[Update (2/14/2014)—My new book Esther and Her Elusive God: How A Secular Story Functions As Scripture is now available. My posts on this site represent stages in the development of my thinking about Esther. For the full argument check out the book].
The Book of Esther is notoriously difficult. For many Christians this might seem like an odd statement. Setting aside the historical issues surrounding the story, the main difficulty is discerning the theological message. It is also worth asking how Esther functions canonically, that is, within the theological message of the whole of scripture? I hope to spend the next few weeks addressing these questions. For this post I would like to address the question of canonicity by way of prolegomena. I will do this in two steps. Firstly, I’d like to ask more broadly: what is the canon? Secondly, I’d like to specifically address whether or not Esther belongs in the Christian canon.
What is the Canon?
When we talk about the canon of Scripture we are referring to boundaries of revealed literature. Traditionally, Protestants hold that the Church recognized the canon as 66 books (39 in the OT and 27 in the NT). For this reason Protestants have often addressed the criteria for recognizing the canon. Apostolicity has been one of the main arguments (the books of the NT were either written by apostles or commissioned by them). It was likewise also noted that the influence of the Spirit was instrumental in conveying which texts were inspired by God. Although these reasons are important, I do not think they are sufficient.
I believe that the canon exists as canon because it was the received corpus of sacred literature. The issue of reception is for me far more important than the other criteria (largely because the others cannot be falsified). When one recognizes this point the thorny questions that arise regarding the canon can be quickly addressed. For one, it eliminates the question of whether the canon is “open” or “closed” (it is closed because the Church is no longer receiving texts). Likewise, when people ask, what about the ‘Lost Gospels’?, part of the answer is that these texts were the product of sectarian Gnostic strands and so not received by the broader Christian churches (not to mention that they’re late in origin). Similarly, if someone asks, what if more letters written by Paul are discovered?, we’d similarly need to point to reception. I’m my opinion, it would be difficult to demonstrate authorship, but I would say that even if letters could be proven to be written by Paul the Church would not add them to the canon because those texts were not received or preserved as canon. Certainly we could read these letters and perhaps find theological insight and encouragement in them, but on the question of canon, it would not have such status.
Yet there are other traditions that include more books in the canon than the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Of course, the LDS (Mormon) church has added other works (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price), but this however is a topic for another post since it is more connected to the veracity of Joseph Smith’s claims. For this post it is more pertinent to address the addition of the Apocrypha to the Catholic canon at the Council of Trent in 1546. The Roman Catholic church’s actions alone demonstrate the point I’m making in this post. They determined a collection of texts to have canonical status that was not originally received as canon by either Jewish or Christian communities. The Protestant apologetic for rejecting the Apocrypha from the canon should not be based on the correctness of its history or the richness of its theology or anything of the sort. Similarly, it cannot be argued, as is often done, that the Apocrypha as well as the Pseudepigrapha are non-canonical simply because the NT authors do not cite them, unlike the OT. For one, Jude does in fact cite both 1 Enoch and the Assumption of Moses. Also, traditions from these texts can be found throughout the NT (note the tradition of the “Watchers” as one example: 1 Peter 3.18-20; 2 Peter 2.4; Jude 6). Thus, these common arguments should not be used. Rather, the Apocrypha is non-canonical because it was not received as canon. But then, what about Esther?
Should Esther be in the Canon?
The book of Esther has maintained an uncomfortable position within the Christian canon throughout the history of the Church. A number of Eastern Church Fathers denied Esther canonical status, including: Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and more. Furthermore, only one quotation of Esther by Chysostom can be found among the Antiochian Church Fathers. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stated in his Table Talk (XXIV), “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”
Yet this hesitancy (to put it modestly) is not unique to Christian interpreters. From the caves of Qumran, every book of the Old Testament was found except for the book of Esther; a curious fact considering the evidence of many “non-canonical” Jewish texts (e.g. the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) as well as sectarian documents for the community at Qumran. It is not likely that this is an accident of history, for it is probable that the Qumran community did not find the story to be religiously helpful for their purposes.
The major problem with Esther, as most recognize, is that it is the only book in the Bible that lacks a reference to God. Thus, the question of its theological message and function within the canon is an expected one. To answer the question raised by this post I believe that Esther belongs in the canon because it was received as canon (although admittedly with difficulty; but this was not unlike the difficulty surrounding 2 Peter, Revelation, and others). Perhaps you’re reading this post and you think that this is an issue that didn’t need to be settled. But in the next few weeks I’d like to propose a reading of Esther that is contrary to the popular Christian understanding of it, and in so doing I will suggest what I see as Esther’s theological and canonical function. Stay tuned.