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The Whole Megillah?

February 19, 2013

Even after the book had been accepted as canonical by all, its religious merits continued to be a matter of dispute, with Jews tending to love the book (as its many extant copies from the Middle Ages attest) and Christians often ignoring or even disliking it. There are, for instance, no allusions to the book in the New Testament, and rarely do Church Fathers so much as even allude to it, let alone quote it. A complete commentary was not written on it until that of Rhabanus Maurus in the ninth century.

C. A. Moore 

In this post, I want to examine whether the “epistle” additions in Greek Esther are translation-Greek.  But let us start at the beginning:

In Hebrew, the word megillah means scroll, and when Jews talk about “HaMegillah” (The Megillah) they are talking about one scroll in particular – the Book of Esther.  The book of Esther is a central focus of the Jewish holiday Purim [which starts Saturday night] where the book is read twice.  (A few scholars speculate that Purim may have borrowed elements from a non-Jewish holiday, although it has clearly been identified as a Jewish holiday at least since the time of the Mishnah.)

Speaking of things happening twice, the Book of Esther is the only book in the NRSV to appear twice – once translated from the Hebrew and once translated from the Greek. Greek Esther has some differences from Hebrew Esther, including some Hebrew passages that are omitted, but by far the most obvious difference is that Greek Esther has six additions (and those Greek additions are in the Christian Apocrypha/Deuterocanon).  Where did these additions come from?

Greek Esther offers a description of its own translation (all Biblical quotes in this post are from NRSV Greek Esther):

(Addition F 11:1)  In the fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who said that he was a priest and a Levite, and his son Ptolemy brought to Egypt the preceding Letter about Purim [that is, Greek Esther], which they said was authentic and had been translated by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy, one of the residents of Jerusalem.

But this colophon seems to apologize too much.  The colophon almost seems an apology for this particular version of Greek Esther against some other competing version of Greek Esther.  This naturally leads us into the question:  what were the origins of the Greek Esther additions?  The problem is an ancient one – Origen in Letter to the Africans 3 mentions that the additions are lacking in current Hebrew texts; and Jerome’s Latin translation places all of the additions after his translation of Hebrew Esther, and he explains in a note after Esther 10:3 that none of the Additions were found in current Hebrew texts.

I would like to turn Additions B and E now:

(Addition B)  This is a copy of the letter:

“The Great King, Artaxerxes, writes the following to the governors of the hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia and to the officials under them:

“Having become ruler of many nations and master of the whole world (not elated with presumption of authority but always acting reasonably and with kindness), I have determined to settle the lives of my subjects in lasting tranquility and, in order to make my kingdom peaceable and open to travel throughout all its extent, to restore the peace desired by all people.

“When I asked my counselors how this might be accomplished, Haman—who excels among us in sound judgment, and is distinguished for his unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity, and has attained the second place in the kingdom — pointed out to us that among all the nations in the world there is scattered a certain hostile people, who have laws contrary to those of every nation and continually disregard the ordinances of kings, so that the unifying of the kingdom that we honorably intend cannot be brought about. We understand that this people, and it alone, stands constantly in opposition to every nation, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is ill-disposed to our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain stability.

(Addition E)  The following is a copy of this letter:

“The Great King, Artaxerxes, to the governors of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred twenty-seven provinces, and to those who are loyal to our government, greetings.

“Many people, the more they are honored with the most generous kindness of their benefactors, the more proud do they become, and not only seek to injure our subjects, but in their inability to stand prosperity, they even undertake to scheme against their own benefactors. They not only take away thankfulness from others, but, carried away by the boasts of those who know nothing of goodness, they even assume that they will escape the evil-hating justice of God, who always sees everything. And often many of those who are set in places of authority have been made in part responsible for the shedding of innocent blood, and have been involved in irremediable calamities, by the persuasion of friends who have been entrusted with the administration of public affairs, when these persons by the false trickery of their evil natures beguile the sincere goodwill of their sovereigns.

“What has been wickedly accomplished through the pestilent behavior of those who exercise authority unworthily can be seen, not so much from the more ancient records that we hand on, as from investigation of matters close at hand. In the future we will take care to render our kingdom quiet and peaceable for all, by changing our methods and always judging what comes before our eyes with more equitable consideration. For Haman son of Hammedatha, a Macedonian (really an alien to the Persian blood, and quite devoid of our kindliness), having become our guest, enjoyed so fully the goodwill that we have for every nation that he was called our father and was continually bowed down to by all as the person second to the royal throne. But, unable to restrain his arrogance, he undertook to deprive us of our kingdom and our life,and with intricate craft and deceit asked for the destruction of Mordecai, our savior and perpetual benefactor, and of Esther, the blameless partner of our kingdom, together with their whole nation. He thought that by these methods he would catch us undefended and would transfer the kingdom of the Persians to the Macedonians.

“But we find that the Jews, who were consigned to annihilation by this thrice-accursed man, are not evildoers, but are governed by most righteous laws and are children of the living God, most high, most mighty, who has directed the kingdom both for us and for our ancestors in the most excellent order.

“You will therefore do well not to put in execution the letters sent by Haman son of Hammedatha, since he, the one who did these things, has been hanged at the gate of Susa with all his household—for God, who rules over all things, has speedily inflicted on him the punishment that he deserved.

“Therefore post a copy of this letter publicly in every place, and permit the Jews to live under their own laws. And give them reinforcements, so that on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, on that very day, they may defend themselves against those who attack them at the time of oppression. For God, who rules over all things, has made this day to be a joy for his chosen people instead of a day of destruction for them.

“Therefore you shall observe this with all good cheer as a notable day among your commemorative festivals, so that both now and hereafter it may represent deliverance for you and the loyal Persians, but that it may be a reminder of destruction for those who plot against us.

“Every city and country, without exception, that does not act accordingly shall be destroyed in wrath with spear and fire. It shall be made not only impassable for human beings, but also most hateful to wild animals and birds for all time.

“Therefore we have decreed that those indicated to you in the letters written by Haman, who is in charge of affairs and is our second father, shall all—wives and children included—be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without pity or restraint, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of this present year, so that those who have long been hostile and remain so may in a single day go down in violence to Hades, and leave our government completely secure and untroubled hereafter.”

Even in English translation, it is obvious that this text is of a completely different literary style than the rest of the translation from Greek Hebrew – it is florid and overwrought.  In a study by C. E. Moore of these passages, he argues that these passages are fundamentally Greek in origin:

Although there are some differences between Additions B and E, for our purposes here these two letters can be treated together. As for their effect, both letters lend additional dramatic interest and a greater sense of authenticity to the Esther story. Add E also supplies some very explicit religious elements, this being a dimension lacking in the MT of Esther.

There can be little doubt that both of these letters were originally Greek compositions and not translations of a Semitic text. Such a conclusion is suggested by the external evidence: ( 1 ) those versions based on the Hebrew such as the Talmud, Targums, and Syriac do not have these additions; (2) the versions based on the Greek, i.e., the Vetus Latina (OL), Coptic, and Ethiopic, do have them; (3) both Origen (185?-?254) and Jerome expressly state that these two letters were lacking in the Hebrew texts of their day.

What the external evidence suggests about B and E being originally composed in Greek is confirmed by the internal evidence: (1) their literary style, which is best characterized as fIorid, rhetorical, and bombastic, is free of all Hebraisms and is quite unlike Greek translations of other Semitic decrees in the Bible; (2) their content and especially their literary style are quite different from the two letters recorded in the Second Targum of Esther (the Second Targum being the Semitic version that comes closest in this case to the content of the Greek version of the letters); (3) unlike the other Adds and the canonical portions of Esther, the two letters in B and E abound in grammatical constructions characteristic of “good” Greek, such as participial and infinitival constructions, genitive absolutes, and the noun and its article separated by qualifying prepositional phrases; (4) in terms of their literary style, Adds B and E are most similar to the Greek of 3 Maccabees, the latter being characterized by C. W. Emmet as “a product of Alexandrian literature, exemplifying in its extremest form the pseudo- Classicalism of the Atticists . . . artificiality and extravagance . . . obscure and bombastic … full of repetitions, and awkwardly constructed…." Such a characterization is equally applicable to Adds B and E. Nor are Esther’s parallels to 3 Maccabees confined to Greek style; so many are the parallels in plot between 3 Maccabees and the Greek Esther that A. Barucq has called 3 Maccabees “a hellenistic imitation of Esther.” (5) Finally, there are some exceedingly dose parallels between Add B and 3 Mac 3:11-29, not only in terms of tortuous and involved literary style, but also in terms of very similar thoughts, even to the point of the two letters preserving the identical sequence of those thought.

Although the Hebrew Esther clearly antedates 3 Maccabees,l6 there is nothing to preclude some later influence of 3 Maccabees on the Greek Esther, such as, for instance, the first royal letter of Esther being patterned after 3 Maccabees; 3 Mac 3: 11-29 could very well have been the model for Add B.[…]

Presumably the same individual wrote B and E. It is unlikely that it was the Lysimachus who translated Esther from the Hebrew into Greek; for one can scarcely imagine a man so enamored of producing the pseudo-classicalism of Adds B and E being able let alone content to translate the rest of the Book of Esther so simply and prosaically as Lysimachus had done.

As a method of testing the hypothesis that Additions B and E are of non-Semitic origin, we might turn to R. A. Martin’s list of 17 qualities that identify “translation-Greek” from “original Greek” (see his original article for the statistical basis of these tests):

  1. dia with genitive 6% – 1% as frequent as en;
  2. dia with all cases 18% – 1% as frequent as en;
  3. eis 49% – 1% as frequent as en;
  4. kata with accusative 18% – 1% as frequent as en;
  5. kata with all cases 19% – 1% as frequent as en;
  6. peri with all cases 27% – 1% as frequent as en;
  7. pros with dative 2.4% – 1% as frequent as en;
  8. hypo with genitive 7%-1% as frequent as en;
  9. kai (coordinating main clauses) 2.1% or more frequent than all occurrences of de;
  10. 5% or fewer articles separated from their substantives;
  11. 22 or more dependent genitives following the word they qualify for each such genitive preceding the word qualified;
  12. 9 or fewer lines of Greek text for each dependent genitive personal pronoun;
  13. 77 or fewer lines of Greek text for each genitive personal pronoun dependent on an anarthrous substantive;
  14. 35% or fewer attributive adjectives preceding the word they qualify for each such adjective following the word qualified;
  15. 10.1 or more lines of Greek text for each attributive adjective;
  16. 6 or more lines of Greek text for each adverbial participle;
  17. 2 or fewer datives not used as the object of en for each occurrence of en.

Here are his results (click through to see an enlarged table):


Martin concludes:

[T]he net number of translation-Greek or original-Greek frequencies was most significant. These net figures are arrived at as follows: Whenever a section has more occurrences of original-Greek frequencies than occurrences of translation-Greek frequencies, the number of occurrences of translation-Greek frequencies was subtracted from the number of occurrences of original-Greek frequencies, and the resulting number is the net occurrences of original-Greek frequencies.

Add E (66 lines in length) has 15 original-Greek frequencies and no frequencies characteristic of translation-Greek- 15 less 0 equals 15 net original- Greek frequencies.[…] Add E is clearly original-Greek; so also Add B (34 lines in length) which has 13 original-Greek frequencies and 2 frequencies characteristic of translation-Greek- 13 less 2 equals 11 net original-Greek frequencies.

What are we to make of this statistical study?  I’m not sure.  Martin’s criteria seem a bit ad hoc.  In an earlier part of the study he “validates” the criteria by applying them to portions of Septuagint texts of more certain origin, but this is not really a statistically valid way to examine text:  had Martin formulated a different set of criteria, he might have arrived at a different conclusion.  Further, Martin gives each of his criteria equal weight in determining his assessment, and there is no obvious reason for that decision. 

The upshot is that Martin’s study seems on shaky ground to me.  Still, based purely on my own (subjective) assessment of stylistic factors, I suspect that Additions B and E were originally composed in Greek rather than being translated from a Semitic language.  But I believe there is room for argument.

See also this and this.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2013 7:36 am

    You offer a compelling case! The textual evidence you present is in some ways more important that the extra-textual evidence that Suzanne and I (in our respective posts that you link to at the end) show. In other words, the Greek Esther additions as “translation-Greek” is more significant than the quarrelsome questions about their religious-Jewishness or biblicalness or New Testament ish ness or their Christianness.

    I have to add, however, that I’m not really satisfied with how the NRSV editors (and Karen Jobes of the NETS for that matter) treat these additions. It’s absolutely wonderful to have these in English translation; but the English does flatten out many of the differences that Martin brings up and shows. Yes, his conclusions may not be entirely solid, but his question of “translation-Greek” is a good one.

    Much less helpful is the question he raises of this Greek being “translation-Greek” as if that necessarily means “non-Semitic.” How helpful is that?

    Isn’t there another way to characterize what the authors of these additions are doing with Hellene? Can’t the Greek language, in this case, be Hebraic Hellene, not for goyim purposes, for example? Reception history here is not enough. It’s not enough because when we start with the question of whose texts these editions must have been, we are always forced to follow fallacious logic to the conclusion that has been presupposed to begin with.

    Sylvie Honigman might get us considering the question of the quality of “translation-Greek” in the LXX. She does note in The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the ‘Letter of Aristeas’ how Jewish peoples as the Septuagint was being first produced and discussed in legendary ways did understand how “the difference between translation and transcription could be made quite clear in the Greek language.” Some of the evidence? Well, “the colophon of Esther in its LXX version.”

    When I read the English of the NRSV and the English of Jobes, for the Greek Esther additions, I’m not sure why such really shouldn’t be exclusively in the Christian Apocrypha/Deuterocanon. It would be much more interesting if the NRSV somehow had translated the Greekinesses against the Hebrewishnesses, letting both sets of texts, plausibly, remain “Hebraic” or “Semitic.” (When I read the LXX Psalms, or more so the Book of Joshua in Greek, there is a real sense of playfulness and purpose that comes through, not as a pre-text for Christian writers, and readers, of the New Testament. Rather as a new way of reading that is pre-Christian in very Jewish rhetorical ways. That’s some what I’d not finding in the NRSV English versions of the Hebrew then the Greek Esthers.)


  1. Happy Purim: Except You Macedonians | BLT

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