Sunday, 12 March 2017

Identifying Achashverosh and Esther

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Yes, We Can Identify Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources!


           I spent many years researching this topic.  It is time to keep everyone up to speed.
           Until the 19th century, a search in secular sources for a Persian king named Achashverosh would have been an unsuccessful one. Our knowledge of the Persian kings from the Biblical period was coming entirely from the writings of Greek historians, and none of the names that they recorded were close to Achashverosh. The Greek historians (Herodotus, mid-5th cent. BCE, and the others who came after him) described the following Persian kings from the Biblical period: Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.

           It was only in the 19th century that we were able to solve our problem, as a result of the deciphering of inscriptions from the ancient Persian palaces. It was discovered that the name of the king that the Greeks had been referring to as “Xerxes” was in fact: “Khshayarsha” (written in Old Persian cuneiform).  The Greeks did not properly record his name because they did not have a letter to represent the shin sound. “Khshayarsha” is very close to the Hebrew “Achashverosh.” In their consonantal structure, the two names are identical. Both center on the consonantal sounds “ch,” “sh,” “r,” and “sh.” The Hebrew just added an initial aleph and two vavs. (But sometimes the Megillah spells the name with only one vav, and once with no vavs.)

            Identifying Khshayarsha/Xerxes with Achashverosh thus makes much sense on linguistic grounds. Moreover, it is consistent with Ezra 4:6 which implied that Achashverosh was the king between Daryavesh (=Darius I), mentioned at 4:5, and Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I), mentioned at 4:7-23. This is exactly when Xerxes reigned.

            Now that we have identified Achashverosh with Xerxes, we can construct main elements of his biography, as Herodotus includes much material about him. Xerxes’ father was Darius and his mother was Atossa, daughter of Cyrus. Xerxes reigned from 486-465 BCE, when the Temple was already rebuilt. It was rebuilt in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 BCE. One of the main things we learn about Xerxes from  Herodotus is that Xerxes led an invasion of Greece and was defeated. He returned in the fall of his the 7th year. This would have been a few months before Tevet of his 7th year, when the Megillah tells us (2:16) that he took Esther.

            Sculptures of the Persian kings have survived in the Persian palaces. There are some sculptures that scholars believe depict Xerxes. See, e.g., the photos at Y. Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire, pp. 15 and 46. But we cannot take these depictions “at face value.” There was a tendency to depict all the various kings so that they looked identical.

            But what does Herodotus tell us about the wife of Xerxes? He only mentions one wife, “Amestris.” Close examination of the name “Amestris” supports its identification with Esther. The “is” at the end was just a suffix added to turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form (just as “es” was added at the end of “Xerxes”). When comparing the remaining consonants, the name of the wife of Xerxes is recorded in the Greek historians as based around the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the name as recorded in the Megillah is based around the consonants S, T, and R. Out of the numerous possible consonants in these languages, three consonants are the same and in the same order! Probability suggests that this is not coincidence and that the two are the same person. (Most likely, her Persian name was composed of the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the M was not preserved in the Hebrew.)

       There are some problems with identifying Esther with Amestris. But these are easily surmountable. I refer anyone interested to my book Esther Unmasked (Kodesh Press, 2015, available at amazon) where I discuss all this at length. The Chamesh Megillot (Daat Mikra), published by Mossad HaRav Kook, realized that Achashverosh was Xerxes. But unfortunately it did not understand how to get around the issues raised by the identification of Esther with Amestris. Therefore, it took the farfetched alternative position that Esther was never the main wife of Xerxes, but was one of other wives of a lesser status. But this cannot be reconciled with verse 2:17: va-yasem keter malkhut be-roshah, va-yamlikheha tachat Vashti. Moreover, Esther is called ha-malkah 17 times thereafter!

       Do we have evidence in secular sources for the main plot of the Purim story, the threat to destroy the Jews in the 12th year of Xerxes (3:7)? We do not, but this is to be expected. Our main source for the events of the reign of Xerxes is Herodotus and his narrative ends in the 7th year of Xerxes.  (His main interest in Xerxes related to his invasion, which ended at this time.) From sources after Herodotus, we learn practically nothing about what happened between year 7 and year 21, Xerxes’ last year. But we do learn (not from Herodotus) that Xerxes died by assassination!
     Once we realize that Achashverosh is Xerxes, it becomes evident that the one who was exiled at Esther 2:6 cannot be Mordechai. King Yechanyah was exiled in 597 B.C.E. If Mordechai was old enough to have been exiled with King Yechanyah, he would have been over 120 years old when appointed to a high position in the 12th year of Xerxes. Moreover, Esther, his first cousin, would not have been young enough to have been chosen queen a few years earlier. A reasonable alternative interpretation is that the individual exiled was Mordechai’s great-grandfather Kish.  (See the article by Dr. Aaron Koller in JSOT, vol. 37:1, 2012).

       There is one problem with everything I have written above and it raises a delicate issue.
The identification of Achashverosh with Xerxes does not fit with the view of the Talmud. According to the Talmud, Meg. 11b (and followed by numerous midrashim), Achashverosh reigned between Koresh and Daryavesh. I.e., he reigned before the Temple was rebuilt in the reign of Daryavesh.

       Why are there two divergent views as to when Achashverosh reigned? I will explain.
The Megillah nowhere mentions which Persian king preceded or followed Achashverosh. We have to look outside the Megillah for a clue. The clue is found in the 4th chapter of the book of Ezra where Achashverosh is mentioned in the context of other Persian kings.  The problem is that this chapter is very unclear. Achashverosh is mentioned at verse 6. The Daryavesh who built the Temple is mentioned at verse 5 and again at verse 24. This leads to two ways of reading the chapter. In one reading, we can understand Achashverosh (mentioned in verse 6) as preceding Daryavesh (mentioned in verse 24). In another reading, we can understand Achashverosh  (mentioned in verse 6) as following Daryavesh (mentioned in verse 5). The correct way to read the verses was only determined once it was realized that linguistically the name Achashverosh was a match to the name  Khshayarsha (=Xerxes). Once this identification was made, then it was realized that the correct reading was the one that understood Achashverosh (verse 6) as following Daryavesh (verse 5), and understood verses 4:6-23 as a digression to a later period, and verse 4:24 as a resumption of the main narrative in the reign of Daryavesh.

           The point is that the Talmud (and Seder Olam which preceded it) had a reasonable interpretation of the difficult 4th chapter of Ezra. But it turns out that a different interpretation is now to be preferred. Today, there is no reasonable basis to deny the identification of Xerxes and Achashverosh.  (With regard to the king who reigned between Koresh and Daryavesh, he was called Cambyses by the Greeks. It has since been discovered that his name in Persian was “Kabujiya” and in Aramaic was “Kanbuzi.” He did not reign long enough to be Achashverosh. Nor did he reign over Hodu. His reign is alluded to in the word ve-ad at Ezra 4:5.)

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at  He also wants you to know that there are still people in Iran who have the name Khshayarsha. A doctor he knows was amazed when an Iranian-born patient came to him who bore that name!

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