Transformative and Protecting Torah; Historicity of Esther

I can write a post today!  This morning, I wasn’t so sure.  My phone line and my Internet weren’t working, so I was cut off from the outside world.  Fortunately, my phone company fixed both, after I called it from a pay phone, in the cold, outside of a grocery store, where seedy characters like to hang out.  (I know, I shouldn’t judge people.)  But I’m off-and running now, and that’s good!

Here are two items:

1.  I didn’t get much of Neusner read today.  I may read more tonight, even though I usually prefer to devote my full attention to Desperate Housewives while it’s on.  The book is Jacob Neusner’s Uniting the Dual Torah.  One thing that stood out to me was something Neusner said on page 36: “…the sage now appears as a holy, not merely a learned, man.  This is because his knowledge of the Torah has transformed him.” 

Neusner is referring to a story in which Levi ben Sisi holds up a Torah when troops are coming to his town, saying, “Lord of the ages!  If a single word of this scroll of the Torah has been nullified [in our town], let them come against us, and if not, let them go their way.”  The soldiers then leave.  His disciple later imitates Levi’s act and his hand withers, but the soldiers still go on their way.  When the disciple of the disciple tries the same act, his hand does not wither, which is good, but the troops don’t go their way.  Instead, they invade.  The point is that “You can’t insult an idiot, and dead skin does not feel the scalpel.”  All I can say to that is, “Huh?”  I am reminded, though, of the men in Acts who tried to cast out demons.  The demons replied to them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?”, right before tearing them to pieces (Acts 19:15).

I’m not sure why the sage is a holy and not merely a learned man.  Is it because he recognized that the Torah was to be obeyed and not merely studied, and he honored God’s punishment of sin (or at least God’s right to punish it, since, in the story, God didn’t actually go through with the punishment)?  Could be.

In Neusner’s interpretation of the story, the Torah transforms, and it also protects.  There was a time when I felt a peace in studying the Bible, as if everything would be all right.  Now, I find Bible study to be a pleasurable diversion, but I’m still scared of life. 

2.  I read Carey Moore’s article on the Book of Esther in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.  He was discussing pros and cons for the book’s historicity. 

On the “pro” side, Casey notes that the Book of Esther appears knowledgeable of Persian customs and language:

[T]he ancient author was aware of various actual practices and institutions of Persian government, including seven princely advisers to the king (1:14), the very efficient postal system of the Persian Empire (3:13; 8:10), the recording and rewarding of the king’s “benefactors” (2:23; 6:8), as well as such Persian customs as the observance of “lucky days” (3:7), royal horses with crowns (6:8), and people eating while reclining on couches (6:8). Furthermore, the writer includes a number of Persian words in the text: prtmym, “nobles” (1:3); bytn, “kiosk” (1:5); krps, “cotton” (1:6); dt, “law” (1:8); ktr, “turban” (1:11); ptšgn, “decree” (1:20); gnzym, “treasury” (3:9); ptsgn, “copy” (3:14); and ˒ḥštrnym, “royal horses” (8:10).

Moreover: “Mordecai” was a name of several historical persons, including one Mardukâ, an accountant who was a member of an inspection tour from Susa as mentioned in an undated text coming probably from either the last years of Darius (522–486 b.c.e.) or the first years of Xerxes b.c.e.

Also, the name of one of Haman’s sons (Pharshandatha) “is also an authentic 5th-century b.c.e. name which occurs on a Persian cylinder seal in the Aramaic script as Pršndt[,]” and “Even though none of the other names in the story has been definitely authenticated by extrabiblical sources, most of them seem to be Iranian in origin; certainly none of them is Greek.

But Moore says the author of Esther could have gotten this knowledge about Persia from Herodotus’ History (fifth century B.C.E.) or Berossus’ Babylonica (third century B.C.E.), so the story isn’t necessarily historical.  For a second there, I thought he was an apologist!   

On the “con” side, the Book of Esther says that decrees were sent out in every language of the empire (1:22; 3:12; 8:9), when Aramaic was the empire’s official language.  There are also apparent contradictions between Esther and Herodotus: According to Herodotus, Amestris was queen between the 7th and 12th years of Xerxes (compare Esth 2:16 and 3:7 with Herodotus 3.84) and Persian queens had to come from one of the seven noble Persian families, a custom which would have automatically ruled out an insignificant Jewish woman.

Moore says that “rare is the 20th century scholar” who accepts the historicity of the Book of Esther, when, actually, there are a few prominent ones who do, such as Edwin Yamauchi and Karen Jobes.  Some of their work is described on these apologetic web sites: The Historicity of Megillat Esther – The AishDas Society and Is Esther wrong about Persian law?.  Some of the arguments on these sites include: Vashti is a title for Amestris, Vashti is linguistically related to Amestris (which I can’t confirm or refute, due to my limited knowledge), or that Xerxes could’ve had more than one wife, since Darius had three. 

These links don’t explain the part of Herodotus about Persian queens only coming from seven noble Persian families, however, and I also wonder why Herodotus doesn’t mention Esther.  I know that he ends with Xerxes in his History, but his book doesn’t appear to go all the way to Xerxes’ death, as far as I can see.  Still, the Book of Esther mentions the third, seventh, and twelfth years of Xerxes’ reign (Esther 1:3; 2:16; 3:17).  If Esther were historical, wouldn’t Herodotus know about her, since he covers at least the seventh and twelfth years of Xerxes, according to Casey, who refers to Herodotus 3:84?  I wonder how evangelical scholars address these issues.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Transformative and Protecting Torah; Historicity of Esther

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    On my blogger blog, Looney said the following about Esther and Herodotus:

    I will need to track down those extra bits about names.

    Herodotus lived a very long way from the Persian Empire and had no direct inside knowledge. For example, there is no mention of Persepolis in his writings or any other Greek writings until Alexander the Great, yet this was the main Persian capital.

    The claim that “Persian queens had to come from one of the seven noble Persian families” is a story in Herodotus involving seven conspirators who decide to kill the impostor king. The footnote preceding this section by Rawlinson notes that this really looks like a Greek interpolation. In fact, Darius marries Atossa who isn’t a daughter of one of the seven noble Persian families (i.e. the seven conspirators). Thus, Herodotus isn’t even internally consistent on this matter.

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