I’ve been particularly interested recently in Ancient Near Eastern history, and in particular how the Old Testament interacts with its context. I have been repeatedly told by academics and intellectuals – including some Christians! – that the Old Testament is just a collection of myths and fictions with no connection to what really happened. This seemed fishy to me. So I’ve been digging over the past few months, and found many more connections even than I expected to find. One, which illustrates the challenges and the possibilities, is the question of the wife of the Achaemenid Persian shah Xerxes I (r. 486-465).
The book of Esther in the Old Testament narrates how the Persian king Ahashwerosh deposed his wife Vashti in the third year of his reign, and in the seventh year of his reign replaced her with a Jewish woman named Esther, the daughter of Abihail. Most of the action of the book takes place in the king’s twelfth year, during which one of his courtiers plans to exterminate the Jews throughout the empire, but ultimately Esther and her cousin Mordecai turn the tables, including executing the courtier and his ten sons.
The name Ahashwerosh almost certainly represents the Persian name Khshayarsha, which is represented in Greek as Xerxes. (It is far removed from Darayavush = Darius and Artakhshaça = Artaxerxes.) In the list of Achaemenid rulers of Persia, the only Xerxes who reigned at least twelve years is Xerxes I, who reigned from the death of his father Darius in 486 BCE until his own death in 465 BCE.
But ancient Greek sources also tell us a fair bit about this Xerxes, who invaded Greece in 480 BCE. Herodotus names one of the Persian generals on this campaign as Otanes, the father of Xerxes’ wife Amestris (7.61.2). Later, Herodotus asserts that burying people alive is a Persian custom, justifying this statement by citing a story he had heard that Amestris, Xerxes’ wife, buried “twice seven” (i.e. fourteen) noble Persian boys as a human sacrifice to the underground god as ransom for her own life, when she had grown old (7.114.2). Finally, Herodotus narrates the tawdry tale of Xerxes failing to seduce his brother’s wife, betrothing his son to his niece, and having an affair with his niece, after which Xerxes’ wife Amestris mutilated Xerxes’ brother’s wife in revenge for the affair (9.109–112).
Another Greek historian who wrote about Persian history was Ctesias, but his original work is lost; instead we are dependent upon later Greek authors who quote Ctesias as their authority for information regarding the Persian empire. The much later author Photios, on the basis of Ctesias, tells us that Xerxes married “Amestris, the daughter of Onophas,” who was the mother of five children (24). Photios, citing Ctesias, then repeatedly mentions Amestris during the reign of her son Artaxerxes, particularly in connection with her seeking bloody revenge against various offenders (34, 39, 42-46). Particularly interesting is Amestris burying alive her daughter’s love Appolonides of Cos (44).
So what do we do with these stories? They clearly contradict one another: if the king is the same, then the name of the king’s wife is different, her father’s name is different, and moreover the book of Esther speaks of two wives of the king, while the Greek sources name only Amestris (apart from his extramarital affairs) both early in Xerxes’ reign and long into the reign of his successor Artaxerxes. Esther and Amestris even worship different gods. Clearly this is a case in which the biblical texts and non-biblical texts contradict one another, and one must then choose which to believe and which to throw out.
But it’s not in fact so simple. Historians are not afraid of contradictory sources; in fact, that is the normal state of affairs. Whenever you have more than one source for anything in the ancient world, you have contradictions between the available sources. Indeed, a lack of contradictions between sources is evidence that they are not independent. Even Herodotus and Ctesias, who agree in naming Xerxes’ wife Amestris, nevertheless disagree about what her father’s name was, and apart from those two details they say nothing else in common about her. Contradictory sources are normal for historians, but each contradiction must be evaluated individually to assess what is the most likely explanation for how we got the sources we have.
Let’s start with the wife’s name: Amestris is not the same as Esther, but the “-is” ending is a Greek feminine ending which probably does not correspond to anything in Persian (just like the final ‘s’ of Xerxes is not found in the Persian original). The “-estr-” in the middle of the name Amestris could indeed represent the name Esther, leaving only the initial “Am-” to account for. But “Am-” could be related in some way to the Hebrew word for “mother,” em. So the “different” Greek name might actually represent a Hebrew phrase meaning “mother Esther,” perhaps ha’em ester or emi ester.
Her father’s name is different between the biblical and non-biblical sources, but the two non-biblical sources also disagree on what to call him, so it is not as if the biblical text flies in the face of any extrabiblical consensus of sources. Even apart from the name, however, Herodotus (but not Ctesias) tells us that her father was a Persian commander, perhaps even one of the seven who conspired to put Xerxes’ father Darius on the throne (3.68–78), while in the book of Esther her father must be Jewish. However, even here things might be more complicated: if, as seems not inherently improbable, Xerxes had multiple wives at different times, the Greek sources would be conflating multiple people into the figure of his single wife Amestris. Thus if Herodotus had heard that Otanes was the father of Xerxes’ wife, but no name was given, he would assume that Otanes was the father of Amestris about whom he had heard previously. It is very common for authors to conflate individuals who are only partially identified, and not at all unlikely that Xerxes would have had multiple wives, either sequentially or simultaneously. So the difference of fathers need not exclude an identification of Amestris (at least for the period after Xerxes’ return from Greece) with Esther.
Of course, Herodotus’ picture of Amestris burying alive noble Persian boys as a sacrifice to the god of the underworld cannot be reconciled with the Bible’s depiction of Esther’s Jewish religion. But Herodotus explicitly indicates that this is a story he heard, not an event which he witnessed, and one might well wonder how much he (mis)understood of this story. Wikipedia assumes that Amestris, as a Persian, would have been Zoroastrian, and points out that human sacrifice was prohibited by that religion. Furthermore, Zoroastrians do not associate death with being underground, because they do not bury their dead but instead expose them to scavengers. If Amestris was really a Zoroastrian, then the entire motivation (ransoming her own life by the deaths of these youths) would have been made up by Herodotus according to his own notions of plausibility; but then it hardly counts as evidence against the biblical account. Indeed, although the timing (Amestris’ old age) and method (burying alive) are different, I wonder whether the rumor of Amestris’ murder of fourteen Persian boys might not be an echo of Esther’s execution of the Persian aristocrat Haman and his ten noble sons. But there is no way to verify this.
All the other accounts of Amestris and Esther are simply independent, with no overlap. If some people would object to Esther being vengeful, it is merely because the Bible tells us so little of her character and people are apt to whitewash biblical heroes. Indeed, I might wonder whether Herodotus’ account of Amestris’ revenge against Xerxes’ brother’s wife, due to the king’s affair with his niece, might not reflect a situation in which the queen felt insecure, perhaps because she was only recently put in that role, and knew (from her predecessor’s example) how easy it was to lose the king’s favor. However, this again is deep speculation.
In conclusion, the stories of Amestris in Greek sources do contradict biblical accounts of Esther, but in ways that might be explained by confusions on the part of the Greek sources. On the other hand, there is nothing in any of the Greek sources to suggest the identification of these two figures, apart from their both being named as the wife of Xerxes I, and the similarity of the names. It is still possible that Esther and Amestris were two separate wives of Xerxes, in which case the biblical accounts and the Greek authors are merely talking about different people and different events. I do not think we know enough to conclusively evaluate the discrepancies between the Greek authors and the book of Esther, and this is a common situation with regard to ancient history, but I do think there are plausible considerations suggesting that we should not presume that the Greek sources show that the biblical book of Esther is wrong.