Many who read this article may be unaware that there are various versions of the Esther story. It wasn’t until my doctoral work on the second-century Fathers, that I was made aware of this reality.
There are three versions to the Old Testament book of Esther. The first is from the Masoretic Text (the accepted Hebrew text of most English translations). The other two are Greek versions of the story. The first is the version preserved in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament), also known as the B-text. The third is a shorter Greek version, known as the A-text (sometimes referred to as the Lucianic recension). This version is a potential redaction of the B-text and appears to consistently follow it’s readings. It is very unlikely that the A-text is the original, because it appears to follow a common ancestor with the B-text, but with lesser content.
When considering Esther’s canonicity, some have shared strong views in doubting or opposing its authenticity as being canonical. Although Luther included Esther in his German Bible, he had this to say 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.”1 Also, in one exchange with Erasmus, he said it “deserves. . . to be regarded as non-canonical.”2 John Calvin did not include the book in his biblical commentaries and only referenced it once in the Institutes.3
This article will examine four questions that will cause the reader to explore various concepts and thoughts about different versions of Esther. My goal is to give the reader a simple presentation of the data to hear both sides of the argument in dealing with the book of Esther.
Can A Book Be Canonical Without Any Mention of God?
If we can put our presuppositions aside for a minute, what does it do to the reader, to think about the fact that the names “God” and “Lord” do not appear in the Hebrew version of Esther? One of the criteria that are often given for a book to be canonical is that it should contain God’s Divine attributes. If a book is breathed-out by God, it should display qualities fitting to God’s character.
Though one could argue that God is indirectly seen in the background of the Hebrew version, it appears problematic that He would not be the hero of the story. The hero of the story seems to be Esther and her courage and boldness in saving her people. However, in the Greek version, Esther was seen as completely dependent on God and needed His help to change the king’s heart.
Consider the words in the Septuagint, “Remember, O Lord, make yourself known in the time of our affliction and give me boldness, O King of the nations and Lord of all power. Give me eloquent speech in my mouth before the king; turn his heart to hate him that fights against us, so that there may be an end of him and of all that are likeminded to him. But deliver us with your hand and help me, for I am desolate and have no other help but you.”
In the Greek version, the focus is entirely placed on the Lord and His ability to rescue His people through Esther. The Greek version even concludes as much through Mordecai’s words, “God has done these things.” This is a major emphasis missing in the Hebrew version, outside of a reference to Esther telling the Jews to fast for her (Est. 4:16).
It should be noted that the Hebrew and Greek versions do not contradict each other necessarily. Still, the Greek version is 107 verses longer and contains more information, including over twenty references to the Lord, over twenty references to God, and four references to prayer. As stated above, there are 0 references to God in the Hebrew version, 0 references to the Lord, and 0 references to prayer (outside the request to fast). There are six additions spread throughout the narrative in the Greek version of Esther. Here’s a chart to demonstrate the placement of each addition:
Can one conclude with satisfactory evidence that Esther’s Hebrew version expresses God’s Divine attributes in a clear presentation? Can a book put on display the full glory of God while indirectly assuming His existence within a story? These are difficult yet, important questions that each reader should ask when considering these two accounts.
Which Version of Esther Did the Early Church Use?
It is impossible to assume that every church in the world used the same version. Still, one must consider this reality; many early churches utilized the Greek Septuagint when dealing with the Old Testament. In my recent doctoral work, this reality did not take long to make itself known. Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, the Didache(s) author, and others all utilized the Septuagint for their Old Testament citations. When examining those who referenced Esther, Clement, Athanasius, and Aphrahat are among those who appear to use the Greek version of Esther.
Given the fact that most churches in the world were Gentiles and that they did not know the Hebrew language, it could be easily argued that the Septuagint (Greek) version of Esther was the one utilized in the world until the time of Jerome. Suppose one were to visit one of the main churches in Rome around the year 95 AD, and they were to listen to Clement preach from the book of Esther. In that case, it is very likely, given his writings reference the Greek version, that one would hear Esther preached from the longer version. Keep in mind; Clement was the third Bishop of Rome. Paul and Peter trained him before their martyrdoms. This does not automatically mean that it’s the end of the story and the longer version is the right one, but this is something the reader should consider.
Jerome examined this problem when conducting his work on the Latin Vulgate. Jerome commissioned teams to study different readings and dilemmas posed within the manuscript traditions to go throughout the world. Jerome rejected the Greek version as canonical and translated the Vulgate from the Hebrew version. He observed that these passages had no equivalent in the Hebrew text of his day. Though doubting their authenticity as divinely inspired scripture, he relegated them to the end of his translation.
It should be noted that the Greek version remain canonical for the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Jerome’s decision should not be rejected as invalid. After all, he researched various issues by consulting the Jewish churches at times. However, this does not make him or the Jewish churches automatically correct. It must be noted that he still placed the Greek version at the end of the translation and did not disregard it altogether.
Does the External Data Help in This Discussion?
Let’s consider a few things about the Hebrew version of Esther. As of today, the earliest Hebrew manuscript evidence of Esther we have is roughly tenth-century AD in the Masoretic tradition. Now, two things should be noted when examining this: First, the Masoretes were following a manuscript tradition that preceded their time. It was likely a text similar to the one that Jerome was studying. Second, the scholarship and intentionality of the Masoretes to get the text right should not be ignored. These men were dedicated to the readings of the Old Testament.
According to Menachem Cohen, these schools developed such prestige for the accuracy and error-control of their copying techniques that their texts established an authority beyond all others. Another aspect to consider that makes this difficult to assess is that none of the Dead Sea scrolls that have been discovered contain the book of Esther. Like Paul Flesher, some have suggested that this could be that the Purim5 holiday was not found in the Torah.6 This is certainly a possibility, but it is challenging to conclude given the fact that the Qumran community was a strict Torah following sect.
One of the major arguments that should be considered is the age of the Septuagint (LXX). The seventy or so translators of the LXX were translating from Hebrew manuscripts around the second-century BC. This translation took place because most Jews were no longer fluent in their native Hebrew tongue after many became Hellenized.
It should also be noted that Esther’s Coptic and Ethiopic versions are translated from the Greek version rather than the Hebrew. Once more, this does not solve the issue, but it does give more weight to a longer version argument. The evidence of the Targums should also be considered in the external data. Two of the Targums (Rishon and Sheni) reflect the LXX in that they reference the different prayers.
Some have argued that the translators created the longer version of Esther when working through Esther. The problem with this argument is two-fold: First, these men were translating an already existing text, not creating a new one. If the six additions listed above originated from the LXX translators, there would be transitional problems that should be noticeable within the syntax.
It is more likely that if the theory of additions is correct, it came from the scribes of the Hebrew manuscripts that they were translating. Second, one would have to ask himself, “Did the translators do this elsewhere in the Old Testament?” Outside of having 151 Psalms in comparison to 150, the answer is no. This was not a provable habit of the translators in their work.
Does the Internal Data Help in This Discussion?
There are two internal arguments to consider when studying this subject: the king’s historical name and the nationality of Haman. First, let’s examine the name of the king. According to the Hebrew version, Ahasuerus was the king’s name, whereas he is called Artaxerxes in the LXX.
The Greek version is supported by classical sources such as Josephus and Bar-Hebraeus which identify Ahasuerus as either Artaxerxes I (reigned 465 to 424 BC) or Artaxerxes II (reigned 404 to 358 BC).
The second name to consider is Haman. He is known in the Hebrew version as a descendant of Agag, the king of the Amalekites (cf. Est. 3:1). The LXX presents Haman as the son of Amadathes, the Bugaean. It’s possible that Bugaean (Βουγαῖον) could be seen as an adjective or a substantive, used as a term of reproach, that is unique to the Greek version of Esther. There are no known people referred to as the Bugaean’s. Therefore, the term could be considered descriptive more so than a people group. Later in Esther in the LXX, Haman is referred to as a “Macedonian” (cf. Est. 9:24 LXX).
It becomes challenging to assess which perspective makes more sense with the narrative. It could be assumed that Agag’s descendants were eliminated after the events of King Saul (cf. 1 Sam. 15). Although Saul disobeyed and kept Agag alive, Samuel took a sword and “hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord.” (1 Sam. 15:33). Some theories speak of Agag’s wife escaping while pregnant, and his descendants continued through that child. It could be argued that this is not possible from the text. Saul stated he did as the Lord commanded except that he left Agag alive.
There are good arguments for both perspectives on Haman. However, the primary question that should be asked in this section is about the king’s name. Did the Hebrew text get it wrong compared to Josephus, Bar-Hebraeus, and the Septuagint? Or is it possible that both names can be correct? These are important questions to consider.
Our goal in research is to investigate the evidence and follow it until we find the truth. In discussions like this, I believe it is unwise to make a dogmatic claim for one argument over the other. If one were to accept the Greek version of Esther, by default, they would be affirming the Hebrew version as well, given the full Hebrew version can be found within the narrative of the Greek version.
If one were to accept the traditional Hebrew version, he should remain open to the reading and content of the Greek version. It was used for many years and received by numerous church Fathers, and in a worst-case scenario, it has great historical value. For those interested in reading the Greek version, here is a link to Brenton’s Greek translation of Esther.
-Dr. Stephen Boyce
- Luther, Table Talk 24
- Luther, Bondage of the Will, LW 33:110
- Calvin, Institutes 4.12.17
- Cohen, Menachem (1979). “The idea of the sanctity of the Biblical text and the science of textual criticism”. In Simon, Uriel (ed.). HaMikrah V’anachnu. Tel-Aviv, Israel: HaMachon L’Yahadut U’Machshava Bat-Z’mananu and Dvir.
- Purim commemorates the day Esther saved the Jewish people from plot of Haman, and held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar.
- Paul Flesher, Targums: a critical introduction
**special thanks to Mark Centers, Jonathan Beazley, and Samuel Nesan for research and advice on this article.