Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling

Article excerpt

Bell & Howell Information and Learning: Foreign text omitted. ...

Very few twentieth-century Bible scholars believed in the historicity of the book of Esther, but they certainly expended a lot of effort justifying their position. Lewis Bayles Paton, in 1908, wrote fourteen pages outlining the arguments for and against historicity and concluded that the book is not historical. In 1971 Carey A. Moore devoted eleven pages to the issue and arrived at the same conclusion. In more recent commentaries, those of Michael V Fox in 1991 and Jon D. Levenson in 1997, we find nine and five pages respectively, with both authors agreeing that the book is fictional.1 You might notice that the number of pages is going down, probably because all the main points were laid out by Paton, and if you are going to rehash an argument you should do it in fewer pages than the original. But why does every commentator, myself included,2 rehash the argument?

The question of historicity seems to have loomed larger for Esther than for most other books in the Hebrew Bible, at least until the last decade or so, when the historicity of all parts of the Bible was put in doubt. During the greater part of the last century, scholars assumed the basic historicity of most of the Bible, although problems in its historical and chronological information were duly noted and debated. Exceptions were stories that could be defined as myth, epic, and legend. These genres were well known from the ancient Near East, so their presence in the Bible was not cause for concern. Short fiction, however, a late phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible, seems to have generated more apologetics than myth or legend.

On what grounds is a story to be judged fictional? Because it is easier to accept a patently unrealistic story, fictionality was sometimes determined by whether or not the events of the story could have happened or by whether the story seemed realistic. But to judge a story's historicity by its degree of realism is to mistake verisimilitude for historicity. Verisimilitude is the literary term for the illusion of reality. Just because a story sounds real does not mean that it is. Realistic fiction is just as fictional as nonrealistic fiction. Among the leading arguments for Esther's historicity are that its setting is authentic and that its knowledge of Persian custom is detailed and accurate. But this realistic background proves nothing about the historicity of the story, as our aforementioned commentators were well aware.

Why, then, did the commentators feel so defensive about denying the historicity of Esther? Perhaps from the need to convince readers whose religious convictions demand that everything in the Bible be taken as true. But there may be more to it than that. It has to do with the centrality of the discipline of history in biblical studies (and in the humanities in general) throughout a large part of the twentieth century. The historical approach saw as one of its objectives the recovery of the history of ancient Israel. A major resource in that quest was the Bible, and so it is not surprising that the Bible's historiographical writings (or what were thought to be its historiographical writings) played such a dominant role. One might even suspect that this encouraged scholars to view more and more of the biblical text as historiography-and, if at all possible, as historically accurate. More important for the present discussion, scholars retrojected their value system back to ancient Israel. That is to say, modern scholars liked to think that the ancient writers meant their work to be taken as history. The history they wrote might be selective, inaccurate, or otherwise flawed, but it was nevertheless history. That an ancient writer may not have intended for his work to be viewed as historical-by which most people mean "true"-does not seem to have entered the discussion until much more recently.

What about the current reassessments of the Bible's historicity, especially by the scholars known as minimalists? …

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