The Jewish-Greek Version of the Book of Esther and what it tells us about Jewish Identity in Ancient Times
Prof. Aaron Koller (Yeshiva University, New York)
One of the most famous – and significant – features of the Hebrew book of Esther is the absence of any mention of God. Some of the book’s earliest readers were disturbed enough by that fact that they actually changed it. They changed a lot of other details, as well.
For readers familiar with the Hebrew book of Esther, encountering the Greek version of the book is a surprising experience. The most surprising parts are the large sections of the Greek text known as the “Additions to Esther”; these may be found in any Catholic Bible, in collections of Apocrypha, or on-line.
The Six Additions
These are six blocks of text, conventionally labeled A through F, found in all known Greek versions of Esther and without any parallel in the Hebrew text. These six passages can be grouped into three pairs. Additions A and F, found at the very beginning and very end of the book, are a dream of Mordecai’s (A) and its interpretation (F). In his dream, Mordecai sees two dragons fighting, threatening to destroy the world; peace is effected by a spring that bursts forth. At the end of the book, he realizes that the two dragons represented himself and Haman, and that their conflict would have wreaked havoc had it not been for Esther. Addition A also contains another short narrative of an attempt on the king’s life, foiled by Mordecai – just like the narrative in chapter 2. Additions B and E are the texts of, respectively, the letter Haman sent out against the Jews, and the letter Esther and Mordecai sent out allowing the Jews to defend themselves. Addition C contains prayers uttered by Mordecai and Esther for the salvation of the Jews, and Addition D tells an expanded version of the story of Esther’s approach to the king. 
The earliest fragment of Greek Esther – 1st/ 2nd CE
The origin of these “Additions,” comprising altogether 107 verses (while the original Hebrew text contains only 167 verses) is somewhat mysterious, but it does seem clear that these six passages were literally added onto the book. In 1944, C. C. Torrey summarized the consensus regarding one major theme of the Additions: “The main reason for making the additions, it is commonly said, was the wish of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt to give to the story of Esther the religious atmosphere that is so sadly lacking in the Hebrew version.” This raises a whole suite of important questions. What was wrong with the book of Esther that needed “fixing”? Why did these early readers feel that they had the right to “correct” it?
Why were the addition made?
The goals of these Additions need not be reducible to a single idea, and may in fact originate in different times and places. For our purposes, however, the most important aspect of these passages is the “religious atmosphere” to which Torrey referred, and which pervades the Additions, starting with the very idea of Mordecai as a dreamer. As a dreamer, and especially as a dream interpreter, Mordecai is brought in line with Daniel and, more importantly, with their predecessor Joseph. This not only established Mordecai as reminiscent of earlier biblical heroes, but also establishes his religious bona fides: he, like Joseph and Daniel, was the recipient of divine revelation and (by implication) divine approval. Certainly, the author of Addition A was biblically-oriented: the dream contains many intertextual references to other biblical books. These include use of the imagery of the dragon, fountain, battle, and the contrast between dark and light from Jeremiah 28.
The interpretation of the dream in Addition F adds to the connection to the Joseph story. The Bible, and even the Joseph story, contains different types of dreams. Unlike Pharaoh’s dreams, which need interpretation, Joseph’s own dreams are transparent. Their meaning is immediately clear, even if it is not clear how the reality foretold in the dream will come about. All that is needed is for history to unfold to discover how they come true. The same is true for Mordecai’s dreams, as he discovers, and reveals to the readers, in Addition F:
Mordecai said, “These things have come from God, for I remember about the dream I saw concerning these matters – not even a word of them has failed to be fulfilled! There was the little spring that became a river, and there was light and sun and abundant water: Esther is the river, whom the king married and made queen; the two dragons are myself and Haman; the nations are those that gathered to destroy the name of the Judeans; and my nation, this is Israel, who cried out to God and were saved! The Lord saved his people, delivering us from all these threats of treachery, and performed signs and great wonders which have not happened among the nations.”
Addition C contains the prayers of Mordecai and Esther. Esther’s in particular is worthy of notice in this context. The Queen here laments the Jews’ existence in exile and blames their own sins for the lamentable situation: “we have sinned against You, and You have handed us over to our enemies” (C:17). Esther bemoans her own situation as queen. The position is abhorrent first of all because of her intermarriage: “You know that I…abhor the bed of the uncircumcised, and of any foreigner” (C:26). But it is also deplorable in its own right: “You know…that I abhor the symbol of my lofty position which is on my head when I am seen in public – I abhor it like a menstruous rag!” (C: 27). Certainly, Esther protests, perhaps just a bit too much, that she has kept the laws of the Torah to the extent possible: “Your servant has never dined at Haman’s table, nor have I extolled the king’s banquet or drunk the wine of libations” (C:28).
Addition D describes Esther’s entry into the throne room. Anxious, she faints when the king looks at her, and her husband revives her and assures her that the prohibition against approaching the king uninvited does not apply to royalty. (This scene became one of the most famous scenes in medieval and early modern Christian paintings of the book of Esther since their artists knew Esther as a longer book, with the additions. For Jews familiar only with the Hebrew text, this scene would have been unfamiliar, since nothing similar appears there.)
This scene violates the narrative’s integrity and undermines Esther’s heroism. Not only do we wonder how the queen could have been ignorant of the rules that applied to her, but the bold resolve displayed in chapter 4 turns out to have been pointless, predicated on a mistaken belief about the law. The motivation for this addition was not to amplify the themes of the book, but to bring the book more in line with Hellenistic romances. These texts habitually included explicit soliloquies and confessions of emotions, and numerous protestations of piety. Fainting due to overwhelming emotion was a common theme, for both men and women.
Addition D, then, does not appear to be due to religious motives. Additions A, C, and F, however, show that the book was important enough to be revised, and that some peoplewanted the protagonists of the Book of Esther to act in a more admirable fashion. Therefore, they improved and enhanced it in certain fundamental respects. In other words, the Greek Additions show us just what bothered ancient readers about the Hebrew book of Esther. Without these Additions, one could question Mordecai’s religious stature; one could wonder about Esther’s true piety; one could doubt whether the whole episode celebrated in the Megillah was really what God desired.
It is not only the Additions which “correct” the Hebrew text – although they provide the most striking examples – but the Greek version as a whole. Most strikingly, the Greek translator has “corrected” the “deficiency” of the lack of God’s name throughout, by inserting it at points where it seems natural!
For example, when Esther first becomes queen, the Hebrew text reports that she did not reveal her ancestry, in accord with Mordecai’s instructions to her. With this, the Greek agrees (“she did not reveal her ancestry, for so Mordecai had commanded her”), but the Greek version then continues: “for so Mordecai had commanded her, to fear God and to do his commandments, just as when she was with him; so Esther did not change her way of life” (2:20). When Mordecai discovers Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, rather than imploring Esther to go to the king on the grounds that “perhaps” she became queen for just this reason, Greek Mordecai is far more direct: “Remember your humble days…call upon the Lord and speak to the king about us – deliver us from death!”
Finally, chapter 6 begins and ends very differently in the Greek than it does in the Hebrew:
|That night the sleep of the king fled…||But the Mighty One kept sleep from the king that night….|
|His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!”||His wife and his friends said to him: “If Mordecai is of the race of the Judeans…you will never be able to ward him off, because a living god is with him.”|
The Historical background
Where in history can we situate the Additions, and Greek Esther as a whole? Fortunately, the text includes a colophon – an addition to the manuscript, written at the end, in which the scribe provides information about the composition or copying of the text just completed. This colophon is unique in the Greek Bible, and informs us regarding the origins of the Additions. It states that in the fourth year of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, two men named Dositheos and Ptolemy, who said they were priests, arrived from Jerusalem. They brought with them the book of Esther, called “the letter about Purim (Phrouai),” and they explained that it had been translated by one Lysimachus in Jerusalem. The Ptolemy involved must have been Ptolemy XII, who came to the throne of Egypt in 80 BCE, and thus this Greek book of Esther reached Alexandria in 77/76 BCE.
Purim, along with a version of Esther similar to the MT, may have become popular in Alexandria, for many of the same reasons Esther was written in Persia. Here, too, there were Jews who were culturally integrated into the surrounding (in this case Hellenistic) society, who spoke only the common language of their neighbors (in this case Greek), and who were involved in the bureaucracy of the city and of the wider empire. Here, too, the Jews could be victims of vicious rulers, as they had been violently reminded in a massacre during the previous century. The dependence on the foreign power, and the unquestioned assumption that Jewish life would continue outside of Israel, would have made Purim an attractive festival and Esther an attractive book.
Unlike the Jewish community in Persia and Mesopotamia, however, the Alexandrian Jews were geographically close to the Jews in Israel, and to a large extent under the influence of the latter. The colophon to Greek Esther may indicate that the Palestinian Jews deemed it important that the Jews of Alexandria receive a copy of their new and improved version of Esther – with at least Additions A, C, D, and F – which brought the book and its associated festival back in line with what was, to their minds, normative Jewish ideology and practice: devotion to God, prayer, an abhorrence of intermarriage and even commensality, and a fealty to Jewish law and practice. In other words, this was probably a revised edition produced by Palestinian Jews and sent to Alexandria to correct the diaspora-centric edition which the Jews there already had.
This process of revision is a powerful example of the dialogues and discussions which must have taken place during the days of the Second Temple, as Jews struggled to define their identity, whether living as residents in Judea or in far-flung diaspora communities in Persia, Mesopotamia, or Egypt. The book of Esther threw down the gauntlet, challenging Jews to consider the limits of their tradition and how they could live as both faithful Jews and productive citizens in the broader empire. In the eyes of some, however, it went too far. It is no accident that the Additions were added in Hasmonean Jerusalem; the Hasmoneans had a very different attitude toward life under the empire than the intermarried Esther. And it is likely no accident that the book of Esther is the one book to not be preserved at all among the Dead Sea Scrolls: for the Qumran community, intermarriage was a capital crime, and a community that withdrew from the “impure” society of Jerusalem certainly could not tolerate a book where the heroes were so enmeshed in imperial culture.
Dr. Aaron Koller is assistant professor at Yeshiva University since 2008. He received his Ph.D. from Revel Graduate School, Yeshiva University, in 2009. He is interested especially in Near Eastern cultures from the late Bronze Age through rabbinic literature. Dr. Koller’s first book, The Semantic Field of Cutting Tools in Biblical Hebrew, was published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series, and his second, on the book of Esther in the context of Ancient Jewish Thought, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is currently working on words for drinking vessels and images of feasts and on the cultural politics of Jewish society in the Persian Empire.