historical records. It is almost as if the author knew that people would question if these events really happened and he was trying to take precautions to make sure that his story was supported. The implicit invitations can be found in 2:23, 6:10 and 10:2. These invitations were, again, common features to literal historical literature. As Dr. Loken points out, “This invitation would scarcely have been given if the book were not historically accurate. Obviously, the author of Esther considered his narrative to be just as accurate as the other biblical accounts.”[27]

Conclusion

Based on these arguments for Esther’s canonicity, both from historicity and acceptance, as well as the refutations of the arguments against Esther, it can clearly be seen that Esther deserves her place in the Canon. The arguments against Esther are not strong enough to merit the removal of Esther from the canon. Too many are based purely on arguments from silence, and many are downright academically dishonest, betraying a clear bias in the construction of the argument. The simple fact of Jewish acceptance is enough reason to regard the book of Esther as scripture. No book in the Hebrew Bible has ever been placed there unfairly or without cause and it is only due to the advent of liberal skepticism that any question has even been raised. It is at this point that we must remember the words of the God-Man, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in Me.” Jesus Himself raised no fuss about Esther being in the wrong place, and neither should we. Jesus acceptance of the Hebrew canon is more than enough evidence to ignore its detractors. I’ll take Jesus’ opinion over theirs any day of the week.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baldwin, Joyce G. Esther: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Ctesias. Persica.

Harrison, R. K. Introduction to the Old Testament; with a Comprehensive Review of Old Testament Studies and a Special Supplement on the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.

Herodotus. Histories.

Josephus, Flavius. Against Apion.

Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews.

Loken, Israel P. The Old Testament Historical Books: An Introduction. United States: Xulon Press, 2008.

Moore, Carey A. Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.

Newman, Robert C. The Council of Jamnia and the Old Testament Canon. Hatfield, Pa.: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1982.

Paton, Lewis Bayles. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1908.

Reid, Debra. Esther: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Wright, J. Stafford. “The Historicity of the Book of Esther.” In New Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by J. Barton Payne, 37-47. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1970.

[1]Bervard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philidelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1979), 78.

[2] Herodotus, The Histories, vii 61, 113.

[3] Ctesias, Persicas, xii 24.

[4] J. Stafford Wright, “The Historicity of Esther” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J Barton Payne. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970), 40-41.

[5] Wright, 41-42.

[6] R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 1097.

[7] Wright, 38.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, ii 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Information learned from personally visiting Qumran and being taught the information from the tour guide while there.

[12] H. H Rowley, Men of God, (London: Neslon, 1963), 238.

[13] Wright, 39-40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 38.

[16] Ibid, 38-39.

[17] Israel Loken, The Old Testament Historical Books: An Introduction, (United States: Xulon Press, 2008), 316.

[18]Robert C. Newman, The Council of Jamnia and the Old Testament Canon, (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1982), 1-10.

[19] Robert Newman quoting from the Babylonian Talmud with commentary on how this information is interpreted.

[20] Josephus, Against Apion, i 8.

[21] Newman, 1-10.

[22] Newman, 1-10.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Loken, 316-317.

[25] Loken, 317.

[26] Loken, 317.

[27] Loken, 318.

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