You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther

The Book of Esther occupies a controversial place in the Bible. Though he included it in his Bible, Martin Luther was highly ambivalent about it. “I am so great an enemy to . . . Esther, that I wish [it] had not come to us at all,” he said in Table Talk 24, “for [it has] too many heathen unnaturalities.” In one exchange with Erasmus he said the book “deserves . . . to be regarded as noncanonical.”

Those looking at the Hebrew text of the book might wonder why it’s included in the Bible at all. There’s nary a reference to miracles, prayer, or even God in the entire book. And no other biblical writer quotes it (something that cannot be said of more problematic books like Enoch).

Long before Luther, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, ancient Jewish authorities objected to the book’s canonicity. But early Christians loved it. In his book The Rest of the Bible Theron Mathis mentions several church fathers who referenced Esther approvingly: Clement of Rome, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and Aphrahat the Persian. Even Jerome, who discounted portions of the book, saw the book’s principal characters, Esther and Mordecai, as types of the church and Christ.

Were these fathers reading the same book as Luther? Actually, no.

Two versions of the same book

There are two primary versions of Esther, the Hebrew and the Greek, the latter of which contains several additional sections. Luther favored the Hebrew, as did the other Protestant Reformers. Until Jerome, the Church almost universally favored the Greek, though even he retained the extra material when he translated the Vulgate principally from the Hebrew, as he did with other books Protestant scholars later regarded (and disregarded) as “apocryphal.”

In the East, the church never stopped using the Greek Old Testament (including the longer version of Esther and all those other “apocryphal” books). Consequently there was very little controversy over Esther in the Eastern church. Why? It turns out that all the missing “God stuff” in the Hebrew version is present in the Greek, the version quoted approvingly by Clement and Athanasius.

Here, for instance, is Mordecai’s prayer upon hearing of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews:

O Lord, Lord, King who rulest over all things, for the universe is in thy power and there is no one who can oppose thee if it is thy will to save Israel. For thou hast made heaven and earth and every wonderful thing under heaven, and thou art Lord of all, and there is no one who can resist thee, who art the Lord. . . . O Lord God and King, God of Abraham, spare thy people; for the eyes of our foes are upon us to annihilate us, and they desire to destroy the inheritance that has been thine from the beginning. Do not neglect thy portion, which thou didst redeem for thyself out of the land of Egypt. Hear my prayer, and have mercy upon thy inheritance; turn our mourning into feasting, that we may live and sing praise to thy name, O Lord; do not destroy the mouth of those who praise thee. (13.9-11, 15-17 RSVCE)

Following Mordecai’s prayer, Esther offers one of her own. It’s seventeen verses long. “O my Lord,” she begins, “thou only art our King; help me, who am alone and have no helper but thee. . .” (14.3). The text says she discarded her royal garments and crown for sackcloth and dung (14.1-2) and seems to have prayed for three straight days (15.1).

The saving actions of God

Faced with the fact that God is mentioned not all in the Hebrew text, some commentators have argued that he’s present providentially, working behind the scenes. That’s true, but in the Greek version Mordecai proclaims the fact loud and clear. “These things have come from God,” he says. “The Lord has saved his people; the Lord has delivered us from all these evils; God has done great signs and wonders, which have not occurred among the nations” (10.1, 9).

If you’ve never read Mordecai’s statement, you might be reading the wrong Book of Esther. To change that, you can turn here and see the Revised Standard Version’s full version, which I quote above. It’s clunky in places and the verse numbering is a bit tricky, but just read from start to finish and you’ll be fine. You can also read the two Greek versions contained in the New English Translation of the Septuagint.

I realize that there are several obstacles to the full version finding its path back into (some of) our Bibles, but there’s no reason we can’t read it for ourselves and see what the ancient church loved and appreciated in the Book of Esther.

Image Credit: Sweet Publishing, Distant Shores.

24 comments:

  1. With all due respect, I find the assertion that the Hebrew version is somehow “wrong” to be very misguided. The Hebrew version, which is undoubtedly an older version, is a veritable artifact of Jewish history and represents a definite state in the redaction history of that document. It is neither “right” nor “wrong.” It just is what it is. Furthermore, the Greek version is not a “full version” as if the Hebrew version were somehow missing something that was there beforehand. The Greek additions are just that – additions. Prayers were added (much like Daniel 3), where Hellenistic Jewish audiences thought that there should be some mention of God. They are interpolations, not a part of some hypothetical original that was lost or taken out by Jewish editors (though to be sure, you did not state that, but it could be implied). That Eastern Christianity received and transmitted its Old Testament text through the Greek version(s) is not a matter of originality, but one of tradition. It is a part of our Tradition because of its transmission history within Orthodoxy, not because it is an earlier or “better” text (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t).

    I have labored to try to bring some perspective to the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek Bibles while imploring people to exercise greater responsibility in choosing the rhetorical language to describe this relationship. Choosing to use words like “wrong book of Esther” or “the full version” is misleading and irresponsible. For more information, please consult my series on the issue as well as the standard manuals for LXX studies, particularly Karen Jobes’ _Invitation to the Septuagint_ and Natalio Ferndandez Marcos’ _The Septuagint in Context: An Introduction to the Greek Version of the Bible._

    My series:
    Part 1: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/departinghoreb/masoretic-hebrew-vs-septuagint-part-1/
    Part 2: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/departinghoreb/masoretic-hebrew-vs-septuagint-part-ii/
    Part 2b: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/departinghoreb/mt-vs-lxx-clarification/
    Part 3: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/departinghoreb/masoretic-hebrew-vs-septuagint-part-3-variations-happened/

    1. First, Eric, thanks for your comments. I’ve been very appreciative of your work since discovering it here on Ancient Faith and have shared it widely.

      Second, I don’t think that using language like “wrong” or “full version” is irresponsible in the slightest. I’m writing a mildly polemical blog for a popular audience. If you’re looking for explicit reference to God in Esther (which Luther and many other readers evidently were and are), then you’re looking in the “wrong” place. The use is contextual and fits fine.

      Similarly, to refer to something as complete or full only means that material left out of one version of a text is included here. If someone found an extra chapter Faulkner had written for Absalom, Absalom!, you can bet the publisher would emblazon the jacket with “The Complete and Restored Edition.” We’re just talking about popular usage. To place it in another, more academic context would require greater qualification. But that’s not what I’m doing here.

      Third, I’m not against the Masoretic text. I use it every day. The “completeness” (per the usage above) of the text is not always the most important issue. I wouldn’t disregard the Masoretic Daniel because it’s shorter, anymore than I would favor the Masoretic Jeremiah because it’s longer. They’re just different textual traditions, and I am untroubled by fundamentalist worries about finding a pristine text (which never existed). I did not, let me be crystal clear, say or imply in any way that Jews excised material from the book and stuck us with an inferior product. Per Pelikan above, not all ancient Jewish authorities knew what to do with the book either.

      1. It is irresponsible, IMO, because it perpetuates the myth within Orthodoxy that the Hebrew Bible is somehow “wrong” or corrupt. It also leads people into thinking that the Hebrew Bible has somehow removed these references to God, which it did not. Even within a popularly-aimed blog as yours, such clarifications are not beyond the ability of your audience to understand. An extra chapter of Faulkner would be important, but not if it were written by another author a century after the fact. That doesn’t make the original Faulkner “wrong” anymore than the Hebrew version of Esther is wrong. Just because a text does not contain the material we want it to, i.e. references to God, it doesn’t make it wrong. If someone is looking for explicit references to God in Esther, maybe such a person should adjust his or her expectations of the text and let the text speak on its own terms. The Greek version likewise speaks on its own terms and tells us something about the religious sensibilities of a Jewish community that received the text and modified it to fit those sensibilities. Should we do the same? 1 Maccabees doesn’t reference God (or at most once). Does that fact make the book “wrong?” Does it need to be modified? Greek Esther is what it is, and the same with Hebrew Esther. We have got to stop pitting the two Bibles against each other – it’s divisive, and well, just untrue. Let them work in harmony side-by-side allowing the contrasts to tell us more than any one of them could do alone.

        1. Again, my use of the term “wrong” is contextual, as I said above. I’m not saying the Hebrew Esther is wrong in any sort of objective and absolute way. But if you’re looking for explicit references to God there, you’re looking in the wrong place. That’s a subjective statement; not an absolute value judgement about the ultimate worth of a text.

          I have no qualms with your conclusion here: “We have got to stop pitting the two Bibles against each other… Let them work in harmony side-by-side allowing the contrasts to tell us more than any one of them could do alone.” Sure, let’s do it. But let’s also be aware that for many of my readers, they don’t need to better understand the Masoretic text. They need to know that another tradition exists at all.

          If Paul can say that scripture is given for our instruction, then exposing readers to a version of Esther that more explicitly shows the faith of the participants and how they understood the providence of God would seem helpful.

          1. It is not clear, in my opinion, that your use of the terms “wrong” and “full” is contextual. Your post never says “you’re looking in the wrong place.” It says “you are reading the wrong book of Esther.” The former is subjective and clear, the other is not and can mislead one into thinking that the Hebrew Esther is “wrong” objectively.

            But to respond to your comment about St. Paul’s statement about inspiration, if indeed “all scripture” is God-breathed, it stands to assume that the Hebrew Esther is God-breathed the same as Greek Esther, for they are both understood to be “scripture.” So, they are profitable in their own ways. The Hebrew version, IMO, more closely fits with our daily perception of providence. Things happen more or less without our noticing that God has ordered them in such a way, and indeed it is impossible to know it. It is not until after the fact that we may realize it. I think it is comforting and instructive to know that regardless of our awareness and regardless even of our prayers, God is “working all things together for good.”

  2. Exactly right, Eric. I have posted similarly on the LXX and Esther here:

    “The Additions to Esther

    As for Esther, Jerome was quite clear in providing evidence to us that the Greek versions–what we typically refer to as the Additions to Esther–didn’t reconcile with the existing Hebrew versions in his day. That’s part of the reason why they’re thrown in doubt and not really received by Protestants or Jews as a legitimate part of the original Esther that we find in the Masoretic text. Furthermore, as Law notes, at least two of the additions appear to be Greek originals and likely didn’t have a Hebrew version underlying their origin.

    So, while the Septuagint was a useful tool of the early church to provide Greek readers of the Bible access to the Hebrew Old Testament in advancing Christianity, claiming more than that for it is extremely problematic.”

    http://www.elenctic.com/?p=97

    1. Kevin, thanks for commenting. I wonder if you actually read the point being made in the post.

      (1) There’s controversy about Esther, mainly because of lack of reference to God in the Hebrew text.
      (2) Christians following the Greek Esther did not have that controversy because the version they used makes plenty of references to God and prayer and providence and the like.
      (3) If you haven’t read those references, it’s because you’re looking in the “wrong” version of the book.
      (4) Try reading the “full” version for yourself — i.e., the one with God stuff.

      I did not claim very much for the Septuagint at all, though I’m a fan. As I said to Eric, I’m untroubled by fundamentalist worries about multiple recensions of texts. It doesn’t have much to do with what the church deems inspired. As a professional editor, I have a hard time imagining any text that isn’t edited, massaged, augmented, and so on. That’s what happens to texts.

      I’m not arguing that the Masoretic is impure and the Septuagint pristine. The church uses both, and the ESV I love and use daily certainly depends on the Masoretic. Rather, I’m suggesting people would benefit from reading the version with Esther at prayer, especially if they’re puzzled about her not doing so in the Hebrew.

      1. Joel,

        The full version is the Hebrew book of Esther and not what we have in the Additions to the Septuagint. Saying we read the “wrong” version is simply prejudicial language that is deceptive as I have already pointed out. The fact that segments of the church that used the Greek OT didn’t get exposed to the controversy surrounding the nature of the book and its lack of mentioning God is for me irrelevant. Incidentally, what in the world is wrong with controversy or the church working out a viewpoint in regards to the Scriptures? The whole history of the Christian faith is involved in disputes like this and it’s one of the ways we grow as a community faithful to God’s word. Are you going to say the same thing about the trinitarian debates?

        Such a controversy can’t explain away the made-up portions of the Additions to Esther that were clearly written in later Greek without an earlier Hebrew original and that were an addition to what God had already inspired through whoever originally wrote the book in Hebrew. There’s no evidence that these additions were ever part of Holy Writ from the standpoint of the Hebrew Old Testament–which was the Scriptures in the main for the early Jewish believers in Christ. They were never universally recognized and even during Jerome’s day they were known to be forgeries.

        This whole house of cards you present is designed only to favor Orthodox views of the text of Scripture and it’s regrettable that you speak of your reading as the right one and the Hebrew one as wrong.

        I wouldn’t have minded it if you had just said we can look at both in thinking or studying about Esther. But, your language was stronger than that and was clearly designed with a polemic in mind that the facts simply don’t support.

        1. Kevin, a question and an observation:

          (1) What counts as “made up” in your understanding and how would that affect ideas like inspiration in general and passages like the woman caught in adultery in particular?

          (2) You misunderstand the focus I place on texts. As I said earlier I am unconcerned with some sort of pristine text. There’s no such animal, and there never has been such an animal. I do favor the Orthodox interpretation, naturally; I’m Orthodox. But when Paul established the criteria for bishops he did not list being able to get their hands on a pristine copy of this or that book. He said they had to know the teaching. That teaching spread far faster than copyists and interpreters. The faith depends on passing along the teaching of the apostles, not reconstructing pristine texts, whether Masoretic or Septuagint.

          1. I’ve said what needed to be said. You’ve merely sidestepped the historical/textual realities in favor of your own viewpoint.

            The extant text is God’s word — God-breathed and therefore perfect. Your view of inspiration is different than that of Jesus and Paul. They didn’t look at Esther or other books and say, “Gee, let’s add a few chapters a couple hundred years later.” Psalm 19 does not seem to read that way about the Scriptures. Rather, they recognized the Hebrew text as God-breathed, as so perfect that men could live by it, and that not one jot or tittle of it would pass away until all things had been fulfilled.

            Your predilection for the same sort of presuppositions about the text that support anti-Semitic German higher criticism are undoubtedly tiresome. The Academy is slowly turning them over in favor of more appropriate evaluations of the text.

            Regardless, you haven’t bothered to deal with the historical facts of the matter regarding these texts and the data I’ve presented. I don’t understand how you’ll accept revisions to Esther but won’t do the same for pseudopigraphal contributions for the New Testament. If we can accept revisions to Esther, why not revisions to the New Testament provided by Marcion or others? If we can accept revisions to the Scripture on the part of later authors, who are you to say that the teaching they put forward is out of line with the regula fidei?

            At what point do you admit both the inconsistency and the fact that a later altered copy (in another language no less!) implies an original? What real evidence do you have that the Hebrew copy of Esther isn’t the original text of the book? We all know the answer to the last question is: none.

          2. I think you might be arguing with someone else. My presuppositions about the texts of scripture are roughly opposite the higher critics. I accept the scriptures accepted by the church, regardless of how they came to be written, edited, compiled, etc. That’s exactly why and how I am bullish on the Septuagint version of Esther. That’s also how and why I reject the pseudepigrapha and Marcion–because the church rejects them. There’s no inconsistency there.

            The reason I asked about the woman caught in adultery is unresolved, however. If that was a later edition, something not actually penned by John, then by what justification do you keep it in your Bible? The inconsistency would lie (at least potentially) in wanting a “pure” Esther (with no interpolations) and an “impure” John (with the interpolation of the adulterous woman).

            A possible resolution would be to see that the church has accepted the interpolations, and that recognition is how we know they are inspired. That’s how it falls for me. The moment we start talking about what’s “made up” (your phrase) in texts the church has already affirmed, that’s when we’re working with a house of cards.

  3. This read is interesting. I went for years to a Synagogue to learn more about the origins of our Christian Faith. I was always troubled when it came to their play of celebrating this story about Mordecai and Esther, because I could not bring myself to a mood of celebrating and cheering over someone’s fall/wrong doing and Esther prostituting herself to safe her tribe. A common understanding among Jews I found, is that this Story is fiction, and never really happened. That was a surprise to me, but rather that there were times, politically, where truth could not be spoken, so it was garbed in fictional story telling, though everyone at the time knew what the story meant. (kind of a code-reading)
    The story also seems odd to me, because God does say, not to celebrate, feast or re-joys in the fall of your enemies, but pray for them, love your enemies etc.. (NT=toward reconciliation and oneness….OT= still duality and no recognition that your enemies/Gentiles are God’s creation too and in the plan of redemption. Abraham was a Gentile.
    Not interested in hair-splitting, all scripture was handed down from an oral tradition. And stories change in the re-telling, just ask a few witnesses to an incident and what they saw or experienced, then add a few hundred years until the stories get written down.
    Perfection is not in the scriptures I believe, but in our loving God, doing justice and loving our neighbor as oneself. I MHO
    Still THANK YOU for the article and all the comments. I am learning so much never the less and much appreciated from everyone.
    Eric Jobe, I love your articles as well so much. So insightful, and when I read them, I become strangely so happy….wow moments. Thank you.

  4. I enjoy your work a lot, Joel, ever since Russell Moore introduced me to it last year sometime. Call me a contrarian, but I like the original version of Esther precisely because of the “silent sovereignty” portrayed in it. That whole vibe – maybe nobody’s even talking about him, but God’s still there, doing his thing – is a fantastic description of the way God’s work in the world actually looks. It’s less pillar-of-fire, hailstones-from-the-sky, and more subtle little things that would look like coincidences if we didn’t know better.

    Esther and Habakkuk are the two OT books that I sympathize with the most because of the way they reflect what I feel are my own faith experiences.

  5. It seems to me that the lack of references to God in the Hebrew of Esther is a literary feature designed to make a theological point- even when God seems absent, He remains present, turning all things to the counsel of His will. Any reader of Esther would be able to see that the series of events follows the exodus-and-conquest typology set out from the beginning of the Pentateuch.

  6. Thanks for this post, Joel. As a fairly recent convert, I had not been made aware of the differences in the Septuagint telling of Esther, and I find myself enriched by them.

    What is far less enriching, however, at least to a weak one like myself, is the insistence in this comment thread on masorete apologetics, and the attempted elevation of the Masoretic text to a place it has not, in the orthodox tradition, previously occupied. Similar to this is the implication that anyone who has a particular devotion to the Septuagint text over and above the masoretic is guilty of some sort of anti-intellectualism or fundamentalism. What gets lost in the fray is that there is an unassuming, simple orthodoxy in the hearts of many a convert from protestantism (and in many more cradle orthodox) that is more interested in holding on to what has been traditioned to it than in trying to equivocate the importance, relevance and reliability of some external text, practice or doctrine with that which has been received from the Church.

    I have nothing yet against the Masoretic text. The OT I am most familiar with was translated from it. But the passion I have seen here and elsewhere for equivocating the reliability of the Greek and Hebrew texts betrays an orthodoxy that is not so much a faith as a thought, or a set of propositions. To spend much effort even evaluating the historical reliability of what has been handed to us seems to greatly risk missing the point in a sadly modernistic way; to then seek to judge the historical reliability of its discrepancies with some other text is almost inescapably postmodern in its failure to tell us anything of value about our Holy Tradition.

    And yet, I don’t mean to say that such critical exercises as this ought to be forbidden; I think there could easily be some value on it for the academically-minded, though my weak mind can’t easily grasp it. Rather, what I think is wrong is how unhelpful –or one could even say, irresponsible– it seems to publicly, in the sight of both converts and cradles, intellectuals and simpletons, mature Christians and little ones, insist on a system of valuation of historical texts that has merely academic ramifications and exactly no bearing on the trajectory of Holy Tradition. Such insistence, and the equivocation of any dissent from it with a sort of Quran-style literalism, ought to remain among those whose concerns are specifically academic.

    I came here seeking nourishment for my spirit; I even gleaned a little from Joel’s post, but I was nothing but grieved by the comments of Eric and Kevin. And this is no great sin, for I am too sensitive, but I would warn that I am neither the simplest of faith nor the littlest one in spirit who regularly stumbles upon discussions like this while seeking spiritual profit.

    For what I have said needlessly, falsely or without charity, please forgive me, and pray for the sinner,
    Elijah.

  7. I myself take a middle road on this issue, regarding the interpolations as divinely inspired and not forgeries. Its worth noting that the Adultery Pericope from John is widely regarded as an interpolation, yet God forbid we should deny our Lord saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and “Go forth and sin no more.” In fact I came across the blog of a most unpleasant Baptist pastor who argued we should regard that whole episode as false, and he was using this to peomote his own twisted sort of psuedo-Pelagian fundamentalist theology that would presumably offer no forgiveness for adulterers.

    In like manner, the Orthodox church having received the additions to Esther, it is arguably correct within a certain context which I think Joel tried to convey, which I think Eric was right to point out could have been clearer, that the version found in most English bibles is “wrong” for our purposes. I would argue these additions in the LXX enrich the text for us Christologically in the same way the Rabinnical literature regarding Esther and the feast of Purim enrich the text for practitioners of Orthodox Judaism. The Sola Scriptura Protestants and Karaite Jews arguably have the most to lose (although the Karaite cantillation of Esther for Purim, of which I have a rare recording, is most exquisite, in melody, oddly reminiscent of the chanting of the Mozarabic liturgy from Toledo).

    Speaking of liturgy by the way, the prayer offered by Esther is strikingly similiar to the Jewish liturgy I have read in Orthodox and Karaite siddurim, which refer to God as the “King of the Universe,” who has made and rules all things. This liturgical similiarity suggests to me a certain validity regarding these interpolations, in so far as they might perhaps reflect now forgotten oral traditions regarding prayer and ascesis on the part of Esther and her father, inserted into the narrative, and framed with the liturgical conventions prevalent at the time the Septuagint was translated or some time before, which are still reflected in both Jewish and Christian prayer twenty three centuries or so later. However even without these additions, which make the theological connection more apparent, I still think Esther to be more edifying and useful than the Book of Judith, which is nonetheless also a part of our canon. Lastly, regarding Enoch, the Ethiopians include it in I beloeve both their “broad” and “narrow” canon, and I personally regard all the Oriental Orthodox as sharing our faith based on what I have read in the works of Metropolitan Kallostos Ware, the scholarship of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and so on, and the Ethiopian use of that book combined with Jude apparently quoting from it suggests to me that we should not entirely disregard it but rather simply note that the peculiarities in the surviving text place it in the same category as, for example, The Shephard of Hermas: an edifying work used in the early church that should not be regarded as dogmatically authoritative.

  8. The original Hebrew version of the OT was preserved through the Septuagint, from which quoted Jesus & His Apostles , is but to know that the Masoretic text became a corrupted version of the Hebrew Bible, for the Jews who brought out the Masoretic text were the rejecters of the Messiah when he appeared, they who were called the Talmudists from the first to the 4th. centuries & from the 5th till Mesoretic text were formed, became known as the Masoretes.
    They who translated the word “Virgin ” to mean a young girl , & young girls at that time were mostly virgins . But to the prophecy “A virgin shall bear & son–” the word virgin an eternal one denoting the pureness of God himself & this makes all the differences in the meanings.

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