Greek Versions of Esther

Same story, different perspective

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This article is excerpted from a longer, footnoted item. It is reprinted with permission from The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Esther presents us with an unusual opportunity to study the early growth and interpretation of a biblical story. In addition to the Masoretic Text (the accepted Hebrew text of the Bible), two Greek versions of the story survive: the version preserved in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Bible), also known as the B-text, and a shorter Greek version, known as the Alpha-text or A-text (sometimes referred to as the Lucianic recension, or L).

Current scholarly interest in Jewish literature of the Greco-Roman period and in the history of biblical interpretation has spurred a number of recent studies of the Greek versions and comparisons of the two Greek versions with each other and with the Masoretic Text. These studies shed light on what the basic outlines of the earliest form of the story might have been before it reached the form in which we have it in the Masoretic Text, and how the story was reshaped in its different textual versions.

Textual Development

The complicated textual development that produced the three extant versions need not occupy us here. Our concern is the Masoretic Text, so we need to understand that this text was probably based on a Hebrew story that has not been preserved but that was similar to our Hebrew Esther. In its pre-Masoretic form, it was not the story of the origin of Purim; the emphasis on Purim was added by the author of the Masoretic Text, who reshaped the story as an etiology (story of origins) for Purim.

We do not know whether the original Hebrew story contained religious language. Some people think that it did, and that the author of the Masoretic Text took out the references to God and religious observance. Others think that the original story lacked religious language and that it was added only later, by the author of the Septuagint. In either case, the absence of religious language in the Masoretic Text is completely appropriate, if not absolutely necessary, given that it is a farce associated with a carnivalesque occasion.

How the Greek Versions Differ

The major differences between the Masoretic Text and the Greek versions are the six Additions. These Additions were once an integral part of the Septuagint, but when Jerome (fourth century CE) translated the Greek Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), he observed that these passages had no equivalent in the Hebrew text of his time. Doubting their authenticity as divinely inspired scripture, he relegated them to the end of his translation. They remain canonical for the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Protestants declared them uncanonical and placed them in the Apocrypha, under the title "Additions to Esther." The Additions make little sense at the end of the book since they are out of context, so some modern Christian Bibles have reinstated them into their appropriate positions within the story.

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Adele Berlin

Adele Berlin is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland.