the historicity of Purim
In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah (present day Israel-Palestine) and exiled about 25 percent of the population to Babylon, marking the true beginnings of Babylonian Jewry (including Persian Jews today). As such, the Persian and Iraqi Jewish communities are the second oldest in the world, after the Jewish community in Israel. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed Jews to return to their homeland; however, many remained in Babylon. Though the writings of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) go back 3000 years, most historians believe that most of it was compiled as a cohesive text during the period of the Babylonian Exile.
THE STORY OF PURIM
The story of Purim takes place in Persia in the fourth century BCE. Three years after ascending to the throne, King Ahasuerus held a 180-day long party for his subjects. He then held a smaller, weeklong party for the residents of the capital city. On the seventh day of the party, the king ordered his wife Vashti to appear before the men to show off her beauty; when she refused, he had her executed.
Soon, however, the king became lonely and once again desired a wife. At the behest of his advisors, he held a beauty pageant; the girl that won his favor would become his wife. The leader of the Persian Jewish community at the time was a man named Mordecai, who had an orphaned niece, Esther, who he raised as his daughter. Against her will, Esther was brought into the harem to participate in the contest. Though Esther didn’t want to partake, Ahasuerus fell in love and chose her as his wife.
Meanwhile, the king’s prime minister, Haman, was a virulent antisemite. Soon, the king passed a decree that everyone had to bow down whenever Haman walked in. When Mordecai refused to bow — Jews only bow before God — Haman was furious and vowed to exterminate the Jewish People. He decided that this extermination would take place on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar. He brought his plan before the king, who agreed, as he didn’t like the Jews either. As such, Haman sent proclamations all across the land, ordering people to rise up and kill the Jews on that day.
When Mordecai learned of the plans, he appealed to Esther, who agreed to talk to the king only after the Jews fasted for three days beforehand. After the fast, Esther asked the king to spare her people. The king agreed, and Haman was hung. Additionally, because royal decrees could not be undone, Ahasuerus passed another decree, permitting Jews to defend themselves. On the 13th of Adar, the Jews rose up and killed their enemies, including Haman’s ten sons. On the 14th of Adar, the Jews rejoiced, celebrating their victory over their enemies.
The origins of the holiday of Purim are somewhat shrouded in mystery, much more so than any other Jewish holiday. We know that Jews began celebrating it — suddenly — sometime in the second century BCE, though the Book of Esther, which was the last book in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) to be canonized, is dated to the fifth century BCE.
The first extra-Biblical mention of Purim is found in Maccabees II (dated to 176 BCE-161 BCE), where a holiday known as “Mordecai Day” was celebrated on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar. We know that at least some Jews were celebrating Purim as early as 124 BCE. Famous Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE) mentions that it is “widely celebrated;” however, as the Book of Esther is not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (third century BCE-first century CE), we can assume that the Jews living in the Judean Desert did not yet consider it canonical. However, the Mishna tells us that by the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135), the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim was considered a Mitzvah (“commandment;” good deed).
According to the Mishna (third century), Purim is supposed to be celebrated in the following manner: the Book of Esther is to be read publicly and Jews are to partake in drink and merriment. The Talmud states that one must drink to the point where one can no longer make a distinction between Haman and Mordecai. In the fifth century, a tradition of burning Haman in effigy emerged.
It was in the thirteenth century that the traditions of booing to blot out Haman’s name — initially by stomping feet, though later ratchets were added to the mix — and dressing in costume materialized.
HISTORICAL FICTION OR REALITY?
This slide will address the historicity of Purim from an archeological and secular perspective, rather than a spiritual one. If that will bother you, I ask you to skip this slide instead of arguing with me in the comments. Thank you.
Unlike holidays such as Hanukkah, which is firmly rooted in history, the historicity of Purim is hotly contested. Up until the nineteenth century, most Jewish and non-Jewish historians considered the Biblical narrative to be mostly accurate.
Today, most historians doubt the account. Some historians note that the story is extremely detailed, including names, objects, and dates of things that are otherwise irrelevant to the story, which suggests that there is some truth to the account. Additionally, the description of the Persian court coincides with what we know about Persian courts of the period from other sources.
The name Ahasuerus is equivalent to Xerxes, and he is most commonly identified as Xerxes I, who ruled from 486 BCE to 465 BCE. Others believe Ahasuerus was Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes I. One of the most historically problematic aspects of the story is that a Persian king would’ve never married an orphan with unknown parentage, as Persian kings only married within six royal families. The wife of Xerxes I was Amestris; “Esther” could plausibly be the same person.
Some historians argue that the names Esther and Mordecai are similar to the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar, and that the holiday derived from a Babylonian myth.
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