The canonicity of Esther (Esther 10)

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During its early history the book of Esther had a controversial status within the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Esther is the only book in the Old Testament not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting that the Qumran community may not have viewed it as Scripture. Although the celebration of Purim (the holiday initiated in Esther 8:17-17 to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews) was inaugurated in the book of Esther, the rabbis of the second century A.D. cited a text called Megillat Taanit – not Esther – to defend its celebration. This suggests that the book of Esther was not held in as high esteem as this late (first century A.D.) work.

The status of Esther has been debated in Christian circles as well. Esther is not listed in the oldest Christian canonical catalogue, that of Bishop Melito of Sardis (ca. A.D. 167). Neither was it recognized by other Christian leaders, including Athanasius (A.D. 295-373) and Martin Luther, who proposed that Esther be removed from the canon of Scripture. On the other hand, early church fathers such as Origen (ca. 185-254), Augustine (354-430), Innocent (401-417) and John of Damascus (675-745) did count Esther among the accepted books of the Old Testament. And the councils of Hippo and Carthage officially recognized Esther’s canonical status in the Christian Scriptures in A.D. 393 and 397, respectively.

Later, the canonicity of the Greek version of Esther (containing 107 verses not found in the Hebrew text) was debated. The additionns were designated by the Protestant church as Apocryphal and omitted from the Protestant Bible during the Reformation. However, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546) labelled the additions to Esther as Deutero-canonical, and the Roman Catholic Church continues to include them after the book of Esther proper.

Jewish and Christian objections to the canonicity of Esther have been many and varied. Some readers have objected to the omission of ant reference to God. Within the book there are nearly 200 allusions to the king of Persia but not a single direct reference to God! There is likewise no mention of prayer, the law, the covenant, Jerusalem or any of the several other themes we would expect to find in a canonical work. Other scholars identify the book either as a parable os as a composite of two or more Persian and Palestinian myths. In addition, early Jews and Christians may have objected to the canonicity of Esther because of the prevalent drunkenness that often accompanied early celebrations of Purim.

Despite these objections, there are solid reasons for accepting the canonicity of Esther:

  • The book is driven by implicit accounts of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty, even though His name is unmentioned. From beginning to end the reader understands God’s hand to be at work to deliver His people from the threats of foreign enemies. The events are not “miraculous” in a supernatural sense, but they suggest divine intervention.
  • The omission of themes like observance of the law, sacrifice, the temple in Jerusalem etc. do not create an insurmountable objection when it is remembered that the book’s events occurred during the exile. The Jews were living in Persia, far from the altar in Jerusalem, which, since the reformations of king Josiah, had been the only acceptable site for sacrifices to Yahweh. That these themes would go unmentioned, therefore, is understandable. The Jews’ familiarity with their sacred traditions, however, is clear from the evident knowledge of the efficacy of communal fasting (4:16 cf. 2 Chronicles 20:3, Jeremiah 36:9) and from the theme of providence that underlies the entire book.
  • To Jews living under foreign oppression until the time of Christ, or to Christian living in the present age, the book of Esther demonstrates God’s care for and action on behalf of His people. It affirms, in fact, that all human affairs are ultimately under Hid dominion.

With the exceptions noted above, the majority of Jews and Christians have accepted the book of Esther as Scripture for over 2,000 years. Its transmission and message demand that ut remain a fundamental portion of God’s message to His people.


 

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