Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some Further Thoughts on the Book of Esther

My previous post on Velveteen Rabbi's reflections on the Book of Esther left me thinking some more on some of the interesting facts about this text. It is, as she points out, the one text in the Hebrew Bible that contains no explicit reference to God or YHWH although she reminds us that "many readers (especially Hasidic commentators) find God's presence hidden subtly all over the text." Esther is also a text whose purpose seems to be giving scriptural warrant to the Festival of Purim (9.18-32). Scholars are divided over the origins of this festival. Some have argued that it is derived from the Persian New Year or from a Persian Day of the Dead. Others have argued a Babylonian background, especially as the names Mordecai and Esther are likely derived from the Babylonian deities, Marduk and Ishtar. Given that the Jewish holy days in Leviticus have analogues in the broader cultural world of the ancient Middle East and its agricultural, I'm sure that Purim is a scripturally "baptised" festival of some sort taken up into Temple Judaism. The Old Testament biblical project is one of reworking, deconstructing and reconstructing the older "pagan" religious matrix from which it developed.

The other interesting point about Esther is that it exists in multiple versions. As well as the Hebrew version, there are not one but two Greek versions which are included in the Greek Bible or Septuagint and termed the A version and the B vesion. Both have a core story that largely is equivalent to the story of Hebrew Esther but augmented with a number of additions. These are:

A. The Dream of Mordecai, which introduces the book (1.a-k, in my Orthodox Bible; 11.2-12.6 in the Latin Vulgate)

B. The text of Haman's edict, written in the name of the king, for the destruction of the Jews, inserted in chapter 3 (3.13a-13g; 13.1-7 Vulgate)

C. Prayers of Esther and Mordecai, inserted after Esther 4.17 (4.17a-17w; 13.8-14.19 Vulgate)

D. An extended account of Esther's confrontation with her husband the king, replacing Hebrew Esther 5.1ff (15.1-16 Vulgate)

E. The text of the king's edict rescinding the previous edict issued in his name by Haman, inserted after 8.12 (8.12a-812u, 16.1-24 Vulgate)

F. An Epilogue in which Mordecai reflects on his dream and which provides more warrant for Purim and concludes with a colophon giving a futher scribal confirmation of the authenticity of the text.

According to David de Silva (Introducing the Apocrypha, 2002) the base text of Version A is translated from a different Semitic original than that of Version B but has taken up the additions from Version B. A number of scholars have argued that the base text of Version A is older than the standard Hebrew version. It was also orignally thought that all of the additions were composed in Greek but there is now a consensus that only Additions B and E are Greek compositions while A, C, D & F were originally in Hebrew or Aramaic. So the Greek evidence indicates that there were at least two version of the base Esther narrative in circulation and that it was augmented with additions.

It would appear that took some time for Esther to be accepted into both Jewish and Christian canons. No version has been found at Qumran although some scholars have argued that 4Q550, the Tale of Patireza and Bagasraw, could be an Esther prototype. But whole this story is set in the court of the Great King it only has superficial similarities. Rather than a prototype it might have provided a model for inspiration but that can only ever be a might as the two stories are different.

Under, the influence of Jerome, the Greek Additions to Esther, were relegated to a postscript. Jerome put them all at the end of the Hebrew version which is the standard or the Vulgate (and thus making a fourth version of Esther, albeit an unsatisfactory one). Protestants consigned them to the Apocrypha and hence they have disappeared from most English language (and derived) Bibles.

It was intersting, then to discover that in the Jewish Aramaic Bible or Targumim there are actually two versions of Esther. The Targumim deploy paraphrase extensively in the translations from the Hebrew and are not averse to inserting additional material, especially if it can enhance a narrative or the meaning of a particular passage. In the case of both Targumim to Esther, Targum Rishon and Targum Sheni, these additions are quite considerable, reminiscent of the Greek Additions. Indeed the Targum Sheni inserts material on Solomon and the Queen of Sheba!

It would appear then that Esther has had a quite complicated history, starting life as a religious burlesque for performance at a popular Feast of Fools, probably composed in the Temple. For whatever reason another edition was released and both circulated in Jewish communities. Some communities added further material resulting in three or four circulating two of which would be taken up by Christians. In the Jewish world one text became standard, eventually itself being augmented with new additional material by different communities for a variety of reasons, exegetical, performative etc.

Through all of this process, text, cult and community seem inextricably linked. In the Jewish world, Esther is primarly a performative text, not just in terms of public recitation but also in a plethora of dramatic and carnival forms. I can't help but think that these performances have themselves helped to shape the meta-text of Esther as we know it today in its multiple forms. None have the patina of greater authenticity although Jerome's Latin version is by far the most artificial, in part because he is on the quest for the 'Hebrew truth' of the original. But just as there never was an Esther or Mordecai so there is no original text to be found. It is lost, along with the origins of Purim. And even if we could rediscover or reconstruct an original text, it could tell us nothing except in relation to the others comprising the meta-text that already exists. Any original text is merely a starting point not a vehicle of revelation.

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