The holiday of Purim celebrates the story told in the biblical book of Esther. Yet, as we read the Megillah, some people ask whether the story is historically accurate. Historians have long questioned the historicity of the events described in Esther. The Megillah reads more like a political thriller than a historical record or even a religious tale. Despite the clear historical setting, historians have found no evidence of the people or the events. Is Esther true?
Some may respond that the book can be true even if it is not historically accurate. The great prophets of Israel taught us moral, not historical, lessons. Even if the story is just a parable, its lessons remain equally strong. This is a broad strategy to historical attacks on Jewish traditions. Defenders respond that the historical accuracy is unimportant because Judaism, at its core, is about attitudes and behaviors. If the divinely inspired rabbinical genius conveyed these attitudes and practices in fictional stories, that does not diminish from the underlying messages.
However, this approach has its limitations. Parables and wisdom myths have been part of religious traditions since time immemorial. However, Judaism also teaches basic faith claims. If we start undermining those beliefs, at some point the religion stands for nothing more than universal morals that every other religion teaches. If we deny Creation, Exodus, Mt. Sinai and more, we are left with monotheism and proper interpersonal behavior. When taken to its natural conclusion, this approach reduces Judaism to contemporary values.
Another approach is to question, on historical terms, the very conclusion that these events did not occur. How accurate are these methodologies and arguments that attempt to disprove the historicity of biblical stories? Our knowledge of the ancient world is spotty, at best. The evidence we have consists of small pieces of a very large puzzle. How certain are the assumptions that historians use?
Mitchell First, a local Teaneck scholar, carefully addresses the book of Esther in one of the many essays in his Esther Unmasked, a collection of scholarly investigations into Jewish history and texts. (Read the essay here.) Our main sources of information about ancient Persia are Herodotus, a Greek writer, and Ctesias, a Persian doctor. Both refer to a Persian king named Xerxes (Khshayarsha), who seems to be the biblical Achashverosh. Herodotus and Ctesias both mention Xerxes’s wife Amestris, who was very wicked. From the book of Esther, we learn of two of Achashverosh’s wives—the wicked Vashti and the righteous Esther. Is this a contradiction between the historical records and the biblical book?
First identifies Esther with Amestris because of the similar consonants within the two names. Herodotus says that Amestris’s father was the military commander Otanes while the Bible says that Esther’s father was Avichayil. This discrepancy can be explained by Esther’s suppression of her family history for her own safety. First also points out that in Hebrew, the name Avichayil means “military commander,” which was Otanes’s profession. However, he adds a more important point, one that should frame this entire discussion.
All historical evidence emerges from a context. Herodotus was a Greek writing with an agenda about events he did not witness. Ctesias was Persian with Greek leanings but similarly wrote about events he only heard about, at best. There were no professional historians back then, nor academic standards. Even today, when professionals train to follow academic standards we still see blatant biases and politics affecting objectivity. Readers of a contemporary academic Arab text about Israel would be rightly skeptical. In ancient times, historians did not try to avoid biases and often recorded myths and rumors. Yet today we regard their writings as history.
And here is the important point, which First only implies: Why do historians judge the Bible based on Greek and Persian historical records? There is a bias against the Bible, accepting other testimonies as truth with which to criticize the Bible. An objective historian would treat all the texts with equal criticism. A traditional Jew would give the Bible more credibility and use it as the measure of other texts. Faith is belief without proof and faith against flimsy counterclaims is easy. If Herodotus’s story does not match the Bible, then with all due respect to the learned scholar he must have been mistaken for any of a variety of reasons.
First points out that many ancient and modern scholars have questioned Herodotus’s accuracy. He even wrote explicitly that “my business [is] to set down that which is told me, to believe it is none at all of my business” (VII, 152; quoted by First, 151). Ctesias’s reliability has also been questioned, as he was known to sensationalize stories to entertain readers. Sadly, our knowledge of the ancient world is limited. The archeological remains give us only a limited glimpse into great civilizations, relative crumbs from thousands of years of history. The few ancient writings that remain offer us insight but with great limitations. When evaluating Greek or Persian history, scholars are hesitant about the reliability of the available information. When approaching the Bible from a historical perspective, we must also exercise caution.
The disciplines surrounding ancient history offer us many insights into human nature and history, as well as the biblical context. They are important in many ways and can sometimes inform our understanding of Torah. However, their importance is often exaggerated and their implications given more conclusive power than warranted. We can speculate from the available evidence but not much more. Certainly believing Jews should place more faith in our traditions than in ancient Greek writers. First ably defends the Purim story as a reality, refocusing our view of history and the Bible.
By Rabbi Gil Student