The most remarkable and yet obvious explanation for the Book of Esther is of course its historicity. This also accounts better than any other theory for its form and content, as well as its national, unanimous and unhesitating embracement by Jews for millenia, stretching back beyond pre-Christian times.
Yet these observations were well known and discussed in Europe and the West as early as the first half of the 19th century. The famous Biblical Handbook by T.H. Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (9 editions between 1822 and 1852), all of them sporting the following concise but quite adequate and detailed account of the book:
SECTION X. (pp. 64-67)
ON THE BOOK OF ESTHER.
I. Title. — II. Author. — III. Argument. — IV. Synopsis of its Contents.
I. This book, which derives its name from the person whose history it chiefly relates, is by the Jews termed Megillah Esther, or the volume of Esther. The history it contains comes in between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra: its authenticity was questioned by some of the fathers, in consequence of the name of God being omitted throughout (1), but it has always been received as canonical by the Jews, who hold this book in the highest estimation, placing it on the same level with the law of Moses. They believe that whatever destruction may attend the other Sacred Writings, the Pentateuch and the book of Esther will always be preserved by a special providence. (2).
II. Concerning the author of this book, the opinions of biblical critics are so greatly divided, that it is difficult to determine by whom it was written. Augustine and some of the fathers of the Christian church ascribe it to Ezra. By other writers it is ascribed to the joint labours of the great synagogue, who, from the time of Ezra to Simon the Just, superintended the edition and canon of Scripture. Philo the Jew assigns it to Joachin, the son of Joshua the high priest, who returned with Zerubbabel : others think it was composed by Mordecai; and others, again, attribute it to Esther and Mordecai jointly. The two latter conjectures are grounded on the following declaration in Esther 9:20-23: —
'And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that tvere in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus; and the Jeisos undertook to do as they had begun, and as Mordecai had written unto them.'
- But the context of the passage clearly shows that these words do not relate to the book itself, but to the circular letters which Mordecai sent to the Jews in all the provinces of the Persian empire, announcing the mighty deliverance from their enemies which had been vouchsafed to them, and instituting a perpetual anniversary in commemoration of such deliverance. (3)
The institution of this festival, and its continued observance to the present time, is a convincing evidence of the reality of the history of Esther, and of the genuineness of the book which bears her name: since it is impossible, and, in fact, inconceivable, that a nation should institute, and afterwards continue to celebrate, through a long succession of ages, this solemn annual festival, merely because a certain man among them had written an agreeable fable or romance.
A more probable opinion (and which will enable us satisfactorily to account for the omission of the name of God in this book) is, that it is a translated extract from the memoirs of the reign of the Persian monarch Ahasuerus. The Asiatic sovereigns, it is well known, caused annals of their reigns to be kept: numerous passages in the books of Kings and Chronicles prove that the kings of Israel and Judah had such annals; and the book of Esther itself attests that Ahasuerus had similar historical records, (ii. 23. vi. 1. x. 2.)
It was indispensably necessary that the Jews should have a faithful narrative of their history under Queen Esther. Now, from what more certain source could they derive such history than from the memoirs of the king her consort? Either Ezra, or Mordecai, had authority or credit enough to obtain such an extract. In this case, we can better account for the retaining of the Persian word Purim, as well as for the details which we read concerning the empire of Ahasuerus, and (which could otherwise be of no use whatever for the history of Esther) for the exactness with which the names of his ministers and of Haman's sons are recorded. The circumstance of this history being an extract from the Persian annals will also account for the Jews being mentioned only in the third person, and why Esther is so frequently designated by the title of queen, and Mordecai by the epithet of "the Jew". It will also account for those numerous parentheses which interrupt the narrative, in order to subjoin the illustrations which were necessary for a Jewish reader; and by the abrupt termination of the narrative by one sentence relative to the power of Ahasuerus, and another concerning Mordecai's greatness.
Finally, it is evident that the author of this extract, whoever he was, wished to make a final appeal to the source whence he derived it. (Esth 10:2) This very plausible conjecture, we apprehend, will satisfactorily answer the objection that this book contains nothing peculiar to the Israelites, except Mordecai's genealogy. There is, unquestionably, no mention made of Divine Providence, or of the name of God, in these memoirs or chronicles of Ahasuerus; and if the author of the extract had given it a more Jewish complexion, — if he had spoken of the God of Israel, — instead of rendering his narrative more credible, he would have deprived it of an internal character of truth. (4)
III. The transactions recorded in this book relate to the time of Artaxerxes Longimanus, (5) the same who reigned during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. They commence about the year of the world 3544, and continue through a period not exceeding eighteen or twenty years. The book of Esther relates the elevation of a Jewish captive to the throne of Persia, and the providential deliverance of herself and people from the machinations of the cruel Haman and his associates, whose intended mischief recoiled upon themselves : thus affording a practical comment on the declaration of the royal sage: — " Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished : but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered." (Prov. xi. 21.)
IV. The book consists of two parts ; detailing, Part I. The Promotion of Esther ; and the essential Service rendered to the King by Mordecai, in detecting a Plot against his Life. (i. ii.) Part II. The Advancement of Haman; his Designs against the Jews, and their Frustration.
Sect. 1. The promotion of Haman, and the occasion of which he availed himself to obtain an edict for massacring the Jews, (iii.)In our copies the book of Esther terminates with the third verse of the tenth chapter: but in the Greek and Vulgate Bibles, there are ten more verses annexed to it, together with six additional chapters which the Greek and Romish churches account to be canonical. As, however, they are not extant in Hebrew, they are expunged from the sacred canon by Protestants, and are supposed to have been compiled by some Hellenistic Jew.'
Sect. 2. The consequent affliction of the Jews, and the measures pursued by them, (iv.)
Sect. 3. The defeat of Haman's particular plot against the life of Mordecai. (v. vi. vii.)
Sect. 4. The defeat of his general plot against the Jews, (viii.ix. 1 — 16.)
Sect. 5. The institution of the festival of Purim, to commemorate their deliverance (ix. 17 — 32.) ; and the advancement of Mordecai. (x.)
Original Footnotes (with addition)
1. On this account, Professor De Wette, who objects to all the other books of the Old Testament, their theocratico-mythological spirit, condemns this for its want of religion! (Prof. Turner's Translation of Jahn, p. 289.) Such is the consistency of neologian critics!
2. [ - an idea traceable to Maimonides?]
3. For an account of this festival, called the feast of Purim, see Vol. III. Pt III. Ch IV. Para 8.
4. Coquerel, Biographie Sacree, tom. i. pp. 361 — 363. (Amsterdam, 1825.)
5. Chronologers are greatly divided in opinion who was the Ahasuerus of the sacred historian. Scaliger, who has been followed by Jahn, has advanced many ingenious arguments to show that it was Xerxes who was intended ; Archbishop Usher supposes it to have been Darius the son of Hystaspes. The most probable opinion is that of Dr. Prideaux, (Connexion, sub anno 458, vol. i. pp. 270. et seq.) ; who, after a very minute discussion, maintains that the Ahasuerus of Esther was Artaxerxes Longimanus, agreeably to the account of Josephus, (Antiq. Jud. lib. xi. c. 6.) of the Septuagint version, and of the apocryphal additions to the book of Esther. The opinion of Prideaux is adopted by Bishops Tomline and Gray, and the very accurate chronologer. Dr. Hales. (See Gray's Key, p. 227. Tomline's Elements, vol. i. p. 93. Dr. Hales's Analysis, vol. 11. book i. pp. 524. et seq.) We may therefore conclude, that the permission given to Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was owing to the Influence of Esther and Mordecai, and that the emancipation of the Jews from the Persian yoke was gradually, though silently, effected by the same influence. It is not improbable that the pious reason, assigned by Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:23.) for the regulations given to Ezra, originated in the correct views of religion which were communicated to him by his queen Esther.
All in all, the combination of arguments carries a probability that appears overwhelming. This book is composed largely of Babylonian court records, with very early annotations by Jewish historians, to explain to other Israelites of the Diaspora what had happened.