Quick! Name the first Old Testament book that comes to mind. Isaiah? Psalms? Genesis? I can almost guarantee Esther wasn’t among the first. Why not? Well, probably because it’s smaller or it might seem less interesting than the others. But don’t let its size fool you. The book of Esther, like its heroine, is a fighter, and in this installment of “Behind the Bible,” we are going to look at this little book’s rocky journey to join the canon of Scripture.
The book of Esther tells the story of the Jews who remained in exile after the Babylonian captivity had ended. Esther had become queen, and a high official named Haman was demanding that his subjects bow down to him in homage. A righteous man named Mordecai refused to bow down, and caught wind of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews in the Kingdom.
Mordecai appealed to Esther to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jewish people. Because Esther did so, the king turned against Haman, executing him on the same gallows on which he planned to execute the Jews.
Just like its heroine, the book of Esther had to overcome formidable opposition as well. Our story begins with the book itself. There are two versions of Esther: a longer and a shorter version. The longer version contains six sections (A-F) in Greek that include prayers, acts of piety, a letter, and other details. The shorter Hebrew version excludes these sections, reducing the story of Esther to almost a secular account. Indeed, the shorter Hebrew version of Esther never even mentions the name of God!
The earliest Christians and the Church have always accepted the longer version of Esther. In fact, one of the earliest non-biblical Christian writings we possess, 1 Clement, written at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, commends Esther to its readers, speaking of her fasting and prayer, which is only found in the longer version (1 Clement 55). Likewise, around the same time, the Jewish historian Josephus also used the longer version of Esther in his book “Antiquities of the Jews” (Antiquities 11, 6).
Long live the queen
Troubles for the book of Esther started sometime between A.D. 100-135, when the Rabbinical Bible was formed. By adopting a single Hebrew text as their biblical norm, the rabbis naturally opted for the shorter Hebrew version of Esther. But we know this inclusion was not without opposition. Some rabbis continued to dispute Esther’s sacred status. In fact, several early Church fathers composed lists of the book of the Old Testament accepted in rabbinical Judaism, and some of these lists either omit Esther or note that it was disputed. It wasn’t until the late fourth century that Esther seems to be universally accepted in Judaism. Ironically, it’s also around this time that troubles began brewing in the Church.
Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome to make a fresh Latin translation of the Bible. But Jerome decided to translate the Old Testament not from the Greek Septuagint, as others have done, but from the same Hebrew text the rabbis adopted in the second century A.D. And as you may have guessed, he had a problem with Esther. Incorrectly believing this Hebrew text was identical to the inspired original, Jerome rejected the Greek sections of Esther as “Apocrypha” — that is, non-inspired additions. The Church reaffirmed the historic Christian canon against Jerome, but Esther’s troubles didn’t end there.
In the 1600s, when Protestants rejected certain Catholic doctrines as unbiblical, Catholics responded by appealing to Scripture, which included the Deuterocanon (i.e., Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the longer versions of Esther and Daniel). Protestants in turn appealed to St. Jerome, and accepted only the books found in the Rabbinical Bible. As a result, Protestant Bibles today use the shorter, more secular, version of Esther rather than the longer version used by the Church.
Which only goes to show that even the most humble and inconspicuous books contain fascinating stories when you look Behind the Bible.