The following guest piece by Joel J. Miller originally ran under the title “You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther.” It is republished here with permission.
The Book of Esther occupies a controversial place in the Bible.
John Calvin did not include the book in his biblical commentaries and only referenced it once in the Institutes (see 4.12.17). 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, for [it has] too many heathen unnaturalities,” he said in Table Talk 24. And in one exchange with Erasmus he said it “deserves. . . to be regarded as nonanonical.”
No God, no prayer, no miracles?
Those looking at the Hebrew text of the book might wonder why it’s included in the Bible at all. No other biblical writer quotes it (something that cannot be said of more problematic books like Enoch). There’s nary a reference to miracles, prayer, or even God in the entire book. 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 the book 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, Athanasius, and Aphrahat.
For one example, here’s 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 say 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 not 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.
Joel J. Miller is the author of Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of Our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, which explores the story of angels as told in early Christian writings and art, as well as vice president of editorial and acquisitions for the nonfiction division at Thomas Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.
The first time I read the Greek version of the book of Esther was in the Orthodox Study Bible – thank goodness we have the Old and New Testaments now translated.
Once again the intractable problem of Sola Scriptura: what counts as scriptura?
Thank you for posting this.
On a tangent, I read the book of Judith for perhaps the first time ever this year. From a Sola Scriptura point of view, it seems problematic as being historically disconnected, to name one issue. But placing the question of the Canon in the context of the community of faith (the Church) rather than in the context of personal search for knowledge and understanding, the “problems” fade in importance.
I know the Orthodox Church prefers the Greek over Hebrew translation of the Old Testament, but does the Orthodox church view the “Apocrypha” as on par with the rest of the Old Testament? Or do you have a view that it is a “secondary canon” or good to read but not worthy of doctrine?
I’ve found varying answers from Orthodox-run websites, but figured this would be the place to go for a more complete answer. Thanks in advance!
I look forward to a more authoritative answer to your question, Patristic Anglican, but I thought I’d give you my understanding as a newly chrismated Orthodox Christian.
Old Testament scripture is scripture, whether apocryphal or not. The entire purpose of the OT, in the eyes of the Church, is to point us to Christ. With that in mind, we read these apocryphal books, along with all of the others, with the wisdom and guidance of the fathers and look to how they lead us to Christ. So, we don’t read these books for developing doctrinal arguments or statements as much as we read them as a way to move toward Christ more deeply.
Yes, the Orthodox primarily use the NT (which, fortunately, has no disputes over canonicity) as their source of doctrine. The OT is primarily a witness to Christ and the NT, not a source of doctrine in itself in the same way the NT is. That’s my understanding.
Side note on Calvin. He died before finishing his OT commentary. There are a several other books he did not write commentary on either like Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.
Thanks for the article. I’ll have to read my English translation of the LXX.
Thank you for this article. My LXX translation was billed as a “word for word” polyglot translation of the LXX and Greek New Testament. I checked Esther after reading this article and it did not include either text from the two Greek versions link supplied above. I’ve saved the link now for future reference. Many thanks again!
I’m new to Orthodoxy. Am I understanding correctly that the Hebrew version was that of the Jews, translated to Greek sometime around (or before?) the time of Jesus? My question isn’t about when it was translated – suffice to say the Hebrew was first/ancient. …so why does it not have more authority over the Greek translation? I don’t understand why the Greek would even have extra stuff in it. I apologize if this is a dumb question!
This might help you.
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