4 Jun 2011

Greek Esther: Aid of the All Seeing God & Savior

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Church History, Esther, Exegesis, Faith, Jewish Backgrounds, King James Version, Prayer, Women


The book of Esther has come down to us in at least two forms: one in Hebrew and one in Greek (which is 107 verses longer than the Hebrew). The Greek form is part of the Apocrypha. The two stories have the same characters but they are transformed in the Greek version into deeply pious prayer warriors. There is a shift from Mordecai and Esther as heroes to the Lord God of Israel. The differences between the two are quite significant and will be explored in more detail in this blog. The six “Additions” to Esther are given a letter: A, B, C, D, E, and F. These Additions are incorporated into the text of Esther and made a part of the story in the Greek version. There are many smaller changes in the book of Esther outside of the Additions that are integrated into the text (we will note a few more significant ones). One can think of these as textual variants of sort, like Acts 8.37 and John 5.4.

An explanation of the chapter and verse numbers given to these Additions is needed because they are highly confusing in English. The confusion started with Jerome in the late fourth century A.D (the Additions were already present in the Old Latin version). Jerome produced a Latin translation known as the Vulgate. See, Ancestry of the King James Version #7: The Latin Versions. He used the Hebrew text but he gathered together the “Additions” that were in the Old Latin and the Septuagint and placed them at the end of the book with notations on where they were supposed to be read in the story. In the course of transmission some scribes carelessly omitted the notes with the result being an amalgam of meaningless portions in the late middle ages. Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury (died in 1228) numbered the chapters in the Bible. He divided Esther up and simply numbered the material consecutively . . . the result being that the English Bible (the KJV) followed that numbering. Thankfully modern versions of the Apocrypha simply re-translate the entire Septuagint version with the Additions already where they were “intended” (see the NRSV version of the Apocryphal Esther). The best reading strategy for the Greek Esther is from beginning to end and ignore the numbers.

Origin and Language of the Additions

The origins of the Additions are shrouded in mystery. They were apparently already a part of the book when the Septuagint version of Esther was translated into Greek. Lysimachus’s, the person responsible for the Greek version of Esther (11.1), Hebrew text apparently had most – if not all – the Additions.

The language(s) of the Additions to Esther were once thought to have been Greek. However, today no scholar would argue for a Greek original for all or even most of the Additions. It is agreed that Additions A, C, D and F were all written in Hebrew (cf. Raymond A. Martin, “Syntax Criticism of the LXX Additions to the Book of Esther,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94 [1975]: 65-72). Additions B and E were written in Greek.

Earliest Greek Fragment of Esther, POxy4443 dates to the 1-2 centuries AD

Summary of the Additions

Addition A, given the chapter and verse numbers of 11.2-12.6, is found at the very beginning and prior to Esther 1 in the Hebrew Bible. It introduces Mordecai as being both a courtier at the time of Artaxerxes and one of the captives brought from Jerusalem, the Addition relates a dream he had. In this dream, two dragons fight amidst thunder and earthquakes. In response to their roaring, every nation prepares to fight against “the righteous nation.” On a day of “darkness and gloom” they cry out to God and are delivered. Mordecai understands this dream to be about “what God had determined to do” (11.12). In the second part of the Addition Mordecai uncovers a plot against the king’s life and is rewarded by Artaxerxes. Haman, however, who favored the conspirators, determines to do Mordecai and his people in (12.6). Thus the first Addition explains some of the animosity that Haman had toward the Jews but also sees God already intervening.

Addition B, given the chapter and verse numbers of 13.1-7, positioned between 3.13 and 3.14 of the Hebrew text. This Addition provides the supposed text of Haman’s evil against the “righteous nation.”

Addition C, given the chapter and verse numbers of 13.8-14.19, come after Esther 4.17. C introduces two moving prayers, one by Mordecai (13.8-17) and one by Esther (14.3-19), before Esther’s uninvited audience with the king. Mordecai acknowledges God as the sovereign of the universe and explains that is was not out of arrogance or pride that he did not bow to Haman but out of a desire to honor the one true God. Esther’s prayer begins with the theme of God’s election of Israel, confession of God’s justice in punishing a disobedient Israel. She perceives that the conflict between the Jews and non-Jews at the contest between the honor of God and the lifeless idols that are shamefully embraced by the pagans. She also expresses her loathing for sharing her bed with an uncircumcised Gentile and avers that she has kept kosher and has not participated in idolatry.

Addition D, chapter 15.1-16, comes immediately on the heels of C before chapter 5 of the Hebrew text. This addition replaces two verses in the Hebrew (5.1-2) with a greatly expanded and dramatically enhanced scene of Esther’s intrusion into Artaxerxes’ throne room. In this scene it is God who saves the day by turning the heart of the king from anger to compassion.

Addition E, chapter 16.1-24, comes between 8.12 and 8.13 of the Hebrew text. This Addition provides the text of Artaxerxes edict rescinding his previous edict in Addition B. Haman is upbraided for being an ungrateful recipient of the king’s blessing. Haman is called a Macedonian who is trying to weaken the Empire so the Greeks could rule. The king orders his subjects to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews as sort of a Gentile Purim.

The Greek Esther ends with Addition F which is chapter 10.4-11.1. This would come after 10.3 of the Hebrew text. This Addition returns to Mordecai’s dream in Addition A. Here Mordecai interprets his dream. He now understands that he and Haman are the dragons, Esther is the stream of water through which the help of God came to his people.

The differences between the Hebrew version and the Septuagint version of Esther are significant. The most striking difference is that God is explicitly mentioned over fifty times in the Septuagint but not once in Hebrew. Changes are not confined to the Additions either. Here are a few examples scattered through the book:

to fear God and obey his laws, just as she had done with him” (2.20)
call upon the Lord” (4.8)
but God shall be their help and salvation” (4.14, Moore’s translation)
propose a serves and earnestly beg God” (4.16, Moore’s translation)
and the Lord drove the sleep from the king that night” (6.1)
for God is with him” (6.13)
Esther was uneasy about speaking because the enemy was right in front of her, but God gave her courage for the challenge” (7.2, Moore’s translation).

These minor additions (among others) give an explicit divine twist to the Hebrew text

A Few “Choice” Texts

A text that became one of the better known ones in the early church was Esther’s prayer in Addition C (14.1-19). Here are a few lines from that beautiful prayer:

Then Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord. She took off her splendid apparel and put on garments of mourning . . . She prayed to the Lord God of Israel, and said: ‘O my Lord, you only are our king; help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born I have heard in the tribe of my family that you, O Lord, took Israel out of all nations, and our ancestors from all their forebears, for an everlasting inheritance . . . And now we have sinned before you, and you have handed us over to our enemies because we glorified their gods. You are righteous O Lord! . . . Remember, O Lord; make yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O King of the gods and Master of all dominion. . . . Save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord. . . . O God, whose might is over all, hear the voice of the despairing, and save us from the hands of evildoers. And save me from my fear!

Another text that is filled with pathos is in Addition D. The context is after Esther’s prayer and she enters uninvited into the king’s throne:

Then, majestically adorned, after invoking the aid of the all-seeing God and Savior [title for this post], she took two maids with her; on one she leaned gently for support, while the other followed, carrying her train. She was radiant with perfect beauty, and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen in fear. When she had gone through all the doors, she stood before the king. He was seated on his royal throne, clothed in the full array of his majesty, all covered with gold and precious stones. He was most terrifying. Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he looked at her in fierce anger. The queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words, and said to her, ‘What is it Esther? I am your husband. Take courage; you shall not die, for our law applies only to our subjects. Come near.”

Esther fainting, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665

Influence of the Septuagint Version of Esther

Esther, neither the Hebrew nor Greek version, has never been a widely used theological resource for the church. However, the Greek version did influence many writers down through the years. The first writer was none other than Josephus the first century historian for the Jews. Josephus tells the story of Esther in his book, Antiquities of the Jews (11.184-296). Josephus’ version of the story does not follow the Hebrew text but the Greek version. Included in his telling are the events from Additions B, C, D, and E.

The New Testament has no reference to either the Hebrew or Greek version of Esther. Clement of Rome (writing around 95 A.D., contemporary with Gospel and Revelation of John) is the first Christian writer to mention Esther and his knowledge was of the Greek Esther. In a passage that also mentions Judith, Clement holds up Esther as a model of courage in prayer. Here are Clement’s words:

To no less peril did Esther also, who was perfect in faith, expose herself, that she might deliver the twelve tribes of Israel, when they were on the point to perish. For through her fasting and her humiliation she entreated the all-seeing Master, the God of the ages; and He, seeing the humility of her soul, delivered the people for whose sake she encountered the peril” (1 Clement 55, cf. The Apostolic Fathers, p.36).

Clement is clearly dependent upon the Greek version of Esther for two clear reasons: 1) never prays in the Hebrew version; 2) the phrase “the all-seeing Master” is a quotation from Addition D (15.2). Clement of Alexandria also calls upon the example of Esther’s “perfect prayer” as one that Christians should emulate (Stromata IV.xix, cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 2, p. 431). The legendary Athanasius exhorts Christians to follow the examples of Judith and Esther who delivered their people:

And blessed Esther, when destruction was about to come on all her race and the nation of Israel was ready to perish, defeated the fury of the tyrant by no other means than by fasting and prayer to God, and changed the ruin of her people into safety.” (Letter 4, cf. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series 2, IV, p. 516)

One of the interesting facts about Esther is that the form that most English readers know it today was not known to Christians for many centuries. It was never known to the Greek speaking Christians and not to the Latin Christians until the late fifth century. Even then the Latin Vulgate still had the Additions, just at the end.

4 Responses to “Greek Esther: Aid of the All Seeing God & Savior”

  1. Randall Says:

    How interesting! I had no idea. BTW, at the Holcaust Museum in D.C. there are many letters written by those in the camps. One of those letters makes reference to the Germans as Haman.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    There is a great parallel between the Holocaust and the genocide planned by Haman. Thanks for reading as always Randall.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    GW: Great summary, Bobby. I remember one of our elders saying that the Greek Esther made for a much more interesting version.

  4. Robert Says:

    Very timely Bobby, thanks. We’re thinking about the canon(s!) this week in a midweek discussion class!

Leave a Reply