Position Paper: Why Should the Book of Esther be Canonical?

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This paper was originally presented by a Red Village Church member to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Systematic Theology I course.

The Issue

Since its composition, Esther has been a controversial book. Several issues, such as the book’s secular nature, late acceptance into the Hebrew canon, and the absence of any reference to the book in the New Testament have made the canonicity of Esther the subject of much debate among modern scholars, reformers and even the ancients.

In this paper, the traditional evangelical/Protestant position will be defended: namely, that the Hebrew Book of Esther – but not the additions in the Septuagint – is historically truthful and divinely inspired, and therefore belongs in the canon recognized by the Church. In this paper, some of the major positions on Esther’s historicity and canonicity (that is, the positions of modern secular scholarship, the Roman Catholic Church, and of Martin Luther) will be discussed and critiqued, considering relevant historical and literary evidence. It should be granted that the author of this paper is a committed evangelical Christian, and as such is approaching the issue with certain principles taken as axiomatic: that the God of the Bible exists, and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Those who start with different truth statements as axioms may have their position on the matter challenged, but likely will remain unconvinced by the position of this paper.

Positions on the Issue of Esther’s Canonicity

Modern Scholarship on the Date and Historicity of the Book of Esther

There is no consensus among modern scholars concerning the date of composition for Esther. The book, along with its later additions, was included in the Greek Septuagint translation, which was likely completed before 132 BC.[1] In addition to this, the reference to “Mordecai’s Day” in 2 Maccabees 15:36 (NRSV) shows that the festival of Purim (and therefore, likely the book of Esther as well) was in existence at least by the time of the Maccabees in the 160s BC.[2] The Book of Esther describes events that took place during the reign of King Ahasuerus, who has been identified as Xerxes I, who reigned from 486-465 BC. Verse 10:2 speaks as though his reign has already ended, so on the basis of internal evidence the earliest reasonable date for the book would be the mid-fifth century B.C.[3]

The two main positions are that the book was either written in the Persian period (mid-5th century to 331 BC) or the Greek period (331 BC to 160s BC). About a century ago, most scholars preferred a Greek dating, but in recent times dating the book to the Persian period has become more popular. For example, Friedberg makes an argument from the way that Esther describes months using both the older Jewish and the newer Babylonian nomenclature that the latter had not yet fully been accepted. Therefore, he argues, it is best to date the composition of the book of Esther in the late 5th century BC before Ezra-Nehemiah, which exclusively uses the Babylonian system.[4] Furthermore, it has been widely acknowledged that the author of the book of Esther displays an excellent familiarity with Persian court life and institutions, a fact that supports a date in the Persian period. These factors, plus the complete lack of Greek words in the book, make the Persian period the most probable solution.[5] This would mean that the book was composed sometime in the 130 years following the events described in the book. Since this is a relatively short time lapse in terms of ancient historical accounts, the composition date itself should not be considered a threat to the historical truthfulness of the work.

Among modern secular scholars, there is very little agreement the degree to which the book is historical, fictitious or somewhere in between.[6] The trend of scholars to choose an “in between” strategy reflects the tension between the accurate dates and details of Persian court life (supporting the historical view) and the lack of archaeological evidence of Vashti or Esther and some of the exaggerated features of the story (supporting the fictional view). This has led many scholars to consider the book to be a work of historical fiction – a story with an accurate setting but with some fictional characters and events.[7]

Larue’s arguments represent a typical argument against the historicity of Esther. He points out that the Greek historian Herodotus recorded Xerxes’ wife as Amestris but did not mention Esther or Vashti. However, he also admits that the Persian kings were known for having numerous concubines, so it’s possible that Esther and/or Vashti were among his concubines. He also cites the numeric details of the extermination of 75,000 people, the height of Haman’s pole at 75 feet, and Haman’s expected bounty of 10,000 talents as intentionally exaggerated to make the story entertaining.[8] While these issues are certainly notable, none of them are conclusive evidence that the book is non-historical. The lack of archaeological evidence for Esther and Vashti is largely an argument from silence, and this may be disproved by further archaeological discoveries. Furthermore, Gordis points out that “Amestris” could be related to the name “Esther,” so it is possible that they could be the same person.[9] Also, the surprising numbers in the story are not completely beyond the realm of possibility, and similar numbers have been reported in the ancient world in other contexts.[10]

The Catholic Church and the Canonization of the Additions to Esther

In the Council of Trent in 1546, the Roman Catholic Church declared the apocryphal portions of the Latin Vulgate to be sacred and canonical.[11] This included the additions to Esther from the Greek Septuagint, which were compiled by Jerome at the end of the book, rather than being interspersed through the narrative as in the Greek. It should be noted at this point that Jerome himself apparently doubted the authenticity of the additions to Esther, since he separated them out from the narrative and placed them all at the end, resulting in an incohesive narrative. In his preface to the Vulgate version of Esther, Jerome stated that the book of Esther had been “corrupted by various translators,” possibly referring to these additions in the Septuagint.[12] So it seems inconsistent that the Council of Trent declared Jerome’s translation of the additions to Esther to be canonical when Jerome himself most likely doubted their authenticity.

Likewise, most modern scholars agree that the additions were not original to the text but were added later. Moore argues that the colophon at the end of Addition F, if authentic, would identify at least additions A and F as being translated into Greek from a Semitic version around 114 BC, but that the letters contained in additions B and E were clearly originally written in Greek – a product of the author’s imagination. However, Moore suggests that even additions A and F were not a part of the original book since the Hebrew version stands as a complete narrative, and the additions introduce contradictions that are hard to rationalize. [13]

The additions to Esther differ from the Hebrew version of the book most notably in the fact that God is explicitly mentioned, and the story of Esther is explained as the work of God. The easiest explanation for this would be that the additions were fabricated in later generations to make the book seem more religious, making it acceptable to pious Jews. For these reasons, there is no compelling reason to consider the additions to Esther to be divinely inspired Scripture.

Martin Luther’s Objections to Esther

Martin Luther is possibly the most famous opponent of the canonicity of the book of Esther. Because of his status as one of the major reformers, his position on the topic continues to influence Christians today. In Luther’s Table Talk, he states, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”[14] It is clear from this quotation that his objection primarily stemmed from the theological content of the book rather than historical evidence. It has also been noted that Luther similarly objected to some books of the New Testament (such as James) on theological rather than historical grounds.[15] However, objections based on theological interpretation of a book can be answered by a better interpretation of the book.

Some have objected to the fact that the book seems to paint Esther and Mordecai in a positive light despite her questionable actions such as her marriage to a pagan, participation in pagan banquets, and vengeful retribution against the enemies of the Jews.[16] It is likely that Luther was referring to these or similar things when he spoke of “heathen unnaturalities.” However, it is not necessary to interpret the book of Esther as endorsing every action of Esther and Mordecai, even though the storyline clearly portrays them as the protagonists. Anderson, for example, takes an interpretation that there are no noble characters in the book of Esther, but the point of the book remains as a piece of history about how God preserved the people of Israel.[17]

Defending Esther’s Canonicity

How was Esther used Before Christ?

The evidence of how the book of Esther was used before the first century A.D. is sparse. The reference to the festival of Purim in 2 Maccabbees (as mentioned above) could indicate that the book was well-known in the 2nd century B.C. However, an argument based on this reference alone is inconclusive because it assumes, rather than proves, than the book precedes the institution of the festival. As Talmon notes, many scholars consider Purim to be a variation of a heathen festival that pre-dates the time of Esther.[18] If this is the case, then it would be possible that the festival mentioned in 2 Maccabbees was held without the use of the book of Esther. Regardless, it is still a useful data point that most likely shows that the book was being used at that time. Besides this, the inclusion of the book of Esther in the Septuagint is clear evidence that the book was widely used by Jews in the time before Christ. However, its inclusion in the Septuagint does not prove whether or not the Jews considered it to be Scripture, since the Septuagint includes both canonical and non-canonical books.

Perhaps more notable is Esther’s conspicuous absence from a few key places. Esther is not listed in the book of Sirach (circa 180 B.C.), which recounts major storylines from nearly every other book of the Old Testament.[19] Additionally, it is the only Old Testament book that was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and there is no reference to the book in the whole New Testament.[20] Esther’s absence from these places is significant, and it may indicate that the book did not enjoy the same prominence or popularity as some of the other books of the Old Testament. However, its absence from these places does not conclusively prove that early Jews did not consider it canonical. As secular scholar Larue admits, “arguments from silence are never very convincing.”[21] Furthermore, Esther’s absence from each of these places can be explained in a way that does not threaten its canonicity. For example, the book of Sirach introduces the list of Old Testament storylines by calling it a list of “famous men” and “fathers in their generation.”[22] Since the main character of Esther was a woman, she would not strictly fall into these categories.

Josephus and the Hebrew Canon

One of the most important early witnesses to the Hebrew canon is the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus. In his work, Against Apion, Josephus refers to a collection of 22 books that he considers authoritative.[23] Since Josephus doesn’t explicitly name all the books in his collection and since the number differs from the 24 books of the final Hebrew canon, some have suggested that Josephus counted some of the books together, while others have suggested that Josephus’s canon was missing Ecclesiastes and Esther.[24]

However, evaluation of Josephus’s writings suggests that he did consider Esther to be authoritative. First, Josephus claims that the 22 books were written from the time of Moses until the time of Artaxerxes, and that while there were historical books written after that point, they are not considered authoritative in the same way.[25] This mention of the reign of Artaxerxes is significant because the only other mention of this Persian king is in the introduction to Josephus’s version of the book of Esther, where he dates the events of the book to Artaxerxes’ reign.[26] So it is likely that by mentioning the reign of Artaxerxes in describing the canon, Josephus is claiming that Esther was the last authoritative book to be written.

Likewise, the final 24-book Hebrew canon, which is identical in content to the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, included the book of Esther. While it is debatable exactly when this canon was officially recognized, the first unambiguous reference to the 24 books is in the apocryphal book 2 Esdras.[27] The most likely date of composition for 2 Esdras is in the late first century A.D., around the same time of Josephus’s works.[28]

Therefore, after evaluating the available evidence, it seems best to conclude that the commonly agreed-upon canon of Scripture among the Jews in the first century A.D. included the book of Esther. This is significant for Christians because the New Testament, while never referencing Esther directly, frequently affirms the Hebrew Scriptures as divinely inspired.[29] If it is true that Esther was included in the first-century definition of the term, “Scriptures,” then it can be said that the New Testament affirms Esther’s canonical status.

The Witness of the Holy Spirit

From the perspective of a Christian, there is another witness to the Biblical Canon that cannot be overlooked. This is the witness of the Holy Spirit – that is, God Himself in the third person of the Trinity dwelling in the hearts of his people. Christians do not approach questions such as canonicity from a purely materialistic scientific methodology, because from a Christian perspective God has chosen to reveal Himself through his Word. Therefore, while it is sometimes helpful to hear the perspectives of non-believing scholars and historians of different time periods, more weight should be placed on the perspectives of Christ followers who have been guided by the Holy Spirit. Without a doubt, the vast majority of Spirit-indwelled believers throughout the history of the Church have recognized the book of Esther as divinely inspired.

Of course, there are movements and individuals that have claimed to be “Christian” who have held deviant views on the book of Esther. However, movements that hold positions other than the one defended in this paper tend to also teach doctrine that deviates from the Biblical gospel (with the notable exception of Martin Luther, as discussed above). For these movements, then, it is best to assume that the Holy Spirit did not bear witness to them that Esther is canonical because they never became true believers by faith in the gospel. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, which claims that the Additions to Esther are divinely inspired, also teaches that salvation comes by both faith and works.[30] This teaching contradicts the clear teaching of the New Testament that salvation is “not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:9, ESV). Other movements, such as modern-day liberal Protestants, deny the divine inspiration and inerrancy of all of Scripture. Again, these movements also tend to either deny or de-emphasize the gospel, which means the members of the movement are not likely to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion: The Value of Esther in the Christian’s Bible

In conclusion, it seems that there is no compelling reason from archaeology, history or scholarship to doubt the historical truthfulness and divine inspiration of the Hebrew Book of Esther (without the Greek Additions). On the contrary, the evidence its composition in the Persian period support its historical truthfulness, and the evidence from Josephus and 2 Esdras support the notion that it was considered canonical by first century Jews (including Jesus and the writers of the New Testament). And finally, the witness of the Holy Spirit in believers throughout the ages has affirmed again and again the canonicity of Esther.

But what value does Esther give to the Christian today? What do twenty-first century Christians gain by keeping it in their Bibles? In Esther, Christians can see a unique story of how God worked in amazing ways to save his covenant people from destruction. And this was necessary to bring about salvation through Jesus, who was descended from them. Esther shows that God works in amazing ways even when his name isn’t mentioned at all.

[1] Votaw, Clyde Weber. “The Septuagint Greek Version of the Old Testament.” The Biblical World 16, no. 3 (1900): 187. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3136494.

[2] 2 Maccabees 15:36, NRSV

[3] MacArthur, John. Esther 1:1. MacArthur Study Bible with ESV For The Bible Study App. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.  Olive Tree (The Bible Study App) Edition.

[4] Friedberg, Albert D. “A New Clue in the Dating of the Composition of the Book of Esther.” Vetus Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2000): 561-65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1585495.

[5] Gordis, Robert. “Studies in the Esther Narrative.” Journal of Biblical Literature 95, no. 1 (1976): 44. doi:10.2307/3265472.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7] Gordis, Robert. “Religion, Wisdom and History in the Book of Esther: A New Solution to an Ancient Crux.” Journal of Biblical Literature 100, no. 3 (1981): 368. doi:10.2307/3265960.

[8] Larue, Gerald A. “Old Testament Life and Literature” Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1997, p. 363.

[9] Gordis, Robert. “Religion, Wisdom and History in the Book of Esther: A New Solution to an Ancient Crux.” Journal of Biblical Literature 100, no. 3 (1981): 384. doi:10.2307/3265960.

[10] Ibid., 383.

[11] “Session 4, Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, First Decree.” The Council of Trent, accessed August 20, 2018. http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch4.htm.

[12] Jerome, “Prologue to Esther.” Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Tertullian.org, accessed August 20, 2018. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/jerome_preface_esther.htm.

[13] Moore, Carey A. “On the Origins of the LXX Additions to the Book of Esther.” Journal of Biblical Literature 92, no. 3 (1973): 382-93. doi:10.2307/3263579.

[14] Luther, Martin. “Full Text of ‘The Table Talk of Martin Luther’” Translated by William Hazlitt, Esq.  Internet Archive, accessed on August 21, 2018. https://archive.org/stream/tabletalkmartin00hazlgoog/tabletalkmartin00hazlgoog_djvu.txt.

[15] “Luther’s Treatment of the ‘Disputed Books’ of the New Testament” Bible Research, accessed on August 21, 2018. http://www.bible-researcher.com/antilegomena.html.

[16] Anderson, Bernhard W. “The Place of the Book of Esther in the Christian Bible.” The Journal of Religion 30, no. 1 (1950): 33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1198590.

[17] Ibid., 41.

[18] Talmon, S. “‘Wisdom’ in the Book of Esther.” Vetus Testamentum 13, no. 4 (1963): 423. doi:10.2307/1516862.

[19] “BIBLE CANON – JewishEncyclopedia.com.” Accessed September 5, 2018. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3259-bible-canon#anchor26.

[20] Gordis, Robert. “Religion, Wisdom and History in the Book of Esther: A New Solution to an Ancient Crux.” Journal of Biblical Literature 100, no. 3 (1981): 361. doi:10.2307/3265960.

[21] Larue, Gerald A. “Old Testament Life and Literature” Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1997, p. 363.

[22] Sirach 44:1 (RSV).

[23] Josephus. “Against Apion I, Chapter 8” University of Chicago, accessed September 5, 2018. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/apion-1.html.

[24] Zeitlin, Solomon. “An Historical Study of the Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 3 (1931): 130. doi:10.2307/3622189.

[25] Josephus. “Against Apion I, Chapter 8” University of Chicago, accessed September 5, 2018. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/apion-1.html.

[26] Josephus. “Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter 6” University of Chicago, accessed September 8, 2018. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-11.html.

[27] 2 Esdras 14:45.

[28] “ESDRAS, BOOKS OF – JewishEncyclopedia.Com.” Accessed September 8, 2018. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5852-esdras-books-of#anchor10.

[29] See, for example, Luke 24:27, 2 Timothy 3:16

[30] “Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation? | Catholic Answers.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.catholic.com/index.php/magazine/online-edition/are-good-works-necessary-for-salvation.

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