I had some troubling questions about how the biblical book of Esther fits with secular history, and so I spent a few hours researching this in the public library as well as online, and gleaned a wealth of information, which strengthened my confidence in the inerrancy of the Bible. I would like to share some of these discoveries, in case there is anyone else who would like more information on the historicity of Queen Esther.
There is no mention of Esther at all in secular history (Herodotus is our primary, if not only source), even though according to the Biblical record, she was Queen for at least 6 years. The only Queen of Xerxes mentioned by Herodotus is Amestris, and she is not Jewish so she cannot be identified with the Biblical Esther. This queen is recorded to have had at least 6 children, and had considerable power when Xerxes son Ataxerxes I took over the throne after Xerxes. To add to the confusion, there are writings about Vashti and Esther in Jewish tradition, according to which Vashti was beheaded after her deposition (which if true would imply that Amestris cannot be Vashti). These lead to serious questions, which are quite alarming, because if history proves the biblical record wrong, then the Bible is not inspired and innerrant, and we will never know what we can really trust in the Bible. So I dug a little deeper, and am sharing my findings on this matter.
In order to resolve these difficulties, I used the following guidelines.
- Assume that the biblical record is 100% accurate, since the Bible is inspired by God. Given the Bible’s claims and its track record in amazing historical accuracy, the Bible should always get the “benefit of the doubt” when there is a difficulty.
- Assume that the main facts recorded in secular history are accurate, but allow for names to be different, and for facts to possibly be biased.
- Give low credence to Jewish historical records from non-biblical sources whenever anything contradicts conclusions from the above two considerations.
With this, here is a working hypothesis:
- It is likely that Amestris is the same as the Bible’s Vashti. Apparently this can also be justified on linguistic grounds.
- Ataxerxes I – the king who succeeded Xerxes is the son of Xerxes and Amestris. We don’t know when he was born, but if he was over 13 years old when he took over the throne of Persia, then he could not have been born of Esther, and thus it is consistent if he was Vashti’s son. That Vashti had at least 6 children of Xerxes is possible even though she was queen only for 3 years, because according to secular history Amestris was Xerxes’ wife even before he became king in 586 BC.
- If Esther and Xerxes had any children, they would have been less than 13 years old when Xerxes died. Secular history records at least 5 children of Xerxes whose mother is unknown.
- We don’t know when Herodotus wrote about King Xerxes, but he would have been only 18 years old when Xerxes died, and his writings about Xerxes are in books VII, VIII and IX. Thus the earliest he could have written about Xerxes was during the rule of Xerxes’ son Ataxerxes I. Since Ataxerxes I is really the son of Vashti, it is entirely reasonable to expect that he would not have encouraged any record of Vashti’s humiliation or of Esther being queen (add to the embarrassing fact that Esther was of Jewish origin), which would explain the silence about Esther in Herodotus’s writings.
- Although Jewish history says Vashti was beheaded, the only statement in the Bible is that Vashti was “to come no more before” Xerxes. Vashti may not have been banished from the kingdom, but just demoted from Queen to a place in Xerxes’ harem. She could have easily returned to a significant position of influence after the death of Xerxes and the rise of her son Artaxerxes I as Persia’s new ruler.
Historical Reconstruction and Harmony with the Biblical Narrative
With the above in mind, the following is a reconstruction of Xerxes’ life, harmonized with Herodotus’s account. Not having access to Herodotus’ writings, I have taken a lot of the material that follows, from an informative article by Professor William Shea.
While at his winter quarters in Sardis in 480-479 B.C, Xerxes turned his attention from making war to affairs of the heart. Herodotus reports that during that time the Persian king fell in love with the wife of Masistes, his brother, and endeavored unsuccessfully to carry on an affair with her. Out of unusual respect for his brother, Xerxes did not force himself on her, but instead arranged for his son to marry her daughter Artaynte, hoping this would make the seduction of her mother easier. In connection with this incident, we should note that Greek sources indicate that Amestris was not with him in Sardis during the winter of 480-479 B.C, which is consistent with the biblical record of Vashti’s deposition in 483 BC.
Upon returning to Susa from his Greek campaign after his historic defeat at Thermopylae, Xerxes unexpectedly finds himself getting attracted to his daughter-in-law Artaynte, and the seduction of her is successful. This matter came to a crisis when he promised Artaynte the desire of her heart. She chose Xerxes’ coat of many colors, which Amestris herself had woven for him. Heroditus tells us that Xerxes tried to distract her by offering her cities or unlimited gold, or even and army, for one reason alone – that he feared lest Amestris previously suspecting what was going on might find out this way and react violantly. However, Artaynte insisted on getting the robe, which Xerxes gave her. Amestris was furious when she found out, and felt that the real blame lay with Artaynte’s mother, and got revenge when the time came to celebrate the king’s birthday. On that occasion she, like Salome, asked Xerxes to give her Masistes’ wife, and according to the custom of the day he was obliged to comply with her request, and Amestris promptly had her killed. We don’t know exactly what happened to Artaynte, but Heroditus mentions that “she and her whole household were fated to die”. In this incident, we here see two occasions where Xerxes made sweeping promises to women he loved, just as he did in Esther 5:6 and 7:2.
If Amestris is the same person as Vashti, and the verdict on Vashti was that she was “to come no more before” Xerxes (Esther 1:19), then what was Vashti doing at the birthday banquet described by Herodotus three years later? It appears that Xerxes’ advisers recommended not divorce in the modem sense of the word, but rather demotion from being the chief royal wife and bestowal of that position upon someone else. Connected with this demotion was the prohibition upon her coming before Xerxes, which probably exiled her to a considerably less important position in the royal harem. To interpret this phrase too literally—to mean that Vashti never could come within eyesight of Xerxes again—probably is pushing its significance too far. As an idiom, it probably could be paraphrased to mean that she could not appear again with Xerxes in her official capacity as queen. The reverse of this occurs in the case of the seven princes who “saw the king’s face” (verse 14), which may be interpreted to mean that they could converse personally with the king, i.e., they could minister to him personally in matters of state.
In essence, Herodotus breaks off his account of Xerxes’ reign after describing these events of the king’s seventh year following his return from the Greek campaign. We have no further information about Amestris until the time her son Artaxerxes I occupied the Persian throne. In view of this silence, we have no specific evidence to indicate whether or not Amestris was Xerxes’ chief wife from his seventh year to the end of his reign. This silence at least allows a place in Persian history for Esther, and in harmony with the Bible. We can go further, and say that the fact that there is this gap in the secular record of Xerxes life that begins exactly at the time of Esther in the Bible – and that there is no random event recorded in secular history that could contradict the biblical record – actually points toward the accuracy of the biblical record, though it falls short of actually verifying it. About this time, Xerxes’ advisers must have suggested that the most beautiful girls of the land be brought before him, and the biblical story of Esther picks up again.
Although there is no direct reliable external evidence about the existence of Queen Esther, it is possible to completely harmonize what we know of ancient Persian history, with the biblical record of Esther.
Timeline of Events in the Babylonian and Persian Empires within Biblical History
This is not a complete timeline, but attempts to cover the major events that are relevant to our study of the book of Esther. I have also sprinkled this with some informative comments.
- 609 BC: Babylon becomes a world power: 609 BC
- 605 BC: Nebuchadnezzar becomes king of Babylon, and Daniel is deported to Babylon. The rise of Nebuchadnezzar was prophesied in Ezekiel 26:7
- 587 BC. The fall of Jerusalem and Judah, the Southern Kingdom is taken into Babylonian captivity.
- 562 BC: Death of Nebuchadnezzar. His son Amel Marduk takes throne of Babylon.
- 560 BC: Amel Marduk was assasinated by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law Nergal-shar-usur (Nergal-sharezer/Neriglissar), who takes throne
- 555 BC: Nergal-shar-usur was assassinated by Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson Nabonidus who takes throne
- 550 BC: Cyrus becomes King of Persia. Thus begins a rule that eventually made Persia into a world empire. Also, Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus becomes co-regent and becomes the effective king of Babylon. During this period, Nabonidus was an absentee ruler, and there were rumors that he was mad. Daniel refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s “father” (Daniel 5:18, 22) which can also mean ancestor. He is in fact Belshazzer’s great grandfather.
- 539 BC: Cyrus captures Babylon. This marked the end of Babylonian supremacy. The eventual destruction of Babylon was prophesied several times in Scripture, e.g. Isa 43:14. This also marked the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of Babylon having only 70 years of glory (609 BC to 539 BC), before being subdued by other nations (Jer 25:9-12, Jer 29:10, 2 Chron 36:20-23). This event spurs Daniel to pray for the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem in Daniel 9:2, to complete God’s promise..Apparently at this time, “Darius the Mede” is made king of Babylon. There is no secular historical reference to this man. But Daniel says he “received the kingdom” (Daniel 5:30) was “made” king of Babylon (Daniel 9:1), which is consistent with Cyrus appointing him as ruler of Babylon. He is described by Daniel as the “son of Ahasuerus” (though clearly having nothing to do with the to the king of Persia in Esther’s time), and that he was 62 years old.
- 538 BC; Cyrus issues a decree that the Jews can return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1.1). This was in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that after the 70 years the Jews would return from exile. This is less than a year after Daniel’s passionate prayer in Daniel 9:3-19.
- 537/6 BC: The last vision of Daniel recorded in Daniel 10-12, during the third year of Cyrus’ reign (Daniel 10:1).
- 530 BC: Cambysis I becomes king of Persia after the death of Cyrus
- 522 BC: Darius I becomes King of Persia (Note: The study notes in the ESV Study Bible correctly observes that this Darius is different to the “Darius the Mede” of Daniel chapters 5 and 9, but mistakingly references this king in one of its tables).
- 486 BC: Xerxes I becomes King of Persia. He was spoken about in prophecy by Daniel over 50 years earlier. “Behold, three more kings shall arise in Persia, and a fourth shall be far richer than all of them. And when he has become strong through his riches, he shall stir up all against the kingdom of Greece”. (Daniel 11:2).
- 484 BC: Birth of Historian Heroditus
- 483 BC: Queen Vashti is deposed on the third year of Xerxes reign (Esther 1:3). Heroditus mentons only one queen of Xerxes called Amestris. This is probably Queen Vashti. This incident is mentioned in Esther chapter 1.
- 480 BC: Historic defeat of Xerxes against Greece at Thermopylae. This was a “battle that changed the world”, in that without this defeat the overall outcome of the conflict between Persia and Greece could have ended differently – and Greece may never have had the same impact on Western civilization. This was the first of a series of battles over the next several decades that Persia lost to Greece, eventually losing its superpower status a little over 150 years later, to Alexander the Great in 322 BC. After this defeat, Xerxes handed over command of the army to his cousin Mardonius so that he could return to Susa. Mardonius continued his campaign against Greece until he was killed in the decisive battle of Plataea, a year later.Meanwhile back home, Xerxes had a secret affair with his daughter-in-law which led to Amestris destroying her entire family in revenge. After this, the secular historical record is silent for the rest of Xerxes reign, but the biblical record picks up again (Esther 2:1).
- 479/8 BC: Esther is crowned Queen. This was in the seventh year of Xerxes reign (Esther 2:16)
- 474 BC: Haman plots against the Jews. This was on the first month, of the twelfth year of Xerxes reign (Esther 3:7, 3:12). Two months later, Mordecai was able to neutralize that decree by issuing a new decree that the Jews could defend themselves (this was on the third day of the third month according to Esther 8:9)
- 473 BC: The Jews destroy their attackers on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (Esther 3:12, 8:12, 9:1). The event is celebrated during the Jewish feast of Purim.
- 466/5 BC: Xerxes is killed, and his son Ataxerxes I becomes king. Ataxerxes I cannot be Esther’s son because he was 13 years old, so he must have been Vashti’s son. Since the secular record says that his mother was Amestris, this is probably another name for Vashti.
- 458 BC: Ataxerxes I issues a decree to rebuild the Temple. Ezra and a contingent journey back to Jerusalem.
- 445/4 BC: Ataxerxes I commissions Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls