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The Book of Esther: Reflection on a Diasporic Literature in Judaism in the Period of the Second Temple

Jean-Daniel Macchi
p. 62

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

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1The Book of Esther constitutes a piece of literature emanating from the Jewish communities of Antiquity, which tells the mainly fictional story of a young Jewish woman who lived at the court of the Persian king Xerxes and managed to save her people from a pogrom. The analysis of this biblical text furthers our understanding of the issues and challenges confronting the groups that produced it between the third and the first centuries BCE, in a world largely dominated by Hellenistic culture.

General Introduction to the Book of Esther. History of the Transmission of a Book: the Hebrew Text of Esther and the two Greek Texts.

2The Book of Esther can be qualified as a “diaspora novel”, insofar as literary techniques which are characteristic of novels (set-up, plot, dénouement, twists, etc.) are used to recount an episode about the Jewish people living away from their homeland. The theme of anti-Judaism plays an important part in this story and is accompanied by reflection on the relevance of disclosing one’s identity under a foreign empire where the functioning of the state cannot be controlled. Religious themes, on the other hand, generally remain implicit.

3The textual history of the Book of Esther is relatively complex. This book did not reach us in a single form but in three very different textual forms, one in Hebrew and the other two in Greek. These different textual forms afford us an unders­tanding of how the book was written, for the Hebrew text is actually a rewriting of an older text, the proto-Esther, which can be pieced together using one of the two Greek forms of the book.

The Book of Esther in the Context of Hellenistic Literature concerning Achaemenid Persia.

4The authors of the Book of Esther share with the Ancient world of Greek expression a way of representing the functioning of Achaemenid Persia and its imperial Court. In the Book of Esther there are numerous parallels with the representations of Persia made by Greek authors like Herodotus, Thucydides, Ctesias of Cnidus or Aelien, as well as with episodes they describe. Through examples like those of the ascent of the Persian queen Aspasia or of Phaidyme’s salutary action, one realizes that the Book of Esther re-appropriates the clichés about Persia drawn from Greek literature. These observations afford insight into the intellectual and identity challenges facing the Jewish communities settled in the ancient world, which were steeped at the time in Greek culture.

Resisting or Silencing one’s Jewish Identity according to the Book of Esther. Esther Faced with Mordecai’s Speech (Esther 4)

5Chapter 4 of the Book of Esther constitutes a key passage for understanding the meaning and the socio-historical issues underpinning the work. It is at this point in the story that the Jewish woman Esther, who has become the Persian queen, is bid by her adoptive father to reveal her identity and risk her life in order to save the Jews from extermination. The issue of identity, asserted in spite of the difficulties encountered, is at the heart not only of the story but also of the concerns of Jewish circles in the ancient world. While certain Jewish groups seem to have tended to adopt the way of life of the prevailing Hellenistic culture, others considered that it remained crucial to observe ancestral rites and rules.

6A careful reading of the chapter, as well as the comparison between its Hebrew version and one of its two Greek versions, shows that the Hebrew writers of Esther sought to promote the assertion of a strong identity.

Instituting a Nationalist Celebration of Diaspora. Esther and Mordecai’s Letter at the End of the Book

7The Book of Esther ends with letters sent to encourage the celebration of a festivity commemorating the victory of the Jews over their enemies. An analysis of Esther 9,20-28 shows how sending this kind of official letter constitutes a means of legitimizing a festive practice, and that such legitimization proves necessary insofar as festive rites constitute particularly significant social acts with regard to issues of identity.

8The practice seeking to promote nationalist celebrations by sending authoritative letters is commonplace in the Jewish texts of the late Hellenistic period. This provides more precision about the context in which the last part of the Book of Esther was produced.

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Jean-Daniel Macchi, « The Book of Esther: Reflection on a Diasporic Literature in Judaism in the Period of the Second Temple », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 16 décembre 2018. URL :

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Jean-Daniel Macchi

is professor at the Autonomous Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Geneva since 2005.

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