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No longer take comments. Post's 'labels' are unreliable for linking or searching. Use the INDEX OF POSTS instead. A fairly accurate, but incomplete INDEX of Posts & good overview and understanding of this blog READ SOME REASONS TO REJECT ORTHODOX JUDAISM my April 2014 post or click link above. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (1950's) and went to Orthodox Yeshiva from kindergarten thru High School plus some Beis Medrash.Became an agnostic in my 20's and an atheist later on. My blog will discuss the arguments for god and Orthodox Judaism and will provide counter arguments. I no longer take comments. My blog uses academic sources, the Torah, Talmud and commentators to justify my assertions. The posts get updated. IF YOU GET A MESSAGE THAT THE POST IS MISSING - LOOK FOR IT IN THE INDEX or search or the date is found in the address.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Historicity of Book of Esther and Purim, Origins of Purim

The purpose of this blog post is to document something I wrote years ago while discussing the Proof of God from Purim Fest 1946 or Prophecy of Nazis in Megillah

"Many academic scholars, if not the vast consensus consider the Purim story non historical, and for good reasons...."

That proof was repudiated for reasons having nothing to do with the question of the historical accuracy of the book of Esther. However, if the story in the Megillah is fictional or likely fictional then the proof is further weakened.  The post will assume the reader has some familiarity with the story in the Book of Esther.

I will cite many sources supporting my quote above and supply some possible origins of Purim. 

When judging if a story is fictional or likely to be fictional various criteria are used. Kenton Sparks below discusses some of these criteria. Please keep Kenton’s criteria in mind when doing your evaluation.  You do not start with an assumption the story is true then cherry pick supporting data and disparage and discard dis-confirming data. Rather, all the evidence needs to be weighed.  Sometimes it is difficult to weigh all the information “for and agin” and so there can be disagreement even among well informed people.  

From Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible - Kenton L. Sparks 2005

Beginning Page 266 - Judging if a Story is Fictional

1) Fanciful and marvelous events in the narrative. [I want to add some other criteria which I discussed in this post Proof of God from Miracles (Part 1) or Kuzari Argument Part 9 and the follow up in part two.]

2) Internal historical improbability. The story itself seems improbable. Improbable plot.

3) External historical improbability. Events in the story do not match up to historical verification. [I want to add do not match up with other things we have confidence in.]

4) Sometimes fictional stories are put into the form of historical genre, but it is found to deviate from historical genre in important respects. This will count against the veracity of the story.

5) Generic Analogy - When a story’s motifs and themes appear in other texts that we have already appraised as fictional. Kenton points out this criteria needs to be used with care.

Kenton writes that Scholars have often identified the Book of Esther as fictional. 

K1) No evidence of a Hebrew Queen Esther.

K2) The story of Joseph in the Old Testament influenced the Book of Esther.

K3) The Character in the Book of Esther read as artificial. Here are just two examples Kenton writes about. (a) Persian Kings are not so easily entrapped by their own decrees as in Esther 8:9 (b) Unlikely a Persian to decree Jews could fight and kill thousands of Persian Soldiers as in Esther 8-9

K4) The character names correspond nicely with their narrative roles. Mordechai of Kish and Haman and Agaggite both correspond to earlier literary prototypes from I Sam 15 where Saul is a son of Kish and there is a king Agag.  

On page 380 Kenton explains Persia announcing to massacre it’s Jewish population eleven months before the pogrom to take place seems improbable (Est 3:5-15). Even more implausible is the jews slaughtered over 75,000 Persian (Est 9:1-17). Kenton does note some ancient Kings could announce ethnic massacred but the lead time announcement is no where near the eleven months.

The Bible Commentary The Book of Esther - Adele Berlin, Jewish Publication society 2001 

Adele supports and explains about the Book Of Esther:

A) It is a comedy.

B) It draws heavily on the literary motifs associated with Persia that were current when the book was written.

C) The story is implausible as history. Many Scholars now agree it is better viewed as imaginative story telling.

D) No known Jewish Queen of  Persia. Moreover, none are to be expected since Queens came from noble Persian families, not ethnic minorities.

E) Kings do not choose Queens based on beauty contests.

F) No known King acted or would act like King Ahasuarus

G) To govern a country in which law would never be changed makes governing impossible.

H) Ancient Persia was relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups in it. They permitted Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, yet none of that is mentioned in the book of Esther. 

I) Plot hinges on improbable hooks: Everybody knew Esther was related to the Jewish Mordecai; yet she was able to hide her Identity.

J) The historical authentic elements is background and setting while the main characters and plot are farther removed from reality.

K) We can recognize the story as a form of imaginative story telling common in the Persian and Hellenistic Period,

L) Chap 9 of the book of Esther dealing with the slaughter of Jewish enemies is no more real than anything else in the plot.

M) The largest interpretive problems of the book of Esther melt away if the story is treated as a farce or comedy associated with a carnival like festival.

N) Exaggerated figures such as 127 provinces; 180 day party; 12 months of beauty preparation; Haman’s offer of 10000 talents of silver;   A 50 cubic high stake; 75,000 enemies dead.

O) Stylistic features reinforce the sense that the story is a farce.

P) One major purpose was to provide an etiology for Purim; to offer an explanation why the festival was already being celebrated. Most scholars date the book was written 400-200 B.C.

Q) Ahasuerus - Although scholars have identified Xerxes I (480-465 B.C.E) or as Artaxerxes (465-424 BCE) , Ahasuerus is not a real historical personage.

Adele also briefly mentions some suggested origins of Purim:

O1) Persian Festival of the Dead whose name sounds like Purim.

O2) The Babylonian “Pur” which Lot in the festival name. Also the Babylonians deities Ishtar and Marduk are like the names Esther and Mordechai. {Why were Jews naming their children after those deities ?]

O3) Greece - Esther has points of contact with Greek Literature: Motifs and comic form. The Greek Festival of Great Dionysia in March-April is marked with revelry, masquerading and comic performance.

O4) There are many [pagan] late winter or early spring holidays in the ancient world - some carnivalesque.  The Jews may have adapted from them. 

Adele mentions none of the various origins options are provable. 

The Anchor Bible Esther Carey A. Moore 1971

Beginning on Page XlV:  Carey mentions numerous evidences against the Historicity of the Story in the Book of Esther


180 day feast.

Queen Vashti refused to obey the King.

Kings ridiculous letter ordering men to be master’s in their own home.

Appointment of non Persians to the important post Prime Minister.

Letter sent out in all th languages of the empire instead of the official language of the Persian empire.

Kings permission granted a year ahead of time (III: 12-13) to wipe out an entire people of his empire and possessions plundered.

King’s sanction of fighting everywhere even within the palace complex.

Seeming Contradictions to Extra Biblical Sources

127 Providences contradicts Herodotus 20 satrapies

Esther arrives 480 BC into Susa where as Herodotus gas Xerexes still fighting in Greece.

Mordechai - was part of Nebuchadnezzars deportation in 597 BC( II -6) makes him and Esther too old to accomplish everything attributed to them.

II-16 and III-7 Esther as Queen 7th-12th year of Xerexes reign, but per Herodotus, Amestris was Queen. Per Herodotus the Persian Queen must be from seven noble Persian families ruling out an insignificant Jewess. 

Carey writes all the above objections lends support to two more serious objections:

1) The Legitimate suspicion that Purim origins are in a pagan festival adopted by the Jews.

2) A number of story elements of the  Book Of Esther are striking similar to certain legendary stories of the ancient near east.

Carey also has a section supporting non fictional elements in  the story. But later on page LI and LII per Carey:

“To the present writer, the contradictions, exaggerations, and inconsistencies of Esther argue against the story being taken at face value.”

“Thus when all the evidence is taken together, we conclude that Esther is neither pure fact nor pure fiction it is a historical novel”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume II 1999

Page 856 Regarding Book of Esther: “As either a novella or Festlegende {etiology of Purim}, the book is meant to be read as if it were history, even though it is clearly fictional. As Fox put it, it is a fictive text meant to be read by nonfictional conventions.”  

Page 859 The book is not an historical record. It is clear the book is a work of fiction that happens to contain some historical elements.

The Oxford Bible Commentary 2000

Page 325 Regarding the Book Of Esther:  “The blatant historical difficulties, the internal inconsistencies, the pronounced symmetry of the themes and events, the plentitude of quoted dialogue, and the gross exaggeration in the reporting of numbers (involving time, money, and people) all point to Esther as a work of fiction, it’s vivid characters (except for Xerxes) being a product of the Author’s creative imagination.” The Commentary goes on to write Esther has long been called a Diaspora Novella and is a fictional piece of prose.

From the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary On The Bible 1982

Beginning on Page 232

Esther is a historical novella written to explain the origins of Purim.

The author of Esther makes no mention of known historical events of Xerexes career. During the Persian invasion of Greece (in which Xerexes was most of the time in Asia Minor and in Greece), the Book of  Esther has the king in Susa testing for Queens.

Various historical and chronological inaccuracies and improbabilities lead one to conclude the book is not dependable history.  Herodotus has Xerexes queen being Amestris the daughter of a Persian General.

Most scholars agree celebration of Purim came first and the book was written to justify it. ”In all likelihood Purim was originally a non Jewish celebration.”

Esther (1:13-22) mentions the irrevocability of the Persians and the Medes. But this is contrary to historical evidence. 

 (Page 234 2:19-23 “Hanged on the Gallows refers not to strangulation by a rope as in modern times, but probably impalement on a sharp stake and slow death by starvation - Persian mode of execution from which the Romans got the idea of crucifixion.”)

Since the book of Esther is  fiction we not concern ourselves with 75,000 killed and no report of any Jewish casualties (9:11-19).

[Much more  can be written to support the  hypothesis that the book of Esther is likely fiction. A good start would be Adele's commentary. In any event, I feel my comment from years ago  "Many academic scholars, if not the vast consensus consider the Purim story non historical, and for good reasons...."  is fully supportable.]

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