More than one Book of Esther?

Did the events described in the Book of Esther really happen?


Did the events described in the Book of Esther really happen? In academic circles this question is described as a question of historicity and for more than a century scholars have expended large amounts of energy producing papers and books that say largely the same thing: no historical basis exists for the events in the Book of Esther. And yet, as Adele Berlin points out in her 2001 article, The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling, it is a curious thing that scholars are constantly engaged in a question to which they almost all agree on the answer. Why does it matter if the events in the Book of Esther actually occurred?

The answer, it seems, lies somewhere in the debate about what constitutes truth. In popular culture we often find that "true stories" carry a different resonance with audiences than does fiction. But what about stories "based on actual events" or, more crucially for the Book of Esther, historical fiction? What value do we place on a story that has an historical setting, but that may not be historically accurate? Can it, too, articulate truth or is historical veracity the only substance which can impart theological and ritual weight? Can we celebrate Purim if the victory we celebrate never took place? What's the point of remembering something that might not have happened?

Wrapped in these questions is the subject of the textual integrity of the Book of Esther. If the story we have in the Masoretic text is not historically precise, then perhaps the reason is that the text we have is not the original text. With Esther the question of textual variance is an important one. Scholars have long known that at least two other versions of the Esther text exist - the Alpha Text (AT) and the Septuagint version with its Greek additions.

Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Semitic studies, Michael Fox, also posits an earliest form of Esther in Hebrew, Proto-AT. From Proto-AT two different strands of the Esther story develop before they converge. For a discussion of the various textual versions and how they relate to each other, Fox's The Redaction of the Books of Esther (1990), offers a theory for the serious student.

Into this fray comes The Reader's Megillah by Stephen Games. It provides a brief, but erudite introduction, which details (without footnotes or bibliographic references) the major outlines of the current discourse around the historicity of the Book of Esther. As an introduction for the lay reader, Games provides a useful starting point. He points out clearly where textual problems occur and how in turn these problems create challenges to a straightforward historical reading of the book.

Ultimately, the value of any story does not lie in historical truth

For Games, however, ultimately the object is not to determine the historicity or otherwise of the Book of Esther. Rather Games is interested in "how the narrative was constructed and what function it performed". To that end he appears to reanimate an old theory first posited by Henri Cazelles in 1961 that the origins of the Book of Esther lay in two earlier sources - an Esther story and a Mordechai story.

While a novel idea, it is not new ground. Professor Lawrence M Wills explored this idea in some detail in The Jew in the Court of the Foreign King (1990) in the chapter on the Book of Esther.

Professor Wills situates the hypothesis of an Esther source and a Mordecai source within the larger debate about the origins of the Book of Esther. Is it possible that two sources, both older than Proto-AT, underlie the composition of the Book of Esther? Perhaps and if you want to see, laid out in the way that only a trained architect and designer could manage, where the fault lines in the Book of Esther lay, then The Reader's Megillah is the book for you.

Games's monograph is slim at only 50 pages, including detailed and thought-provoking endnotes expounding the text - so easily small enough to bring along to synagogue for a megillah reading. While the kids are making a noise and everyone else is getting just that little bit tipsy, peering into The Reader's Megillah to try to visually unpick the stories that might lie behind it might just be the sort of fun you need this Purim.

Will it help you determine the value of the stories, the moral or ethical status of the Book of Esther? No, but then it wasn't designed to. Ultimately the value of the Book of Esther, the value of any story historically accurate or otherwise, does not lie in historical truth, but in the lessons we learn. As for what the lessons of the Book of Esther are, at risk of sounding like this piece is an elaborate Purim spiel, that's for another article.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive