You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther

You’re reading the wrong Book of Esther June 9, 2013

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 noncanonical.”

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 and Athanasius.

Missing prayers

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.

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  • Here’s what I don’t get … if the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith (sola scriptura), then on what basis did some of the Reformers reject certain parts of the Bible. Clearly, there was another authority at work—their own reason, their experience, what?

    Great post. Fascinating.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It all comes down to how you define scripture. There’s an incomplete but helpful discussion of that here. When you read Luther’s complaints about books like Esther and Second Maccabees, it’s clear that his theological understanding drove his appraisal, rather than those books driving his theological understanding.

      The question today is what Protestants should and could do about it. It is even more recently that these “apocryphal” books were left out of Protestant Bibles for primarily publishing, not theological, reasons. The only thing hindering a renewed acquaintance with them now is lack of awareness. You can find all of these books in 10 seconds online.

    • geoffrobinson

      There was always testimony against those books that were left out by the Protestants, either by the Jews who originally collected the Old Testament Scriptures or by Christian witnesses. Luther & company were following traditional Catholic understanding of the canon of their day.

  • candeux

    I’ve never understood why people have so much trouble with Esther to begin with.

    Briefly skimming over the expanded version, I can sort of see why the added part wasn’t included; it definitely has a different feel to it than the rest of the book. In fact, some of it (like Mordecai’s dream) makes it sound much more like it belongs in the prophets (e.g., Daniel) than the historical books.

    Mordecai’s prayer does, however, resolve one mystery: why he risked his life and those of his people by refusing to bow to Haman. I’m not convinced that bowing to Haman would have been as problematic as he thought it was. In any case, it’s interesting to see that he recognized the trade-off.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for taking the time to read it.

      Interestingly, in the Jewish Bible, Esther’s not grouped with the historical books. It’s part of the Five Megillot, or Five Scrolls, which also contains the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.

  • bdlaacmm

    I’m an old man (senior citizen) now, but I can still recall how appalled I was back in the 1970s when I learned that protestants did not possess the whole of either Esther or Daniel. And what was worse, their truncated versions had left out all the best parts! The heartbreakingly beautiful song of the three men in the fire in Daniel – present in the Catholic version, absent in the protestant. As this article says, all the deeply moving prayers in Esther – gone in the abridged version of the KJV and its successors.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m an Orthodox convert so my surprise came from the other direction: I was appalled I’d never heard of these books or that what was said was so erroneous. Though, I find when I talk with Protestants about these books there’s very little resistance among most. They’re usually intrigued. It’s encouraging.

      You’re also right about the KJV — it contained the “apocryphal” books until the last couple hundred years when they were discarded for economic reasons (cutting printing costs). A shame, really. The loss was far greater than the pennies-per-unit that were saved in paper.

    • geoffrobinson

      Well, that just assumes the Greek versions are the full version. That may or may not be the case.

  • David_Naas

    Our good Mormon friends are always telling us that “plain and precious things” were taken out of the Bible. OK, they got one thing right. 🙂

    • bdlaacmm

      Interesting question! Do the Mormons accept the Deuterocanonical Scriptures? And if not, why not?

      • David_Naas

        Mormonism, being a reaction against early 19th century revivalist Protestantism, nevertheless incorporated the KJV as Scripture along with the Book of Mormon and some other things. I think Joseph Smith said that the Deuterocanonicals were profitable but not quite “scripture”. (One of those historical “what-ifs” that has intrigued me is if the Smith family were practicing Catholics and not assorted Protestants.)

        • bdlaacmm

          Hah! Then they are being supremely illogical. Since the Mormons claim that a “Great Apostasy” occurred sometime in the second or third centuries and that they are merely restoring “original” Christianity”, then they ought to accept what original Christianity accepted as the canon – and that would include the Deuterocanonical books!

          • David_Naas

            Press hard enough, and they will almost say the Great Apostasy happened before Jesus’ body was even taken down from the Cross.

            • Christopher Miller

              No, but it did occur sometime before the Nicene Council was formed. I’m pretty sure no informed latter-day-Saint would say it happened until after the original apostles all died. The main other reason being you’d have to account for the book of Mormon prophets dying as well.

              • David_Naas

                Your pardon for being flip. I have a great deal of respect for people like Hugh Nibley (dec’d) or Dan Petersen (alive and kicking against the pricks). LDS, no differently than anyone else, tend to parrot things heard but not understood. Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Mormons alike are usually too busy living lives to get into historical or theological details about their own particular faiths (though Mormons seem to usually do better on this.) If the ‘Apostasy’ is postulated sometime between the death of John and the Council of Nicea, there is simply too much documentary evidence that bridges the Then and the Now. There is actually a better case to be made for post-Nicene alterations.
                Ultimately, it is not a matter of documents or of theological arguments, but of interpretation and faith. Did ‘this’ act constitute Apostasy or not? Did ‘this’ creed corrupt or preserve? For LDS, faith in a Restoration entails necessarily a ‘Great Apostasy’. These are matters more of the human heart and of relationship to God than of bald historical fact (for which, there is evidence for both sides). Truth is where you find it, in which your heart finds peace and rest.

                • Joseph M

                  The Critical loss is not in Doctrine but in Authority. A Bishop is not an Apostle, they are different jobs with different authority and a Bishop (Aaronic Priesthood office) can not succeed to the Authority of an Apostle (Melchizedek Priesthood) .

                  That said I’ve just been reading N. T. Wright’s book “How God Became King” on his assessment of how we’ve been misreading the Gospel’s since around that time. Geza Vermes book “Christian Beginnings” where he explores the development of Christianity and Christology up to Nicaea and he contends that the winners of that particular fight we’re the minority position.

                  Regarding Joseph Smith and the Apocrypha this is the official statement.
                  D&C 91
                  Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Kirtland, Ohio, March 9, 1833. The Prophet was at this time engaged in the translation of the Old Testament. Having come to that portion of the ancient writings called the Apocrypha, he inquired of the Lord and received this instruction.
                  1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;

                  2 There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.

                  3 Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.

                  4 Therefore, who so readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;

                  5 And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

                  6 And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.

                  I think Its mostly an issue of Time why we haven’t really explored them as a Church especially as we have a lot of additional scripture to work through already which we hold to have much better provenience.

                  I also wonder what would be different had being Catholic not been almost as anathema as being Mormon was in the early 19th Century. We’re already alot more Catholic then protestant in many ways.

                • Jeb Barr

                  The timing of this is made even more difficult by the fact that the Mormons say that John never actually died.


    the absence of the mention of God in the book of Esther has been attributed to a bit of humor – “the books starts with the Gentiles having a party and getting drunk, leading to the removal of Vashti, the elevation of Esther, and the whole story (or the whole Megillah); it ends with the Jews being triumphant, having their own party, and getting drunk too (or at least passing on that tradition); the lesson of the story – in the absence of God, Jews drink just like gentiles.

    The serious reasons for God’s absence – as a gesture to telling man: God may help you but you need to act on your own when needed.

    The skeptic’s perspective – The book of Esther may well have been a tale that became so popular with Jews, that the Rabbis incorporated it in the canonical compilation in order to reign it in and to control the celebrations it posited.

  • So Christians can approve of the sanitised version of Esther? Like some cheesy Christian re-write of a popular song?

    I think Protestant scholars have been right to exclude the later Greek additions to Esther since the Hebrew author(s) plainly had a message for us readers and were not mistaken in their choice to exclude God-talk from their work.

    Indeed the lack of God-talk forms just as much of a theological message as any number of prayers or petitions to the Divine. To assume that a text cannot be the word of God because God is not referenced devalues the Hebrew faith tradition handed down to the Church, and seems to ‘correct’ their ‘faulty’ theology.

  • Joshua Falconer

    As far as I know, Aphrahat neither knew Greek, nor did he cite the Septuagint. He cited the Peshitta Old Testament, which was the received text of the Syriac-speaking churches in Seleucia. However, the Peshitta translation of Esther from the Hebrew was probably influenced by the Septuagint. It also contains many Jewish targumic and midrashic renderings, one of which may be the connection between “Purim” and “Passover” in 9:26a (cf. Wechsler 1998).

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thank you for that correction. Aphrahat did use the Peshitta, as far as I can tell. I found some references to the influence of the Septuagint on the Peshitta Esther, but nothing in depth. I’m curious to learn more. Thanks!

  • david carlson

    I assume the Hebrew is far older than the greek, versions – why would be believe the later is more true than the earlier?

    • While the Septuagint is obviously in Greek, it points to an underlying Hebrew and Aramaic textual tradition, which in many cases differs from the medieval Masoretic Text (Codices Aleppo and Leningrad, ca. tenth–eleventh centuries A.D.).

      On Esther specifically, the UBS Handbook notes that of the six ‘additions’ to Esther in the Septuagint, at least four were—according to many scholars, at least—originally written in Hebrew:

      Most scholars regard Additions B and E to have been written originally in Greek, while Additions A, C, D, and probably F were originally composed in Hebrew (Martin, pages 65–72). —Omanson & Noss, A Handbook on the Book of Esther: The Hebrew and Greek Texts, p. 263

      • Joel J. Miller

        Thanks for that color, Gabe. I appreciate the time you’ve spent studying this topic.

  • Joann Barnett

    Hello Joel, I have just one question. Are the ‘two Greek Versions’ also Catholic, as the ‘full version of Esther’ is?

  • geoffrobinson

    So do you have any evidence that the Greek version is more authentic to the original manuscript? It seems like the prayers and such would have been added to make it less embarrassing. I would think that alone would make it more likely not to be original. You seem to take the opposite approach. Or do you not care if it isn’t in the original?